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12.5.04

Bioregionalism Vs. Ayllus

The disjuncture between political boundaries and the boundaries of environmental systems has caused its share of problems. Consider the near impossibility of creating a workable solution to the Aral Sea crisis because the hydrological system is fragmented among at least six countries. Because of this, there have been numerous inter-jurisdictional institutions created to coordinate the management of border-crossing ecosystems.

Some people have taken this idea even further, creating a radical vision of bioregionalism. Bioregionalism is the philosophy that political boundaries should be redrawn based on ecological boundaries. This would not only reduce* cross-boundary management conflicts, but it would also allow each polity to assume a form most suited to managing the type of ecosystem it resides in.

Like many elements of the radical environmental movement, bioregionalists look to indigenous people for inspiration. In their view, indigenous people practiced a more or less bioregional way of life. But this is an unduly romanticized view of indigenous people. While their was of life was more sustainable than ours, and they were bioregionalists when looked at at a coarse scale simply due to the large number of polities they had, they exhibited plenty of borders drawn on the basis of social factors rather than natural systems. That alone is not a fatal objection to bioregionalism -- after all, they could consciously use the "ecological Indian" as a myth rather than as a historical fact, since its ability to represent their ideals is independent of what indigenous people ever actually did. More interesting is the fact that in some cases -- I venture to say most, at least in areas where the degree of environmental heterogeneity made it feasible -- indigenous people were explicitly anti-bioregional. They deliberately constructed their territories to cut across ecosystem boundaries.

The ayllus (clans) of indigenous Andean people are a classic example. Rather than differentiating into different tribes at different elevations, Andean social groups aimed at controlling a slice of territory spanning all the environments, from the coast through maize and potato farming areas to the arid altiplano and back down into the Amazon rain forest. When a group couldn't directly control access to a variety of environments, they would try to gain access through social connections (a strategy widely employed in Australia).

There are environmentally sound reasons for this effort to make polities cross-cut diverse bioregions (beyond the simple need or desire for a variety of products). It works as a risk-reducing strategy. If the potato crop fails, you still have the maize and the fish**. An ayllu-type system was possible in part because indigenous people rarely had the means to severely degrade their ecosystems and impose costs on their neighbors. They simply didn't need bioregional coordination of management in many cases. Thus they had more freedom to pursue the advantages of regional diversification.

The basic bioregionalist focus on homogeneous or systemically integrated regions overlooks the advantages of this kind of cross-cutting jurisdiction. But it does, as I mentioned, highlight an important issue of integrated ecosystem management, one becoming ever more important as our power over ecosystems (or at least our power to mess them up) increases. A better approach, then, seems to be some form of overlapping jursidictions. A proposal of this type has been made within the adaptive management literature. Studies of small-scale overlapping jurisdictions (e.g. school districts, police districts, etc.) suggests that, while having different (even arbitrarily different) boundaries for different functions may seem untidy and present bureaucratic hassles, such a system is more socially resilient in the long run. It seems no stretch to think that it would be more environmentally resilient as well.

*Only ever reduce, not eliminate. Geographers long ago realized that there is no one set of "true" natural regions.

**This point applies whether the bioregions are defined in terms of homogeneity of conditions or in terms of systemic integration.

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