Out! Out! Potato Blight!
The fungus that caused the infamous Irish potato blight of then 1840s is once again spreading throughout the world and threatening a crop that has become a staple in developing countries, say experts. With potato firmly entrenched as staple in the Himalayan region as well, spread of the infestation to South Asia could be
devastating to the region´s diet and public health.
that the fungal disease, known as the Late Potato Blight, has already spread throughout Europe, Russia and Latin America, and infestations are also reported in potato-growing regions of North America, Africa, Japan and Korea.
"All indications are that this new form of late blight is spreading around the world, and is more aggressive and harder to control than its predecessors," says Hubert Zandstra, chief of the International Potato Center in Peru.
Says Zandstra, the greatest risk is to agriculture in developing countries, where potato production is growing faster than any other staple crop except wheat. (China is
now the largest potato producer in the world.) While modem fungi¬cides could theoretically prevent the new disease, these chemical remedies are too expensive for the poorer countries. Besides, their use could set back efforts to reduce the use of toxic che-micals in agiiculture. "Just when people were starting to use few¬er chemicals to grow potatoes, this blight will force them to use more," says one researcher.
Potato late blight is caused by the fungus Phytophthora infestans, which thrives in cool, moist conditions and is spread by contact or wind-blown spores. "The disease is remarkably explosive, it can destroy a field in days," says a plant pathologist at Cornell University. "An affected field looks like it has been burned."
Scientists from around the world are scheduled to meet in Mexico in February to set up an international programme to address the problem, and one can only hope that there will be someone there representing the Himalayan potato-farmers as well.
Loss of the Sarus
Cranes arc the oldest bird species on Earth, dating back 60 million years, and the red-crowned stilt-legged Sams crane, a subspecies, is the largest of all flying birds. Its days in the Nepal Tarai. however, now seem numbered.
The Sarus is one of the 15 subspecies of crane left today in the world, and is related to the endangered crane species such as the whooping crane of North America and the Siberian crane of Asia. While it is not an
endangered species, there are individual populations at risk, including those that inhabit the Nepal Tarai, reports the National Geographic.
Rajendra Suwal, a Sams specialist, says the bird has already disappeared from Nepal´s eastern Tarai and only 200 to 250 remain in the westein parts. Even though the subspecies is highly adaptable to :hanging habitats, the clearing of Tarai wildlands, draining of
marshes, and spraying of chemicals to combat malaria in the 1960s, together, have devastated the living conditions of these birds.
The International Crane Foundation, based in the United States,
estimates that perhaps there are 25,000 Sarus still living in India although their numbers are diminishing. dramatically everywhere due to pesticides, industrialisation and other human incursions. It has reportedly disappeared from
Pakistan and is all but gone from Bangladesh as well.
Rich Beilfuss, a wetlands ecologist with the Foundation, has been trying to raise money from Buddhist organisations and others to create a wetlands habitat for cranes in conjunction with the Lumbini development project, which is building up the three square miles around the Sakyamuni´s birthplace with monasteries, stupas and parkland. So far, the money has not been forthcoming. The big mammals have overshadowed birds in wildlife planning, says Beilfuss. "They really haven´t focused on birds in Nepal. Tourism is so fantastic for the elephants and rhinos that parks have been set up based on mammals."
The people of the Tarai look at the arrival of the Sarus as a good-omen. Perhaps its disappearance altogether bodes ill for the entire ecology.
What´s Doing in New York?
The Lower Hudson Valley is on the other side of the globe from the mountains of South Central Asia. But then New York City, at the mouth of the Hudson River, is the cultural capital of the world, where no region goes unrepresented.
A quick review of the different cultural activities in the Big Apple during the month of October showed enough of the Himalaya on offer — from film showings to talkathons to photographic exhibitions. At the same time, it was clear once again that, as is true elsewhere in the West, here too ´Himalaya´ means mostly the Tibetan civili¬sation. The rest of the region and its peoples, are absent.
Over at the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art in Staten Island (a borough which just decided through a referendum to secede from New York City), photographs of Mustang are on display. They were taken a year ago by four ladies who had trekked up to Lo Manthang.
In an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the paintings of Lodoy Sangpo Gangshar ("Hymalian folk painter", says his visiting card) are on display. Gangshar is a
Tibetan refugee —just barely, for he comes from a village a day´s walk north of Syabrubesi on the Trisuli River — who was among those picked up in the "immigration lottery" run by the United States Government for Tibetans in Nepal and India. He lives in Oakland, California.
Gangshar´s appealing watercolours make a statement, not of Tibet but of a modern¬ising Nepal, showing parallax-bereft views of Syabrubesi (the refugee camp-village where he grew up), carpet washing in Kathmandu, the Trisuli power house, airplanes, and a submarine in Rani Pokhari.
in downtown Manhattan, a Wheel of Time Sand Mandala was being prepared in the lobby of World Trade Center. The Tibetan ritual art was being painstakingly created over a four-week period by monks from the Namgyal Mon-astery. After it is completed, the mandala will be swept up and the sand consecrated in the Hudson River, on 30 November, according to the Samaya Foun¬dation, which raises funds for the Tibetan cause. The monks´ performance also formed part of a well-orchestrated public relations effort by the Port
Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the World Trade Centre, to attract business after a tenant flight due to the massive terrorist bombing of May this year.
In the East Village, a commercial theatre was running the film Baraka, "a documentary about the Earth and the people", which takes in panoramic sweeps of the nature and human civilisation. The very first frame, before even the credits, shows the view of the extreme upper Khumbu, from Chomo-longma to AmaDablam, as seen from Tengboche. This is followed by languid shots of devotees in Bhaktapur, walking among mists and temples. The film, shot with specially made wide-format Imax cameras in 70mm, has no narration, only music (including Sufi, Balinese Gamelan, and chanting monks from Dharamsala).
At the other extreme, there was too much narration at a preview of a one-man show called "Psychodessy" in Canal Street, near Chinatown. The flier promised that the showman, a young American magician who had trekked with millionaire Dick Bass to Chomolongma Base Camp a few years previously, would have a sort of mixed-media presentation built around his Khumbu trip. What he had on offer, instead, was an amateurish slide show that might well have been entitled: "My heroic trek to Mount Everest Base Camp", replete with reversed transparencies, exaggerated claims, embroidered memory, and foolish talk (including one of "this 133 year old woman who came down from her home at 25,000 feet just to meet me and see me perform.") The misinformation was near-total, with an image of Shiva identified as the Buddha, and every hulk of a mountain along the Imja Khola trail being pointed out as Everest.
For relief, therefore, one turned into a bookshop, to find that Kevin Bubriski´s picture book "Portrait of Nepal" has just been released It contains black and white pictures of Humla, Gorkha, Kathmandu and Janakpur. Right off the bat, in mid-month, it received the first place in documentary photography category of the Golden Light Photography Book Awards, ahead of many famous names in the New York photography world. (Some of the pictures can be seen in a photo essay in Himal´s next, Jan/Feb 1994, issue).
There were a few other non-Tibetan happenings, to be sure. The United Nations General Assembly, for ex ample, heard Nepali Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala (who also spoke before the Asia Society, unveiled a B.P.Koirala bust, planted a B.P.Koirala sapling in Central Park, and met with the editors of The New York Times) and Bhutan´s Foreign Minister Dawa Tshering. And the Kashmir issue surfaced again and again at the United Nations, as India and Pakistan raised the pitch of the quarrel.
The Asia Society´s logo, incidentally is a Kathmandu-crafted bronze lion. Even though the logo is Nepali, however, the Society itself does not ´do´ Nepal well. Kathmandu, as an important cultural hub of the Himalayan region, rarely figures in the Society´s programmes. A look at the programme for 1993 showed nothing on Nepal (other than the Koirala dinner). A meet-the-authors programme was scheduled for 16 November for the newly released book Tibet: Reflections from the Wheel of Life by Thomas Kelly, Carroll Dunham and Ian Baker, all Kathmandu-based.
There are many shops selling Himalayan bric-a-brac in Manhattan, but Tenzing and Petna: Presents of the Mind is of a different genre. A stone´s throw away from the Asia Society on 75th Street and Madison Avenue, partly owned by Sikkimese, this shop sells Americana, and has not a whiff of Himalaya about it despite the quintessentially Himalayan name. It seemed to be doing brisk business with Manhattan´s affluent Upper Eastsiders one recent Sunday. It was a shop for "children of all ages", the shop assistant said.
While Tibetan Refugees have a very high profile here, hardly anyone has heard of refugees from Bhutan. Beyond Tibet, and beyond a little bit of Nepal, Bhutan and Ladakh, the rest of the Himalaya is largely absent in New York. Large chunks of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Darjeeling, Sikkim, and the Northeastern states. New York does not know them. Perhaps it is bette that way?
– Kanak Mani Dixit
Save the Himalaya From
Those Who Would Save the Himalaya!
´India for Meet to Save AHimalayas," bannered a New Delhi headline. "A meeting of environment ministers of the seven Himalayan nations to initiate measures to preserve the ecology and environment of the unique mountain range is likely to be organised shortly at India´s initiative."
We have, of course, heard all this before. Every so often, members of the old boy network — retired climbers, those manning mountaineering bureaucracies, and politicians in search of fashionable planks — have a hiccup and remember to chime in with the over-used slogan: Save the Himalaya!
There is no agreement among these proponents what they mean by ´Himalaya´. Some are thinking ´mountaineering´, others ´mass tourism´, while others mean only their part of the Himalaya (Kumaon, Garhwal, Sikkim), while still others think of floods or deforestation, erosion or cultural loss. Unfortunately, those wno fashionably pose by the Himalaya do not have the time to be serious. Quite a few New
Delhi babus are involved in freeze-framing the under¬populated, backward regions so that they serve as a research subject and a ready-to-go holiday destination.
If only for the duration of a talk fest where Sif Edmund Hillary will be the chief guest, it is attractive to don the garb of Saviour of the greatest mountain chain on Earth. The latest to seek such reflected shine was Kamal Nath, Indian Minister of Environment Responding to Sir Ed´s warnings of Himalayan ecological collapse, the minister made this impromptu call for a meeting of the seven Himalayan countries. They were all at a Jamboree in Delhi, organised by the Himalayan Environment Trust.
There is no reason to ignore a meeting such as the Minister proposes — bringing together Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Burma together to address the issues of mountain environment. But past experience shows that Himalayan breast-beaters tend to concentrate on re-inventing the
wheel. And the experience of ICIMOD, notwithstanding the institution´s non-performance, shows that India has been the foot-dragger when it comes to regional Himalayan development. This new solicitousness, at least, is to be welcomed.
On his most recent announcement, it just does not do for the Indian Minister to recall that he "spent his childhood in the Doon Valley and was quite attached to the Himalaya." According to the news report, "He was amazed by the negative development activity taking place in the Himalayas today. During his recent visit to Mussorie, he was shocked to see bus services available by the hour to places which were earlier destinations for trekkers!"
Yes, Minister, just let the locals walk to the next valley. And here is a gem attributed to Dr. Karan Singh: "India would have been a different entity without the Himalayas." Uh-uh.
Let us save the Himalaya from those who would save the Himalaya.
Taxol´s Failure, Forest´s Reprieve
The rape of Himalayan forests in Nepal, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh can be slowed immediately if a crucial bit of current information can be swiftly shared with those who are actually trafficking herbal contraband. The news is that Taxol, the much-touted cancer drug, is not the miracle cure for ovarian cancer it was thought to be just a year ago.
What this has to do with
Himalayan woodlands is that the needles of Taxus baccata (´Talis Patra" in Nepali) is an important source of the drug extract. The Taxol fever that gripped the Western pharmaceutical markets raised the price of the extract to unimaginable heights, and the plant rapidly disappeared from Himalayan slopes.
As the aura fades from the cancer drug, the price of Taxol is bound to come down, and the pressure on this particular forest
product will diminish. To speed up this process and to save the trees that are still standing, Indian and Nepali policy¬makers, bureaucrats, NGOs, activists and journalists must work to get this information out to the merchants and traffickers as fast as possible.
The news of Taxol´s poor showing was broken by The New York Times on 7 November, quoting researchers at the National Cancer Institute of the United States. "It is not a cure, it´s not a panacea, it´s not the penicillin we´re looking for,"
said one. Studies over the past year showed that many women with ovarian cancer did not respond to Taxol, and for those who did respond to the drug, their tumours grew back to their original size within a few months. In addition, it was found that Taxol does not work with colon, prostrate, kidney and stomach cancer or melanoma.
What is disheartening news for cancer patient, it turns out, could be good news for Himalayan forests. Speculators must be told immediately that the prices are about to crash!
´Mountains Should Come First, Not Last…"
ICIMOD. the Kathmandu-based organization of the Himalaya, is going in for its 10th anniversary celebrations (30
November to 6 December). Over the summer, anthropologist Robert E. Rhoades was selected by the ICIMOD Board to be its new Director, but he declined the offer due to "career liming and personal finance". The Board subsequently chose Egbert Pelinck who had worked in Environment Management and Development cooperation in Asia and Africa. The accompanying article formed a part of "A Vision for ICIMOD", a presentation Rhoades made to the ICIMOD Board prior to his selection, and is printed here with his permission.
The Brundtland Commission Report was eloquent in the way it described a vision of planet Earth, a fragile ball of blue-greenish hues floating in space. It made humans realise the fragility of the planet and the clear limitations that exist to how far we can exploit the diverse biomes which grace the Earth´s outer tier.
Unfortunately, the Report did not deal evenly with the Earth´s ecosystems. Rather, it highlighted the tropical rainforests, oceans, wetlands, grasslands, deserts, coastal margins, mangroves only once, and that too in passing, did the Report mention what I consider to be the most crucial and most neglected of the worlds biomes, the mountains.
This unfortunate omission was not accidental. Defenders of mountains have not been aggressive, persuasive or as articulate as have spokesmen for other causes. Rainforest proponents will not let the world forget that their ecosystem protects literally tens of thousands of plants and animals useful to everyone (chocolate for food, quinine for malaria, periwinkle to cure cancer, diogeninof for oral
contraception). By contrast, even individual species (snow leopards, pandas, grizzly bears, mountain gorillas, wild potatoes) which depend on the mountain habitat get better world press than the supporting highland ecosystems.
It is time to change this neglect of the mountains and to launch an aggressive campaign to alert the world´s citizenry and politicians of the stakes if mountains are not protected, and protected now. If Mrs. Brundtland´s team had done some homework, it would have discovered some very important reasons why mountains should come first, not last, in the global development agenda.
Take the issue of head¬waters. The Amazon river originates in tiny rivulets high in the Andes which, as they rush downwards, combine and recombine into larger channels to form the mightiest of rivers. Defenders of the South American rainforest argue convincingly that, without the oxygen-producing "green lungs of the earth", life as we know it would not be possible. But you could forget about all those rainforest species if the mountains were not providing a
continuous supply of water. Without the Andes, there would be no Amazon. Without the Himalaya, there would be no productive Ganga plain where over 500 million people live.
Biodiversity alone, should be argument enough to allocate more support to mountain defence. The great Russian scientist Nikolai Vaviloc was the first to point out that, due to complex ecologies and adjacent zones fostering gene flow, mountains provide the selective pressures for the genetic diversity (wild species and landraces) of the major foodcrops. Agriculture originated in and near mountain zones. Without the mountain context, the future of the world´s food supply is endangered. Wheat comes from the Zagros-Taurus Arc, maize from the Mexican highlands, and potatoes from the Andes. Many valuable medicinal plants and underutilised crops are also found in the mountains.
Other compelling reasons put mountains up front. If you are a flatlander, mountains come as a bargain, a supplier of lowcost (compared to lowland) ´precious´ resources: energy, water, minerals, forests, and
beauty. The aesthetics of mountains are like magnets attracting tourists, hikers, climbers and nature lovers the world over. Archaeology, art and culture of the great mountain civilisations from the Andes to Central China continue to awe travellers from afar.
But if the positive aspects are not enough, the citizens of the world need to ask the question the other way around: What are the social costs of neglecting mountains, of not having a voice for the mountains?
The costs to national and international bodies are already enormous: poverty, civil unrest, loss of biodiversity, bad downstream effects, illicit trade, pollution, erosion. A few years back, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) issued a map of critical zones based on a careful study of the world areas which cannot support existing human populations even with high inputs. A quick glance at this map shows that with the exception of the African Sahel, where few people live, all of the critical zones are mountainous. Poverty in turn drives mountain people to acts of deforestation, which sets in motion further devastation downstream. Mountains directly affect poor people more than any other ecosystem — except the urban ecosystem — and this alone is an argument to elevate mountains to a priority role on the global development agenda.