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October 14, 2015 5:52 AM   Subscribe

In 1992-1994 and 2005-2009, Yuka Makino studied the lopping practices in the oak forests of Garwhal, Himalaya. Her PhD dissertation (PDF) contains a fascinating prologue describing the practical and ethical issues for conducting ethnographic research in an area where distrust of outsiders runs high and where gender and caste norms are strictly enforced. One afternoon, several children came and were chatting with us when a 10-year-old girl joined us. Though she still took part in the conversation in a loud voice, she stood at the edge of the veranda, far away from the door. (...) I realized that she was a Scheduled Caste girl and if she had stood at the doorway her shadow would have fallen into the room and may have touched my assistant’s plate of food, contaminating or polluting it. I let her stand there so that neither she nor my assistant would feel uncomfortable.

While the FPP focuses on the prologue, the rest of her dissertation is worth reading too. Another excerpt: Intriguingly, girls going to school has also influenced the age in which they get married. Based upon the interviews, women who are currently over 50 were married between the ages of 10 and 16. Women below the age of 50 tended to get married between 15 and 19. However, in 2006, there were two women who had both been educated up to high school level who were unmarried at the age of 21. Yet, as the shift in attitudes is occurring, there is also an internal dilemma within the families because sending the girls to school may make it difficult for them to get married. As one man commented, “The educated girls have a hard time getting married because then they need to give more dowry. The uneducated girls can get married easily. The girls who are educated also have a hard time getting married because they do not know how to do field work and housework as well as the girls who have not gone to school. The girls who go to school cannot climb trees and are not good at agricultural work. They are also not strong enough to carry the loads.

A Japanese citizen, Yuko Makino was raised in India, grew up in Terhi Garwhal and speaks fluent Hindi and Nepali, which helped her to establish trust with the local populations. She is now a specialist in Disaster Risk Management for the World Bank.
posted by elgilito (7 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
This looks fucking amazing!
posted by you must supply a verb at 7:31 AM on October 14, 2015

Yeah, this is really cool. It puts me in mind of this ChuraChura comment on the emotional labour involved in fieldwork.
posted by Ned G at 8:30 AM on October 14, 2015

Ugh. I don't blame the researcher, but goddamn, the caste system is one of the most evil inventions of the human race.
posted by tavella at 11:19 AM on October 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

Just finished reading the prologue - totally fascinating on so many different levels. Thank you for posting!
posted by insectosaurus at 1:56 PM on October 14, 2015

Ms. Makino’s thesis began with the observation that “villagers were lopping or cutting the [oak tree] branches, causing the trees to gain their peculiar appearance, and that the villagers would eventually destroy the forest.” She wanted to know “Why would the villagers destroy something that their entire livelihood relies upon? Are they truly destroying the forest, or is that simply an outsiders’ opinion?”

From her conclusion:
The changes in the forest stand were initiated indirectly with the opening of the road in 1978 between the village and nearby towns. The increased access to markets brought about a gradual change in agricultural production from subsistence agriculture to cash crops i.e. vegetables. These new agricultural practices increased the demand for compost and in turn, intensified the collection of oak foliage. The intensified lopping of trees eventually led to a perceived decline in oak foliage.

All the villagers interviewed stated that they began consciously thinking about changing agriculture as their main source of livelihood when they noticed that the amount of oak foliage was decreasing in the forest. They felt they could no longer rely entirely on the forest to support their agriculture. In order to reduce their reliance on agriculture as their main source of livelihood, the villagers’ strategy was to educate their children in preparation for future employment. This new focus on education is reflected in the literacy rates where in 2001, female literacy rate increased from zero to 19%, and male literacy increased from 30% to 71%.


Comparison of the protected and lopped forest stands surrounding Beli village provides compelling evidence that the oaks are maintaining themselves in the forest overstory and in the ground cover. The findings indicate that the soil and forest floor conditions in the lopped forest were not worse than those in the protected forest. The soil in the lopped forest had relatively deeper A horizon, neutral pH, deeper rooting, and fewer coarse fragments. Moreover, the Oe horizon of the lopped forest was deeper and had heavier air-dry weight than the protected forest. [...] Therefore, the concern about losing oak and its replacement by pine due to extensive lopping of oak branches by the villagers appears to be overstated.
In short: the villagers had sound economic reasons to lop more tree branches, they noticed the change and realized that it could become a problem, and they are compensating for it by reducing their dependence on the forest (which also allows the trees to grow more anyway).
posted by Rangi at 3:58 PM on October 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's hard enough to be an ethnographer OR an ecologist -- how talented and accomplished this researcher is to be both! It's got to be so tough to perform the role you need to perform to be a good ethnographer, including the humility she mentions.

Casteism is super alive and continuing in India (I have found the Dalit History Month timeline very useful in learning about the history of casteism and anti-casteism organizing). I'm cautiously heartened and intrigued by this note in Dr. Makino's dissertation:
Interestingly, the Scheduled Caste people whose main occupation are ironsmiths, have gotten richer faster than others in the village due to their marketable skills. Their increase in wealth has brought about subtle changes in their position in the village society. In 1993, Rajputs did not use the tap close to the Scheduled Caste households due to the religious principle of contamination by the lower caste. Young Scheduled caste children were taught not to stand in doorways so that they would not cast a shadow into the room where higher caste people are eating and mistakenly contaminate their food. However, in 2006, not only did the Scheduled Caste family own a ration shop which sold food; they also offered tea when I visited their home. When I visited the Scheduled Caste families, they openly offered tea and snacks to me, something which never occurred in 1993. My assistant, who was a Bandhari jhat of the Rajput caste also drank tea and ate biscuits that were offered without hesitation. A Rajput man also told me that sheep, which were considered unclean and were previously only owned by the Scheduled Caste, were now being owned by Rajputs because sheep wool and selling mutton are good sources of instant cash income.
posted by brainwane at 6:44 AM on October 15, 2015

I noticed that section. It's amazing what money can do.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 11:55 AM on October 16, 2015

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