Our Resource Our Future

Published on May 6, 2011

By H. Kaileankhup Khongsai

‘Things aren’t what they used to be!’ The world is changing fast. There is a growing understanding in both the scientific world and development circles that protecting natural ecosystems is crucial for our future. Over the last two years, I have been privileged to meet and interact with some of the world’s figureheads such as His Royal Highness Prince Charles, Mr. Olav Kjorven (UN-Assistant Secretary General), Rev. Dr. Roland William (Archbishop of Canterbury) and have listened to the wisdom of the world’s most eminent experts on climate change and environmental issues-Sir John Houghton (Climate Scientist-Ex IPPC Chair) and Myles Allen (IPCC Author, Head of Climate Dynamics Group, Oxford University).

The conclusion I draw is that the future of Mankind can be assured only if we rediscover ways in which to live as a part of Nature, recognising its carrying capacity. As we look at our present surrounding environment in our region, for example Manipur state – the resources we have are being degraded at an alarming rate. It has the potential to overtake all the other critical issues we face as a tribal community and transform something severe into something catastrophic unless we stand together and act fast.

“Many trees are uprooted, hills are cleared, more land left barren and unproductive, pesticides and herbicides have poisoned lands and water bodies, rainfall is more erratic with frequent flooding, some streams have dried up completely, the quantity and quality of much surface and ground water has dropped, many fish and wild animals have died from extreme external pressure”

Where could this be and who will pay the price? The state we are in is not far from what some African countries are experiencing. This article is a call for restructuring thoughts rather than a technique for solutions, though some feasible suggestions are laid down. What I believe is that if we are to look forward to a future of promise and positive potential for our society, we the hilly inhabitants have an inescapable ethical and moral responsibility to look back to our past and to reconnect with nature for many reasons.

One of the good reasons is for our own survival, secondly sustaining our culture and third but not least fulfilling our religious obligation. It is a broad context but I present here a brief outline; hoping that, rather than cause alarm, it will provoke Christian thought and action based on moral and sound ethical solution.

The past ecological harmony:
Records gathered from folklore, poetry and stories succinctly make it clear that our ancestors enjoyed a pristine environment (clean and fresh air, water bodies and land) which met their day-to-day and spiritual requirements. They seem to have gathered from nature enough to keep them fit for survival without disrupting the balance of natural cycles, fostering community relations, strengthening their culture, adapting their way of living to conform with changes in the natural environment. Their lifestyles demonstrated respect for the changing seasons, the life-cycles of crops and livestock, and the significance of all forms of life on earth. This synergy between human beings and the natural environment embodies the form of conservation.

It is a relationship that ultimately demonstrates the sustainable use and equitable sharing of resources. Ironically, those may be the glories of the past but natural forest resources are still a life-line for our community. In fact, forest ecosystems act as a supermarket – people collect food, fuel, fodder, medicines and also generate subsistence income to support their household. In spite of all this, it is pretty depressing that our practical experience living with nature has not informed our ethical positions on resource use.

The present scenario:
Many scholars and government report have indicated that the tribal cultural practice of shifting cultivation (slash and burn cultivation), and also fuel-wood collection are the main causes of forest depletion in tribal areas. However, I would say that to characterize these two elements as the main driving force of environmental degradation is oversimplification. My guess is there are many other unsustainable practices that need to be taken into account – some of these are discussed below.

Attitudes towards the environment:
In spite of such a high dependence on the natural environment, the concept of caring for the environment is still the area of least concern to many. People seem to instinctively chop down trees and clear vegetation for no good reason, for example uprooting tree for art & craft, plucking the growing shoots of plants whilst gathering food, carelessly letting a bit of land burn after smoking (Beri / Cigarette / Dum), burning huge pile of rice stalks after harvest leaving the sky blanketed with black smoke.

These practices are still common today. Hunting, which has strong cultural significance, has sadly not recognized the need for a seasonal hunting ban (rest period). People hunt even during wildlife breeding seasons and this practice is detrimental to wildlife populations. In addition, hunters set different kinds of trap to catch wild animals and birds. On occasion hundreds of native and migratory birds are caught using net traps every year. Furthermore, in some rural areas poisonous chemicals are used as the easiest means to catch fish – destroying all life forms and in the entire water ecosystem.

These unsustainable practices raise serious questions: “How long can this resource feed us?” It is important to know what we are destroying and losing, what we are allowing to be injudiciously used. What we are enjoying and selling today is our identity, our livelihoods, and our social and economic wealth which could be the security for our people for the future.

Perceptions on the environment:
Looking back to the “Mautam” (Bamboo flowering) disaster, one would certainly agree that the incident was the most challenging environmental disaster ever faced by the hilly inhabitants. Many people suffered and lost their lives and we do not want this to happen again. On the one hand this catastrophic events acts as an alarm bell, sending a message across our society about the importance of living in harmony with the natural environment for our survival.

However, what is worrisome is that many individuals still pay no heed and are reluctant to accept any thoughts that nature could be cruel, nor to think of accepting accountability towards the nature. We have taken everything for granted, but can we afford to carry on the same way?

Almost everyone has an apocalyptic vision and claims to have deep attachment and love towards “GAM & NAM”. I undoubtedly agree with this – we all want to preserve our unique identity and culture. Sadly, all too often I have witnessed extremism around the second phrase “NAM” missing out the most important first phrase “GAM”.

We ignore “GAM” not in word but in deed. It could be too costly continuing to have this perception whilst our society has a high dependency on GAM resources. There is an urgent need to look again at how we fit in with these two phrases, and to give equal importance to each for our present and future generations. When our struggle for the region and our pride is dying fast, can we afford to ignore this?

Do we have enough resources?
Do we have enough resources to feed ourselves until 2050? This is a question that concerns many people in various countries these days, and perhaps this is something we should also seriously consider. Let us investigate this using a simple example focusing on the forest resource of Manipur.

According to the Forest Survey of India it is estimated that forest cover of about 20 hectares is being destroyed daily in Manipur. The years from 1991-2001 witnessed a loss of 759 sq.km in forest-covered areas. However, the state government claims to have recovered 293 sq. km through social forestry programmes during 2002-2003. But the big question is, are these areas mature enough to be classified as forest? Will they harbour the same wildlife as before? Even if we assume stagnation in population growth and we go on the above trends, then the year 2050 shows a potential threat of losing 2330 sq.km forest from the present 17219 sq. km of forest cover.

This may not seem a big threat to some but I am sure the consequence will be more than they expect. In fact, the simple assumption made in figure1 clearly reflects that the yearly production potential rate of forests is limited and stagnant at 4.17 lakh (cu.m), whereas the firewood requirement shows a gradual rise as people’s use has rocketed. The firewood requirements are predicted to rise from 10.82 lakh (cu.m) in 2010 to 19.51 lakh (cu.m) for 2030 and reached 35.24 lakh (cu.m) for the year 2050. The number of people using firewood rockets from 27.55 lakh in 2010 to 89.87 lakh for 2050.

This clearly paints a picture that our needs will continue to rise whereas our resources plummet with no indication of stopping. If this trend continues, by 2050 it is highly likely that many wildlife species will die out for loss of habitat, water will become more scarce and polluted, erratic rainfall and flooding or drought will become more frequent. These things will have a direct impact on various facets of our life – health, social, culture and economy. It is highly likely that our natural resources will not meet even our basic needs, not to mention our greed.

Caring for the environment is a Christian obligation:
According to Christian understanding, human beings are created by the one God who created the entire universe and all its content. We consequently share a close relationship with all other aspects of creation, yet have a special role within the created order. The bible gives us a very clear-cut basis for a Christian doctrine of the environment: a) Creation belongs to God (Col. 1-15-20) (Pslam 24:1) b).

He has entrusted it to us (Genesis 2:15). Human beings are made in God’s image, and are given the mandate to exercise stewardship over the earth and its creatures. We therefore have a responsibility first to God to look after creation, not as we please but as God requires. Secondly, we have a responsibility to the rest of creation as ones who stand in the place of God. In fact as an image bearer of God we are blessed with unique qualities – rational, moral, relational and creative capacities. We need to apply these qualities in this world for God’s glory. As Christians we have a contribution to make, there is a need to re-awaken to the gospel ethic, and to recognize that human greed is at the root of the environmental crisis (Hosea 4:1-3, Jeremiah 12:4, Deut 28-30).

We need to recognize our ecological footprints on the earth, our impact on our local and global environment. As followers of Christ we cannot ignore “Creation waits……for the final redemption” (Rom 8:20-22). Our task is to obey the clear injunction of Jesus to be responsible and just stewards until his return (Luke 12:41-48). Exercising this role provides an important part of our fulfillment as humans. “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things in earth or things in heaven” (Col.1:19-20).

Suggestions and conclusion:
There is no short cut solution to our environmental problems. To arrive at solutions it is necessary to address human attitudes very broadly, in fact our attitudes and behavior are rooted in our deepest moral and spiritual motivations. We cannot expect to make the fundamental changes needed in our social, environment and economic life unless they are based on the highest of our moral, spiritual and ethical traditions, a reverence for life, a respect for each other, and a commitment to responsible stewardship of the earth.

It demands the involvement of human society at all levels of aggregation-local government, large and small industry, businesses, non-governmental organization, village authority, chiefs and local individuals. We really need to explore the best sustainable ways of resource use; one option that we could look at is renewable technologies. For an example, energy is one of the sectors that need exploring to cater to our most basic needs: rural communities need fuel for cooking and boiling rather than petrol to drive vehicles.

This energy could come from the waste they produce using anaerobic digestion technology. Wind turbines and solar panels could be the potential source of electricity as we have climatic conditions blessed with abundant wind and sunshine offering an ideal environment. In addition, there is a need to amend local Law to fit the rural environment-promote sustainable hunting, agriculture and forest use etc.

I believe the central and state government has the required technology and skills that can be squeezed out but we first need to understand the issue. It is important to bear in mind that unless concern for “GAM” acquires a spiritual base and becomes a part of contemporary man’s psyche, any steps for solutions will not get converted into commitments and no real change and improvement will take place.

It is high time to wake-up-the resources we have are being depleted at an alarming rate and very soon our exhausted resources could offer nothing more than a disaster well beyond our imagination. If resources are lost at this pace in which our survival and culture has such deep roots – there is a likelihood of losing our life-line and heritage very soon.

The writer works for A Rocha UK (International Christian Environmental Organization based in West London). He is a certified member of Chartered Institution of Waste Management United Kingdom (CIWM). He can be reached at kailenh72@gmail.com.

References:

His Royal Highness Prince Charles (2009): Rain forests the burning issues. The Prince Rainforests Project. pp. 14-18
Aplin Ken (2010): Natural Shock Deadly Rat Invasion, Mizoram, Channel 4 report UK-8pm, September 14th.
Gulati S.C. (2000): Population pressure and deforestation in India. Pp. 5-7
Statistical Bulletin of Manipur forests (2001-2002) FSI-State of Forest Report 2003. P. 79
Statistical Bulletin of Forest Department (1996-97), Govt. of Manipur.
Houghton john (2007): Global warming, climate change -Paper 14: pp. 2-7
Bookless Dave (2008): Planetwise, pp. 20-25
Weaver John (2008): Co-redeemers. John Ray Initiative: Briefing paper-No.16
Prance Ghillean (1996): The earth under threat, A Christian perspective. p. 28
Berry R.J.(2000): The Care of Creation-Focusing concern and action. p. 20

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