Forest governance, forest dwelling people and construction of environmental subjects: case of REDD+ and Khasis in Meghalaya, India
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date31/08/2027
Drawing on data collected from ethnographic fieldwork, participant observation and semi-structured interviews (from December 2017-January 2019), this thesis explores the complex relationship between: Meghalaya’s recent development trajectory, the consequent environmental destruction and marginalisation of its forest communities, and the rise of a conservation assemblage called REDD+ in the East Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya. Set up through the initiative of a local Khasi leader, in an Indian state where forest communities have formal constitutional land and resource rights, within a community regulated by matrilineal customs, and led in partnership with external experts sensitive to the needs of the community and to its deep inequalities, this specific REDD+ intervention seemed to take place on relatively more egalitarian ground than most conservation interventions and offered a deeper analysis into community relations. Drawing on Tania Li’s notion of community forestry assemblage and images of community, this thesis reveals the Khasi Hills REDD+ project to be a precarious assemblage, pulled together by the persistent and ‘heroic’ efforts of a local Khasi leader turned social entrepreneur, his team of (highly gendered) well-educated local expert staff and a network of less-educated local ground staff, to produce and maintain Khasi Hills and Khasi community as ecologically virtuous and to ensure continued external interest in them. It thus shows that the seemingly egalitarian REDD+ assemblage is maintained through (re)-production of power-disparities between experts and local REDD+ workers; through strategic performances of community; as well as through promises of benefit distribution and imposition of restrictions on resource access and threats of punishment for flouting these restrictions. The REDD+ intervention in Khasi Hills, against its own stated intentions, is thus shown to subjectivate people in various, contrasted ways, and to entrench inequalities. More specifically, making use of Feminist Political Ecology and Marx’s work on dispossession, the thesis explores existing land, gender, and clan-based inequalities in Khasi Hills and shows that REDD+, operating within the backdrop of dispossessory effects of Meghalaya’s growth trajectory, ends up benefitting those in already powerful social positions whilst dispossessing the poorest strata, especially women, from their lives and livelihoods. Additionally, drawing on Foucault’s analysis of the exercise of power as government of conduct, the thesis charts the formation of environmental subjects among Khasi villagers, both through processes of empowerment, environmental education, and other forms of usually highly gendered conduct of conduct in the REDD+ intervention, but also in resistance to it, as counter-conducts are played out drawing on shared conservation discourses and repertoires. Overall, in agreement with a growing body of research that has looked at how REDD+ projects affect the lives and livelihoods of forest-dwelling peoples around the world, this research with the Khasi people shows that REDD+ initiatives deepen the gap between men and women and richer and poorer community members, add new sources of conflict amongst them and cause severe material dispossession. This thesis puts forward the failure of REDD+ to take into account the root causes that put many members of the forest communities in marginalised positions and the homogenous treatment of villagers in very disparate socio-economic situations as two major contributing factors for these concerning outcomes.