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Old Wives' Tale or Nuances Understanding of Commons?

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Type: Conference Paper
Author: Gopalakrishnan, Seetha; Thirunavukkarasu, S.; Nagarajan, Muthu Karthick; Vencatesan, Jayshree
Conference: In Defense of the Commons: Challenges, Innovation and Action, the Seventeenth Biennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons
Location: Lima, Peru
Conf. Date: July 1-5
Date: 2019
URI: https://hdl.handle.net/10535/10615
Sector: General & Multiple Resources
Subject(s): commons
Abstract: "From waterbodies that irrigate private agricultural fields to common pasturelands which support local cattle, Indian villages typically thrive on commons. The importance of wetland ecosystems in terms of provisioning for and supporting human well-being cannot be over-emphasised; more so for the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu with its fair share of rain-shadow regions. Wetlands, both natural and man-made occupy 6.92 percent of the state’s total geographical area. Eris or community managed tanks along with pasturelands, common threshing floors, granaries and village seed banks constitute a chunk of the agrarian landscape that fall under the realm of commons--predominantly administered by the community. Particularly striking is the district of Ramanathapuram with 18.05 percent of its total geographic area occupied by wetlands. Archeological evidence points to the existence of settled agriculture for over 2000 years in the region. This gave people ample time to understand the landscape and devise irrigation systems that complemented local terrain. That a meandering river would create an oxbow lake over time as a result of hydraulic action eroding its banks was visualised and understood by local communities. This resulted in the community creating a series of inter-connected, mutually dependent wetland systems that augmented irrigation. The British, along with their particular penchant for centralisation brought with them systems that alienated people from the land and resources that once were their sole bastion. More than an administrative fallacy, not factoring traditional knowledge systems into current planning and policy frameworks seem more like a deliberate subversion of traditional know-how. Estranging people from processes, this has eventually resulted in the ruination of the crucial village knowledge network. For instance, the community had a thorough understanding of the hydrology of the local wetland system in the Melaselvanoor-Kelaselvanoor region of Ramanathapuram, created around 1600 AD. People have been, for centuries, able to capitalize upon traditional knowledge of the wetland’s workings to ensure they remained drought-free. Modern day planning with its top-down approaches have mostly failed its management, thanks to the mediocrity with which the community and the immense ecosystem-knowledge they possess are handled. Decimation of these well-established systems coupled with haphazard planning that is completely ignorant of ground realities have led to severe water stress in an area that was kept shielded from drought for centuries. Knowledge about and a deep understanding of commons--from landscape to biodiversity--which once was customary is now slowly eroding. Any intervention, irrespective of its scale or place needs to factor in the local—local knowledge, local needs and local expertise. Action plans and eco-restoration proposals that place biodiversity at the core must appreciate the collective knowledge that rests with the community and incorporate them to make the entire process sustainable and more meaningful for there can be no better means of drawing up a blue print of an area’s ecological past or the history of local commons and their archival usage than by tapping into that very traditional knowledge."

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