• Issues Analysis 360o

Ethnic Environmentalism

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 What is the issue?

  • The Sikkim–Darjeeling Himalaya is undergoing serious environmental changes as a result of the rampant construction of hydroelectric projects and climate-induced changes.
  • But there is very little in the way of large-scale movements around the environment.
  • Instead there is a predominance of ethnicity as the key variable in negotiations with the state over environmental issues.

What is ethnic environmentalism?

In 2004, the Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT) led a very powerful and successful movement against the construction of hydropower dams in North Sikkim. The success of this movement can be attributed to the largely “ethnic approach” used by the activists to secure concessions from the government. According to them, hydropower development was projected as a threat to the culture, history and sacred landscape of the indigenous Lepcha community of Sikkim. Prior to this, the Rathong Chu project had been cancelled after large-scale protests by Buddhist religious leaders and monks in Sikkim. This kind of reliance on ethnic identity for the articulation of environmental justice is called Ethnic Environmentalism.

Why is it detrimental?

  • Environmental concerns, whether related to HEPs or climate change, are reduced to “non-issues” unless presented within an ethnic framework.
  • It narrows the channels of collective mobilisation and contestation with the state and other non-state actors, thereby inhibiting popular movements around the environment.
  • It also raises problematic questions over the value of the environment to a community, society and culture.
  • It sidelines the concerns of communities who cannot demonstrate the deterioration of sacred landscapes or cultural risks associated with large-scale environmental degradation.
  • It also limits the scopes of problems that can be brought to centre stage.
  • e.g Despite the different forms of environmental degradation like deforestation, increased landslides, glacial retreat, pollution, habitat loss, etc, HEPs are the only environmental i0ssue that has been successful in rallying support.
  • It limits the grievance-sharing mechanisms that are available to the people and this lack of agency leads to an inequitable distribution of environmental injustice

What should be done?

  • Environmental activism is also affected by the complex relationship between the people and the environment.
  • Despite strong religious, cultural and historical connections with the environment, it is the everyday needs of subsistence and livelihood that take precedence over environmental activism.
  • The importance of this relationship has to be reinforced.
  • There is very little engagement with environmental issues on a serious and a regular basis in the public sphere.
  • This is exacerbated by the ethnic and political overtones that have come to be associated with the environment.
  • This is accentuated further by the weak governmental responses to these severe environmental concerns. Such voids have to be filled to prevent the declining importance to collective environmentalism.

Posted On - 12/23/2018 7:50:39 AM

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