Interview with Ben Campbell
Location: United Kingdom; Nepal
“Remoteness is more than geographical”.
Ben Campbell is a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology, Durham University (UK), whose research and collaborations have focused on sustainable energy solutions for remote mountain villages in Nepal. But his interest in sustainability began well before he entered academia, when he became aware of the erosion and desertification that was happening in his backyard, in the East Anglia region of England. Today he finds that the effort to increase local resiliency in these Nepalese villages may be a model for Britons, as well.
Ben Campbell traces his interest in sustainability back more than 35 years, to his awareness of a phenomenon called the Fen Blow. When the wind gusts across the Fens of East Anglia, loose soil can become airborne, leading to erosion and desertification. After getting his BA in anthropology, Campbell became interested in how alternate forms of agriculture could reduce the potential for these dust storms. To learn about organic farming, no-till methods, and permaculture (which emphasises a systems approach, and foregrounds perennial plants), Campbell visited farms in the UK and traveled to the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, US. He began asking himself, “What are the anthropological dimensions to sustainability?”
His doctoral research in Nepal led him to think about the social aspects of sustainability, specifically, what are the social relations and local circumstances that make sustainable practices possible? He found that, rather than relying on bureaucratic or governmental institutions to solve problems, people in decentralised societies make use of other systems in organising themselves. For example, in the villages he studied in Nepal, religion is part of how pasturage and the movement of nomadic groups are managed. Rather than getting a permit or paying a tax, those who wish to pass through a territory must meet with village religious leaders and provide a goat to the local god. The meat is then distributed among the villagers, and territorial boundaries are recognised and maintained.
In a presentation made at a Smart Villages webinar, Campbell remarked that “remoteness is more than geographical.” Nowadays, he says, “you can get to these villages in five hours or so, if the roads are not blocked by landslides,” but there are other kinds of distance at work. The mountainous villages Campbell studied are home to indigenous Tamang people, who retain their Buddhism, their language, and their foodways, rather than assimilating into the dominant Nepalese culture. For this, they may be perceived as “suspect citizens,” and remote, even though Kathmandu is a mere few hours away.
This social remoteness affects how indigenous communities relate to state authorities, and the kind of support they receive. Campbell explains that indigenous groups had hoped for more resources to be devoted to their region, and for a decentralised constitution. The April 2015 earthquake made the lack of infrastructure in this region visible to the world, and these communities are still struggling to rebuild, more than a year later. In this kind of context, the notion “energy access” is revealed to carry meanings that are typically unseen. “‘Access’ is an interesting word,” Campbell muses. “It involves a whole set of rights; it involves inequalities.”
In Langtang National Park, conservation efforts have created hardship for villagers, as community forestry practices have been prohibited. Villagers rely on wood to produce yak cheese, their principal source of income. Indigenous groups approached Campbell to ask his guidance in helping them to update their resiliency and self-management. “While people do need the state and its infrastructure, they also have to manage on their own,” he says. Campbell talks about about “decentralised livelihoods,” or ways that villages can sustainably produce income – and the energy to power those enterprises – in ways that still respect their cultural rights and cultural difference.
Reliably producing energy at high altitudes has been a puzzle for Campbell and others. Villages are usually too far from rivers to do micro-hydro projects, and there is too little daily sun for solar to be feasible. Wind technology can be prohibitively expensive, and hauling concrete is logistically difficult, taking as many as five days from the main road. Working independently, and in altogether different regions of the country, a handful of researchers and engineers have settled on biogas as the best solution. The Biogas Support Programme of the Global Partnership on Output-Based Aid (GPOBA), a World Bank-funded initiative, is subsidising the construction of 37,000 biogas generators throughout Nepal, and trials are being done to compare effectiveness.
Campbell has been thinking more recently about how to bring this technology, and his insights into the social aspect of sustainability, back to the United Kingdom, where biogas could be an important source of energy in farming. At the commercial level, however, there is no market for the digestate, the slurry that is the byproduct of biogas production. But at the household or neighborhood level, this technology can help local communities become less dependent on energy from elsewhere, improving resilience at home, as well.
—Erin Martineau, writer and editor (www.emartineau.com)