Environmental change and challenge in the Himalaya. A historical perspective

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This overview, or retrospective, has two objectives. The first is to demonstrate how the principles of 'mountain geoecology' were applied in an attempt to counteract the political and socio-economic impacts of a major and misguided environmental orthodoxy-the Theory of Himalayan Environmental Degradation (henceforth to be referred to as the 'Theory'). The second is to explore the difficulties of transferring the results of on-going scholarly mountain research into the public and political decision-making process. In this sense the paper should be regarded as a case study of the potentially serious effects of exaggerated and emotionally based responses to orthodoxies founded on assumptions and latter-day myths. A third objective, reserved for the companion paper in this issue, outlines the origins of mountain geoecology and explores how academic research influenced the inclusion of high level concern for mountain problems within AGENDA 21, one of the principal results of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (popularly known as the Rio Earth Summit) and declaration of 2002 as the International Year of Mountains. The original environmental orthodoxy (the Theory) has been eclipsed since the turn of the Millennium by a new populist alarm proposing that the current climate warming will cause all the Himalayan glaciers to disappear in the near future. From this it would follow that, as the glacier melt progresses, numerous large glacial lakes, forming as a consequence, would burst and the ensuing floods would annihilate many millions of people. Eventually, as the glaciers disappeared vital rivers, such as the Ganges and Brahmaputra, would wither to seasonal streams heralding further massive loss of life due to desertification and starvation. This current environmen-tal alarm could be regarded as a present day parallel to the original Theory and will be examined in the final section of the paper. Between 1970 and about 1985 it was almost universal wisdom amongst scholars and development specialists, as well as conservationists, that the Himalaya were on the brink of environmental, and hence socio-economic and political collapse. This theme of gloom and doom was taken up avidly by journalists, politicians, and diplomats; it influenced the expenditure of large sums of aid and development money, and augmented periodic international confrontations. In concise terms, in the early 1970s an assumed approaching environmental disaster was perceived to be driven by relentless growth in the population of subsistence hill communities and their dependence on mountain forests for fuel, fodder, building materials, and conversion to agricultural land. The assumption of rapid and catastrophic deforestation of steep hillslopes under a monsoon climate (the World Bank predicted that there would be no accessible forest remaining in Nepal by the year 2000) led inexorably to a series of dependent assumptions: increasing soil erosion and worsening landslide incidence; accelerated flooding and siltation on the plains of Gangetic India and Bangladesh; social and political unrest, if not serious armed conflict - the notion of a world super-crisis, considering that the region in question contained about ten percent of the world's entire human population and about thirty percent of its poorest. As will be emphasized later, none of this all-embracing construct was based on reliable evidence, but it was accepted world-wide as a given. It represents a prime example of the dangers associated with convenient adoption of environmental myths, or environmental orthodoxies, especially where the myth is a Western 'scientific' construct. I characterized it as The Theory of Himalayan Environmental Degradation (Ives, 1985).




Ives, J. D. (2012). Environmental change and challenge in the Himalaya. A historical perspective. Pirineos, (167), 29–68. https://doi.org/10.3989/Pirineos.2012.167003

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