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OP-ED: In a world of multiple worlds

  • Published at 07:19 am July 4th, 2021
honey-collectors-sundarbans-zakir-1-edited-1531488234439.jpg
Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

Interrupting the one-world world story

Sustainability and development are the buzzwords of our time. The importance that these words carry comes from the narratives that we have only one planet to live on, and we have a one-shot deal. The Earth is considered a single reality, hence, sustainable usage of the treasures is imperative to maintain its habitability. Seemingly there is nothing wrong with this view. However, the socio-political ramifications of this approach warrant us to revisit our ideas about the world.

Conventionally, policy-makers analyze the issue of sustainability or development with the “globalized civilizational model” or what John Law has aptly referred to as the “one-world world” model. These distinguish between the natural world and people’s cultures and aim to modify cultures to ensure the sustainability of the natural world. Unfortunately, these models allow and/or increase globalized capital, extractivist forms of development, and modernist discourses of progress. In response, many protests have sparked around the world. 

For example, in 1994, the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, was against the North American Free Trade Agreement. In West Bengal, India, agricultural producers protested central and state governments’ endeavours to build special economic development zones in 2007 at Nandigram. In August 2006, a people’s protest against the open-pit coal mining project in Phulbari of Bangladesh led to a violent clash with the law enforcers. 

Such protests against programs aimed at altering people’s lifeways towards the global goal of “development” have become a common feature of today’s world. 

On this premise, referring to Zapatista activists, Arturo Escobar suggested we need to aim for a pluriverse: “A world where many worlds fit.” In Pluriversal Politics (2020), Escobar contended, we live and share “a world consisting of many worlds, each with its own ontological and epistemic grounding.” Therefore, the struggle by the marginalized, ie, indigenous peoples, peasant, forest-dependent peoples, poor urban dwellers, and others against the planned changes of the governments and the development agencies -- are basically “ontological struggles.” 

Thus, the struggles bring out the ontological dimensions of the extractivist development models that increase accumulation by dispossession. 

In many instances, states motivated with a developmental ideology enabled the transformation of the hilly forests into managed plantations to ensure optimal use and preservation of the forests. For example, in Bangladesh, many areas of the CHT were declared as “reserved forest” -- barring any use of forest resources by the people. The government has experimented with similar developmental practices in the Sundarbans -- industrialization at the vicinity embarked, hoping that people will refrain from using resources in an “unsustainable” manner.

These initiatives having roots in colonialism gained pace and support under the national governments. Such policies consider everything in the environment only as “resources” to be extracted “sustainably for profit.” However, the idea of the pluriverse contrasts the widespread developmental assumption that there is a single reality with corresponding (multiple) cultures, perspectives, or subjective representations. As Eduardo V de Castro has suggested, we may remain open to (other) realities beyond us which are not restricted to “social construction,” but real “real.”

The idea of the pluriverse proposes: There are multiple “reals.” An example: The degradation of the world’s largest mangrove forest -- the Sundarbans -- is often attributed to its use as “commons” by the people. And to save the Sundarbans from extinction, our development-oriented governments have been trying to limit people’s access to and dependence on the forest and facilitating capital investments and profit-seeking undertakings by absentee investors. 

Thereby, the state and industrialists have sieged control of the region like many other places worldwide. It is expected that industrialization will increase alternative employment opportunities and reduce the extraction of forest resources by the local population. With burgeoning industries in the Sundarbans zones, it has come under the capitalist regime that primarily calculates the material resources of the forest. Thereby, the ontology of the Sundarbans dependent people is to be fitted in the capitalist ontology of resources, extraction, and profit.

Contrarily, a multiversal perspective would consider, for instance, that the Munda -- who live around the Sundarbans -- consider themselves part of the forest. For them, the Sundarbans is a holy place. Besides, Sundarbans-dependent people beyond their religions follow shared rituals and regard Bonbibi as the guardian spirit. The wood collectors, golpata (Nypa palm) harvesters, honey collectors, and fishers try to appease the Bengal Tigers offering roosters and pigeons and call upon Bonbibi expecting protection from dangers. 

Sundarbans-dependent people’s ontology has guided their use of forest resources and ensured a particular pattern of engagement with the Sundarbans -- marking their commitment towards saving the forest. For example, Bawalis (wood collectors) usually left one stem in each clump after cutting and collected wood from a compartment every alternate year. They chose not to cut young and straight trees, but the trees with limited growth. Similarly, Mauals (honey collectors) never set fire to the beehive so that the young bees could live. 

These techno-cultural practices are irrelevant for the absentee capitalist who invests in profit-seeking undertakings around the Sundarbans, supporting the “development”-oriented government. Therefore, for a (sustainable) future, firstly, we may want to move beyond an all-encompassing capitalist ontology. Secondly, accept that our humanity is divided in terms of ontologies. Thus, we may reconsider our analytical tools and think of how we are situated at the intersection of perspectives and experiences. 

Crucially, the idea of multiple worlds is not intended to “correct” our view of the single “real” instead indicate the existence of the alternatives that may interrupt the one-world world story. Therefore, the social movements to defend territories from large-scale extractive/development initiatives are essential contributions to ecological and cultural transitions toward the pluriverse -- that are particularly important if we want to build post-capitalist and sustainable plural models of life. 

Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka. Currently, he works as a research fellow at the International Institute of Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden University, the Netherlands.

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