Mountain Reflections

Bookworm Issue 51 Jul, 2010

The Himalayas not only boast of some of the highest mountains in the world, but are also unique in terms of flora and fauna as well as the ethnic and geographical diversity. The area is also one of the most “underdeveloped” regions in the world. Inaccessibility, altitude, remoteness, and weather, the very factors that have given the Himalayas their unique character, have also proved to be major stumbling  blocks (rather, “challenges”) for development planning. In Mountain Reflections: Pattern and Development, Harka Gurung, eminent geographer and planner, tackles many areas of professional interest to those involved in the study and research of the Himalayas: demography, planning, ethnography, geography, political economy, and tourism.

Most of the papers included in this volume are actually presentations made at various events during the International Year of Mountains 2002. Dr Gurung’s core area of concern in the book is related to the economic development of the people of the Himalayas. The nine chapters of this book include: 1. Highlighting the Eastern Himalayas, 2. Biogeographical Diversity in Nepal, 3. Highland Agriculture as Peasant Perseverance,4. Himalaya: Physical and Cultural Patterns, 5. Himalaya: Ethnic Diversity and Identity, 6. Policies for Mountain Development, 7. Development of Mountain Areas, 8. Economics of Mountaineering in Nepal, and 9. Nepal: Pattern of Elevation Range. Much of the book is data-intensive and will be of interest only to scholars, but there is much to learn from Dr Gurung’s observations and insights regarding development. He is, after all, a veteran in the field and has been involved with development work for years.

Despite the efforts of the past five or six decades and in spite of the millions spent as foreign aid, Nepal remains one of the poorest countries in the world. This is particularly true of the people living in the mountains. There is also the problem of disparity in terms of income levels, literacy, women’s empowerment, health institutions, and availability of drinking water. One has merely to compare the average living standards of those residing in Kathmandu, Pokhara, or any of the larger cities to that of a remote mountain or hill village. The difference is staggering! In Chapter 6 (“Policies for Mountain Development”), Dr Gurung points out that “development discourse on the Himalaya has been burdened with environmental bias. Mountain people are compelled to over-exploit resources for survival despite their intimate knowledge of the natural world. Therefore, poverty is the basic cause of poor land management and the consequence of poor management is deepening poverty. The problem of mountain environment cannot be resolved without improving the economy of the inhabitants”. Dr Gurung speaks of two conservation success stories, both of which included the participation of the local people. The Annapurna Conservation Area Project initiated (1986) local participation in conservation and was later followed by the Royal Chitwan National Park in 1996. He feels that replication of these models in other Himalayan protected areas has “tremendous potential for involving local people in conservation along with their economic development”. Even for highland agriculture (most highlanders are dependent on agriculture), Dr Gurung feels that while formulating policy, practical solutions need to be devised based on “the chemistry of local knowledge and wider experiences”. In Chapter 7 (“Development of Mountain Areas”), Dr Gurung uses two sample regions, Mustang and Solu-Khumbhu, to demonstrate the immense potential of local revenue from tourism. Tourism, he points out, can potentially play an important role in reducing poverty in remote Himalayan villages.

 This book is a valuable addition to an ongoing debate about the Himalayas how to improve the lives of people living along its slopes. Mountain Reflections is a must-read for members of the government, development and aid workers, students, and research scholars.

(Book courtesy: Mandala Bookpoint; Publisher: Mandala Publications; Price: NRs 400: 120 pg.)