A failed mountain book

There is no evidence that indicates mountains are unfairly disadvantaged when compared to adjacent plains.

During this century, Switzerland has managed to develop that honourable mountain occupation, smuggling, into a profitable international enterprise better described today as clandestine banking. Consequently, they have abundant money to spend on topics of their choice.

And so we have here the Swiss-financed promised follow-up volume to Agenda 21, the 1992 Rio "Earth Summit" conference document on environment and development. Mountains of the World: A Global Priority, edited by Bruno Messerli and Jack D. Ives (Parthenon, London and New York, 1997), was published in time for the United Nations General Assembly´s "Rio+5" exercise in June 1997 in New York City. There was an earlier companion volume to this book, The State of the World´s Mountains, edited by Peter Stone, also bankrolled by the Swiss, and produced for the 1992 Rio Summit (and reviewed in this magazine, July/August 1992, pp 45-46).

The move towards the Rio conference had its origins in former West German chancellor Willy Brandt´s "North-South Report", which expressed the hope that economic growth would be based on policies that would sustain the environment as well as expand the resource base. In 1983, the UN General Assembly had called for a global agenda for change using this framework, later revealed in the Brundtland report, Our Common Future.

It was at this juncture that the now-hackneyed term ´sustainable development´ became popular. Chapter 13 of the Agenda 21 report, masterminded by scientists Bruno Messerli and Jack D. Ives, was entitled "Managing Fragile Ecosystems: Sustainable Mountain Development". The blueprint for implementing ideas in that chapter is now contained in this volume under review. It is unclear, however, whether this publication is an entirely academic enterprise with a firm commitment to enhancing the welfare of mountain habitats and societies, or if it is an effort on the part of the editors to promote their own agenda.

The Swiss, and Messerli is one, often like to think of themselves as unique because of their mountainous habitat. This variety of environmental determinism is echoed in their writings about mountains and their inhabitants. Mountains of the World reflects this concept by asserting that mountain inhabitants need to be considered as a separate category (particularly by international funding agencies).

At the risk of alienating Messerli and Ives, what follows is an analysis and appraisal of their latest effort to command and control knowledge about mountains and their inhabitants. It is written from the perspective of a humble shing kocha (outsider – as the Kinnaura from Himachal Pradesh would have it), but hopefully will be useful to the people of the Hindukush-Himalaya by virtue of the fact that the people with money to spend on development projects in the mountains are bound to read the work being reviewed.

Verticality criteria
Under the assumption that all mountain areas are currently in dire straits, Messerli and Ives´ principal aim is the formulation of policies towards achieving sustainable mountain development. A related aim was to produce documentary and theoretical material for the Rio+5 review process, and to add to contemporary mountain scholarship.

Mountains, according to the authors, have to be viewed as a separate natural region because their vertical y warrants top priority ranking. "Steepness and slope and altitude" are the defining criteria. The authors claim that mismanagement of mountain resources is widespread and thus far "problems have not been correctly analysed" because "bilateral and international development agencies tended to treat mountains as unimportant two dimensional adjuncts to be accommodated as fringe attachments to the big development projects on the surrounding and much more densely populated plains."

In the UN mode, the book deals with the mountains of the world in their nation-states; consequently, all the data that is cited is gleaned from country sets of data. Nowhere in the book does one find any numbers that are not tabulated from descriptive national statistics. This pattern seriously distorts the information that is presented. How can Bhutan, for example, with a presumed one million population and part of the Himalaya, be compared to India, containing a part of the Himalaya but with a billion people distributed over a much larger area?

Meanwhile, there are only three non-European chapter authors or co-authors (all drawing salaries from Western sources) with a solitary woman listed as a co-author of a chapter.

Editorial amnesia

Both Messerli and Ives have connections with the Himalaya. Messerli directed a 12-year geomorphological research project in the Kakani area near Kathmandu with an outpost in Khumbu, in the Everest region, and another in the Punjab hills. Ives is noted for his 1970 Canadian Geographical Journal article he wrote after journeying up to Darjeeling in a bus with international conventioneers in a monsoon downpour in 1968. Together, the two are better known as the organisers of a mountain conference in New York State in 1986 which enabled them to publish a book, The Himalayan Dilemma: Reconciling Conservation and Development (Routledge, 1989), which is essentially a synthesised and amplified version of the conference proceedings.

The "Mountain Agenda", as the Messerli-Ives-UNEP-associated development scenario is known, was originally thought up in the late 1980s by two expatriates in Switzerland -David Pitt and Peter Stone – who were concerned about mountain communities in the European Alps. Farmers were leaving the land for more remunerative occupations and outsiders were creating a new niche for temporary holidays and permanent residence in the mountains.

Unfortunately, the Alpine scenario, with its stultifying bureaucratic entrapment of regional planning, came to be applied to non-Western countries, which have a tradition of a highly mobile labour force such as one finds in the Himalaya. Since then, the original topic of the "Mountain Agenda" has been taken over and reformed into a global "Mountain Manifesto".

Like previous manifestos, such as the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Project-6 documents on mountains, Mountains of the World, for example, is also full of suggestions and proposals about what donor agencies and others should do, but is short on the nitty-gritty of what has been going on for several decades in the mountains and what constitutes the current situation, especially in the Himalaya, as it compares to the plains.

The Preface states that there is an "absolute lack of relevant information" about mountains. Both Switzerland and Canada, where the two editors come from, have spent a large amount of project money in Nepal, but little has been gleaned from these past experiences. Also, now that the "Cruise Missile" digital terrain data is available for the Hindukush-Himalaya, there is enough information to evolve a compreensive view of a mountain country via exploratory data analysis. Yet the editor-duo seems totally unaware of its existence. Selective amnesia about past and present work detracts from the editorial fidelity of Mountains of the World.

Doom proponents
The book carries no indication of the cultural biases that exist in mountain studies. There are essentially two paradigms for looking at mountain environments. One is Germanic and has its roots in Haekel´s "ecology" derived from the German monist belief about the organic unity of the universe. The Messerli/Ives discussion about "mountain ecosystems" invariably includes the idea that mountain people are part of the ecosystem. Another typical Germanic notion related to the organic community relationship is "common property resources", as seen in Tonnies´ gemeinschaft idea. A fetish with vegetation, critical to German thinking about mountains, is one of the hallmarks of this paradigm. Messerli and Ives themselves have long been proponents of "mountain geoecology", an idea derived from the work of a German biogeographer.

The second paradigm, derived from the political economy of David Hume and Adam Smith, believes that people will change their behaviour when they are given incentives to do so; freeing up the mountains in terms of their accessibility and allowing their inhabitants to respond to individual initiatives and free markets have long-term benefits for all.

It´s the doomsayers versus the doomslayers. The first group cringes when a tree is felled in a ´fragile´ ecosystem or ´harsh´ environment, while the second sees some human comfort and satisfaction in the use of polythene sheeting or corrugated metal roofs which mitigate the effects of the monsoon and rid the thatch of the rats.

Nowhere in any chapter has any consideration been given to comparing the benefits of the two paradigms. Chapter 5 by Peter Rieder and Jorg Wyder on the economic and political sustainability of mountain areas comes closest to this objective. To examine the concept of sustainability these authors invoke the Rio Declaration, thereby conveniently omitting any critical discussion of the notion itself. After working their way through five case studies, Bhutan, Peruvian Andes, Pay d´Enhaut in Switzerland, North Ossetia in the Caucasus, and Albania, the authors neglect to consider any linkages to the forelands that invariably have gateway towns for the development of mountain areas. This failure to acknowledge the external linkages between mountain areas and valley or plains areas is a critical omission in the chapter, as it is for the book as a whole.

Old myths, new bottle
Notwithstanding the feeble schematic focus of the book, its many implicit biases and Western cultural thrust, this international ´begging bowl´ has some creditable chapters; those on sacred mountains, mining, and the human perception of hazards are noteworthy for the general reader. Other chapters are competent descriptive accounts of much of what has been written and are known about mountain environs.

The editors´ premise is that development projects concerning mountains are failures because the donors use the same criteria to justify investing in mountain development programmes as they do for non mountain areas. Throughout the volume the dominant theme is that mountains and their inhabitants are different from the plains; old shibboleths are given another airing.

In the opening chapter for example, Erwin Grotzbach and Christoph Stadel tell us that mountains are "refuge areas". But according to Oxford don, Mark Pagel in the New Scientist, the reason for great linguistic diversity in the mountains, often cited as proof of a "refuge area", is linked to the diversity of habitats. "Human language is clearly influenced by its ecological context," he says. I would argue that mountain people living in a highly variable biophysical environment are in such a place.

If we examine a purported "refugee" group in a mountain environment, let us say a caste or an ethnic group, we would find them fewer in number than what we would expect to find in the neighbouring plains of commensurate size. Despite the ravages and incursions into the Gangetic plain, I doubt if the mountains are refuge areas for tiny groups of people. An examination of blood groups across the Hindukush, for example, shows no pockets of diversity; only a gradual cline from Central Asia to South Asia is perceived. Here and there we do see idiosyncratic communities like the Malana in Kulu district (Himachal Pradesh), the Dah Hanu in Kargil district (Jarnmu and Kashmir), and the Kalasha valleys in southern Chitral (North West Frontier Province), but no evidence appears that these are "refugee" populations.

Another old myth trundled out as fact is that mountains are barriers. A member of the Swiss Academy of Sciences in the final chapter of the book endorses this view. This mistaken notion hardly holds for the Himalaya. For example, a Yale University geographer, Ellsworth Huntington, counted 500 dead pack ponies on the Karakorum Pass in the late spring of 1905. Although malnutrition undoubtedly killed some, it was the dreaded lardug or high altitude pulmonary edema, that killed most; this omnipresent danger, did not deter the traders in Leh from traversing the "Five Passes" (each over 18,000 feet) route to the Tarim Basin in western China. Similarly, in the princely state of Bushair in the Indian Himalaya, gur was once exported up the Hindustan-Tibet road to China´s Tarim Basin oases where it was processed into confectionery and then re-exported back to the plains of the Punjab for sale. Such was the profit to be made on the product.
I suggest that the "Barriers and Refugees" notion in the book is greatly overwrought. Take the contention that "traditional mountain peasant societies are adapted to their environments" and that there is "the prospect of economic and demographic collapse". No documentation in the form of numerical analysis is offered. On the "adaptation" notion, has the Swiss Messerli never heard of the mercenary Swiss Vatican guards, or of the Gurkhas? Has he never seen colonial-era photos of the Scottish Gordon Highlanders fighting the Afridis in the Khyber Pass? Mountain people around the world have been chronic migrants for centuries. Military service for others was always an adaptation of mountain populations living in a marginal environment. Can we honestly say, as Messerli and Ives do, that mountain people are ´adapted´ to their environments if there is a constant stream of migrants – excess population – from the mountains to the plains?

Life in the watershed
At the end of the book we are given the international bureaucrat´s perspective on mountain development. El Hadji Sene and Douglas MacGuire, two UN/Food and Agriculture Organisation employees with expertise in watershed management, advocate "integrated watershed management" and "generating and strengthening knowledge about the ecology and sustainable development of mountain ecosystems". These objectives are typical of the instrumentalist, mechanistic, Western view of other people´s worlds.

Do people live in watersheds? Christian Kleinert´s book on settlements in Nepal indicates that many people do not; they live on mountain ridges and not in the watershed valley portions. The ridges are the focal routes of human circulation. People live in places and the notion of a habitable place as defined by the locals exists in the minds of some Greater Himalayan residents but certainly not in the minds of all. At the western end, the notion of manteqa, a spatial cognition unit, is evident in the Hindukush because some residents such as the Kohestanis share irrigation water from communally supported canals and leats, or streams, but.other nearby ethnic groups like Nunstanis or Pushtuns have no such concepts. For the latter two groups, the fidelity is not to a place, that is, manteqa, but to a code of honour or ethnic cohesion. Elsewhere in the Himalaya, similar divergences come to mind. Sutherland, in his Oxford dissertation research in Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh, found that "place" had nothing to do with a watershed because the cognitive living space of the local people was circumscribed by the local deities, the gods who were put on a palanquin and taken on a tour that circumnavigated several high passes and forded rivers. It was the indigenous regional networks of the local folk that bonded the ghori (community) and defined place, not some watershed.

If there is going to be any "sustainable mountain development" then quite clearly it has to be rooted in the local context and not in some Western scientistical notion of "integrated watershed management".

Shoddy research

The 19th and final chapter is the "Agenda for Sustainable Mountain Development", authored by Ives, Messerli and Robert Rhoades, an American anthropologist. Among the seven objectives identified is "Mountain Knowledge and Research". Over the years, I have never seen any mention by these writers, all self-styled Himalayan experts, of existing libraries and bibliographies that concern the Himalaya.

A number of them exist: the CNRS Centre d´Etude Himalayennes library in suburban Paris has the best collection of documents (on-line later this year); Yoshimi Yakushi´s Catalogue of Himalayan Literature has thousands of entries; Pfleiderer, Bergner, and Greve´s A Bibliography on Himalayan Ethnography is useful; and Jurgen Aschoffs huge Tibet, Nepal, und der Kulturraum is on the Web. In fact, no Web sources of mountain information are given in the (purported reference) book for any part of the world. Had the authors probed these bibliographies and sources they would have found out that the Himalaya, even the entire mountain world, is a greatly diverse place and few generalities, if any, apply in specific contexts. The editors´ careless research fails even to mention, never mind discuss, the 1980 UNEP Report No 2 on mountain environments (The Major Problems of Man and the Environment Interactions in Mountain Systems: A Review). To his credit, iucn parks man Jim Thorsell, alone of all the writers in the volume, cites it.

Rather than read the beginning and the end of the book, the reader anxious to understand its conceptual thrust should immediately turn to Chapter 14 on mountain agriculture by Narpat Jodha. For at least a decade, Jodha has been articulating the condition of mountain environments. His chapter is conceptual in organisation, and puts forward the best argument for the formation of mountain development. In a series of tables he links what he calls "mountain specificities" with appropriate responses to these mountain conditions. Although his focus is on agriculture, its constraints and opportunities, his discussion of the specificities is laid out in a thoughtful manner. Jodha points out that the "five year period after the Earth Summit is too short a period to assess changes in the state of the world´s mountains".

But he is an Indian and knows very well, that abundant data for decades have been available on parts of the Indian Himalaya and adjacent plains districts. His citing all-India data distorts the situation in some hill areas. For example, the appalling statistic that only half of Indian females go to school and of that half, the average length of schooling is 14 months, is not true for the western Himalaya hill districts.

Gross aggregated national data has no place in comparing mountains and plains. Ives, in Chapter 4 concerning inequalities, provides tabular material on the entire area of India purporting to demonstrate literacy inequality between mountain and plains inhabitants. It is no service to the reader that Ives´ tabular data, based on aggregated Unicef nation-state data, compares adult literacy in all of India (34 percent) with that of Nepal (13 percent). Hill districts and contiguous plains district data is available for both countries but no attempt has been seen to be made to analyse or even cite this existing material. Similarly, Jodha concocts categories of "mountain specificities" that are not supported by any data, certainly not from the South Asian mountain rimland.

Other chapters fail for the same reason; there is no evidence that indicates mountains are unfairly disad-vantaged when compared to adjacent plains. One chapter, that on climate change by Maurice Price and Roger Barry, is mostly a scenario. Nowhere in the chapter is there any graph that would tell us of an increase over time of any measure to a point that would justify ringing the alarm bell. At the end of their chapter, for example, there are two paragraphs about the possible impacts on human health but no evidence is given. We know from Paul Epstein of Harvard Medical School that the malaria line in the kenya highlands has recently risen by 150 metres but this kind of measure and its possible implications for human welfare is not mentioned anywhere in this chapter. It is these kinds of "fingerprints" of climate change, as Epstein calls them, that need to be presented in a book like this.

Jan Jenik´s chapter on biodiversity is full of alarm about the loss of species but he does not mention that the best count for loss of biodiversity in the world today is only one species per year. Inasmuch as I am sur rodtaded by university and private biotech individuals and companies, world plant germplasm banks, and plant science genetic engineering nerds breeding new transgenic foods, I am not disturbed by this rate of biodiversity loss. I used to live in the Appalachian mountains in the eastern United States, where, during a 200-year period, when over 95 percent of the original tree cover was removed, only three birds were extirpated from the mountains and the adjacent piedmont all the way to the Atlantic shore. Jenik´s call for arms is hardly cause for despair. Like the other authors, he does not provide any documentation of what it was like earlier. There is simply no diachronic analysis.

Mountain mania

Reading the book is a chore. There are about 60 ´boxes´ – vignettes and anecdotal material by many additional writers – scattered throughout everyone else´s chapters. Sometimes these boxes overwhelm the chapter contents. In one place, there are eleven pages of ´box´ material of varying quality inserted into someone else´s chapter. A box on Sunderlal Bahuguna and his past activities is welcome. Good intentions can get distorted by excess, however, because we now have his son Rajeev, giving a press conference in Dehra Dun last year during his Kohima-to-Kashmir motorcycle ride, saying that the problems faced by people in various Himalayan States are similar, just as their climate, culture and lifestyle are. When I hear statements like this, I think mountain mania is abroad in the world.

Photographs, many of them taken by the editors are inserted into other author´s chapters in inappropriate places. References that are not cited in the text appear in lists at the end of chapters. The deplorable Continental habit of not distinguishing "grey" literature from published literature is adopted throughout the book. As an intended reference text, the work is definitely substandard.

In the last chapter there is a plea for a new "science" of "montology". This word has been around for over a couple of decades and as much as I like and study mountains, I feel their study as a singular discipline is not compelling. Comparing, as the book does, mountain farmers in Swiss valleys who enjoy the highest farm subsidies in the world (according to The Economist) with some of the struggling people of the Himalaya simply does not make sense. The compositional variables that are produced in UN tabular material do not mesh with the contextual variables of people living in place. Despite Toni Hagen´s 1960s appellation of Nepal as the Switzerland of Asia, and the lengthy attempts of the Swiss to get the Nepalis to eat Swiss cheese manufactured in the Nepali highlands, Switzerland is not Nepal.

Only one chapter, that by Edwin Bernbaum on sacred mountains, comes close to providing some of the cultural variation that is found in the mountain world. Other chapter authors, and writers of some of the ´box´ material, are capable of much better work because they have exhibited talent in the past. There are a number of themes that play a critical role in the development of mountains that are nowhere to be found in this volume. Surely someone could be found to write about common property resources in mountains and how they are utilised through de jure and de facto local practices.

Conservation of mountain wildlife, now embellished with the sobriquet, "charismatic megafauna", surely deserves a chapter. Gateway towns into the mountains are critical junctures for trade and commerce, which are the building blocks for development. Biratnagar and other Tarai towns are critical gateways into Nepal, as Donald Messerschmidt has written; Kalka and Haldwani, as Harjit Singh has demonstrated, were the gateway for trade to the Indian Himalaya and beyond; Leh was the break point for trade to Khotan as was the Peshawar-Kabul access across the Hindukush into Central Asia. After all, Switzerland itself grew wealthy by having towns as the brokers between northern and southern Europe.

How does one appraise a book that seeks to distinguish mountains and their inhabitants from lowland regions, but which, in 466 pages, does not provide a single graph comparing a mountainous area with an adjacent plains area for any variable. We have to take the editors´ polemic about mountains being a global priority on faith.

A few years ago this reviewer published an edited book in which he suggested that the greatest risk to mountain habitat and society was not from any inherent mountain conditions but from international busybod ies. Mountains of the World: A Global Priority realises my fear. Given this feeble attempt to justify the idea that mountains are in dire need of a priority for international attention by international funding agencies, I would advise the UN/FAO, the "Task Manager" for implementation of Chapter 13 of the 1992 Rio document, that this book – and its argument – fails. Sustainable mountain development is an agenda in search of a problem.

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