Fieldwork begins!: The Ramaj Watershed

Hello everybody,

After my trying but inevitable baptism into Indian bureaucracy and daily business, I have finally begun to feel a rhythm develop to my work life at Seva Mandir, in Udaipur Rajasthan. The most stimulating and fun part has been (of course) the beginning of fieldwork for my project on common property management among rural communities.

Because this is my first posting, I’ll provide a brief, painless introduction to 1) me and my current professional interests, 2) the Udaipur District of Rajasthan State, India, 3) Seva Mandir, my host NGO, and 4) my project on common property resources. From there, the rest of this post will be a photo essay, so skip below if you prefer, and in any case enjoy a glimpse of rural southern Rajasthan!

So:

1) About me:I have a BA in ecology from Dartmouth College, 2006, and an MA in anthropology from Northern Arizona University, 2010. Between degrees I split two years of time among ecology fieldwork in Louisiana, Yellowstone National Park, and Canyon de Chelly (Navajo Nation), among other places; an internship in Ecuadorian public policy with Grupo FARO, and teaching at a charter school in Greater Boston. With three years of experience living, studying, and working in Latin America and the Caribbean since my undergraduate days, I identify my geographic areas of interest as the Americas, yet the similarities and contrasts of various issues India have been invaluable in refreshing. I am broadly interested in human ecology, sustainable development, land-use policy, and any other area where people, the natural/social/built environment, and social justice intersect or collide.

2) Rajasthan is located in western North India. The environment is semi-arid to arid, including the Great Thar Desert, where camels roam. Udaipur itself is relatively green, especially now, following a heavy monsoon season. Udaipur is known as the Lake City because of the numerous bodies of water (some of which dry up in summer). Udaipur’s “Old City” is a prime tourist destination because of the beautiful architecture dating from the time that Rajasthan was ruled as a series of Rajput kingdoms. The population of large parts of Rajasthan speaks dialects of the Rajasthani language, and a significant proportion of Udaipur and surrounding districts are populated by tribal groups whose culture varies significantly from the larger surrounding society.

3) Seva Mandir: is a large (300+ employees) NGO that works with the rural populations of Udaipur and nearby Rajasmand District. I am working in the Natural Resource Development area of Seva Mandir through the 10-month William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India of the American India Foundation

4) Common Property Resources (CPRs): are a blanket term to describe the areas that rural peoples use and manage as a collective. CPRs include pasture lands, forests, bodies of water, bodies of water, etc. As population growth and poverty persists in India’s rural areas, some populations experience encroachment or squatting, as well as degradation and overuse, on CPRs. For those interested in policy and governance, the institution of panchayats, or village councils, as responsible parties for the integrity of natural resources is a fascinating case. For economists, the tragedy of the commons problem and cooperation are also an interesting part of the analysis. Human rights and law factor into CPRs, as India’s parliament passed the Forest Rights Act of 2005 (actually passed in 2006 despite the name). This act attempts to correct abuses of colonial era law that provided rural and tribal populations no tenure or usufruct rights on the land that they inhabited, which government officials, multinational corporations, and large landowners variously abused throughout India’s history.

A note on ethics and my postings on this blog: Contention always exists as to how one ought to portray the materially poor and marginalized. The people with whom we are documenting CPRs in this pilot study have very few material means even in the basics of life such as clean water and adequate food to meet caloric minima. I attempt to treat them with the fairness and consideration that they demonstrated toward us as researchers, as well as the dignity that they demonstrate in our presence. I cannot claim to “give voice” to our informants and partners, but these photos show some of the reality of those perhaps 800 million people who are not within the privileged class of the “New India” of the subcontinent’s cosmopolitan cities. I hope that it provides a glimpse of my work for people who are very far from here and perhaps even contributes to a larger, necessary conversation on development.

From Fieldwork in Ramaj-Highlights

” “A view from above Udaipur. You can see some of the famous palaces and temples, along with the madness of urban expansion in a fourth-tier Indian city”

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From Fieldwork in Ramaj-Highlights

” “We’ve made it to the village crossroads. The people under this tree inform us of the whereabouts of our contact person and informants.” ” />

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From Fieldwork in Ramaj-Highlights

” “Luckily, the chai stand is right in front of the first informant’s land. One can also purchase cookies, bidis, and these colorful packets of smokeless tobacco” />

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From Fieldwork in Ramaj-Highlights

” alt=”My colleague Mohsin awaits chai and strengthens rapport with our contacts. This is a lengthy but necessary part of development work” />

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From Fieldwork in Ramaj-Highlights

” alt=”We begin to survey encroached lands. The brothers who own these areas are extremely open, partially because we are from Seva Mandir, and partially because they have learned not to fear forest department officials. They hope to gain formal title to the land, although it seems unlikely. The rock walls that divide privately used lands attest to the painstaking, intricate work of local people, as well as the poor, rocky quaility of the soil.” ” />

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From Fieldwork in Ramaj-Highlights

” alt=”The home of our first informant. As many as 18 family members rest their heads here every night.” />

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From Fieldwork in Ramaj-Highlights

” alt=”Local and hybrid varieties of corn form the staple food here. Roasting over a small fire is the typical way to cook lunch” />

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From Fieldwork in Ramaj-Highlights

” alt=”Fair warning: Those who are not botanists might wish to skip ahead at this point!) The household vegetables of Ramaj Watershed area villagers. Almost all are varieties of squash.” />

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From Fieldwork in Ramaj-Highlights

” alt=”Ecuadorians out there: ¿esta calabacita se parece al castellano, no?” />

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From Fieldwork in Ramaj-Highlights

” alt=”” />

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From Fieldwork in Ramaj-Highlights

” alt=”Bhindi: Indians love okra! All of these vegetables tolerate the harsh dryness and rocky soils of the area.” />

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From Fieldwork in Ramaj-Highlights

” alt=”” />

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From Fieldwork in Ramaj-Highlights

” alt=”Zea mays, maize, Corn, the staff of life from Mexico’s Central Valley. Villagers only sow corn and wheat, their staples, in the small areas in the river flood plains. The silt and moisture make agriculture possible. The rocky hills are only for grazing livestock.” />

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From Fieldwork in Ramaj-Highlights

” alt=”My first encounter with water buffalo in the field. They’re skittish and tend to run away! Some consider their milk inferior to that of cows and goats. I don’t yet have a hypothesis as to why villagers here own cattle as well as buffalo. Goats graze shrubs and bushes, while cattle graze low grasses, explaining a niche preference. I need to learn about these beasts to complete my understanding of the agricultural strategy.” />

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From Fieldwork in Ramaj-Highlights

” alt=”This woman carries two jars of water to the household. The simple ecological reality here is that villagers can only establish a household where they can dig a well deep enough to serve them year round. The distance to carry water becomes prohibitive at some point.” />

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From Fieldwork in Ramaj-Highlights

” alt=”A beautiful but hungry locust. The only major pest on staple crops, as far as I understand.” />

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From Fieldwork in Ramaj-Highlights

” alt=”Mohsin (center) with our local contact (left) and village informant (right). The study is a survey based on local knowledge. We would do much more walking without the kind help of the local population. One really feels the trust between people and Seva Mandir. In many other contexts, people would be reluctant to talk, much less take long walks to help us with data.” />

<img src=”

From Fieldwork in Ramaj-Highlights

” alt=”This drainage contains a cave that villagers hold to be sacred. One told us that they sacrifice a goat, I believe to ensure the quality of the harvest. The waters here are carrying silt and moisture for the nearby corn. Common lands also form part of the landscape features that local peoples consider sacred and connected to their identities.” />

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From Fieldwork in Ramaj-Highlights

” alt=”This well is at least 40 years old, according to the woman eating roasted corn with the children here. It has an eerie, beautiful aesthetic. For me it’s a sign of the ingenuity and durability of indigenous rural lives, which we can contrast with the painstaking difficulty and scarcity so often involved in the same.” ” />

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From Fieldwork in Ramaj-Highlights

” alt=”Flip-flops have replaced the hammer as the sickle’s natural companion. Somehow plastic footwear, probably from a Chinese factory, alongside a ‘primitive’ agricultural tool seems appropriate for the incomplete modernity of our time and the contradictions and poverty that it creates.” />

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From Fieldwork in Ramaj-Highlights

” alt=”Human and landscape: This informant slipped into my 360 degree landscape photos (the real purpose of my camera work). He has been on the land for 40 years. He is poor by any measure, and villagers like him only settled this land because to stay on the resources that they inherited was a death sentence by starvation. How can we ethically deal with these people as ‘encroachers’ or ‘illegal squatters’ in our study and advocacy? We have little power to control the dominant political economy that put people with so little in a position to live on land to which they have no legal claim. ” />

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