Steps to Sustainability- Part 4 of a Series: Unique Empires

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Tompkins Weekly 1/2/2012
By Richard W. Franke

The modern concept of sustainability was launched in 1987 with the publication of Our Common Future, the report of the United Nations sponsored “World Commission on Environment and Development.”

Sustainable practices, however, existed from ancient times in many traditional societies. We saw in the previous two installments that both Native American and African peoples developed many effective traditional sustainable practices. Some sustainable practices can also be found in the developed empires of these two areas. Among the most successful of these were the Inca Empire of the Andes and the Fulani Dina of 19th Century West Africa.

The Inca empire ran from 1438 to 1532, and was the culmination of up to 5,000 years of indigenous development in the Andes Mountains of modern day South America. In 1531 it was probably the largest organized state society in the world. It stretched 2,500 miles from modern Ecuador to northern Chile and included 10 million subjects.The Inca Empire is unusual in that it developed not in a river valley but in the difficult terrain of steep mountains and high altitudes.The Inca built the world’s longest high quality road system that ran for more than 14,000 miles over steep slopes and through low valleys.They built an amazing array of bridges. Inca gold, religion, architecture, astronomy and irrigation practices have long fascinated observers, but recent research suggests the Inca may have been the first centralized state society to engage in formal conservation practices. Inca society maintained a level of social justice by setting aside special land parcels for widows, orphans, people with disabilities and soldiers.They built extensive terracing, implemented by engineers who created canals up to 70 miles long that controlled water flow. In the Lake Maracocha region they reforested areas that had become barren. The Inca protected by law certain species of animals such as sea birds and regulated the hunting of many animals. Only certain predators such as foxes and wild cats could be hunted without restriction.

Across the Atlantic there arose in 1818 the Fulani Dina or empire of Macina that lasted until 1862. The Dina arose inside the great inland delta of the Niger River that has some of the richest farmland and best pastures in all of West Africa. Macina was governed by a grand council of forty marabouts (Islamic clergy) who supervised district governors in each of five provinces of the empire. Authority flowed downwards to subdistrict heads who supervised designated heads of herder groups. Each herding group had a controlled number of animals so that overtrampling of pastures and destruction of pasture grasses could be prevented. Markets were regulated by the administration for both environmental maintenance and social justice.
The Dina increased the capacity of the traditional systems to feed large populations. The Dina administration marked off and protected fishing areas and animal trek routs. Officials fixed payment levels and set fines for damage to crops. Standard weights and measures were introduced. Administrators organized conferences and made an inventory of farming areas, herding pastures and camps. Animals were placed in three categories with limits for each: animals primarily for reproduction, those for milking and a small number allowed in farming villages year-round. Returns to farming and herding were carefully monitored to identify sudden declines. One third of certain milk herd returns was set aside for needy people in the farming villages.

In both the Inca and Macina empires we thus see examples of highly centralized state societies that were able to monitor and regulate their relations with their resource base. Other empires, however, often collapsed from within through abuse and overuse of resources. In Parts 5 and 6 of this series we shall see some examples.

Richard Franke is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology: Montclair State University, New Jersey
Resident and Board Member: Ecovillage at Ithaca, Member of Sustainable Tompkins

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