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Only enlightened local communities can protect the global commons

The global whole has no existence without its local spaces, says A Damodaran, author of a new book on India, climate change and the global commons, in this interview with Agenda. Unless there is action from local communities, it is neither possible to prevent nor adapt to climate change. Local spaces also manage to conserve biodiversity better

A Damodaran, currently professor at IIM-Bangalore, started his career as an official with the Government of India and worked with the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. He was also part of district administration and rural development in Karnataka and got familiar with drought management systems. He went on to write about the economics of a semi-arid village ecosystem in Karnataka, and earned a PhD on the subject. He had the unusual experience of co-designing drought-proofing with villagers.

In the 1990s, Damodaran moved back to the Government of India where he handled multilateral environmental agreements during the heady days of the Rio negotiations. He drafted India’s Environment Action Programme. In 1994, he was offered a US-AEP Environmental Fellowship that involved association with the US-EPA on transfer of clean technologies. Later, he moved to the Indian Institute of Plantation Management in Bangalore. He has worked closely with coffee farmers in Karnataka and Kerala, tribal coffee farmers in Kerala’s Wayanad district, and tea planters in Darjeeling and Assam on biodiversity conservation. In 2004, he moved to the Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore, and has been focusing on trade and environment, commodity trading, IPR issues, and climate change.

It is these multifaceted experiences that he has attempted to put into his book Encircling the Seamless -- India, Climate Change, and the Global Commons, published by Oxford University Press

We know the term ‘global commons’ refers to areas like deep sea beds, outer space, and lands such as Antarctica that are not owned by any one country. Do global commons also include cultural and local areas? If yes, what are they? How can cultural commons be acknowledged?

In fact, culture is community-specific and so are local spaces. It is neither desirable nor feasible to treat them as global commons. However, the global community can treat them as a global concern and work towards preventing their erosion or loss.

In the past, the commons were public goods not subject to market laws or private exploitation. Over a period of time, private ownership and market pressures have affected the commons. The United Nations lists three major impacts on the global commons: increasing levels of carbon dioxide, massive use of fertilisers, and exploitation of marine fisheries. How do we regulate and protect the global commons, and are international or national laws the only way?

Markets without regulation are a licence to exploit. We certainly need international and national regulations to prevent markets from becoming exploitative for primary stakeholders. This has worked reasonably well for biodiversity. However, even a modest play of markets in the case of transboundary movement of hazardous wastes can be tricky as it is the rural and urban poor without access to land and water resources who suffer from the import of such wastes.

One suggested method of protecting the global commons from greenhouse gas emissions is through multilateral environmental agreements. A second option is using trade measures to achieve environmental objectives. Recently, the United Nations called for more research into the ecosystems of various regions. A global movement like ‘Reclaim the Street’ is working to “reclaim the commons” through community ownership of public spaces that are overrun by advertising and corporate ownership. How important is public knowledge that recognises that everything need not be divided, individually owned, and commodified? How do we educate and inform the public about the commons?

Multilateral environmental assessments (MEAs) like the Montreal Protocol and the Basel Convention have trade provisions. And it is well known that they are not consistent with WTO ‘most favoured nation’ regimes. The present effort is to go beyond the MEA framework and introduce carbon standards to clear traded products. This goes against the WTO as well as FCCC provisions that deal with common but differentiated responsibilities.

On community takeover of commons, I feel that it is desirable to facilitate an ordered market. For this, communities need to be market-literate. I see a big role for capacity-building here.

How can the ideas on commons of people such as Elinor Ostrom filter down to the people? And what is their impact on policymaking at the international and national level?

Ostrom’s ideas have filtered down to some local communities. We need more horizontal communication systems. Communities that have learnt from her theories need to teach other fellow communities. This is not happening, as I have pointed out in my book.

Your book Encircling the Seamless -- India, Climate Change, and the Global Commons explores global environmental negotiations, complex political relations, climate change conventions, and multilateral environmental assessments, and puts forward an important proposition: global commons are, in the first place, local commons. Can you elaborate?

My main thesis is that the global whole has no existence without its local spaces. Unless there is action from local communities, it is neither possible to prevent nor adapt to climate change. Local spaces manage to conserve biodiversity better. The most effective form of resistance to hazardous wastes can come only from enlightened local spaces. The task is to sensitise local communities to global environmental problems.

You argue that global commons can be better conserved if they are linked to the fight for local commons, and suggest an alternative approach that calls for strengthening local communities and getting policymakers to look at larger issues of diversity, equity and justice towards sustainable economic development of the global commons. How vital are local communities when it comes to global warming/climate change?

As I mention in my book, the best lessons on the tsunami have to be learnt from the affected fisher communities. Similarly, the best lessons in biodiversity conservation come from traditional communities. The most enduring lessons on adaptation to climate change can only come from local communities. Paradoxically, it is traditional farming systems that hold the key to adaptation to climate change in fragile, arid and semi-arid environments. Drought-hardy millets that characterise farming practices in southern Deccan are central in combating decreasing rainfall and declining groundwater tables.

You seem to believe that there is much that the world can learn about pluralism and diversity from India. Your narratives on the desert terrains of Rajasthan, the hills of Darjeeling, and the Western Ghats reach across borders to the industrial complexes in the North that produce and spew chemicals for disposal and re-use in the South, suggesting a fundamental shift in their search for a solution to the climate change problem. Do you think the North is prepared to learn its lessons?

How can a political apparatus steeped in modernity and its grand theories accept diversity? India’s diversity comes from our tolerance for traditions and postmodern adaptations. We do not equate traditional with ‘backwardness’, as they do in the West.

At the Copenhagen Summit, while India and China bargained hard on issues close to their heart -- common and differentiated responsibilities, and demands for fair, non-commercial flows of finances and low-carbon technologies -- the North, barring a few countries in Europe, was clear that it would not unduly pain itself by accepting tough mitigation targets.

Yes, without doubt. The North has been trying to avoid taking upfront and unilateral steps. At the same time, I am not opposed to carbon markets provided they are bottom-up and do not entail social costs by providing developed countries with cheap offsets.

How effective will the Copenhagen Accord be considering that it is not a legally binding instrument with concrete targets on emission reduction commitments? Besides, you concede in the book that a truly federalised structure of global environment governance is not easy to realise.

For the Copenhagen commitments to have force, the introduction of other pressure points -- notably trade restrictions on carbon-intensive measures -- is called for. This is the reason why trade in carbon-intensive goods is being discussed in a big way by governments of the North. A federalised system that recognises nation-specific approaches to climate change is ideal, provided governments are sincere about resolving global environmental issues. This is not the case at present. 

While the world can learn from India’s diversity, we still have much to achieve on the equity and justice fronts. For example in agriculture, where the debate on whether to ensure food security for our citizens or have stockpiles of food continues in a country of hungry millions. How does India achieve competitiveness in the global market without permanently destroying her natural capital?

I agree. The Food Corporation of India (FCI) is not the panacea for our food security problems. We need decentralised food or grain banks at the mandal level. This means procurement should also happen at the mandal level. Allocation of foodgrain should be a mandal panchayat responsibility. Likewise, the need for strategic reserve stocks at the mandal panchayat level. Of course, these ideas can be better tried out in rural areas.

What future do you see for the commons in India which increasingly appears to be a country determined to go on a downward spiral of social and ecological self-destruction? A downward spiral where our rulers, while refusing to address the concerns of people at the grassroots, also hope that somehow the poor and marginalised majority of this country will be taken care of by the growing market economy.

Sometimes I feel that talk about the commons in India is no longer relevant as all the so-called commons are with government departments. Poverty eradication as a goal does exist on paper. There are some good schemes like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS). They need to be implemented well. The poor need to be educated to take on the market. That is the only way. Departmental control over natural resources should end. Small enterprises should be set up based on resources from forests and grazing lands. Rather than oppose fair trade and organic movements, we should look at them from the point of these bio-enterprises. This has worked well with spice-growing farmers of the Western Ghats, in Kerala. I see no reason why it should not work elsewhere.

Infochange News & Features, March 2011