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Understanding how smallholders are working together to overcome social and environmental challenges
By: Steven Emmerson Orchard
Last updated: Wednesday, 10 November 2021
From the window of the hotel room in Dehradun, the capital city of Uttarakhand state, the foothills of the Himalayas can be seen on the horizon. It is 6 am, and I am waiting for the driver to pick me up and commence the eleven-hour journey through mountain roads to Bageshwar, the district capital where I will be conducting fieldwork. The drive presents the perfect opportunity to view the diverse landscape featuring rugged peaks, glaciers, lakes, streams and forests. Snow peaked mountains are visible in the distance, as half of the state is covered by permanent and seasonal snow cover. Glacial melt combines with high levels of annual rainfall to support a large freshwater system that provides irrigation and drinking water to the local population. Two thirds of the state is covered by forest, of which half is densely covered, evident from the thick pine forests that are relics of colonial plantations, and indigenous varieties that locals cultivate for fodder, fuelwood and other uses. The weather here is seasonal, ranging from dry cold winters from November to March, and the hot monsoons from July to September, with microclimates influenced by the elevation and slope of the mountains. It is February, and we drive past fields of wheat, pulses and mustard, the main crops grown in the Rabi season from August to May. Rice, millet and soybean are the main crops of the Kharif season, running from May to October.
The region is one of the most climate-sensitive in the world, with above average warming during the past century resulting in reduced water resources through declining and unpredictable rainfall, receding glaciers, increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, and the drying up of rivers and streams. The sensitivity of the area is compounded by rapid deforestation due to unbridled economic and infrastructure development, the benefits of which the local inhabitants rarely see. The scenic landscape is punctuated by large hydropower facilities, dams, reservoirs, and pipes used to transport energy to the more developed low-lying areas. The effects of rapid development are pervasive, as buildings, bridges and roads are constructed and industrial scale diggers mine the hillsides. As well as being a remote and fragile landscape, the area is prone to earthquakes and landslides, the visible scars of which are eerily visible. Buildings subsumed by debris are scattered along the bottom of valleys. A memorial lies adjacent to a destroyed school building in remembrance to the victims. Traffic is often held up for hours at a time as workers operate heavy machinery to clear debris from the road resulting from the latest landslide. The culmination of industrial-scale development in a fragile landscape, combined with earlier than expected monsoons that brought abnormal and sustained heavy rainfall, resulted in disaster in 2013. Rivers burst their banks, thousands of landslides were triggered, and numerous roads, bridges, irrigation canals, power lines, communication towers, buildings and homes were destroyed. Thousands of people were declared missing and presumed dead, resulting in the media labelling the event ‘the Himalayan Tsunami’.
Smallholders populate marginal areas of the region, which are characterised by high rates of poverty, low levels of development, and high dependence on rain-fed subsistence agriculture, traces of which are evident in the cultivated terraces etched into the side of steep slopes. Smallholders in the area explain how farming has become increasingly challenging due to changes in rainfall patterns, reduced farm sizes, soil fertility declines, deforestation, rises in input prices, lack of finance, lack of labour, flooding, land erosion and landslides, ineffective local administration, lack of government support, and wild animals destroying crops. Many smallholders are caught in a perpetual cycle of coping with each problem as it comes, merely getting by and surviving until the next issue arises, which could prove disastrous. Subsequently, many smallholders have been abandoning agriculture altogether and migrating to nearby towns and cities, where they typically join the ranks of the impoverished and destitute. The global challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss, food insecurity, and inequitable economic growth are reflected in the problems smallholders in the region are faced with.
The ability of smallholders to break the cycle of perpetual coping is embedded within their ability to work together in order to plan, react and recover from distress in a way that allows them to adapt their livelihoods for long-term sustainability. In mountainous areas, such forms of collective action mediate human-environment interactions between farmland, water systems, forests and grazing areas, and the built environment. Over time, smallholders in the region have developed a number of ways of working together, which has helped them to overcome the multiple challenges that living in such a marginal area produce. However, the ways in which smallholders have traditionally worked together has been eroded by numerous processes of ‘development’ and ‘progress’, such as colonialism, communism, neo-liberalism and environmentalism. The erosion of traditional forms of collective action, combined with global challenges from rapid social and environmental change, threatens to overwhelm the ability of smallholders to sustain their livelihoods. Recently, the region has become the target of a number of civil society and state development agencies, each with differing approaches of promoting collective action among smallholders to reduce their vulnerability and increase their resilience to disasters. Understanding how to support collective action among smallholders, to build on their ability to cope and ‘get by’ in the short-term, to having the ability to plan ahead and be more adaptive in the long-term, is urgently required.
This research aims to understand the link between the capacity of smallholders to adapt to the numerous challenges they face, and their involvement in various kinds of collective action. Of particular interest are those forms of collective action supported by development organisations and agencies. By exploring smallholder participation and interactions with various kinds of collective action, this research will gain insights into how smallholders prioritise their engagement in different forms of collective action, how they allocate resources among them, and how this impacts the sustainability of their livelihoods. This will increase our understanding of the synergies and trade-offs between social, economic and environmental aspects of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and inform the development of efficient and effective partnerships, between smallholders and development agencies, in order to achieve them.
We arrive at Bageshwar after dark, located deep the Himalayan hills. After a tiring journey, we are presented with a seemingly never ending set of forms to fill in to formally document our arrival, and to inform the local authorities that a foreigner is in town. Tomorrow we will venture further into the mountains to visit a number of potential study sites and speak with local farmers about the challenges they face and the ways they are working together to overcome them.
Steve Orchard is a PDRA on the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP) project ‘Adaptive Capacity and Collective Action in Marginal Mountainous Areas of India’. His current research position links research on adaptive capacity with collective action in marginal mountainous areas in India. It aims to explore ways that partnerships between smallholders and development agencies can support local collective action institutions to increase smallholder adaptive capacity to the multiple stresses they face.