|United Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 13, Number 1, 1990|
|The human factor in the Himalayas - Coping with modem intrusions|
By Jack Ives and Bruno Messerli
In early 1990, the winds of democratic change swept in on the small Himalayan kingdom of Nepal, one of the world's poorest countries, where 90 per. cent of the people seek to eke out an agricultural existence on the bare 14 per cent of the land which is arable in these harsh mountain climes. Popular demands for more democracy have won the Nepalese the right to a multi-party system of government - and, by implication, a right by all Nepalese to a greater role in the global dialogue.
But the intrusion of the modern global economy (and its resultant aspirations) on daily village life in Nepal can be a particularly disruptive force in traditional ways of doing things. The very natural desire to own a radio, a wrist-watch or other 20th century signs of success can strain very limited monetary means, Jack Ives and Bruno Messerli cite, in the following selection, the estimates that 90 per cent of all debt in Nepal currently is for consumer items.
The two geographers, who have spent much time in the high mountain regions of the globe, offer valuable insight into the human dimensions of problems facing countries like Nepal and others of the Himalayan region in the following selection from their recently issued volume, The Himalayan Dilemma: Reconciling development and conservation, published by the United Nations University and Routledge (London, 1989). Ives and Messerli worked together to establish the UNU project on Highland-Lowland Interactive Systems in 1977, and the following year became particularly involved in the Himalayan region, where they have subsequently both spent much time overseeing UNU activities. Dr. Ives is Chairman of the Department of Geography, University of California, Davis (USA), President of the International Mountain Society, and Chairman of the Commission on Mountain Geoecology of the International Geographical Union (CMG/ICU). Dr. Messerli is Professor of Geography at the University of Berne (Switzerland) and former Chairman of the CMG/IGU. - Editor
The lessons from the history of agricultural production are relatively simple. The retention of traditional technology has not only a long-term logic, in the sense of preserving a delicately balanced agro-ecosystem, but is probably the only available course of action when incomes, notably from the agricultural sector, fall below a certain level. At this point, population increases because traditional agricultural methods are labour intensive. It is human hands and energy that provide the capital.
In this respect, there appears to be a striking difference between Nepal and Bhutan, the so-called Himalaya poor states on the one hand, and the supercrisis states of Africa, on the other. Traditional African agriculture or pastoralism has been seriously undermined, and in places virtually destroyed, in some cases by deliberate government policies which have discriminated against marginal social groups and, in the interests of central political control, insisted on a sedentary (as opposed to a nomadic) way of life.
The traditional Himalayan social system cannot be broken so easily in this way, although one might hypothesize that (certain) governments may have a vested interest in encouraging, or at least in not discouraging, the recent urban drift, because it provides a reserve army of labour and may facilitate political control.
It is obvious that the simple label of "poverty" does not adequately define a situation where there are very considerable sociological differences in the degree of poverty. What are these dimensions in Nepal and other areas of the Himalayas?
A first fact is land ownership. Generally speaking, those who own land are better off than those who do not - and the larger the landholding the higher the standard of living. The 1984 World Development Report of the World Bank indicates a high degree of concentration in the distribution of Nepalese wealth. In 1981, in the rural sector, 2 per cent of all rural households were said to cultivate about 27 per cent of the land. The land-reform measures had obviously not worked, partly because the official ceilings for landholdings were quite high - 25 bighas, or about 18 hectares.
In the case of rural poor who are landowners, most have too little land on which to eke out a viable living. They are therefore forced to rent additional land, to practise sharecropping, or to seek waged labour. And these options may often be precluded, at least locally, by high rentals and the scarcity of employment opportunities. As a result, it has been estimated, in one study, that Nepalese families were underemployed about 63 per cent of the time. This has led to a further stimulation of migration.
In his report to the International Labour Organisation in 1983, Nepal: A State of Poverty, D. Seddon indicates the differential access which different castes and ethic groups have to wage-earning possibilities. For example: Gurungs, Magars, Limbus and Rais are noted in military service; high-caste Brahmins and Chhetris are preferred by employers; and 'untouchables'* encounter employment barriers by virtue of their low or outcaste social status.
* 'Untouchables' are legally and technically not recognized in Nepal and the term, in a strictly social sense, refers only to a few castes.
But the whole issue of employment opportunity is much more complex than one of caste and status. It could be argued, for example, that 'untouchables' encounter no greater employment barriers than others in the sense that: (a) the upper castes have cultural barriers to many categories of employment also, while; (b) lower castes have access to manual labour, portering, etc. from which the higher castes are barred. The argument could even be turned on its head: it has been suggested that high castes have reduced latitude for employment because of the restrictions of their caste status. Whatever the case, there are widespread indications, in recent years, of a relatively steep fall in standards of living because of the rural people's declining purchasing power - particularly for rice or maize. This fall in purchasing power seems to have had a number of major effects in terms of the satisfaction of basic needs.
Take, for example, nutritional requirements. In the Middle Mountains, the sub-tropical hill region of central Nepal, and high Himalaya areas of the country, total available calories per person per day dropped from 1,569 in 1977-78 to 1,426 in 1983-84 - and were projected to drop to 1,299 by 1989-90. Nutritional problems were accentuated amongst certain ethnic and caste groups because of food taboos; it has been clearly demonstrated in studies that the demand concentrated on certain foods raises the price for these foods.
The problem of malnutrition is, at least in part, a result of deleterious change from traditional customs where taboos were in many senses related to seasonal supply and demand, and the 'modern' system which has superseded it, where supply and demand are manipulated or otherwise work against the consumer. The pressures on traditional society, deriving in part from progressive intrusion of the world monetary economy, therefore, may have accentuated the problem.
The unwise change from traditional management also applies in time as well as space. The months prior to the monsoons are months of hunger, To bridge the food-gap, people such as the Magars, Gurungs and Tamangs, for example, have traditionally foraged for forest products at this time: tubers, berries, and such like, and have taken game birds, animals and fish. But, the deteriorating quality of the forests and the difficulties of common-land rights have further curtailed these possibilities. People may even eat the next year's seed at this time,
More significantly, this is the time they fall into debt. The question of indebtedness is very complicated - but undoubtedly changing, or rising, aspirations play a large role. For instance, increasing desires to own "luxury" goods such as radios or wrist-watches, or to be able to send at least one child to school, all place an increasing strain on very limited monetary means, thus leading to indebtedness. There are, in fact, estimates that 90 per cent of all debt in Nepal is for consumer items. As much as 80 per cent of given land-ownership, especially irrigated land, may be pledged. Interest rates can be extremely high. In the Middle Mountains, the problem is particularly acute, with reports that 35 per cent of households are in debt. On the other hand, the debts may be rolling ones, where the principal is not repaid and foreclosure rare.
Debt, of course, also occurs in the traditional sector, notably for life-cycle ceremonies - births, weddings, funerals. Here, however, it was a redistributive mechanism, part of the gift-exchange structure of reciprocity, where giving (and lending) was a prerogative of rank. This traditional ethos may have carried over into the modern situation, so that debt is perhaps not the enormous problem It appears to be from the available figures.
The effects of malnutrition, however, are cumulative. There is, for example, a vicious circle between decreases in production and increasing malnutrition. An outcome is ill-health, particularly the incidence of debilitating disease and, notably in Nepal, diarrhoea. Blindness may be a result of malnutrition, especially Vitamin A deficiency.
Any discussion of poverty and basic needs in relation to wealth, income and land requires careful interpretation. It has been posited, for example. that whilst wealth may increase as one ascends the caste ladder, health, or at least nutrition, may decline. The higher the caste group, the greater the number of diet restrictions. Such restrictions constrain what is eaten by which member of the family, what is eaten at what age, by women or men at what time of the month, year and so on.
While much of the available evidence about Nepal and the surrounding high mountain region is sketchy and speculative, some inferences about the human dimension of the problem in the Himalayas today do seem warranted. One is that a contributing cause of poverty is the decline of traditional cultures - and introduced institutions, while attempting to work against poverty, may even be exacerbating it. This would help explain phenomena such as relative health without wealth amongst some ethnic groups.
In health and nutritional matters, in education, in family life, and so on, some caste and ethnic groups may insulate themselves against outside intrusion. But there is also the well documented research conclusion that increase in population is associated with resource degradation and hence a breakdown of traditional patterns in all aspects of life, including agriculture, consumption and so on.
Ultimately, a firm base of self-reliance may become the best vehicle for promoting economic development. When the independence and identity of a social group is broken down, severe problems may result - not simply the breakdown of social rules and order, but also a continuing dependence, which may or may not be the intention of the newly introduced institutions. At certain times, traditional societies are more exposed to intrusions - and perhaps least able to resist them.