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Rio+20: Are human development indices forest-blind?

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When policymakers and national planners set out to enhance local “quality of life,” they often base their decisions on a variant of the United Nations’ Human Development Index (HDI), a basket of indicators, ranging from income to life expectancy.

Ask people living near forests what they consider most essential to their wellbeing and you get a very different set of priorities, as CIRAD scientist seconded to CIFOR, Claude Garcia, and his research partners from ICTA (Autonomous University of Barcelona) reveal in a new paper.

According to their results, the HDI fails to capture how much communities value environment. The metric does not even reflect that forest dwellers care about the forest.

This failure, Garcia says, leads to environmental concerns being absent from policy agendas at the local, regional and even international level.

“If a topic doesn’t occur in the official set of criteria, it will not be taken on board by the policymakers,” said Garcia. “And I think this is something not only true in Karnataka or India. It is even reflected in the scant mention of forests in the upcoming Rio +20 agenda.”

Garcia and his team came to this conclusion after asking locals in the coffee growing community of Kodagu, located in the Western Ghats of South India, open-ended questions about what they thought determined their quality of life.

After the most basic survival requirements – water, food and shelter – the next component of quality living they said was “environment” – an element not mentioned in the local state government’s human development report.

In the South Indian coffee-growing district of Kodagu, where Garcia and his colleagues conducted their research, “environment” is virtually synonymous with “forest” as trees cover nearly 60% of the district. The region supports fully 150 inhabitants per square kilometre, mostly engaged  in coffee cultivation in one way or the other. Kodagu or Coorg, as it is better known in India, produces nearly 2 percent of the world’s coffee supply. Yet, densely populated and economically productive as they are, the forests of Kodagu host tigers and elephants roaming at large.

Such a landscape has pertinent lessons to teach about balancing development and conservation in a world whose global population will soon top 9 billion.

Francisco Zorondo-Rodriguez, the principal investigator, spent six months conducting detailed interviews with 114 people, ranging from upper-class plantation owners to lower caste tribal villagers that worked as field labourers. As Garcia explains it, “Using free-listings,  the research team could identify the different means (satisfiers) informants used to meet their well-being requirements and why these elements mattered.”

In simpler terms, that meant researchers grouped responses to their open ended questions by category and ranked their importance according to their order in the respondents’ lists. They then compared their tabulated results with the weighted list of components prioritised by the Karnataka government in its Human Development Report.

The differences were striking, Garcia notes, highlighting the “need to send officials to listen to the communities, giving a voice to the people instead of assuming you know what they want. This inverts the established power structure. It forces government bodies to listen.”

However, Garcia says he is not calling for a complete revamp of the HDI. Rather he suggests supplementing pre-development project research with on-the-ground field interviews.

For government officials wondering how to combine the approaches, Garcia points to the research methodologies used similar to that used by his team and other projects conducted by the CIFOR-sponsored Poverty Environment Network. He is convinced such an approach could go a long way to “contextualise” global scale metrics such as the HDI.

Nor are these methodologies applicable only in places such as Coorg, he adds, pointing to the diverse caste and ethnic mix who his research team spoke to. Such eclecticism shows that his research method could work anywhere from Kalimantan to Peru to France.

Wherever applied, he suspects that such surveys will encourage policymakers to look beyond purely economic quantification of quality of life.

“What matters to people is not necessarily what you can measure through economic evaluation,” he said. “How are you going to quantify the value of a sacred forest? But still we can try to incorporate it into our policy choices…”


Extpub | by Dr. Radut