What makes people care?

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The first time Arun Agrawal met Hukam Singh, the young villager told him it was a waste of time to try to conserve forests. He didn’t think anyone could keep his neighbors from cutting the trees, nor did he really care. But when the two met again eight years later it was a different story. Singh had joined the local forest council and was proud of protecting the forest so his neighbors would have fuel, fodder, furniture, wood, soil, and water.

In ’Environmentality: Community, Intimate Government, and the Making of Environmental Subjects in Kumaon, India’, Agrawal tries to explain why Singh and others changed their minds.

Agrawal begins around 1910, when the colonial government tried to restrict the Kumaon villagers’ use of forests. They failed. The villagers constantly broke the rules and often burned the forests in protest. The few forest guards couldn’t stop them. Not even the village heads would cooperate.

Eventually, the government created a committee to look into Kumaonis’ grievances. The committee recommended handing the forests over to local councils. Since then, Kumaon’s villages have established more than 3,000 such councils. These councils decide who can use the forests, how much they can harvest, what they must pay, and what to do if they break the rules.

These days a large and growing share of headmen and other villagers look after the forests. Instead of protesting against the Forest Department, they now complain it isn’t strict enough. Some forest council members even support rules that make things harder for their own family members.

According to Agrawal, the villagers take better care of their forests because the government now respects their rights to them. They also see forest products getting scarcer. However, villagers’ personal participation in forest activities seems even more important. Social pressure drives many people to get involved initially, but by protecting forests they learn to value them. Being environmentalists becomes part of their identity. It doesn’t work for everyone, but it sure did for Hukam Singh. That can do more to stop forest destruction than an entire army of forest guards.

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