Himalayan Perceptions: Environmental Change and the Well-Being of Mountain Peoples

Himalayan Perceptions: Environmental Change and the Well-Being of Mountain Peoples

Himalayan Perceptions: Environmental Change and the Well-Being of Mountain Peoples

Himalayan Perceptions: Environmental Change and the Well-Being of Mountain Peoples


imalayan Perceptionsidentifies the confusion of misunderstanding, vested interests, changing perceptions, and institutional unwillingness to base Himalayan development policy on sound scientific knowledge. It analyzes the large amount of new research published since 1989 and thoroughly refutes the entire construct. It examines recent social and economic developments in the region and identifies warfare, guerrilla activities, and widespread oppression of poor ethnic minorities as the primary cause for the instability that pervades the entire region. Ives argued that the development controversy is further confounded by exaggerated reporting, even falsification, by news media, environmental publications, and agency reports alike.


The United Nations University (UNU) has been involved in Himalayan research from its formative years. This commitment, supported by each of my predecessors as Rector and myself over a quarter century, came about by a curious chance. When former UNU Vice-Rector, Walther Manshard, asked Jack Ives in 1977 to serve as coordinator of the then new UNU project on 'Highland-Lowland Interactive Systems', he accepted on condition that the project, still to be defined, include an assessment of mountain hazards facing development of the Himalayan region. This condition was met with enthusiasm and set in motion an enterprise that extended eastward from the Nepal Himalaya to the Hengduan Mountains of southwest China and the highlands of northern Thailand and northwestward into the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan. It rapidly expanded from consideration of mountain hazards to embrace a much broader study of the relationships between development and the well-being of the mountain people. It also led to a most effective partnership between Ives and Bruno Messerli and their colleagues and students, and a training programme for young scholars from many of the countries of the Himalayan region.

The first phase of research led to the Mohonk Mountain Conference on the 'Himalaya- Ganges Problem' in May 1986. This facilitated collaboration with the East-West Center (Honolulu), the Nepal-Australia Forestry Project, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the National Planning Commission (Nepal), and many scholars from within the region and from Europe and North America.

The Mohonk Mountain Conference and additional research prompted Ives and Messerli to co-author the book The Himalayan Dilemma, published in 1989. This effort has been credited as the first successful attempt to overthrow one of the prevailing environmental paradigms of the period - the assumption of imminent Himalayan environmental collapse.

The success, however, has remained primarily academic. Post-1989 research, deriving directly from the project or undertaken independently by other institutions and individuals, has repeatedly reinforced the somewhat preliminary conclusions of the 1989 book, thus calling for an up-dated version.

Despite the academic success, decision-makers, development assistance agencies, and government institutions have scarcely altered their missions relating to development of the region. Policies continue to be implemented based on little solid scientific evidence. Furthermore, they are often inimical to the well-being of the poor mountain people of the region.

The persistent acceptance of Himalayan catastrophe theory, widely supported by the popular news media, deflects political and administrative attention away from the real problems that face the region.

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