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Shifting Baselines: Our Elders’ Stories Can Tell Us How Good Our Future Can Be

Photo: pandu ior/Unsplash.

In any attempt to bridge the domains of experience belonging to the spiritual and physical sides of nature, time occupies the key position.

– Arthur D. Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World: Gifford Lectures, 1927

During a visit to an Adivasi village in Bolangir district, Odisha, I had inquired about the presence of some tree species. The youth and the slightly older men were quite unanimous in their response – that these trees were common as well as abundant in their area.

Later in the day, when I led an exercise on plant diversity assessments in the surrounding forests, the people were surprised to see that their idea of ‘common’ and ‘abundant’ were off the mark. The species we were discussing earlier were few in number, almost rare in fact: their distribution was scattered and patchy, about one or two in an acre.

This was unusual, to say the least. The youth have walked through this forest without noticing and recording what species were abundant and what were missing. Instead, they have retained the memory of tree species that they were told were abundant, and continued to hold it as true, without checking against the available evidence.

I have experienced such a situation more than once in Adivasi areas, and it is a testimony to the growing disconnection between the youth and the forest.

Most Adivasi and rural youth who lost patches of their forests and specific species for various reasons through their growing-up years tend to ‘update’ their knowledge of the situation constantly. Each such update is a shift in the baseline, and each baseline is a new normal. It’s a mental adjustment that perhaps helps them cope with their changing surroundings – surroundings that have lower species diversity than before.

It’s possible even within the course of a single lifetime to forget how the local ecology was in a previous time. And the gradual movement of baselines may be so smooth that they hardly notice their own transition, and not realise that species they rarely see today used to be common in their youth. This is personal amnesia – a concept that shows how humans’ perception of nature can be inaccurate.

The contemporary Adivasi youth

A group of young Baiga woman in Madhya Pradesh. Photo: Simon Williams/Ekta Parishad

As our hopes to take forward the ‘environmental movement’ depend on the youth of today – which includes the aspects of traditional ecological knowledge that needs to be passed through generations – we need to look at the contemporary baseline, or reality, that they experience.

In the 1880s, the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson asked, “Why should we not also enjoy an original relation to the universe?” His question emphasises the importance of original experiences. As a philosophy, the transcendental movement believed: “Each generation, each individual must take nothing for granted but refashion the world for him- or herself, starting from the premise that personal identity, moral values, and social arrangements are all up for grabs” (source). This isn’t just a wish of the youth over generations but the crux of what we know commonly as the generation gap.

However, as far as our task of keeping up the environmental movement and its aspirations are concerned, it’s important to experience the reality of shifting baselines along with the Adivasi youth. And only when we together realise the immense changes that have come about in our landscapes can we begin to restore them. If we don’t – that is, if we assume the present state of nature to be ‘normal’ – we will succumb to lower goals of restoration that are easily achieved, and which could lead to a false sense of fulfilment.

To counter the shifting baseline syndrome, we need to allow the youth, and ourselves, to dream big when it comes to restoring forests and other landscapes. Today, there is great pride, in Indian official circles at least, when, say, there are reports that India’s forest cover has increased by as little as 0.5%. Today, India’s total forest cover is less than a quarter of its geographical area. Seldom are we reminded that at Independence, India’s forest cover was almost half its land area, and many parts of the country maintained large forested areas until less than a decade ago.

But unfortunately, we have become content with lower figures, and are now reduced to bickering about whether the 24.56% of forest cover we now (claim to) have includes tree plantations or not.

We can’t conserve and reforest vast tracts of our country to the extent possible unless we can know what to take as the normal, the baseline. The present generation needs to tap the memories of their elders – even helping the latter recall what their elders had told them – to arrive at some idea of what landscapes were like in the past. In many parts of India, sacred groves – or at least their remnants – hint at what floristic compositions could be possible in those terrains.

As E.J. Milner-Gulland has suggested, we could fill gaps in our knowledge about past landscapes with the records left behind by early naturalists, biologists and explorers. We may also find our answers by paying heed to the stories and myths of the Adivasi peoples themselves.

Many forest patches, as in central India, conspicuously lack certain plant species (e.g. Litsea sebifera) or host them in very small numbers (e.g. Rauwolfia serpentina). These changes have transpired in the last 20-30 years because people have plundered them without any thought for their regeneration; and with no baseline references, these plunders continue. Even larger and more dramatic changes have happened – where the administration has ‘thoughtfully’ converted grasslands into plantations, or where coastal mangrove forests have been removed to make room for resorts. The Nilgiris and the Palani hills are prime examples of such devastated landscapes, where the Indian gaur can be seen scavenging at the bus-stop.

Understanding the historical aspect of ecosystems is the first step towards restoring them. And in the contemporary context of large-scale tree-plantation drives, the emphasis needs to shift from numbers to appropriate species and their associations, and avoid unsuitable choices.

Wild foods

Fruits of the plant Spondias pinnata. Photo: Primejyothi/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

A discussion on shifting baselines wouldn’t be complete without also discussing the identification and consumption of wild forest foods. Perceptions of wild forest foods vary remarkably between generations of various indigenous communities. While conducting field work for a book, I found four discernible ways in which people understood and consumed certain forest foods. These were a) plants well-known to all and consumed frequently; b) plants known to the elders and occasionally consumed by all; c) plants known to the elders as edible but of which the youth had no experience; and d) plants completely forgotten and of which no one had any experience.

The wild foods of choice also vary a great deal between communities. And if one community had a long list of edible species, that didn’t mean the members of that community consumed all of them. In fact, such lists turned up frequently – and all I could surmise was that the people knew about these foods, but had long since given up on many of them. They lacked the skills to harvest or process them or, more often, simply didn’t have the time to go into the forest and get them. (At least, “time nahin hai” – Hindi for ‘there is no time’ – was a common refrain among the Adivasi youth when asked why they didn’t consume as many wild foods as they used to.)

Other factors that came between the communities and wild foods were those of modernity: fast foods, status symbols and the influx of subsidised foods now available at their doorsteps. The new normal with regard to wild foods in rural communities is now reduced to a small number of seasonal greens, popular fruits like jamun, amla and mango, and occasionally a few tubers.

Going hand in hand with shortened food lists is also an altered appreciation of tastes. Adivasi elders confirm that their children and grandchildren don’t like the yams or forest fruit like the ambodi (Spondias pinnata), and shy away from the slightly bitter Caralluma – which the older Adivasi people regard as worth consuming raw!

The new baseline for taste does away with acridity, sourness and bitterness – the hallmarks of some of the wild foods that most Adivasi communities commonly consume.


Photo: pandu ior/Unsplash

The shifting baseline syndrome, which experts initially used to understand falling standards in various aspects of ecology, can now effectively be used to grasp changes in other wide-ranging issues, from lower honey yield from wild bee colonies to a gradual acceptance of rightwing politics. But within the universe of ecology, the new baselines have normalised losses in diversity. We see this in the smaller array of wild foods consumed today, the lower extent and variety of species in sacred groves, the small areas of community forests that people depend on for their livelihoods and the deteriorating state of our wetlands.

Underlying all of this decline is our acceptance of dwindling biodiversity, and all the interactions between species and the ecological balance that this entails. There has been a spate of research linking the rise of epidemics and biodiversity loss resulting from deforestation.

It’s very convenient for our policy makers and the businesses that profit from  natural resources, and their destruction, to allow lower standards to prevail. This will definitely prevent, or at least mute, the sense of alarm and urgency that needs to be the mood of the hour.

One reason some experts have advanced for the lower standards is that there is no accepted “scientific data” about past situations that we can use as a reliable baseline. As the French marine biologist Daniel Pauly has said about fisheries: “Past information is viewed by many fisheries scientists as anecdotal. There is no knowledge in the past, however secure, however sound, that they are willing to consider because it is not couched in the verbiage that is currently fashionable.”

However, there is a lot of evidence today that traditional ecological knowledge – which is often recorded as anecdotes – is a valid way of perceiving and understanding the environment.

The understanding of leaf-fall in a deciduous forest and Adivasi communities’ response to it. The first fruit ceremonies that monitor the harvest times of plants and animals. Communities’ agricultural calendars. Even the riddles that link supposedly independent natural phenomena. These are all examples of the knowledge we can access if we’re prepared to look past the simplistic label of ‘anecdotes’. In fact, it’s important that we rake up old memories and revive the richness of those times, to realise what it is that we can really aspire to.

From our vantage, at the precipice of an environmental collapse, the high standards of biodiversity and pristine spaces of the past may seem an impossible dream. Yet it is precisely such goals we need to set our sights on – if only to show that the double adjective suffix to our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, is more than just taxonomical vanity.

Madhu Ramnath is a botanist, anthropologist and writer. He is the author of Woodsmoke and Leafcups.

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