He is also the current chair of the Mountain Forum. Campbell began working in Nepal in the 1970s with community forestry, the Rapti Project, USAID, and The Mountain Institute. He will soon retire from ICIMOD, after seven years there. A cultural anthropologist by training, Campbell was born and raised in India and speaks many regional languages. Excerpts of a recent interview with Ujol Sherchan of the Mountain Forum Secretariat.
How did you get interested in mountain development?
J. Gabriel Campbell: I guess my mother got me started by giving birth to me in Mussoorie at 6,500 feet up in the Indian Himalaya. She was carried to the tiny community hospital by four porters in a sedan chair. Later, I became an anthropologist and lived for years with simple families in remote mountain villages. I wanted to understand these amazing people and how mountains shaped them, their cultures, and their economies, and how they shaped the mountains in return.
Your PhD thesis is on Jumla. Looking back, are you surprised that the Maoists were so active there?
Not at all. Then, Jumla was ten days walk from the nearest road. It is still over five days walk, and the poorest rural area I had ever seen in my life. The men went to work as coolies in India every winter. They were treated like dirt by most officials. Yet, they had dreams. They have the richest culture for love songs. Women who start in arranged marriages usually end up in marriages of love. They want better lives, and I guess it was not hard for them to follow people who promised that.
Having been associated with the Rapti project how do you read the current unrest in the tarai?
Whenever people feel that their own community is marginalised and does not have a voice, it is not surprising that they feel resentment and want to redress the imbalance. The rulers of Nepal have mostly come from the hills ever since the days of the Kasa Raja when Jumla ruled Nepal for 400 years to Gorkha Raj, which we have been in for the last 250 years. Malaria used to keep the population of the tarai belt low and mostly consisted of indigenous groups such as the Tharu, Rajbhansi, Muslims, Dalits etc. who are themselves marginalised by other tarai groups. With the population balance having shifted over the last 40 years, there has not been a corresponding shift in political representation.
You were associated with the beginnings of community forestry in Nepal. What was it like then?
I remember my first exposure to community forestry. I travelled around Nepal and found out there were communities all over the country who were protecting and managing their forests even though it was against the law since they were technically the government's forests. Then there were forest officers who understood that local community management was more effective and more beneficial to the people, forests, and country than government management. Progressive forest officers and donors came together to support communities, change the laws, and start a whole new way of thinking even though most foresters and politicians predicted that it would only result in greater deforestation. This is an amazing success story that concretely shows that communities are in fact the best managers of their resources if they have a proper policy environment and support.
You were also involved with setting up the Makalu-Barun National Park.
All of us on The Mountain Institute's Asia team were dedicated to helping create new national parks on both sides of Chomolungma. Both of these protected areas are based on the recognition that local mountain peoples are the principal caretakers of the environment and must be its biggest beneficiaries if they are to maintain this critical role. Both have been successfully established, but face challenges to turn them into viable long term partnerships between local communities and local and state authorities. In Nepal, the Maoist insurgency basically eliminated the role of government, and in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, the area is so vast and spread out, with diverse sources of economic pressures, that it will take time to harmonise all the elements involved. As always, it will ultimately be up to the local people as to how effectively these parks evolve a sustainable mixture of conservation and livelihoods.
From a regional perspective, what are some of the biggest constraints, geopolitical or otherwise, to forging regional cooperation for mountain development in the Himalayan region?
It is amazing for a region in which five of our eight member countries have fought wars over the last 40 years that it would be these same countries who came together and formed ICIMOD. This act of cooperative vision predated the signing of some of the Alpine Convention protocols, even though they worked almost 50 years to develop them. Naturally, there are still some geopolitical constraints left over from this history that inhibits the level of cooperation, which could be obtained and would be in everyone's interests. These mostly relate to data sharing such as classifying hydrological information and geospatial data (maps) as well as with habits of dealing with issues on bilateral terms rather than regional and global. However, I see a new openness to overcome these constraints, which along with technological breakthroughs such as Google Earth and radar remote sensing are starting to provide new platforms for technical cooperation. With some bold leadership, this could translate into a set of Himalayan or SAARC conventions.
How committed did you find the governments of ICIMOD member countries towards addressing sustainable mountain development?
The current concern for climate change has focussed attention on the critical role of glaciers and snow in water storage and flash floods. The rising demand and cost of energy has renewed focus on the importance of Himalayan rivers for hydro-electric generation. The galloping growth of our major regional economies, China, India, and Pakistan, and the increased trade that is starting to take off means that major road and rail arteries are no longer dreams, but are being turned into realities. South Asia is looking east and China is looking west in ways that are qualitatively different than ever before.
How do you see the Mountain Forum evolving?
There are a number of ideas I think need to be vigorously explored. One is country chapters. Another is many more local language chapters: Chinese, Urdu, Russian, Thai, Indonesian, Serbian, etc. Others include tapping into the biggest mountain interest groups-mountaineers, hikers, and private sector tourism, and e-marketing of mountain products and services, employment opportunities, crafts etc.
Mountain Forum is a unique institution. It is open to anyone for free, and provides support for networking and information sharing over the internet across five continents. It has played a key role in helping shape the global mountain agenda. I was initially sceptical that something so ephemeral would last. I am extraordinarily pleased at how wrong I was. It has lasted and grown, and I think it potentially has a great future. I'd like to register, on behalf of all Mountain Forum members, how grateful we are to the Swiss government for providing essential support.
So where do you see yourself after ICIMOD?
In the mountains. I started in the Himalaya and I can't think of a better home than the beautiful and awe inspiring Himalaya.