In choosing to study the relationship between Himalayan societies in Nepal and Ladakh and their environment, the authors of this book propose a new interpretation of present-day landscapes, of their diversity as well as of their transformation. Natural data on the Himalayan range, demography, perceptions and representations of milieux, their history, current local examples of resource management, especially tree management, are the subject of often unprecedented investigations ...
In light of this, what about preconceived ideas in terms of the environmental crisis affecting the Himalayas-Ganges Plain area, the causes generally invoked and the recommended solutions? What can be said of the predicted disasters and of the factors identified so far?
By associating various disciplines (geography, social anthropology, history, agronomy ... ) with the knowledge imparted by the populations studied, meticulous fieldwork, as well as archive research, this book prompts us to re-examine the catastrophist theories on the degradation of Himalayan environments by placing them in a spatial, temporal and cultural context. Thus, in these mountains, the issue seems not so much one of environmental problems linked to deforestation - which is, moreover, supposedly a recent phenomenon - as of problems of a society that, in trying to protect its environment, leaves the most underprivileged populations by the wayside. It would also appear that any intervention in these milieux needs to take into account their symbolic and religious dimension, as well as the very precise knowledge populations have of them. Finally, this work contributes to fuelling debates on major environmental changes on a planetary scale and no doubt to reformulating them.
This book was first published in French in 2003 under the title : "Histoire et devenir des paysages en Himalaya. Representations des milieux et gestion des ressources au Nepal et au Ladakh", CNRS Editions.
Joelle Smadja,PhD, is a geographer, head of the CNRS (French National Research Centre) research unit "Milieux, societes et cultures en Himalaya" "("Environments, Societies and Cultures in the Himalayas"), where, since 1995, she has been coordinating interdisciplinary research programmes on the relationships between man and his environment.
Her investigations focused on Nepal where, after a thesis on geomorphology, she showed particular "interest in the population's perception and representation of environments as well as in land use and resource management over time. Part of her research covers the importance of the "tree" as a resource in the Himalayan populations' subsistence economy, and especially the setting up of a "bocage" in several Nepalese districts.
She is also studying the repercussions of environment protection policies on agriculture and rural societies, and in particular the ensuing territorial restructurings. Her current work focuses on North-East India (Arunachal Pradesh and Assam), with the aim of contributing to the geographical study of the Himalayan Range as a whole.
Based on data collected up to the year 2000, this book was first published in French at the beginning of 2003. This English version is a translation of the original French edition: Histoire et devenir des paysages en Himalaya. Representations des milieux et gestion des ressources au Nepal et au Ladakh. Sous la direction de J Smadja. CNRS Editions.
Any changes that have occurred since then as well as any publications that appeared after our first writings have not been taken into account. However, and in spite of its rather late translation into English, this book provides basic data and guidelines for studying both the relationship of Himalayan societies with their milieux and Himalayan landscapes that should help to understand current changes. The picture given of the Himalayan landscapes, of the representations of milieux and of resource management over the centuries up to the beginning of the XXlst century still has no equivalent today.
Summits to be climbed, mountain slopes admirably shaped into cultivated terraces, eroded slopes, the realm of the gods... Each of us has his/her own notion of the Himalayan Mountains. A place to live for some, a space for leisure activities, for study or work for others, they are perceived in different ways, and are at the root of speeches and actions that influence environment management as well as landscape making. The latter, restructured over centuries according to natural phenomena, societies and their civilisations, have for several decades now undergone rapid changes, the interpretation of which comes up against a lack of space, historical and cultural references. By studying the relationship Nepalese and Ladakhi Himalayan societies (Figure 1) have with their natural environment and the way in which, over time, they have used land and managed resources, the authors of this book intend to provide a better understanding of the landscapes, their diversity and their transformations.
They also wish to fuel debates on environmental issues at stake in this region of the world.
Lack of knowledge, uncertainty, complexity. Preliminary report
In the Himalayas, exploiting natural resources underlies an economy that, for 80 per cent of the population, relies on agriculture and livestock farming. The animals that, among other things, enable fields to be ploughed and manured, are fed farming residues, grass from pastures and leaves from trees which also provide firewood and building timber. The land to be cultivated - at the end of the XXth century it covers 20 per cent of the country in Nepal- fodder and wood are at the centre of production systems. An increasing need for these resources, correlative to demographic growth over the last half century, gives rise to considerable concern. Environmental preoccupations relative to deforestation and soil erosion therefore take on a particular intensity, so much so that rivers taking their source in these mountains drain the most populated regions in the world: when devastating flooding occurs in lowlands, especially in the Gangetic plain, accusing glances turn uphill. Indeed, the mountain people's relationship to their environment, their lifestyle, land development, resource management, technical and social systems may weigh in the balance of the vast Himalayan/Gangetic plain system. Yet, these are still very little known and their repercussions even less so, hardly helping to establish any cause-effect relationship. However, Himalayan peasants' behaviour has been criticised over the last three decades using pictures accompanied by univocal commentaries, the dramatic impact of which is proportional to the fascination expressed towards the landscapes in this region of the world.
Himalayan Environmental Degradation, a debatable theory
In the 1970s, sensational pictures were indeed widely broadcast revealing the industrial exploitation of forests and clear cuttings on the Indian and Chinese Himalayan slopes. They showed how trekking routes cross treeless sectors offering a sight of desolation in Nepal, displaying frequent mass wasting and landslides. To back this up, the captions to the photographs provide explanations: demographic growth, human pressure on the environments, deforestation, erosion accentuated by monsoon rains, the irresponsibility of mountain farmers, and the degradation of the Himalayan environment. The die was cast and, for years, these accounts and their interpretations sustained worst scenarios for the future of the environments and their populations.' They also upheld basic hypotheses for research carried out at the time in this region of the world. However, most of the first extensive studies confronting these presuppositions with the reality of the field questioned this catastrophist theory, the whole fabric of which came up against an essential question, set out in particular by the Nepalese geographer, Harka Gurung, in 1984: what were the great hypothetical natural balances prior to the deterioration of environments? The results of many researchers were closely akin to this question.' They consider that few scientific facts have been firmly established regarding this region of the world and that the few rare detailed studies often contradict catastrophist versions or are not sufficient to prove advanced hypotheses. The only proven facts are the uncertainty which hangs over Himalayan data and its complexity." Some of these studies, which deal essentially with Nepal, were grouped together and summarised in 1989 by Ives and Messerli in the book Himalayan Dilemma. Here the authors highlight the weakness and invalidity of the alarmist scenario previously mentioned; a scenario that they have christened the "Theory of Himalayan Environmental Degradation" (Frame 1). We will not review all the failings of this theory here;" but only certain points that have led to writing this book.
In spite of this scenario being questioned since the mid-1980s and although certain studies today explicitly show that "Himalayan populations are not responsible for flooding in Bangladesh", 6 it persists, as a report by the ODA still uses the same terms." For certain authors, this is partly because it justifies international aid, substantial budgets for development programmes and sometimes the very existence of these major programmes. 8 Now, as everyone knows, the way in which a problem is exposed infers the type of response it receives and the type of action. The Nepalese government, supported by international organisations, has thus confirmed this crisis scenario and has implemented a conservationist nature protection policy, materialised by forest protection and the creation of national parks. In doing so, it has above all intended to restore or preserve landscapes that make up, in themselves, a resource on which one of the country's main sources of revenue relies, i.e. tourism. In 2001, protected areas, some of them under the army's control, covered nearly 17 per cent of Nepalese territory. This attitude calls to mind that of the French government at the end of the XIXth century, when State foresters employed catastrophist speeches on the degradation of environments in order to justify their authoritarian afforestation and conservation actions." At the time, these foresters clashed with partners in local development actions. The situation is really very similar today in Nepal and, as in a great many other regions of the world, the definition of an environmental crisis situation raises a certain number of questions: 10 which referents are used to diagnose a crisis? What is normality compared to a crisis state? How do we define resources and who are those who qualify them and are in a position to do so? Hence, on what scale may reality be perceived? Who are those who declare a state of crisis and eventually find it to their own advantage to do so? As for landscape preservation, it also gives rise to numerous questions that Yves Michelin in particular summarises as follows: "When one claims to protect landscapes, one must specify against whom and against what. Against the passage of time? For the sake of which values? [ ... ] Does one want to preserve today's landscape? Restore yesterday's or the day before yesterday's? Invent another new one for tomorrow? To please whom: a specific social category, visitors who demand the right to contemplate 'beautiful landscapes' or to please the inhabitants [ ... ]?" These landscapes make up the inhabitants' surroundings and are also produced by them. In a text on "Normative conceptions of landscape", the authors, in the same vein, add: "There is a contradiction [ ... ] in wanting present society to make a landscape -which was well balanced with a past social organisation- last other than as a museum exhibit limited in space." 12 These questions and thoughts are closely akin to current problems of "sustainable development" and local development that are at the heart of environmental preoccupations and refer back to several aspects of methodology that we will come back to later, having examined the Himalayan situation in more detail.
Biased reasoning based on mystifications
The Himalayan regions, and more particularly Nepal, which was closed to foreigners up until 1951, remained unexplored for a long time. At the beginning of the 1950s, the only knowledge of Nepalese environments came from the Kathmandu Valley. As for the rest, tour notes from rare clandestine explorers, descriptions and measurements taken from India and limited information from scholars and British Army personnel who were privileged to ride along some main roads, were the only accounts available. Few of them were published, any rare historical data had not been exploited and field research outside the Valley was only in its initial stages. Thus experts, researchers, tourists and journalists who went to Nepal in the first decades following its opening only possessed limited elements with which to interpret the observed phenomena. This should have prompted cautiousness on their part. But at a period where spectacular information and catastrophism started to gain ground, it was nothing of the sort. 14 With no knowledge of the history of this country's milieux, they turned them into milieux with no history. The referential was the 1950s that became "ground zero", the starting point for all processes. Observations, very few and far between, were generalised and only Western evaluation criteria were used, whether it involved data on milieux, the economy or demography. Consequently, and for want of admitting to the ignorance we faced at the time, any information was completely biased. 15 Even more so because, upon its opening, the country underwent many changes, such as the eradication of malaria and the clearing of the Tarai plain for cropping, considerable demographic growth, and severe deforestation along trekking routes, masking all earlier processes. Thus, the constitutional instability of the Himalayan range, secular catastrophic episodes, both geological and meteorological, stages in land use and especially the main phases in deforestation over previous centuries, etc. were overshadowed.
Several misunderstandings have to be pointed out, but first a preliminary remark needs to be made. Granted that environmental science is a recent "field for research in the making"," it calls for challenging the commonplace, placing data in their context and discussing them, admitting to doubts and making these part of the reasoning process -as for all sciences and to avoid exposure to dogmatisms. Environmental policies will only be improved if they are well documented. Therefore the following clarifications do not aim at minimising real problems or at idealising a situation, which is not the point, but at counterbalancing judgements and at putting into perspective all too hasty remarks.
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