No.004 Asia and the Pacific: sharing wisdom throughout the region, in the pursuit of a sustainable society
Dr. Puja Sawhney
Researcher, Long-term Perspective and Policy Integration Project,
Dr. Sawhney gained her PhD in Natural Sciences (Geography) from the Centre for Development Research (ZEF) at Bonn University, Germany. She also has two MAs, one in Environment and Development from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, and one in Geography from the Delhi School of Economics, Delhi University, India.
Prior to joining IGES in 2004, she worked as International Science Project Coordinator at the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global environmental change (IHDP)
--- It appears that your career has always been focussed on environmental research. What was it about this kind of work that originally piqued your interest?
Since I was a child I was really interested in talking about wildlife and forests. I didn't get many opportunities to travel as a child, but when I was at high school I travelled a lot. I went to a couple of bird sanctuaries within India and that really got me going. I was very interested and I thought this may be something interesting to study and to work in. One thing led to another and happily I found myself working on issues related to forestry conservation and indigenous knowledge. That's how I got started and I hope I can continue.
--- Was there any particular reason that prompted you to come and work in Japan?
One of the things that attracted me to the job in Japan was, because I've always lived in India, and have lived for so many years in Europe, I didn't have much knowledge about this part of the world. Japan is so far away you don't really consciously think about it. It's somewhere there in your mind, but you don't really meet too many Japanese people and you don't read too many things about Japan. I was curious about how Japan really is as a country - that was the reason I came here.
--- Have you found any cultural differences between India, Europe and Japan?
Surprisingly, England didn't seem that different from India. Since we grow up speaking English in India, Britain never really struck me as being a foreign country.
Germany was a bit different because of the language. That was really the first time that I had been in a country where I didn't speak the language. It's different if you go as a tourist and you are there for a couple of days or weeks - you can somehow get by - but when you are living in a country where you don't really know the language it's a bit of a struggle. It's an interesting experience to live in a country where you don't really know the language - you find alternative ways to communicate.
Japan is really different from what I thought it was going to be like. I imagined that because it's in Asia, even though it's far away, there must still be some commonalities with India. For example, in Europe, despite all the differences, there are still a few similarities - I expected the same with Japan. But it's so completely different from what I expected it to be. For instance, I expected religion to be more visible - I thought that would be one similarity that the whole of Asia shared. For example, when you go to Thailand and countries like that, the local religion is always so obvious. Even in India it's an everyday thing. But in Japan that's not how I've found it at all. On the other hand, Japan is still very traditional - the society is an odd mixture between the West and the East. Some things are very traditional, like family relationships and marriage, but on the whole the outlook of the Japanese people is more western than I had expected.
---- What kind of research projects have you been involved in at IGES?
The indigenous knowledge project as part of RISPO Sawhney:
In LTP, we had a three-year project called RISPO1 (Research on Innovative and Strategic Policy Options/2002-2005) and it had many sub-projects under it. Other researchers looked at transport, renewable energy and waste management, but I looked at indigenous knowledge.
The idea was to collect good practices; the day-to-day sustainable customs of the indigenous people -techniques for sustainable agriculture or water harvesting, for example. Then I examined these good practices to see if some kind of policy recommendations could be made based on them. The study focussed on five different countries - Viet Nam, Thailand, China, Japan and Bangladesh. We looked at Thai forestry practices and traditional Bangladeshi agricultural methods. In one Chinese village a kind of sustainable aqua-culture is practiced. They grow mulberry trees on the sides of ponds and the larvae of the silkworms are used as fish feed - that's a sustainable system. Some agricultural practices, especially in Bangladesh, are very useful for countries like India, Nepal and Thailand. For example, Bangladeshis are currently growing some rice varieties which are resistant to salinity. This provides us with a good example of the saline tolerant plant varieties which could be planted in other Asian countries. So it wasn't just research regarding indigenous people but also local practices and traditions that contribute to sustainable society.
Asia and the Pacific
In RISPO2, we aim to identify policy options which will help mitigate negative environmental impacts and enhance the positive effects of economic integration and trade liberalisation in Asia. We have 6 specific case-study countries but the region has 13 countries - Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam (the ten members of ASEAN) as well as China, Japan and the Republic of Korea. We are taking both a regional and a case-study approach.
Conducting research in individual countries naturally only provides country-specific information. However, conducting a regional study provides us with a more holistic overview. Besides providing information regarding the different countries, it also enables one to draw comparisons between particular countries and to learn lessons from the various experiences there. The technologies, practices and policies present in one country may be useful and applicable to other countries in the region.
Up to now, very little research has been done in the Pacific Region. So, it will be nice to do individual country studies there, and also to conduct research at a regional level with a view to comparing Asia and the Pacific. There are some projects going on in the Pacific, but not too many, so we need to build up our knowledge base and then try to do a study that looks at both regions. Although we think of Asia as one geographical entity, the kind of work we are doing there tends to be in a specific locality and we don't look at the region as a whole. One unique feature of IGES is that it's located in Japan and its focus is supposed to be on the Asia-Pacific Region. In spite of this, we tend to be limited in our focus and I think we need to expand our scope to include the whole region.
Based on research conducted for the project on economic integration and trade liberalisation, (similar to the examples of NAFTA and the EU,) I feel that there are more similarities among the countries of Europe than there are among those of Asia. Here, countries range from China to Japan to India, all of which are at different stages of development. It's not easy right now to even think of possible economic integration taking place, let alone political union.
the IGES/APFED exhibit booth at the Asia-Europe Environment
Forum "1/3 of Our Planet"
(Nov. 2005, Jakarta, Indonesia)
One of the specific reasons I came to IGES
was to learn more about this region. IGES has provided me
with an opportunity to work throughout Asia and the Pacific
and to gain more knowledge about it through many research
projects and that's really a big plus for me. At the time
of doing my PhD, it was more like academic research and I
had the chance to make some 'bottom-up' policy recommendations.
At IGES, however, I have had opportunities to make recommendations
with a top-down approach. We talk to the high-level policy
makers, including ministers, which I think is a big advantage.
When I leave IGES it will have given me a good idea of what
kind of research should be involved in policy work - a mixture
of both bottom-up and top-down. You need to do academic research
to come up with good policy recommendations. It makes you
realise its not easy to a) come up with recommendations and
b) implement them. Sometimes you read good reports which have
good recommendations, but in practice they are not really
feasible. I used to think, 'the politicians don't do anything,'
but you realise when you work with them, that it's a difficult
India - my home country
I would love to go back and work
at home but I feel the world is such a huge place. Home is
always an option, but you don't necessarily always have the
opportunity to live and work abroad. That's one of the reasons
that I'm here and not there!
(Nov. 2005, Bogor,
However, after a long period abroad I've become
more curious about my own country. When I lived there I didn't
think much about it, but now I have a curiosity about it like
everyone else seems to. I would also like to go and do some
more work in the field, working on topics related to forestry,
rural livelihoods, community based resource management and
protected area management, among others. I'm also interested
in getting involved in some more hands-on things and meeting
more local people to find out what they think. Yes, I would
love to do something in India in future.
The world's a big place and there's a lot to see and do -
IGES is like a stepping stone for me. I really think it's
going to help me in the future.