|The Himalayan Dilemma: Reconciling Development and Conservation (UNU, 1989, 295 pages)|
|1. The theory of Himalayan environmental degradation: what is the nature of the perceived crisis?|
To sum up our discussion of the perceived Himalaya-Ganges Problem, it is necessary to point out a number of basic assumptions about and salient linkages between the component parts of the eight-point scenario. There is also a basic philosophical issue - what should be our attitude to the ignorant subsistence farmer who is seen, unthinkingly, to produce swarms of children, and irresponsibly to devastate the mountain forest cover and so to accelerate landslide occurrence on his poorly constructed and badly maintained agricultural terraces, or in some areas, by his catastrophic slash-and-burn (swidden) agriculture? To take the basic assumptions and salient linkages first:
1. That a population explosion was initiated shortly after World War 11 due to the introduction of modern health care and medicine and the reduction of malaria and other diseases;
2. That increased population in subsistence mountain societies has led to:
(a) reduced amount of land per family
(b) deepening poverty
(c) massive deforestation;
3. That mountain deforestation, on such a scale, will result in total loss of all accessible forest cover in a country such as Nepal by AD 2000, and is the cause of accelerating soil erosion and increased incidence of landsliding ;
4. That destabilized mountain slopes resulting from points 1, 2, and 3 above cause:
(a) increased flooding on the Ganges and Brahmaputra plains,
(b) extension of the delta and formation of islands in the Bay of Bengal,
(c) drying up of wells and springs in the hills and lower dry-season river levels downstream,
(d) massive siltation and drastic reduction in the useful life of highly expensive water resource projects;
5. That deforestation also leads to climatic change in general and reduced rainfall amounts in particular.
It is not our intention to dispute the facts, wherever reliable information exists, but the assumptions that so frequently are not based upon facts. Nevertheless, throughout this attempt to dissect the Theory of Himalayan Environmental Degradation the causal relationships between timing and degree of population growth, deforestation, loss of agricultural land, and downstream effects are paramount. We will attempt to demonstrate that most of these linkages and assumptions are founded upon latter-day myth, or falsely based intuition, or are not supported by rigorous, replicable, and reliable data. They are the 'sacred cows' of the perceived Himalayan Problem, and we will seek to dismantle them, in part or in whole. However, our claim of lack of reliable data cuts both ways - we cannot demonstrate unequivocably that all the linkages are inoperable in all, or even in most, cases. Nevertheless, we do believe that we can dispose of enough of the 'sacred cows' end damage others sufficiently to support our claim that the overall Theory of Himalayan Environmental Degradation is untenable and that the Himalayan Problem needs to be much more rigorously defined.
The perceived problem, in our view, is in the minds of the vested interests whether the World Bank, the Chipko Movement, different national governments, or the scientists. It is likened to a kaleidoscope, which will change its pattern depending upon the way in which it is tilted, or upon the angle of view. This is the essence of Thompson and Warburton's (1985a) 'Uncertainty on a Himalayan Scale.'The uncertainty is a large element of the Problem. Thus the present claim that we expect to demolish most of the underpinnings of the Theory itself must be qualified by the very nature of the uncertainty. There must be the qualification that in certain instances, and in specific areas, we believe we can show that many of the widely preferred assumptions are untenable. The widespread temptation to extrapolate, or generalize, must be resisted or else we ourselves would commit the error that we are seeking to expose - unwarranted generalization. The single and obvious generalization that we do make, however, is that the Himalayan region is so varied and so complex that generalization is counter-productive. Hence, the application of broad panaceas by aid and development agencies in most, if not all, instances will not succeed; in some instances they may well exacerbate the problem.
But what of the ignorant and fecund subsistence farmer whose well-being lies at the crux of the Problem? He has indeed become a convenient scapegoat. We will demonstrate this by a single observation, illustrative of many others.
In an otherwise impressive review of the Nepal Agricultural Sector, the following quotation from a report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB 1982: (II) 34) indicates the extent of the misunderstanding of the subsistent farmer's role: 'Terraces, especially on rainfed land, are often poorly constructed; they are outward rather than inward sloping and do not have a grassed bund on the edge.' The fact is that bard, or rainfed terraces, in Nepal mostly support maize, millet, buckwheat, and other crops. They are constructed usually on the upper, steeper slopes in the Middle Mountains which are inaccessible to irrigation systems. They slope outward from the hillside so that these crops are not damaged by waterlogging. In our Kakani field area (Johnson et al., 1982; Gurung, 1988) the local farmers are well aware that an increased accumulation of water on terraces (such as would result from inward-sloping forms) would greatly exacerbate the problem of landsliding by increasing the degree of soil saturation and adding the weight of the ponded water itself. Furthermore, annual repair of the terraces would require a much larger labour input if they sloped inward. The summer monsoon rain is intended to run off the outward-sloping terraces.
Although there are undoubtedly poorly maintained terraces in Nepal, and in other areas, many are very well maintained and have vegetated steps; absence of a bund on the hard terraces (in contrast to the khet, or irrigated, terraces) is deliberate and ensures rainwater run-off. It can be argued that both bard and khet terraces are, for the most part, superbly engineered in Nepal. Admittedly, during heavy monsoon downpours available human energy is concentrated on repairing damage to the khet and irrigation systems, and the bard terraces may have to be left to collapse; this is because the much higher-yielding khet terraces, usually under paddy rice, are consequently more vital to the survival of the subsistence family. Any apparent neglect of the terraces may be due to shortage of available labour at the particular moment that they were observed by the visiting 'expert' rather than a reflection of the ignorance of the farmer.
The famous English mountaineer, H. W. Tilman, more sensitive to the hill farmer than many latter-day experts, made a poignant observation many years ago when the Himalaya was still a distant fantasy land of'Shangri La' to most of us:
Whether it takes place little by little or in one swift calamity, soil erosion is generally attributed to man's careless greed, his idleness or neglect. It would not, I think, be fair to blame the people of these valleys on the Himalayan fringe for the frequent landslides which occur here. In turning the steep slopes into fruitful fields they have neither been lazy nor neglectful. (Tilman, 1952: 126-7)
The date of Tilman's writing is significant in that the Theory of Himalayan Environmental Degradation had not then been formulated.
Frequently the subsistence farmer can be shown to be a highly knowledgeable and intelligent land manager with a wealth of accumulated, traditional wisdom of great potential value to the 'educated' elites, if only they would listen (Whiteman, 1985). This leads to the claim that there is a need for gift exchange in contradistinction to charity - a synonym for international and bilateral aid (Halley and Thompson, 1985).¹ Nevertheless, we do not wish to imply that all subsistence farmers are intelligent indigenous scientists, nor that even the most gifted amongst them can necessarily control the change which is sweeping them along; and there are ignorant and foolish farmers, just as there are ignorant and foolish factory workers, tradesmen, scientists, and decision makers.
Before concluding this chapter two further points must be made. First, there are no claims to be established for any individual's academic or scientific precedence, despite the intellectual satisfaction of having the opportunity to fault a widely accepted paradigm. Members of the United Nations University/Nepal MAB-Mountain Hazards Mapping Project began to suspect the reliability of some of the pre-existing claims of the Theory of Himalayan Environmental Degradation. They began to doubt that deforestation and increased landsliding were linked in a simple cause-and-effect relationship. They also began to understand, as fieldwork progressed over several years and during different parts of the annual agricultural cycle, that the human impacts, principally those of the subsistence farmer, were not all negative. Part of the farmers' coping strategy was to re-terrace landslide scars and stabilize slopes. They also responded to prospects of immediate landslide initiation by such acts as agricultural de-intensification (Johnson et al., 1982; Messerschmidt, 1987). Similarly, reconnaissance of the Qinghai-Xizang (Tibet) Plateau, and in the Hengduan Mountains of western Sichuan and northwestern Yunnan (Ives, 1981, 1985; Messerli and Ives, 1984) led us to suspect that the assumptions of post1950 massive deforestation were also over-simplifications, and that the actual history of deforestation was a very much longer and more complex process. This gradual growth in understanding of the complex nature of the region and the processes operating therein led to this questioning of conventional wisdom. Our doubts about recent mountain deforestation brought us into contact with the work of forest historians Richard Tucker (1986, 1987) and John Richards (1987), with ecologists and Chipko activists Vandana Shiva and Jayanta Bandyopadhyay (1986a and b), with Tej Mahat, David Griffin, and Kenneth Shepherd (Mahat e! al., 1986a and b; 1987a and b), with Michael Thompson, Michael Warburton, and Tom Hatley (Thompson e, al., 1986), with David Pitt (1986), Lawrence Hamilton (1987), and Deepak Bajracharya (1983a), and many others, together with the spiritual leadership of Chipko Messenger, Sunderlal Bahuguna. We discovered from these contacts that simultaneous doubts and challenges had been developing along similar lines (cf. Carson, 1985). It is the coming together of this group, facilitated by the United Nations University's support of the Highland-Lowland Interactive Systems project, that has led to this concerted effort to challenge the Theory of Himalayan Environmental Degradation.
The second point is equally important. All members of this now considerably enlarged working group do not necessarily agree on all points, or even on any one particular point; nor do we, nor can we, all have the same perspective. But we all do agree that a major arena of enquiry has been opened up that is fraught with an unusual level of uncertainty. We also wish to stress that the enquiry has been encouraged by many individuals within several major agencies of the United Nations Organization, despite the occasional criticisms that appear to be levelled against them. We believe, however, that the enquiry has an important potential bearing on the wellbeing of several hundred million people and on the socio-economic and political stability of a pivotal region of the world. Thus further exhaustive pursuit of the enquiry should become a major endeavour, not only for the United Nations University, but also for other relevant UN agencies, bilateral aid and development agencies, and the governments of the region.
To conclude this chapter we wish to emphasize again that it is not our intention to dispute the validity of established facts, nor to imply that there is no Problem facing the Himalayan region. We believe that there is a most serious problem; that it has been exacerbated by the very tendency to generalize, to accept uncritically a large number of inter-related assumptions, and to precondition policy making by rigidly defended perceptions. One of the more destructive of these perceptions, for instance, is that deforestation is necessarily bad (cf. Hamilton, 1987); another, related to the first, is the habit of using the term human impact invariably in a negative sense (cf. Messerschmidt, 1987).
Now that we have set forth a synthesis of the Theory of Himalayan Environmental Degradation and begun the process of questioning the validity of some of its component parts, following our geographical overview (Chapter 2), we will devote the next four chapters to a more exhaustive examination of the linkages that form the vital fabric of the physical basis of the Theory.