Nepali Times
Himalayan endeavours

Uncertainty on a Himalayan Scale: An institutional theory of environmental perception and a strategic framework for the sustainable development of the Himalaya. Michael Thomson, Michael Warburton and Tom Hately. With a new introduction by Michael Thomson and Dipak Gyawali. Lalitpur, Nepal: Himal Books. 2007 (first published by Milton Ash Editions (1986)). Price not stated.

Despite billions of dollars spent and increasingly complicated theories and 'best practices,' debates continue to rage over the meanings, processes, problems, and policies of development and environment. Yet, it is debatable whether there has been much development, sustainable or otherwise, whether we have come closer to understanding what the problems are, and whether correct strategies have been designed to address them, especially in the Himalayan region.

The controversial book Uncertainty on a Himalayan Scale offers a bold theoretical understanding of the environmental perceptions and a strategic framework for action to promote sustainable development in the Himalaya. This lucid, well-written book raises questions and offers complex and sometimes innovative arguments that force us to examine our assumptions, pet theories and practices, especially in situations of diverse and colossal uncertainties.

The authors convincingly argue that the dominant theories, hegemonic perceptions, and strategies pertaining to environmental problems and sustainable development in the Himalaya are based on wrong science, questionable data, flawed definitions of the problem(s), and poor understanding of the region's historical and local contexts and heterogeneous institutions.

Data concerning bio-physical facts in the Himalaya are extremely uncertain and questionable. For example, it is still not clear whether forest cover in Nepal is increasing or decreasing, and expert estimates of per capita fuelwood consumption differ by as much as a factor of 67! It is therefore difficult to discover what the 'problem' is (or whether we should not instead speak about 'problems') and what the solution(s) are. The authors suggest we shift our attention from uncertain nature to institutions, which "are the facts", and thus from cis-science or normal science as we know it, to trans-science, the science of 'messes', which uses the perspective of sociology of perception. Using the lens of institutional theory (cultural theory) the authors discuss how knowledge (facts, perceptions, cognition), definition of problems, and policies are created, mediated and sustained by a plurality of institutions such as international agencies, the state, and the 'villagers' of specific localities.

Even if reliable data are available, facts are mediated by institutions and some perceptions continue to dominate. A striking example is the myth that deforestation in the Nepal hills cause floods downstream. Research has shown that the 'sponge' effect of forested land during heavy rains may cause more flooding than is believed. Yet, we keep hearing that the hills have to be reforested to prevent downstream flooding. This perception suits many interests: those of international aid agencies, which have to justify their existence and disburse funds; the Nepali government, which is only too happy to receive aid for reforestation; and the Indian and Bangladeshi governments, who can blame Nepal for floods in their countries.

Unlike most development and environment experts who long for homogeneity and consensus, the authors make a case for a theory of plural rationalities of social and cultural institutions in the Himalayan region. Each has its own perceptions, definitions of problems, expectations, and rationalities which may contest or contradict each other. They suggest, for example, that the perceptions and strategies of 'cautious cultivators' (Hindus) differ significantly from those of the
'adventurous traders' (Buddhists).

They argue that "diversity, contention, contradiction. are our ultimate resources" and "where there is heterogeneity there is hope." This is because plurality-in this case considering the diversities of local knowledge and entering into dialogue with the people supposed to benefit from projects-allows for different definitions of problems and different strategies to address them.

The new introduction by Michael Thomson and Dipak Gyawali makes a strong case for dialogues between the state, market, civil society, and the large mass of people. Each will have its own rationality: hierarchy, individualism, egalitarianism, and fatalism. They argue that all four institutions must work together and complement each other for suitable and sustainable solutions to be found for specific problems.

There may be reservations about the strategic framework and the 'structural' nature of institutional theory, but this book nevertheless helps readers understand why international aid for development, good governance, human rights, or conflict resolution is often in a quagmire.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)