Eco-elitist exclusion

Local influentials capture natural resources which disenfranchised communities depend on

Syed Mohammad Ali May 10, 2024
The writer is an academic and researcher. He is also the author of Development, Poverty, and Power in Pakistan, available from Routledge


The pursuit of economic growth has enabled staggering accumulation of capital by the haves based on exploitation of labour disempowered via outsourcing, and contractual or informal work. Besides poor people, the natural world has also been ruthlessly abused in the bid to keep increasing profits. Now that unsustainable global production processes have begun to pose irrefutable climate threats, efforts are being made to somehow manage this process in a manner that again is top-down and exclusionary.

Environmentalists agree that local communities can be much more effective custodians of natural resources than bureaucratically devised mechanisms, or those led by supposed eco-entrepreneurs. According to research by the World Resources Institute, lands under indigenous control suffer less deforestation. Yet, the government and corporations continue pushing people off their lands. There is impressive activism against elite or state capture in the name of development or environmental protection. There are several inspiring examples of people’s movements impeding dam projects imperiling major rivers, and of indigenous communities defending depleting forests.

Repeated displacements occur in rural areas, and in major urban centres, where locals continue being pushed away in the name of development. Sidelining locals in the pursuit of growth invariably triggers local resentment. The Indian government’s ruthless desire to exploit indigenous resources remains an underlying cause fueling the Naxalite insurgency. Top-down exploitation of local resources also feeds restiveness in Balochistan. Now, similar tendencies are afoot in the name of conservation. In patronage-based and authoritarian countries like our own, local influentials are readily capturing natural resources which poor and marginalised communities depend on. Consider how local communities in Dir have long been protesting illegal timber smuggling on the one hand, and the centralised and bureaucratic system of forest management on the other. Fisherfolk along the 1200km coastline in Sindh and Balochistan have been resisting overfishing of local waterbodies by contractors who have procured official permits. Even the much-lauded Tree Tsunami seems to have been implemented in a top-down fashion. Those with affluence set up profitable nurseries to sell saplings to the government and plantation drives paid inadequate heed to natural biomes, consequently depleting groundwater levels and lowering the survival rate of planted saplings. Marginalised groups such as landless farmers and pastoralists were also not adequately involved in planting or tending to the planted saplings.

There is also evidence of ‘environmental protection’ and ‘animal welfare’ schemes resulting in aggressive actions against locals. In Central Africa, park rangers apparently on the payroll of environmental groups such as the WWF have evidently used violence in the name of protecting wildlife for eco-tourism. In India, the desire for ‘cow protection’ has translated into lynchings of Muslims or Dalits.

Donors, local environmentalists and human rights activists need to remain vigilant of willful manipulations of seemingly virtuous efforts to undertake “reforestation”, ensure “wildlife habitat preservation” and boost “green energy production” so that they do not become the means for dispossession and violence against already disenfranchised peoples.

Pakistan seems poised to expedite investments in primary sectors such as agriculture and mining. Growth in these sectors via recently articulated policies and mechanisms risks causing severe damage to already stressed natural environments which will invariably undermine the livelihoods of local people instead of benefiting them. Across the border, we are witnessing a seeming merger of state and corporate power via a model of growth dubbed as ‘Modinomics’ which has seen the astronomical rise of unscrupulous businessmen such as Gautam Adani, who is now aggressively moving into the provision of green energy. Surely, there are also similarly problematic people on our side of the border willing to make huge profits in the name of green development, even if it risks exacerbating existing inequalities and their associated disgruntlements.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 10th, 2024.

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