For decades following the Second World War, the destiny of billions in the Third World has been identified with “development”, which can be described as the most extensive human activity in the world today. However, as practiced, it has remained an econometric exercise that marginalises the majority of the populace. The monetary reductionist approach to development has resulted in the free play of market forces. Development that is economically attractive for some but environmentally destructive for many has added to the burden of the poor. The process of marginalisation and environmental destruction is vividly evident in the mountains of the world.
According to the received history of civilisation, economic development is invariably seen to have evolved in the plains. This bias is so deep and extensive that even when attempts are made to redefine development, the rich experience of mountain regions are ignored, as was true, for instance, with the 1989 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development.
Due to the lack of a focused attention on the specific problems and potential of mountain societies, the development highlands is said to be marked by “uncertainty”. In this way, what could have been an important indicator for reconceptualising development has been perceived as a “dilemma”. This dilemma has its origins in the attempts to “develop” the mountains with a bias towards economic growth in the plains. In this way, the mountains receive investment in development merely to provide cheap timber, hydropower or even human labour to the plains. This plains’ bias is based on the view of the hills as an inexhaustible reservoir of resources in need of externally induced exploitation.
Contrary to many experts who see as “backward” and “traditional” all areas which are inaccessible to comfortable transportation systems, the mountain areas have undergone continual socio-economic transformation over centuries. These transformations have been in response to specific and changing societal and environmental conditions. In considering appropriate development possibilities for the mountains, it is important to understand what might be called “mountain characteristics.”
The single primary characteristic of mountain areas, as opposed to the plains, is, obviously, “verticality”. Emerging from this are three more categories of mountain characteristics: geophysical, socio-economic and cultural characteristics. Further sub-divisions of these characteristics are shown in the accompanying diagram.
Planners, administrators and scholars engaged in mountain development in the Himalaya must understand clearly these characteristics and their inter-relationships. This is vital even for those who have their origins in, and sympathies for, mountain areas because it is likely that they have all been socialised in academia dominated by the plains’ bias.
The verticality of mountain regions not only acts as a meteorological barrier, but by generating physical inaccessibility, it disconnects the highlands socially, economically and culturally from the plains. Highland development, even those carried out by governments of mountainous countries, has, by and large, remained a programme of bringing mountain resources (natural and human) closer to the plains. This has been done by putting exclusive focus on reducing the geophysical characteristic of “physical inaccessibility.”
There has been a remarkable increase in the accessibility of the world’s mountain regions with the advent of mechanical transportation systems run by fossil fuel or electricity, which are largely owned by economic powers in the lowlands. In view of the fact that the two other geophysical characteristics (structural fragility and microclimatic variability) are fundamental attributes which cannot be easily altered, all types of mountain transformations that have taken place can be explained by the changes introduced in the one parameter of physical inaccessibility. Continuously expanding accessibility, backed by capital-and energy-intensive transportation systems, has led to mountain “development” whose sustainability is in question. It is the plains’ bias which has spurred this unidirectional expansion of accessibility as the main element of mountain development.
Due to the plains bias, inaccessibility has always been seen as an “obstacle” to mountain development. However, an understanding of mountain characteristics would have perceived this very inaccessibility also as an opportunity to generate new, decentralised development options. One major disadvantage of inaccessibility, of course, was the difficulty in information flow, but this issue is moot in today’s era of micro-electronics and informatics.
Only a conscious elimination of the plains’ bias and a deeper understanding of the possibilities of the mountains can return to the mountain people control over their destiny. Satellite technology has made accessible the remotest areas to technology-backed marketing, either of sugary soft drinks or of wars, covered live. Inevitably, this cultural invasion of the – remotest mountain corners is going to generate artificial wants while marginalising genuine needs, thus distorting development priorities. It is possible to convert the threat of this plains-based cultural onslaught into an information revolution for the benefit of the mountains. For this to happen, mountain development must be guided by an understanding of the special mountain characteristics.
But identification of these characteristics is just the beginning. Mountain research must now further articulate the details. For example, a clearer understanding of mountain-specific hazards may pre-empt investment in ecologically destructive projects. A clearer understanding of micro-climatic niches and biodiversity will provide guidelines needed for dividing areas according to conservation needs. Highland areas need not always be disturbed by ecological transformations. Mountain ecosystems can be highly adaptive and resilient to some types of ecological disruption, like global warming.
Because of the vital ecological role played by the mountains in an Earth whose natural systems are increasingly in jeopardy, understanding of mountain characteristics would be important not only to ensure appropriate development for highlanders, but also to help safeguard the health of the planet.
Bandyopadhyay is an Indian ecologist with special interest in natural resource conflicts and sustainable mountain transformations.