Saving the Himalaya

By Denniston, Derek | World Watch, November-December 1993 | Go to article overview
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Saving the Himalaya

Denniston, Derek, World Watch

With a human population as large as Japan's, and an extraordinary diversity of plant and animal species, the land of the world's highest mountain range is ecologically vulnerable--and troubled

To have a first glance at the Himalaya is impossible, since even to approach it takes--by most methods of transport--many days, shifts in visual perspective, and dramatic changes in weather.

But if a first glance were possible, it would probably suggest that no feature of the Earth is more impervious to human presence. The Himalaya has been the ultimate destination for generations of pilgrims and mountaineers, whose accounts of their journeys have endowed this ancient domain with mysterious and mythical qualities. In the popular imagination of the west, the Himalaya is too rugged, hostile, and lonely an environment to be affected--say nothing of damaged--by people.

That perception, however, is wrong. While the Himalaya towers eight vertical kilometers above the estuaries where its great rivers finally empty into the ocean, it is not made of immutable rock but of unstable geological formations and vulnerable ecosystems. While the Himalaya may appear hostile when a sudden gust flings a group of climbers to their deaths, these mountains and their intertwining valleys are extraordinarily hospitable to life overall--providing sustenance to one of the richest varieties of both human communities and wildlife on Earth. And while there are places in these mountains where one might walk for a day without seeing another person, in fact more people now live in the Himalaya than in Mexico City, Tokyo-Yokohama, New York, Seoul, Sao Paulo, and Bombay combined.

What the popular perception overlooks is the ecological fragility of the Himalaya--a condition made all the more precarious by the poverty and density of its human population. Many of those who live in the encircling plains do not understand the nature of the high peaks that send them their water, topsoil, and weather. The natural processes of uplift, tectonic movement, and erosion make the range one of the most dynamic landscapes on Earth, prone not only to natural hazards--earthquakes, landslides, flash floods, and glacial lake outbursts--but also to human damage.

At least 118 million people now struggle to sustain themselves from Himalayan fields, pastures, and forests. But it was not always a struggle; for millennia, the integration of small farms and herds with the forest ecology gave Himalayan society a fairly uniform class structure, with few rich landlords or landless laborers. The farmer-herder society did not have great wealth, but it had an enduring stability.

That stability was broken by the British explorations of the colonial era, which opened the Himalaya to commerce with the heavily populated plains districts of India. The terms of trade quickly became unequal, as mountain villagers developed a taste for--and increasing dependence on--mass-produced goods from the south, and were increasingly controlled by distant governments that regarded their mountain abode mainly as a ready inventory of cheap labor and natural resources. As the surrounding plains-based nations penetrated the range, the Himalayan people quickly found themselves on the margins of urban governments and industrial economies they could not control.

Mountains have long been viewed as symbols of permanence and strength, so it is ironic that the largest mountain range on Earth is being rapidly transformed by human exploits ranging from overgrazing grasslands to flooding valleys for hydroelectric dams. For both the mountains and the people who live among them, these activities have produced effects that cannot be sustained without profound natural and economic impoverishment.

Fortunately, there is also a countervailing trend, emerging not from the dominant governments in the plains or the industrial-world development agencies, but from the Himalayans themselves.

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