Nepali Times
Demystifying Himalayan degradation


Professor Jack Ives is one of the original montologists who gathered in Munich in December 1974 to highlight the problems that the world's mountains faced, in particular the Himalayas. That conference spawned three major 'movements' whose impact we see today.

The first was an alarmist report by the New York Times science editor, Eric Eckholm, whose book Losing Ground (1976), for all its discredited science, still functions as the policy bible for Himalayan resource managers. The second achievement was in eventually seeing the publication of the journal Mountain Research and Development in 1981 that continues to serve as an important forum for physical and social scientists despite its migration from Colorado to California to Oxford. The third was the establishment of ICIMOD in Kathmandu in 1982.

Mountain Research and Development has since 1983 challenged the Eckholm paradigm that Ives and his Swiss colleague Bruno Messerli have termed 'Myth of Himalayan Degradation'. Ives lists eight features of this supposed downward spiral that can be caricatured as an imminent Himalayan environmental collapse due to population pressure and increasing conversion of fragile hillslopes to agriculture. This then supposedly leads to vicious epicycles of environmental degradation, increasing poverty and even flooding in Bangladesh.

Challenging this alluringly simplistic non-science was the now-famous Mohonk Mountain Conference on the Himalaya-Ganges Problem in May 1986. The book that came out of it by Ives and Messerli called Himalayan Dilemma in 1989 showed how the myth of Himalayan degradation was just that: a scientific myth. The purpose of Ives' new Himalayan Perceptions is to examine all the mountain research since 1989 and to see if they validate the debunking of the myth, as well as to look at new (and unexamined by scholars hitherto) threats to mountains and the people living there.

After describing the myth and the mountain context in the first two chapters, Ives goes on to examine various geophysical and economic concerns in the next four and concludes that new evidence certainly validates the overthrowing of the false Himalayan degradation paradigm. However, this academic success is still a failure in policy terms because the movers and shakers of mountain lives continue to live by the old creed.

New research has shown that forests today are overall better because of the ingenuity and dedication of villagers. Although pockets of degradation exist, they have only local impacts that pale into insignificance when compared with the geomorphological processes that are going on in the Himalayas. They certainly contribute next to nothing to flooding in Bangladesh, which is caused primarily by heavy precipitation in the Meghalaya and Bangladesh itself.

Heavy rainfall on seismically and geologically unstable land forms are the primary cause of unexpected landslides. Ives mentions that the world's largest recorded rockfall occurred in Langtang probably 25,000 years ago bringing down some 10 cubic km of rocks. Another recently understood threat is that of glacial lake outbursts, which result from causes such as global warming and the failure of a lake's ice moraine dam. Such events, frequently hard to detect and almost impossible to predict, are characteristic of these mountains. Policy making for mountain development, however, ignores these more fundamental risks and continues to be guided by the unscientific myth of poor mountain farmers causing floods in Bangladesh.

Ives links mountain hazards to the huge risks of human interventions, as developments planned or unplanned, with intentions benign or malign, through globalisation or wars. This is where geophysical sciences come face-to-face with mountain social sciences. The result is more uncertainty on a Himalayan scale and this is what makes the book fascinating and challenging.

Ives recounts how tourism certainly has been a major factor inducing social change in all mountains. However, the blessings are mixed: despite negative impact the opportunity for marginalised farmers to earn extra money is certainly welcome. But it can become an ephemeral resource because, once a group of people has attained considerable material benefits and become dependent on them rather than on their traditional occupation, international wars or local insurgencies can destroy it all.

The same conundrum applies to development activities because, in its name, nationally dominant groups have oppressed ethnic minorities. Ives dedicates an entire chapter to conflict situations: Chittagong Hill Tracts, Nagaland, Bhutan, Nepal's Maoist insurgency and Siachen. What is happening in many of these places proves that shangri-la is a fleeting experience and those therein are rarely beneficiaries. Despite the fact that mountain people are resilient, hospitable, gracious and all that, it is failed development, often through insensitive central government agencies, that has provoked the violent reaction and they can be undone only through sensitivity that has political backing.

On these issues linking mountain societies with potential risks, the book certainly raises more questions than it answers and hence becomes invaluable for researchers trying to understand mountains and the travails of the people living there. Himalayan Perceptions must be read by everyone involved with mountain resource management from Afghanistan to Thailand and every place in between. Unfortunately, with a price tag of ?79, it will remain inaccessible to students, scholars and policy makers in the broader Himalayan region where it's most needed.

Himalayan Perceptions: Environmental change and the well-being of mountain peoples
by Jack D Ives
Routledge, London and New York, 2004
xxi + 271 pages


There is a general consensus, at least within the academia, that there is little support for the notion that uncontrollable environmental degradation, from the mountains to the Bay of Bengal, poses an imminent super-crisis. The World Bank's (1979) year of reckoning [that by AD 2000 no accessible forests will remain in Nepal] has passed and Nepal's mountains and forests are relatively intact.
(p 23)

On a per capita basis, Bhutan is the greatest source of refugees in the world.
(p 180)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)