Saving the Himalaya.
To have a first glance at the Himalaya is impossible, since even to approach it takes--by most methods of transport--many days, shifts in visual perspective, and dramatic changes in weather.
But if a first glance were possible, it would probably suggest that no feature of the Earth is more impervious to human presence. The Himalaya has been the ultimate destination for generations of pilgrims and mountaineers, whose accounts of their journeys have endowed this ancient domain with mysterious and mythical qualities. In the popular imagination of the west, the Himalaya is too rugged, hostile, and lonely an environment to be affected--say nothing of damaged--by people.
That perception, however, is wrong. While the Himalaya towers eight vertical kilometers above the estuaries where its great rivers finally empty into the ocean, it is not made of immutable rock but of unstable geological formations and vulnerable ecosystems. While the Himalaya may appear hostile when a sudden gust flings a group of climbers to their deaths, these mountains and their intertwining valleys are extraordinarily hospitable to life overall--providing sustenance to one of the richest varieties of both human communities and wildlife on Earth. And while there are places in these mountains where one might walk for a day without seeing another person, in fact more people now live in the Himalaya than in Mexico City, Tokyo-Yokohama, New York, Seoul, Sao Paulo, and Bombay combined.
What the popular perception overlooks is the ecological fragility of the Himalaya--a condition made all the more precarious by the poverty and density of its human population. Many of those who live in the encircling plains do not understand the nature of the high peaks that send them their water, topsoil, and weather. The natural processes of uplift, tectonic movement, and erosion make the range one of the most dynamic landscapes on Earth, prone not only to natural hazards--earthquakes, landslides, flash floods, and glacial lake outbursts--but also to human damage.
At least 118 million people now struggle to sustain themselves from Himalayan fields, pastures, and forests. But it was not always a struggle; for millennia, the integration of small farms and herds with the forest ecology gave Himalayan society a fairly uniform class structure, with few rich landlords or landless laborers. The farmer-herder society did not have great wealth, but it had an enduring stability.
That stability was broken by the British explorations of the colonial era, which opened the Himalaya to commerce with the heavily populated plains districts of India. The terms of trade quickly became unequal, as mountain villagers developed a taste for--and increasing dependence on--mass-produced goods from the south, and were increasingly controlled by distant governments that regarded their mountain abode mainly as a ready inventory of cheap labor and natural resources. As the surrounding plains-based nations penetrated the range, the Himalayan people quickly found themselves on the margins of urban governments and industrial economies they could not control.
Mountains have long been viewed as symbols of permanence and strength, so it is ironic that the largest mountain range on Earth is being rapidly transformed by human exploits ranging from overgrazing grasslands to flooding valleys for hydroelectric dams. For both the mountains and the people who live among them, these activities have produced effects that cannot be sustained without profound natural and economic impoverishment.
Fortunately, there is also a countervailing trend, emerging not from the dominant governments in the plains or the industrial-world development agencies, but from the Himalayans themselves. Across the range, locally-directed projects are restoring the self-sustaining nature of the mountain economy and ecology. By placing natural resources back under the control of villagers, these projects give local people both the incentive and the means necessary to break the interlocking grip of poverty and environmental decline. Now the challenge is to incorporate the principles demonstrated by these projects into a bioregional strategy for the entire range. Himalayan Dimensions
Most widely known as the site of the world's highest peak, at 8848 meters (variously named Mt. Everest, Chomolungma or Sagarmatha), the Himalaya is the world's largest mountain range, coveting 3.4 million square kilometers. It is also the youngest range; at about 30 million years of age, it is less than half as old as the skeletons of even the most recent dinosaurs.
Flanked on the southeast by the Hengduan mountains and on the northwest by the Hindu Kush, the Himalayan region stretches more than 3,500 kilometers across eight countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Burma (Myanmar), Nepal, and Pakistan.
But just as they revere it for its size and beauty, the Himalaya's inhabitants and admirers now see looming problems arising from its distinction as one of the world's most fragile and unstable mountain environments. The Himalaya is still rising two to five centimeters each year, and with the Indian continental plate thrusting itself underneath the Eurasian plate, the range perched above is extremely seismic, sporadically shuddering with major earthquakes. It rises from an altitude of 100 to 300 meters to an average of 7,000 meters within a spatial distance of just 200 kilometers. This formation gives the Himalaya the highest peaks, steepest escarpment, and deepest gorges of any mountain range: nowhere on Earth do people feel as dwarfed by the landscape. Because of its height and orientation, the Himalaya obstructs the movement of monsoonal currents, causing annual rainfall to vary on average from an arid 100 millimeters per year in Gilgit, in the west, to more than 11 meters in Cherrapunji, in the east--the second wettest place on Earth.
This unparalleled variation in altitude, slope, rainfall, and temperature over short spatial distances fosters havens of biological diversity rich in endemic (unique) species, such as the endangered snow leopard, wild yak and black-necked crane. According to a study by British biologist Norman Myers, the eastern Himalaya has the seventh highest number of endemic species of any bioregion in the world. At the Dali annual fair in Yunnan province, China, peasants trade as many as 550 species of herbal medicinal plants, in addition to hundreds of food plants.
Surrounded by a crowded, heavily transformed lowland to the east, south, and west, the Himalaya is a vertical archipelago of ethnic and natural diversity. It has cradled some of the world's most ancient civilizations, in Tibet and along the Indus and Ganga valleys of northern India and Pakistan. More than 300 distinct languages and tribes can be found in Nepal's hill country alone. "Cultural diversity is not an historical accident," says Anil Agarwal, founder and director of the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi. "It is the direct outcome of the local people learning to live in harmony with the region's extraordinary biological diversity."
A Losing Race Against Poverty
For more than a thousand years, Himalayan villagers made their living by subsistence hillside farming and herding, and by bartering for goods like salt and wool from Tibet, silk from China, and medicinal herbs from the eastern Himalaya. They had simple lifestyles, lived in wooden or mud huts, and collectively used the surrounding fields and forests according to elaborate customs designed to balance their productivity and ecological health.
A few decades ago, the construction of roads began to bring perhaps the most sweeping changes these villagers had ever experienced. With accessibility by road, bartering and subsistence farming began to be replaced by commercial farming, mass tourism, logging, mining, construction of hydropower and water storage facilities, export of medicinal plants, and--in the foothills--even the development of some urban industries. From the plains, villagers could now get food supplies during periods of acute scarcity, and modern health care. These improvements reduced death rates and accelerated population growth. But this commercial invasion also proved to be a sword with two edges: while people no longer had to be entirely self-sufficient, in many cases they also no longer could be self-sufficient. The ancient balance was broken--forcing many men to leave their mountain farms and families to seek jobs in the foothills. This "downhill" migration--which continues today--not only strains mountain villages as the women struggle to manage even more chores, but also adds to the swelling ranks of urban poor.
Since it brings paying jobs, some development experts have seen this demographic shift as a gain; they cite the traditional poverty of the villages--as manifested by low literacy rates and per capita income. But these figures can be misleading. Such data tend to be haphazardly compiled in the Himalaya--and ignore the prevalence of commonly-owned resources like pastures and forests, as well as the existence of barter trade.
Perhaps the single most devastating factor in the breakup of the traditional economy has been the failure of per capita food production to keep pace with population growth. With more mouths to feed in their own communities, mountain farmers have shifted onto more marginal lands to produce the commercial crops demanded by the plains economy. Many have turned to planting fruits and vegetables for urban consumers in nearby cities like Kunming, Kathmandu, or Delhi. Apple orchards, for example, now cling to marginal hillsides from the Thimphu district of Bhutan to the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan.
Demographers estimate the annual rate of population growth for the entire Himalayan region to be at least 2 percent. With the area cultivated per person declining, and farm yields increasing by only 1 percent, each year per capita food production slips by more than 1 percent. Pushing more farmers to clear forests for more erodible croplands, this losing race against poverty only deepens the ecological pressures on Himalayan fields, pastures, and forests.
Degrading the Land
By far the most evident degradation of Himalayan resources has occurred in the forests. While no reliable data on changes in forest cover exist for the region as a whole, state foresters in India estimate that since 1950, at least 40 percent of the forest cover in the Indian Himalaya has been lost to clearing for farmland, urban growth, and commercial logging. A comparable estimate for Nepal is about 20 percent loss.
Commercial cutting began in earnest in 1865, when the British negotiated a 20-year lease for all state forests in the Garwhal Himalaya for 10,000 rupees per year. The contract paid off richly: between 1869 and 1885, the British hauled away 6.5 million railway ties from perhaps the largest, thickest deodar forest in the world. Following the success of the Chipko "tree-hugging" movement in the mid-1970s to stop commercial felling in Uttar Pradesh, the Indian government halted the industry throughout the Indian Himalaya at least until 1996. Now, the primary regions of commercial clearing are in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces of China.
But for most Himalayan forests, the degradation has been more a process of diminishing quality than of rapid clearing. To avoid starvation, subsistence farmers who do not control their local forests arc often driven to overgraze their cattle, lop too many branches for fuel and fodder, and convert thinning or degraded forests to cropland. "What started the process of forest degradation in many cases was a large-scale removal by an outside interest, usually the state or their contractors. Because the forest had already been degraded, only then were villagers driven to excessive cutting and grazing," says Dr. Ajit Kumar Banerjee, senior forestry specialist with the World Bank in Washington, D.C. The convergence of a growing population and declining forest productivity has often made for a disastrous collision. In many places, village forests have become so degraded that a woman will spend up to several hours on a barefoot trek to haul back a day's supply of fodder or fuelwood weighing more than she does. In the arid Tibetan plateau, men travel with a small herd of yak for seven to eight days to collect several weeks' worth of firewood.
Without any effective oversight, much of the Himalchal Pradesh state in India has been heavily deforested, causing severe erosion. The Kashmir Valley also has been heavily cut over, allegedly due to cheap logging contracts awarded by corrupt bureaucrats. Glaring exceptions to the decline in forest resources are Arunachal Pradesh in India and Bhutan, which have retained almost 60 percent of their forest cover--although even in Bhutan, the shifting cultivation and swelling immigrant population in the south are starting to overburden the neighborhood forests.
In the more arid western region of the Himalaya, grasslands and shrubs dominate the landscape. While receiving less attention than the forests, the grasslands sustain one of the largest pastoral economies in the world, comprised mostly of nomads. In 1984, raising goats and yak provided almost 70 percent of the total economic output of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) of China. Very little data is available on the degradation of these all-important grasslands and pastures, although there is abundant anecdotal evidence of too many livestock in some areas. The impacts of overgrazing are widely visible--in decreases of palatable grasses, invasion by noxious weeds, and soil compaction. The end result can be barren landscapes.
Passing through the grasslands and forests, and nurturing them both, is the Himalaya's most important natural asset of all: its fresh water. With probably the highest runoff of any single mountain range in the world, the Himalaya functions as the water towers of Asia: more than one-half billion people--one-tenth of the world's population--directly depend on water from rivers that form there. And these rivers have other, newer uses as well: concentrated in the Indus valley and western half of the Ganga valley, hydropower projects--including some of the highest dams in the world--have proliferated since 1950 to meet the plains' increased demand for electricity and irrigation.
Above Tehri in the Garwhal Himalaya, the Indian government is building a 260-meter-high hydroelectric dam, just a few kilometers from where a 1991 earthquake killed 2,200 people. After lengthy protests from international seismic experts and mountain villagers, however, construction has been temporarily suspended. In eastern Nepal, the World Bank is the primary funder for the proposed Arun III project, a $700 million dam in the Arun valley on the Nepal-Tibetan border that would dislodge thousands of hill farmers and destroy habitat for several endangered species, including the Himalayan black bear. The Himalayan land is also being degraded and destabilized by a spreading network of roads and open-cast mines. Even though the inherent geological instability and torrential rains of the Himalaya pose stiff challenges for road engineers, China's 1962 invasion of the Indian Himalaya sparked a frenzy of hasty road construction. Today, in the Chinese provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan and on the Karakorum highway, rain-induced landslides are common.
Similarly, heavy earth-moving at limestone, magnetite and marble quarries in the Doon Valley of the Indian Himalaya, combined with a rainy climate, choked hundreds of stream and river drainages with silt until popular protest and legal challenge forced most of the quarries to close in the mid-1980s. In the Khaniara area of Himalchal Pradesh in India, nearly 1,000 small-to-medium sized slate mines have stripped up to 60 percent of the forest cover and triggered countless landslides, according to Drs. Abhinandan Bhardwaj and Sunil Dhar of the Centre for Advanced Study of Geology at Panjab University in Chandigarh, India. In short, virtually all economic activity in the Himalaya--particularly fuelwood collection, slash-and-burn agriculture, mining, clearing of land for commercial crops, bulldozing for roads, excavating of irrigation ditches, and grazing of livestock--has degraded the land and reduced its productivity.
Tourists, Parks, and Climate
Centuries ago, pilgrimages by Buddhists to Lhasa, and by Hindus to the temples of Kaedernath or Badrinath in the Garwhal Himalaya, set the stage for today's secular mass tourism. Nepal now earns one-quarter of its foreign exchange from tourism; yet only 10 percent of this income reaches the rural poor, whose mountain environment is the primary attraction. During just four peak months, dozens of Himalayan trekking destinations now host more visitors than residents. After centuries of using no more wood than the forest regenerated, villages now often strip their forests to heat food, drink and shower water for the tourists. As though the natural and cultural diversity were not sufficiently compelling, well-heeled tourists can hop off helicopters to ski above the Kulu Valley of Himalchal Pradesh.
One of the most potent symbols of western incursions to the Himalaya is the world's loftiest garbage dump, left by four decades of siege-style expeditions up the Nepalese (southern) side of Mt. Everest. At least 50 metric tons of trash lies between the base camp and the summit. To ensure that incoming expeditions dispatch their garbage to the country of origin, the Nepalese government now collects a $4,000 "cleanliness" deposit. Three Everest Environmental Expeditions to the Tibetan side have attempted to forestall similar accumulations. There are at least 131 national parks and protected areas covering about 863,000 hectares in the Himalaya, according to Dr. Hemantra Mishra, a biodiversity specialist with the World Bank in Washington, D.C. Tourist and development pressures prompted the creation of many of these areas, notably the Sagarmatha National Park in Nepal (1973), Nanda Devi in India (1982), and Royal Manas in Bhutan (1987). But even with these 131 refuges, more than 99.7 percent of the Himalaya is left officially unprotected.
Finally, among all the forces that threaten this region, there is one that may make the others seem quite manageable by comparison: the prospect of a warming climate. The word "Himalaya" means "the Land of Snow and Ice" in the original Sanskrit, and significant warming of the atmosphere--widely predicted as a result of human industry--could have unimaginable effects. Some computer models of global climate change predict relatively more warming at the Himalayas' higher altitudes, since the region is so far from the cooling effect of the oceans.
With 15,000 glaciers covering 17 percent of the Himalaya, these moving monoliths of ice play a critical role in the seasonal flows of the region's rivers. Lonnie Thompson, a high-altitude glaciologist with the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University, has determined that on the Dunda ice cap in western Tibet, the last 50 years were the warmest in the past 12,000 years. Meteorological observations from the nearest weather station in Delingha, 100 kilometers to the southwest, confirm a 1.2 degrees Celsius warming since the mid-1950s.
Should this warming trend persist and prove universal to the Himalaya, the critical timing of the runoff used to irrigate fields in the plains would change. The range's concentration of endemic species would also be seriously imperiled, since their habitats are often narrow hillside swaths that may not adapt quickly enough to shift with the warming climate.
Footsteps on the Path to Sustainability
Given the prominence of its environmental and developmental problems, the Himalaya has become a cause celebre with development agencies: Nepal now hosts officials from more than 100 agencies, and tiny Bhutan has at least 45. Unfortunately, the influx of technical experts and scientists has yet to make life for most Himalayan people much easier or their environment any healthier.
As though the mountains were simply three-dimensional adjuncts of the plains, most development projects in the Himalaya have ignored the fundamental constraints imposed by its steep slopes. Massive hydropower dams were built on silt-prone rivers or in seismically-active areas. Highways were carved across unstable hillsides. In mountain villages like Nepal's Khumbu, luxury hotels were built without a reliable supply of water or power, or even of steady demand by tourists. Higher-producing cattle from the plains were introduced to lofty regions like Ladakh, even though the lowland breeds could not withstand the exertion of grazing in the thin air.
Debate over development in the Himalaya usually confronts the dilemma of reconciling economy with ecology: often the most immediate solutions for bolstering people's economic success requires using more of the natural resources at hand--an approach that will ultimately bankrupt the land and the people who depend on it.
For decades, the local people caught in the crossfire of this debate have had no voice in it. "The present crisis and confusion in Himalayan development is largely a result of the exclusion of the local people from the decision-making process," wrote mountain ecologist Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, visiting professor at the International Academy for the Environment in Geneva, in his chapter on sustainable development in the Himalaya in State of the World's Mountains: A Global Status Report. But recently, locally-controlled community development projects have been springing up throughout the mountains.
The Nepalese government, for example, has created a nongovernmental organization to protect the Annapurna region in the central Nepalese Himalaya from ever-growing population pressures. The Annapurna "massive," whose lower hills are home to about 40,000 peasant hill farmers from 14 tribal groups or castes, attracts an equal number of tourists each year, who in turn employ another 40,000 porters and guides.
The Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP), which now spans 7,000 square kilometers (more than half the area of Connecticut), was a radical departure for the Nepalese government, which had previously spent 80 percent of its parks budget on paying soldiers to keep villagers out of the forests.
"ACAP is inherently different from other programs because from its very inception, we involved the local people in preserving the forest resources of the area and took a flexible, multiple land-use approach," says Dr. Chandra Gurung, Secretary-General of the King Mahendra Trust for Nature, a private, non-profit conservation group that manages the project.
Since project managers found that 80 percent of all fuelwood was used to boil water, they first focused on finding alternative energy sources. Their initial choices proved unreliable; solar hot water heaters were costly and complex, and a kerosene-stove-only policy failed during the suspension of trade with India, Nepal's sole supplier of kerosene. Eventually, the project succeeded by introducing hundreds of "back boiler" stoves that also function as water heaters and cut the need for fuelwood by 40 percent, and a 50-kilowatt micro-hydropower plant that supplies electricity to 12 tourist hotels and 250 homes. It then established sanitary drinking water systems and village health clinics, which have been so successful in reducing infant mortality that once a family has two to three children, according to Gurung, virtually all village men choose vasectomies to limit their family size.
In seven years' time, the Annapurna project has set up education and tourism programs, fodder plantations, and carpet and basket weaving cooperatives. Staffers even proselytize hikers with pamphlets explaining the "Minimum Impact Code" for trails, and teach villagers of all ages how to conserve resources. "We learned early on that people don't value what they don't contribute to," says Gurung. He describes ACAP's role as that of a lami, or matchmaker, that finds money to match the villagers' contributions for new projects. ACAP partly supports itself by collecting a $4 access fee from hikers, a funding source that Gurung says should make the program self-sufficient within three years. The surrounding forests are now zoned for multi-purpose community use, fodder, or restoration, a change that has allowed the villages to return to the collective forest management they had practiced until the disastrous nationalization of all forests by Nepal and India in the 1950s. Now that villagers again have common ownership of their forests, degradation through excessive grazing, clearing for farmlands, and harvesting fuelwood has virtually ceased. "Social forestry" projects have also succeeded in Kashmir, some parts of Himalchal Pradesh, the Siwaliks, and the Dharding district of Nepal, according to forestry specialist Ajit Banerjee.
No More For the Looters
Development projects in the Himalaya are as different as the communities that inspire them, ranging from traditional agriculture-based programs to social protests.
World Neighbors, an Oklahoma City-based nonprofit development group, came to the Himalaya to help one community overhaul its slash-and-burn brand of farming. Under the direction of project planners, villagers in Bahunipati, Nepal, planted single rows of thick grasses between hedgerows of fast-growing, fodder trees--a simple approach that has given them a reliable off-season supply of fodder and eliminated the need to overgraze the forest. Profitable crops of mangoes and oranges now flourish in nurseries, giving the villagers a new source of income. But the World Neighbors approach goes beyond agricultural needs, integrating family planning and health issues as well. By offering literacy training and helping village women learn to solve problems together, the project has been more successful in its goals of increasing income, decreasing fertility, protecting water supplies, and improving human and livestock health, says Shanti Basnet, the project's women's development officer. After 20 years, the Baudha-Bahunipati Family Welfare Project has been so successful and well-received that World Neighbors is now replicating the program in 38 other villages, reaching 153,000 people. With villagers already controlling the project planning and implementation, World Neighbors' ultimate goal is to hand over all responsibilities to the local nongovernmental organizations.
Across the mountains, a very different kind of change is in progress. In the Indian hill country of Uttar Pradesh, centuries of colonial rule have touched off cycles of social protests, including what may be the most famous grassroots resistance in the world: the Chipko ("Hug the Trees") movement, which succeeded in the mid-1970s in halting all commercial logging in the Garwhal region for 15 years.
That activist tradition has continued. In recent years, farmers in the region have protested several open cast limestone mines in steep watersheds, that Icad to landslides and forest degradation. Village women have led effective campaigns against alcoholism and illegal distilleries by organizing demonstrations, sit-ins at liquor stills, and "social boycotts" of both vendors and alcoholics. Ghanshyam Raturi wrote a poem in 1973, during the initial Chipko protests, that encapsulates both the landmark struggle to regain control over local forests and current grassroots activism:
Embrace the trees and Save our forests Wealth of the mountain is No more for the looters.
Save the Himalaya
While the real test of progress towards sustainable development will bc the extent to which villagers have gained the power to solve their own economic and environmental problems, a well-organized bioregional strategy--involving all Himalayan countries--will be essential to solving range-wide problems. Appropriately, the first push for international cooperation in the Himalaya has come from the grassroots. A Gandhi-style charismatic leader of the peasant Chipko movement, Sunderlal Bahuguna, is launching a broad-scale "Save the Himalaya" movement, spearheaded by a declaration signed by more than 100 Indian radical environmentalists, calling for preserving genetic biodiversity, giving more autonomy to local institutions, using natural resources to achieve regional self-sufficiency, and banning all commercial logging, mining, and building of dams. The group recommended giving 12 percent of all electricity generated by large hydropower projects free of cost to local villages, and has called for a meeting of all the Himalayan countries to assess the region's environmental problems and begin working together to solve them. Whoever provides the impetus, Himalayan countries need to begin their bioregional cooperation by tackling water management. The range's primary rivers--the Brahmaputra, Ganga, and Indus--carry their water and sediment loads across national borders, bringing with them scientific uncertainties and political disputes over who bears responsibility for the repeated flooding in lowland areas like Bangladesh.
Scientists like Bandyopadhyay think that to cooperate effectively, the countries will need to pool funds to study the regional dynamics of the major river basins. The Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), staffed by scientists appointed by the governments of the eight Himalayan countries, was established in 1985 to do just this kind of collaborative research on Himalayan environmental and development issues. But many Himalayan scholars rate the organization's leadership as lacking the holistic vision and scientific credibility that saving the Himalaya will demand. With regular evaluation of the region's ecosystems, governments and development agencies can start making the conservation of biodiversity as intrinsic to rural development projects as creating economic opportunities. For instance, given the paramount importance of farming to Himalayan people, Canadian soil scientist Brian Carson suggests that agricultural development decisions will be far better informed if they can be based on a uniform classification of all arable lands' rainfall, temperature and soil characteristics. As the caretakers of the Himalaya, it is the mountain people themselves--especially women subsistence farmers--who will play the roles most critical to the region's future. Many villagers already practice sustainable techniques handed down by their ancestors: terracing and irrigating farmlands, moving their grazing livestock according to season, and using plants for medicinal purposes and animals for transportation. Only by linking this indigenous wisdom with modern expertise will practical, realistic ways be found to use Himalayan resources more efficiently and equitably.
Restoring the Himalaya
The crux of the Himalayan problem is an acutely unequal distribution of natural resources, economic opportunity, and investment. While rectifying these structural imbalances is the work of decades, there are a few practical first steps that could create tangible improvements for the Himalayan people and their environment.
When a poor rice farmer and her family are hungry, conserving the environment seems a remote consideration--even if it is ultimately an essential one. Restoring the Himalayan landscape will require a constant focus on what people like that family think about in their struggle to survive. Instead of casting them as the primary perpetrators of environmental ruin, development experts need to recognize subsistence farmers as the central agents of the solution.
To this end, a Himalayan-wide initiative to return local forests to the collective ownership of the villagers would give them the direct incentives they need to sustain this natural wealth. Throughout the Indian and Nepalese Himalaya, enough social forestry projects have succeeded already to prove that the economic and environmental dividend is worth the political and financial costs of this formidable reform in property rights.
Another needed policy innovation is to collect taxes on the commercial extraction of minerals, timber, and hydropower--the three main commodities drawn from the Himalaya for the plains. By funneling the lion's share of this revenue to villagers, national and state governments could give them the means to increase their land productivity--by rebuilding crumbling field terraces and irrigation ditches, replanting degraded forests, starting fodder plantations, and growing appropriate cash crops.
A portion of this income could also endow a Himalayan development bank, modelled on the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, which focuses on improving the financial opportunities of women. Since Himalayan women seldom own property or have access to credit, the bank would make loans for micro-enterprises to small groups of village women willing to guarantee each other's loan repayment, in lieu of traditional collateral. In regular meetings with bank staff, the women could also learn basic literacy skills, along with better methods of conservation, infant and maternal health care, and family planning. This cost-effective investment could reduce the poverty of subsistence women farmers while increasing their social equity and sustainable use of resources. The diverging trends of a surging growth in Himalayan population and the ebbing per capita area of forests and croplands provide a critical proving ground for the global rhetoric on sustainable development. Reversing the progressive decline in the quality of life and environment in the Himalaya will require full recognition of the distinct constraints imposed by its vulnerable ecosystems and the unique capabilities offered by its diverse people. Given the monumental scale of the landscape and population at risk, the Himalaya should become a top priority for international research and assistance. With the right support from their national and global neighbors, the Himalayan people can stop their slide down the slope of encroaching poverty--and begin restoring sustainability to one of Earth's most threatened environments. THE QUESTION OF FLOODING
Despite its prominence, the Himalaya still ranks as one of the least understood mountain environments, partly because most scientific study of mountains has been limited to the Alps. This void of understanding makes evaluating environmental impacts in the Himalaya a formidable challenge. Most vexing is the inability to distinguish the effects of rapid, natural changes in the landscape, which have been occurring for millions of years, from human-generated land degradation, which has happened for centuries but has been most pervasive in the last few decades.
Epitomizing the conflicts that arise from this uncertainty is the virulent international debate over the causes of the repeated flooding in the populous plains of the Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers. Last summer's catastrophic inundation of Bangladesh was but the most recent of hundreds of such floods.
The evidence for worsening flood damage in the foothills is graphic. "Earlier the flood came silently like a small cat, touched our feet and went away in a few days, giving us fertile silt; now it comes with the speed of a hungry tiger, takes away everything, covers the land with sand and does not want to go away," a farmer from the border area between Nepal and the Bihar state of India told mountain ecologist Dr. Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, visiting professor at the International Academy for the Environment in Geneva.
That accelerated economic activity and population growth in the Himalaya have increased soil erosion is logical: forests were cleared, intensified farming degraded soils, roads and mines destabilized the land, pastures were overgrazed, and rivers were diverted. But distinguishing the magnitude of these human-induced hazards from that of natural causes in such a large and complex region is problematic because the geologically active Himalaya are naturally prone to massive erosion and landslides. According to an estimate by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), just two Himalayan rivers--the Ganga and Brahmaputra--contribute one quarter of the 8 billion tons of sediment dumped into the world's oceans each year.
No one has done comprehensive measurements of sediment loads on a major Himalayan river throughout space and time. Nonetheless, soil experts do know that during a typical year in the Darjeeling Himalaya, between half a millimeter and 5 millimeters of soil depth wash away--considered a high rate of erosion. But in a year of catastrophic floods like 1968, about 20 millimeters of deep soil can erode.
In the mid-1970s, some Western environmentalists, including Worldwatch Institute's Erik Eckholm, directly linked the devastating floods in Bangladesh to the deforestation of the Himalayan catchments. In warning of the prospect of "Nepalese farmers following their soils down the hill," Eckholm and others alerted the world to the environmental degradation of the Himalaya. The judgement also harnessed Himalayan farmers with the yoke of blame for the floods.
Currently, most mountain hydrologists estimate that while the impacts of Himalayan soil erosion can be severe within the originating watershed, this erosion is at most only a small fraction of the natural sediment loads in the lower reaches of the major rivers. Of course, upland reforestation gives a greater margin of safety against shallow landslides. But mountain hazard scientists now believe that no amount or type of reforestation would deter the deep, massive landslides that occasionally wreak havoc in steep mountain watersheds, or the wide-scale flooding that inundates the lower reaches of major Himalayan rivers.
"A good forest cover in the Himalaya constitutes the safest land use to reduce local flooding, but if deforestation is followed by terraced agriculture and well-managed grasslands, there should be little effect on downstream flooding in the plains," says Dr. Lawrence Hamilton, a mountain forest and parks expert with the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu.
Perhaps the most constructive lesson that can be drawn from the ongoing debate is that throughout most of the range, it is the hill farmers who--by controlling their own forests--will have the strongest incentive to conserve the landscape that supplies them food, fodder, and fuel, as well as the ecological services of stabilizing soil and regulating the flow of water.
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Per Capita Income and Literacy Rates, Selected Himalayan Regions Average Annual Income Country Region per capita Literacy Rate (dollars) (percent) Bangladesh Chattagram Hills 228 (1989) 16 (1989) Bhutan National 160 (1989) 10 (1982) China Tibet 88 (1985) 48 (1982) India Himalchal Pradesh 166 (1982) 43 (1982) Nepal Dhadhing district 150 (1990) 25 (1990) Pakistan Baluchistan (rural) 72 (1988) 10 (1981) (The years the data were collected are given in parentheses.) Source: Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, "The Himalaya: Prospects for and Constraints on Sustainable Development," in Peter Stone (ed.), The State of the World's Mountains: A Global Status Report (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press International, 1992).
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Derek Denniston researches mountain environments and forest issues at the Worldwatch Institute.