Bioethics in India: Proceedings of the International Bioethics Workshop in Madras: Biomanagement of Biogeoresources, 16-19 Jan. 1997, University of Madras; Editors: Jayapaul Azariah, Hilda Azariah, & Darryl R.J. Macer, Copyright Eubios Ethics Institute 1997.

78. Land Health: The Bioethical Approach of the Foragers

Nirmal Selvamony & A.Rukmani*.
Dept. of English, Madras Christian College, Chennai
*Dept. of Pharmacology, Madras Medical College, Chennai

Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns ... Matt. 6:26

Though 'land' often means 'solid portion of the earth's surface', or 'ground (1),' for purposes of this paper, it will denote the terrestrial ecosystem. Therefore, land health will refer to the health of the terrestrial ecosystem.

In order to understand the implications of our 'responsibility for the health of the land' (2), we need to know what we mean by the health of the ecosystem. Generally, the term 'health' implies 'wholeness', and 'unbroken functioning'. Specifically, when applied to ecosystems which do not have organismic identity, what does 'health' mean? Sickness and death mark all ecosystems including the most pristine ones, by virtue of their being living entities. But, too much disease renders an ecosystem unhealthy and it can be marked by "reduced primary productivity, loss of nutrients, loss of sensitive species, increased disease prevalence, changes in the biotic size spectrum to favour smaller life-forms, and increased circulation of contaminants" (3).

On the contrary, in a healthy ecosystem, the member organisms flourish in their respective niches; the system spontaneously self-organizes in the basic processes of climate, hydrology, and photosynthesis; the system can successfully resist the onslaught of storm, fire or insect epidemic and requires minimal or no doctoring. In other words, "health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal" (4). Accordingly, in order to assess the self-healing capacity of land the following five criteria have been postulated (5):

1. the presence of largely native species;

2. species constitution being not very different from the original makeup (maintenance of biodiversity);

3. requiring minimum cultural energy like labour, pesticides, fertilizers, etc.;

4. having the capacity for self-organization with minimal human aid; and

5. the rate of restoration.

These criteria have to be applied quite judiciously weighing several factors. Arbitrary application of a category may not give us the true picture of the state of an ecosystem, but may only lead us to hasty conclusions. For example, will a couple of exotic species in an ecosystem make it unhealthy? Is such ecosystem comparable to a person with an artificial limb? (6)

The second criterion, namely, original diversity makes for the integrity of an ecosystem. When a patch of land is cultivated, it loses its integrity by virtue of losing some of the original members of the natural community, but it, probably, does not become unhealthy if it can be managed sustainably, and if the surrounding natural systems are not disrupted (7). This perhaps justifies some amount of cultivation and farming in appropriate regions.

In spite of the fact that nearly half of the total 300 million hectares of India is, today, a pseudo-desert, the ecology of the land of this subcontinent is "such that a piece of land left to itself will soon get converted into a forest except in a few desert districts like Western Rajasthan and in the upper reaches of the Himalayan mountains" (8). This natural conversion, known as self-regeneration aided by birds and the wind is suppressed largely by the disproportionate population of domestic animals (9). In this situation, the original species diversity pattern was disrupted by a specific kind of human intervention, namely, domestication of animals leading to jeopardizing of the self-organizing potential of land.

Normally, fire is inimical to the health of an ecosystem. Often it runs wild, destroys young growth, sterilizes the soil (by burning up the humus) and stops natural reproduction. When large areas of forest are destroyed by fire, the nation incurs great monetary loss. But ironically, this agent of destruction that threatens the self-restorative potential of the ecosystem is good for such species as the lodgepole pine, for, it is the forest fire that opens up the sealed cones of this tree and releases its seeds (10).

However, taking into account all the complexities involved in the working of a terrestrial ecosystem, we could attempt to see how the bioethical approach of foragers helped maintain the health of the land.

The three major modes of production, through the ages, have been foraging, cultivation (and farming), and industry. If cultivation involves deforestation, monoculture, and considerable amount of cultural energy, industry (which involves factories and large organizations) does deforestation, monoculture of commercial crops and a significant degree of human intervention. Evidently, both these modes make land vulnerable to sickness and so, efficient health management is necessary. But megatechnology, (for example, iron and steel, mining, aeronautics, nuclear plants and so on) is quite a different matter altogether. Today it has wrought colossal environmental damage, for, such technology is intrinsically inimical to land health; impoverishes and pollutes the land to such an extent that self-healing becomes impossible (11).

If so, could it be reasonably presumed that land enjoyed maximum health only in a foraging society where people "made little or no effort to control the resources that provided their subsistence, but instead took what nature offered" (12) considering the factors that the foragers made no attempt to introduce exotic species into their environment, nor to tamper with the natural biodiversity to any significant extent vitiating the self-regenerative potential of the land. Yet another factor is the small size of human population. Around 10,000 years ago there were less than ten million foragers on this planet. This meant that a person had many square miles to support him (13).

It is true that in their interaction with the environment, the foragers have killed animals, dug out roots, and picked leaves and berries and fruits. For example, the tribal people of Madhya Pradesh in India knew the use of 165 trees, shrubs and climbers (14). The Kalam of New Guinea hunted not less than 215 species of vertebrate animals (43 mammals, 137 birds, 14 reptiles, 20 frogs, and 1 fish) and at least 80 species of invertebrate animals, mainly, insects, or their larvae, spiders and snails (15). The !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari desert of Africa knew the existence of no less than 200 edible species of plants. Moreover, the foragers have also had their own favourites. Of the 200 species of edible plants, the Bushmen commonly consumed only two and only when these two were in short supply did they turn to 75 other species. With the hunters of the Gwisho hot-spring sites in Central Zambia, the picture was no different. Of the several species of plants they knew, only two were their staples (16).

If domestication of animals meant interfering with the workings of nature, the hunters were guilty of it for they were not unaware of the uses of the domesticated dog (17). Moreover, with their knowledge of the use of fire, they could have burnt down litter and timber for warmth or for frightening animals. In order to track down huge animals such as the mammoth (or hairy elephant) they could have made pits by clearing certain patches of land; or they could have cleared for making temporary thatch shelters.

However, neither did their endeavours wholly undermine land health nor did they leave behind an unhealthy ecosystem for their successors, namely, the cultivators. More importantly, the health of the land was closely linked up with the foraging mode of production (resource use). Let us see how ethical this mode was -- how fitting or unfitting, good or bad and right or wrong as far as the health of the land was concerned.

Firstly, we could ask whether the productive mode of the foragers was proper (or fitting)? Studies show that their production activities (hunting and gathering) depended to a very great extent on the kind of biome they inhabited. If the Arctic Eskimo and the Cree of the boreal forest of eastern North America depended primarily on meat, the Great Basin Shoshone of the American West and the San of southern Africa subsisted mainly on vegetable foods. The midwestern American Indian depended on the bison, the Californian Indians on acorns, and some aborigines of the northwest coast of North America on anadromous fish (18). The long association with the region taught the foragers what food was easily available and what techniques most successful. Their cultural knowledge and wisdom gained through several generations taught them how to match their life style with the environment. The seasonality of the environment called for their mobility -- congregation and dispersal of groups. The size of the groups had to be big or small in accordance with the duration and amount of resource supply.

Propriety was the operative principle in the division of labour among the foragers. Men hunted and women gathered because it was fitting to do so. At times there was mutual cooperation also. For example, among the Bambuti of the tropical forests of Zaire, the women and children drove the game into nets and helped with hunting which was basically men's work (19).

The same principle governed their lifestyle too. For example, the Netsilik constructed his house from snow and ice in the winter and from sealskin in the summer. He made all his artifacts out of snow, ice, skins, bones, antlers and soapstone that were locally available and thus survived one of the harshest environments, namely, the tundra (20).

The people had to match their lifestyle not only with the biotic environment, but also with the abiotic environment -- the aridity, seasonality, temporal and geographic variability in precipitation. For example, the !Kung San of southern Africa knew that during the dry season (April-October) it was appropriate to congregate into relatively large settlements of between twenty and fifty persons around a few permanent waterholes, and split up into smaller bands during the wet season (between November and March) to exploit the resources around temporarily formed waterholes (21).

Secondly, how good was the foraging mode in maintaining land health? Ethically, this is a question about the envisaged ideal state or end. So, perceiving the end implies having the end in view and moving towards it steadily. This is not to say that the foragers had a clearly spelt out theory of resource use. But the fact that their lifestyle was governed by an insight into what was good for them and the future generations cannot be denied.

Discussing the Ik (the Teuso), the hunter-gatherers of northern Uganda and Kenya, Colin M Turnbull observed that they were the best conservationists, who knew exactly how much they could take from where at any given time. When they got enough for their immediate needs, they returned to their camp, for, overhunting was considered one of the major crimes, a sin against divine command and it was allowed only in exceptional situations (22).

Most foragers did not attempt to store or preserve food even when their catch was larger than what they actually needed. This could not be explained away by the fact that most of them were migrant. But this principle did not apply to those who had to weather harsh environments, especially, to the Indians of the Northwest coast of North America (the tribes such as the Kwakiutl, Tlingit, Bella Coola, Haida, Coast Salish and Tsimshian) who had to preserve the anadromous fish (23).

The foragers deemed it good to leave the land as it was without attempting to 'domesticate' it. Though the so-called civilized people called such land 'wilderness', the indigenous people never did so. An American Indian chief, Chief Luther Standing Bear of the Oglala band of Sioux said, "We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and winding streams with tangled growth as 'wild'. Only to the white man was nature a wilderness and only to him was the land infested with wild animals and savage people. To us it was tame." (24) Literary texts have also faithfully recorded the 'white man's' point of view. In Nathaniel Hawthorne's (1804-1864) story, "Young Goodman Brown," the hero may be seen as a spokesperson of the civilized people (or the white men), for, he represents the forest as a dark, evil space inhabited by such devils as the American Indians.

Thirdly, was foraging the right thing to do if land health was the desired end in view? Since it is possible to decide whether something is right or wrong only against a fixed frame of reference such as moral codes, it is necessary to know what codes operated among the foragers. Being oral societies, the foraging peoples did not have any written law as such. Since all societies have some form of law or the other, the foraging society is also no exception. The four basic aspects of law, namely, authority, obligation, intention of universal application and sanction (25) had their own sacred and secular dimensions in early societies. Lacking a formal court system, the authority to protect people's rights and settle disputes often rested with a family or a recognised mediator. Production was organized by assigning rights of access to resources. Foraging bands used specific territories for a certain time without owning them. Often, persons from other bands were also permitted to use one's territorial resources.

Violations of norms resulted in sanctions, or punishments which were either formal or informal or supernatural. For example, when the Cheyennes prepared for a communal bison hunt, the camp members were required to refrain from independent hunting for some days prior to the hunt. If somebody violated this injunction, such sanctions as whipping or shooting of the horses were imposed on the offender. Less severe and informal sanctions were gossip, scandal or ridicule which were also equally effective (26). Supernatural sanctions included curses, or divine wrath or damage to one's soul or some such thing. In identical cases of violation, the same sanctions were imposed rendering the law universal.

The foregoing discussion has shown that the foragers were able to maintain the health of land mainly because their mode of resource use (or productive mode) was ethically viable.

Studies of foragers who have managed to survive into modern times show that their overall quality of life was in no way inferior to that of the cultivators or the industrial people of modern times. They were not, after all, out grubbing for food all the time as many of us imagine they were, but worked fewer hours than many cultivators, and enjoyed more leisure than most industrial people. Further, their diet was in many ways superior to our own. All these have led anthropologists to regard the foragers the original affluent human society (27).

Of all the productive modes humans have been experimenting with throughout the ages, the most enduring one has been foraging. No other mode has maintained land health as foraging has. If so, what could we infer? If at all cultivation, farming and technology are absolutely necessary for the survival of humankind (though not for that of the other species!), they should be, probably, restricted to the appropriate regions,-- cultivation to the riverine plains with abundant water supply, and farming, to grasslands, leaving the forests and the mountains in tact for the foragers. Appropriate technology instead of industry, could serve the needs of the people of all regions. Probably, we should relearn to see all modes of production --foraging, cultivation, farming and appropriate technology -- as being unique and equally significant. Only such an egalitarian outlook can make possible a lifestyle that does not threaten the health of land.

1. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, vol. I, rev. 1973, p.1172.
2. Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, New York: Oxford University Press, 1968 (1949), p. 221 as cited in Holmes Rolston, III, "Science, advocacy, human and environmental health", The Science of the Total Environment 184 (1996) 52. I am greatly indebted to Holmes Rolston's paper for most of the ideas on land health.
3. Holmes Rolston, III, ibid., p.53.
4. Holmes Rolston, III, ibid.
5. Holmes Rolston, III, ibid.
6. Holmes Rolston, III, ibid., p.52.
7. Holmes Rolston, III, ibid., p.55.
8. Anil Agarwal, Sunita Narain, Towards Green Villages, New Delhi: Centre for Science and Environment, 1989, p.13.
9. Anil Agarwal, Sunita Narain, ibid.
10. Rutherford Platt, A Pocket Guide to the Trees, New York: Pocket Books, Inc., 1953, p.166.
11. E.F.Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful, Harper Colophon Books, 1975, p.103; Bill Devall, George Sessions, Deep Ecology, Salt Lake City: Gibbs M Smith Inc., Peregrine Smith Books, 1985, p.35.
12. Peoples & Bailey, Humanity: An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, West Publishing Company, 1988, p.135.
13. Peoples & Bailey, ibid., p.410; Jonas Salk & Jonathan Salk, World Population and Human Values, Harper Colophon Books, 1982, p.29; J.H.G. Lebon, An Introduction to Human Geography, London: Hutchinson University Library, rev. 1969, p.69.
14. M.S. Randhawa, A History of Agriculture in India, New Delhi: Indian Council of Agricultural Research, 1980, p.97.
15. Ralph Bulmer, 'Selectivity in hunting and in disposal of animal bone by the Kalam of the New Guinea Highlands', Problems in Economic and Social Archaeology, ed. G. Sieveking, I.H. Longworth & K.E. Wilson, London: Duckworth, 1976, pp. 170-171; also see J.H.G. Lebon, op.cit., pp.66-67.
16. Brian M. Fagan, 'The Hunters of Gwisho: A Retrospect,' Problems in Economic and Social Archaeology, ed. G. Sieveking, I.H. Longworth, and K.E. Wilson, London: Duckworth, 1976, p.22.
17. M.S. Randhawa, op. cit., p.81.
18. Peoples & Bailey, op. cit., pp.136-137.
19. Peoples & Bailey, ibid., p.137.
20. Peoples & Bailey, ibid., p.138.
21. Peoples & Bailey, ibid., p.140.
22. Colin M. Turnbull, The Mountain People, New York: Touchstone Book, 1972, pp.21-25.
23. Peoples & Bailey, op. cit., p.142.
24. T.C.McLuhan (comp.), Touch The Earth, New York: Pocket Books, 1972, p.45.
25. Peoples & Bailey, op. cit., p.283.
26. Peoples & Bailey, ibid., p.289.
27. Richard Lee, The Dobe !Kung: Foragers in a Changing World, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1984; Richard B. Lee, & Irven De Vore, eds. Man The Hunter,Chicago: Aldine, 1968; Eaton & Konner, NEJM, Jan. 1985; Peoples & Bailey, op.cit., pp.142-144.

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