Community Well-Being in Biocultural Landscapes: Are We Living Well?

Community Well-Being in Biocultural Landscapes: Are We Living Well?


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781853398384
Publisher: Practical Action Publishing
Publication date: 07/28/2014
Pages: 168
Product dimensions: 8.25(w) x 9.50(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Bas Verschuuren is a scientist and facilitator with EarthCollective and serves as Co-chair with IUCN's Specialist Group on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas. Bas has over 10 years of international experience integrating cultural and spiritual values in conservation management and policy.

Suneetha M. Subramanian is at the UN University-Institute of Advanced Studies, Japan.

Wim Hiemstra is with ETC-COMPAS Network, The Netherlands.

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Reflections on well-being: from GDP to local communities and their landscapes

Bas Verschuuren, Wim Hiemstra and Suneetha M. Subramanian

This chapter gives a brief introduction to the expanding practices of assessing well-being. A seed-blessing ceremony of indigenous Quechua communities in southern Peru is described as an example of communities searching for well-being and as an example of a different paradigm or worldview. Subsequently, different measures of developmental progress are presented as well as the quest for a broader understanding of well-being in the context of current crises. Survey-based and participatory approaches for assessing well-being are discussed and the conclusion of the chapter argues for assessment of community well-being at landscape level.

Keywords: community well-being, biocultural landscapes, natural resource conservation, endogenous development, well-being assessment, quality of life

The concept of human well-being represents an overall feeling of welfare. It is intuitively multidimensional in nature, as welfare pertains to being able to lead a good life that requires various physical, emotional and cognitive needs to be met. However, since the early 20th century – ever since Simon Kuznets developed a simple, singular metric to capture growth of a country through its gross domestic product (GDP) – this has been used as the primary measure of production. Over a long period of time the GDP has been taken as an indicator for human 'well-being'. Although the GDP has never been the only measure of human well-being, it has often been credited with disproportionate value while the search for complementary measures was well under way. Several researchers have highlighted the conceptual problems associated with the GDP and the need for more diversified measures to measure progress (Sen, 2009; Stiglitz, 2006; Stiglitz et al., 2009), but it continues to remain the dominant indicator of progress. Increasingly, however, there is a realization in policy circles that the overemphasis on increasing production goals – and consequent consumption patterns – result in higher propensities to overexploit and waste resources, often with irreversible consequences (UN, 2012). Some countries, such as Bhutan, have decided that they will base their national welfare assessments on more comprehensive indicators suited to their socio-cultural-economic contexts. Others, including the United Kingdom and France, are exploring the feasibility of adopting such measures (Stiglitz et al., 2009). The OECD has worked out a list of 11 indicators under the Better Life Index that aims to assess how countries are performing in balancing between social, produced knowledge and human resources (OECD, 2013).

While these indices attempt to capture well-being at the state level, their implications at the level of local communities need further enquiry. This is because the way communities function and perceive well-being is not exactly aligned to the aggregative approaches used in policy methods. Usually, given that the welfare of a group is of primary concern at this level, individual preferences of resource use, benefits capture and distribution, and relationship building are subsumed within community priorities. Hence, an approach to welfare measurement by determining individual responses and aggregating these might not explain the peculiar context of community well-being. Figure 1.1 is a graphical representation of the many constituents of well-being and happiness in relation to GDP and is also useful for visualizing other means of measuring well-being. As many indigenous and local communities have declared, the concept of shared resources, interdependencies between social and natural systems and reciprocal relationships therein are central tenets to their ways of living. This then implies that policy frameworks would need to be slightly reinterpreted to capture changes to welfare at the community level. In this book we attempt to explore and highlight the various dimensions – as reflected through various lived experiences of communities – that relate to community well-being, and how this may best be captured for planning and assessment purposes at various levels of decision making. The following case description from Peru aims to clarify how rural communities, in this case faced with climate change, are challenged to maintain their understanding of well-being.

A seed-blessing ceremony in Peru

Since time immemorial, at the end of the harvest season in May each year, the rural village Queromarca – in the Peruvian highlands near the ancient city of Cuzco – hosts a colourful seed-blessing ceremony. From communities near and far, families come to thank Father Sun and Mother Earth. They come to put their own hearts and minds at peace, and to share knowledge, concerns and possible future avenues for improving their community's well-being. Since 2005, the communities have revitalized this ancient ceremony, also known as Watunakuy: the Quechua word for 'visit, social bonding and joint learning'. They remember that their seeds have sustained them over the centuries, and they join forces to find responses to emerging challenges in their lives, such as climate change and biodiversity loss. According to these communities, the best response to these challenges is hidden within the diversity of their traditional seeds and their role in maintaining bioculturally diverse landscapes. The diversity of local seeds has proven to be a valuable resource in developing resilience through diversifying their local agricultural systems. The traditional knowledge encapsulated in the communities' cultural memory and the exchange of this knowledge between communities enables innovative local solutions that suit their biocultural landscapes. A local NGO, CEPROSI, supports the communities' efforts to revitalize traditional knowledge, indigenous worldviews, and agro-biodiversity for a sustainable future. The approach applied by CEPROSI in partnership with universities is called 'endogenous development', which means development controlled by local actors, based mainly – though not exclusively – on local strategies, knowledge, institutions and resources. It involves a continuous process of adaption and innovation, starting from the local community, to enhance its capacity to solve its own problems (COMPAS, 2007).

At the Watunakuy of May 2011, spiritual leaders from various backgrounds lead the ceremony. Some 500 people join from numerous local communities in the Andean highlands, Cuzco town, the Amazonian lowlands, Chile, Argentina, and Ecuador. Many hours are filled with seed blessing, a spiritual and social activity that is accompanied with dance and music by schoolchildren. While singing, praying, discussing, eating coca leaves and drinking maize beer, the farmers read the signs from the sacred mountains during the night. These rituals of spiritual and social practice are vital for the internalization of the importance of seed diversity in community well-being and they are part of the cultural rules and norms regarding seed sharing and diversification. On the second day towards the end of the ceremony, families share the blessed seeds with each other. In this way the traditional varieties of maize, beans, and local tuber crops 'travel' and multiply in other soils. This may result in new traditional varieties, which in turn may offer solutions to present-day challenges such as decreased rainfall and altered growing seasons.

In many Andean worldviews, well-being resides in daily life or Pachankiri, as a confluence of three spheres of life: spiritual life – all the invisible forces proceeding from the outer cosmos; social life – the society of all living beings that share this space and time in order to make reproduction possible; and material life – all the forces, as a whole, that make life on Earth possible (CEPROSI, 2011).

Community well-being in a globalizing environment

Many communities' lifestyles and belief systems have co-evolved dealing with changes in their environments (Maffi and Woodley, 2008) and often this has resulted in knowledge systems that support highly resilient landscapes of biological and cultural diversity (Berkes and Turner, 2006). Mann (2005) expresses the viewpoint that ancient Native American Indian and Bolivian civilizations had urban centres, experienced rivalry, and practised warfare. In addition, there is compelling documentation that indigenous cultures were, in some cases, polluting the environment beyond its natural capacity; for some good examples see Ross et al. (2011). This goes to emphasize the fact that traditional cultures should not be romanticized as being harmonious. But there is a deeper phenomenon to be observed. Beyond the warnings against romanticization lies the awakening of indigenous anthropologies and sociologies that distinguish themselves from the conceptual and epistemological roots of the Western forebears of these fields of scientific study. Overing and Passes (2000) explain this:

such notions as society, culture, community and the individual, also incorporated modern Western distinctions of judgement and worth into the very analytic constructs through which they then gazed at, assessed and recorded all other types of socialities. As a result the nature of indigenous sociality in Amazonia has always been resistant, rebellious even, to most anthropological categorisation.

These considerations will also balance the views of the way people lived during the Abya Yala (as the American continent was known before the arrival of Columbus) as presented by Choquehuanca in the Foreword of this book. They are also important in the context of assessing community well-being using the approach explained in this book. The considerations of Overing and Passes (2000) show us that an endogenous approach to well-being measurement could be a good fit to overcome the stresses they present. But these authors also warn against making assumptions about how a worldview should be categorized and analysed which is something we do when developing the analytical framework that we present in this book.

As naive as it would be to romanticize indigenous cultures, neither can we romanticize the modern systems that drive our global economy in pursuit of wealth and well-being. Take, for example, the large-scale industrial, agricultural and infrastructure-driven development schemes that have fed an increasing number of people on our planet. These systems have also degraded up to an estimated 60 per cent of the world's wetland ecosystems on which many people depend (MEA, 2005). Resilient biocultural landscapes have been affected by global economic developments in an unprecedented manner. Are communities like Queromarca in Peru able to resist such global pressures and will their biocultural systems be strong enough for them to be part of the realization of a brighter future?

Indigenous and local communities have found answers to demands, and the competing claims exercised on the landscapes they depend on, in their traditional knowledge and lifestyles. Looking at the traditional capacities already present in the community, a process of endogenous development, also called 'development from within', takes those capacities as a starting point and enables the community to collectively envision where they need to be going. How do communities know that they are living well in the face of all the challenges? How can policymakers and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) enable the community development process to flourish within the ecological limits of their landscape?

This book aims to understand the multiple dimensions involved in capturing community well-being through the examination of different (yet similar) approaches of institutions working with communities within a socio-ecological landscape context. Such an approach considers people and three spheres of well-being: the material, social, and spiritual. Taking the social and spiritual dimensions into account enables development professionals as well as policymakers to include the deeper underlying values that people see as significant to their lives. Community members are often already consciously or unconsciously working along these dimensions in their daily lives and evidence presented in this book shows that when they are asked to categorize the self-identified well-being indicators, the material, social, and spiritual categories offer a useful framework. Before the case study descriptions and discussion of the framework, we identify below some prominent global measures used to indicate development and their relevance to the community context.

A brief history of measuring welfare through economics

Measuring the overall welfare of countries has been an active pursuit of policymakers since the early 20th century. The approach taken during this period contrasts with the more normative approaches suggested by earlier philosophers such as Aristotle. These philosophers viewed welfare to be entrenched in 'good living' within a 'virtuous society', a noble pursuit as they themselves were selected to establish rational or scientific truth by the grace of the politicians of the time. The focus during the industrial era and the age of globalization is on national economic growth as the indicator for measurement of progress, with a uniform scale for all types of economies (Stiglitz, 2006).

The gross domestic product (GDP) was developed by Simon Kuznets in 1934 as a tool to measure growth of income (Perman et al., 2003), and became the standard measure for welfare by proxy because of its simplicity as a single indicator that is easily applicable in any national context. Although acknowledged by economists (including Kuznets himself) as an improper measure for welfare, it continues to be widely applied. Being inherently linked to the magnitude and pricing of output, the measure encourages a cycle of increased production that is aggressively marketed through innovative approaches to foster increased consumption and waste. The latter, Kuznets argued, would be taken care of as economies reach the peak of their growth (reflected in the GDP). This theory is also known as the Kuznets curve, which shows a similar pattern for many countries when GDP is plotted against environmental pollution (Perman et al., 2003). Although it is generally accepted that countries with high GDPs have better environmental control measures in place than countries with a low GDP, we now also know that looking after environmental health is not a simple function of economic growth.

Using economic indicators to measure human well-being is the outcome of a series of historic and philosophical developments as well as more recent economic and capitalist market reforms. The three principles for private property and production – 1) to leave enough for others; 2) not to spoil resources; and 3) to mix resources with labour – were introduced by John Locke in 1690. These principles were based on natural rights and very influential on the development of the economy and law as well as civil and political government of most nation states, especially in the West. When the monetary system was introduced these principles became more difficult to uphold and verify throughout the monetary value chain causing inequity and resource depletion. Evidently, inequities and resource depletion were seen even before the monetary system was introduced, but with the spread of the monetary economy these started occurring at an unprecedented scale. Certainly these inequities and ever expanding resource capture were tied to the age of industrialization and a focus on technological efficiency coupled with the monetary market system, both of which were arguably seen as a solution to develop the world and bring welfare to all its inhabitants, whereas others focused on profit. Obviously these developments also coincide with the time of rapid environmental and ecological deterioration that the MEA highlighted (MEA, 2005) as a clear signal that people, planet and profit were not in balance.


Excerpted from "Community Well-being in Biocultural Landscapes"
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Copyright © 2014 ETC-COMPAS and United Nations University, Institute for Advanced Sciences.
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Table of Contents


1) Reflections on Well-Being: From GDP to Local Communities and Their Landscapes

2) Exploring a New Approach to Well-Being Assessment

3) Community Well-Being in Bolivia: an Indigenous Perspective

4) Community Well-Being in Sri Lanka: a Buddhist Perspective

5) Community Well-Being in Ghana: a Traditional Perspective

6) Community Well-Being and Biodiversity Conservation: Examples From the Equator Initiative

7) An Analysis of Community Well-Being in Biocultural Landscapes: Are We Living Well?

Annex 1 Poverty Reduction Outcomes in Community-Led Natural Resources Management Programmes

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