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Voices of uncertainty: spirits, humans and forests in upland Arunachal Pradesh, India

journal contribution
posted on 2023-06-07, 16:37 authored by Alexander Aisher
Large-scale deforestation in the upper catchments of the Brahmaputra River represents a key anthropogenic factor at work in the landslides and floods that regularly impact upon Northeast India. For this reason, the conservation of forests in Arunachal Pradesh is of regional significance. Based upon fieldwork conducted with clans of the Nyishi tribe inhabiting the remote uplands of Arunachal Pradesh in 2002-2003, this paper argues that 'spirits', or uyu, are at the heart of local perceptions of forests. Drawing upon recent ecological models that stress the centrality of uncertainty, indeterminacy and surprise to the modelling of ecological dynamics, and the need to be sensitive to the interaction of structural features of human agency across a range of scales, this paper argues that the character and activity of such spirits not only reflect the susceptibility of the landscape to human disturbance, but also the uncertainties underpinning human economic interactions with a fragile and capricious mountain ecosystem. Through spirits, the human extraction of forest-related resources during hunting and shifting cultivation manifests as forms of exchange between humans and spirits. From within this cosmology, the rapid depopulation of many villages in upland Arunachal Pradesh in the present day, and the regeneration of forests around such villages, manifest as an increase of spirit-wealth. The paper concludes that in upland Arunachal Pradesh attention to spirits', or uyu, may indeed serve to foreground uncertainty, indeterminacy, surprise and other key ecological dynamics


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  • Published


Journal of South Asian Studies







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  • Anthropology Publications

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