Environmental crisis in Nepal

Barbara Brower

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FOR at least four decades observers have identified Nepal as a crucible of environmental disaster. Each episode of catastrophic flooding in Bangladesh or the Ganges plain renews attention to the problem, usually explained as follows: Hill farmers, pushed by the demands of their growing families and the livestock that supports them, are clearing more and more forest off the steep Himalaya’s slopes. Intense monsoon rains falling on these bared hillsides induce landslides, permit accelerated run-off, and charge the Ganga’s tributary streams with flood-waters and silt that force the master stream over its banks in cataclysmic floods, leaving human and environmental disaster behind.

This interpretation of the interaction of people and environment is repeated in popular literature, travel guides, academic treatises, government reports, development agency documents, environmentalist tracts, films – almost any genre that takes Nepal as its topic. What wonder, then, that such an interpretation has been extremely influential in informing conservation and development policy of the last two decades at least.

More recently, a challenge to this model has been raised in response to a growing body of data that fails to support the assumptions of such a scenario. The case against crisis points to insufficient investigation of physical processes, inadequate attention to historical political-economic factors, and deficient understanding of the lives and practices of hill villagers.

The Himalaya are dynamic mountains, actively uplifted and seasonally assaulted by concentrated, intense monsoon precipitation; five kilometres’ depth of deposition in the Ganges valley, the accumulating after-effect of such dynamism, indicates an old, old process. Evidence suggests that the bulk of material shed by the mountains and transported by rivers has been derived from large scale landslides caused by underlying geologic weakness or cataclysmic failures of glacial lakes. These are nature’s own mechanisms for maintaining equilibrium; the added increment attributable to human induced deforestation is, according to crisis critics, negligible.



The crisis scenario assumes massive, recent, accelerating deforestation at the axes of peasant farmers. Yet a closer look at historic processes and contemporary practices suggests a different story.

Crisis critics assert that the extent of forest, at least in the hills and mountains, appears substantially unchanged in the last several decades. Some natural forest has unquestionably given way before human demands. But investigators argue that these were the demands not of contemporary hill farmers but of a succession of greedy governments. It was state edicts from the 18th century that forced conversion of forest: tax policies not only compelled farmers to forfeit 50% to 75% of their yields, but also required hill villages to provide charcoal and smelted iron, thus forcing excessive pressure on forested lands remote from regional centres. Crisis critics further argue that more recently, government pre-emption of local claims to forested areas in the name of forest protection have served instead to undermine indigenous forestry and grazing systems and accelerate the degradation of woodland.

Further refutation of the crisis scenario comes from a number of recent investigations of land and resource use practices of the hill farmers blamed for denuding the Himalaya. Villagers are often good land stewards, planning and maintaining their fields so as to minimize erosion, and good at reclaiming slipped fields. A rich array of indigenous strategies for subsistence conservation historically protected rangeland and forest from unregulated exploitation. When tenure is insecure, as for tenant farmers or on state controlled lands, the motivation and resources for good stewardship may be missing, and of course some of Nepal’s farmers may indeed fit the crisis profile. But clearly many hill dwellers are successful managers of fields, pasture and forest.



Critics have been energetic, even gleeful, in debunking some of the myth and explicating the complexity underlying the crisis model. Our grasp of the complexity of human environment interactions in the Himalaya is stronger in consequence, and the questions raised in the context of Nepal have helped to initiate skepticism and re-examination of similar interactions in other regions. But there are, of course, areas of the Nepal Himalaya where too many people exert too much pressure on the lands that support them, with scary consequences. It’s not just a matter of nature and history, but of contemporary practices that carry with them environmental consequences. There is a danger in replacing crisis hype with too much complacency, a risk when the satisfaction of critique obscures real issues of human-environment conflict.

So how are we to proceed? If the broad generalizations about environmental crisis in Nepal won’t stand close scrutiny, how do we make sense of what’s going on? A closer look at a particularly well studied place is a reasonable first step. What’s to be learned from a look at one of the most-studied and manipulated of places and peoples, the Sherpa’s Everest homeland?

In 1976 His Majesty’s Government of Nepal created Sagarmatha (Mount Everest) national park, a reserve on the mountain’s south flanks. The park encompasses not only the world’s highest mountain and its spectacular sister peaks, but also the lower valleys and interfluves of Khumbu, homeland of the Sherpa people. The agropastoral Sherpa, famous for exploits on Everest, were an integral part of the park design. They retained claim to private dwellings and fields within its boundaries, but found themselves subject to a variety of regulations brought about by the expectations of the park’s new international constituency.



This was the heyday of the Theory of Himalayan Degradation, and the region’s forest landscape in particular was considered to be at risk from human use. Sagarmatha’s forests were assumed to be degraded remnants of a formerly uninterrupted fir dominated forest landscape, severely diminished in recent times by the collective assault of local people, their livestock, and swelling ranks of tourists. The park immediately began to regulate activities thought to jeopardize the survival of woodlands like wood cutting and livestock grazing. But increasingly there are questions about the extent of the former forest landscape, recency of deforestation, and role of humans and livestock in the present patterns of forest cover: the same set of questions reopened in the debate over a theory of Himalayan degradation.

The history of environmental research, park planning, and management in Sagarmatha national park reflects the transition from conviction to uncertainty about both the place of people and the workings of the environment that has taken place over the last 20 years, elsewhere in the world as well as in the Himalaya. Khumbu/Sagarmatha national park is especially intriguing for a number of reasons. This is one of several study areas in the Himalaya where misgivings about conventional explanations for environmental crisis first took root among researchers whose findings were at odds with expectations.

Researchers elsewhere took note and began to explore anew what had seemed to be settled questions about man’s role in changing the environment. And the intensity of attention that has been paid to Everest national park since Nepal opened its borders to the West 55 years ago is perhaps unprecedented. Tourists have visited in the tens of thousands; development specialists have flocked here; scholars, too, have been very busy in Sagarmatha national park/Khumbu. Geographers, anthropologists, geologists, foresters, ecologists, biologists, and architects have studied and written about the region, producing everything from magazine pieces based on a two week trek to substantial books grounded in many years’ residence. Sherpas themselves write about Khumbu, either in their role as young scholars trained in the West or as representatives of older Sherpa traditions. All these eyes and voices mean a wide array of often contradictory interpretations of the landscape of Khumbu/Sagarmatha national park.



For Khumbu, as for the whole Himalaya, work in the last decade has forced a re-evaluation of the crisis scenario. Repeat photography, forest and range analysis, and oral history all suggest that the condition of Sagarmatha national park forests has been misinterpreted. There is no clear evidence for a significant recent reduction in forest cover; only the highest altitude juniper woodland is diminishing. And though the Sherpa’s herds of yak and other livestock continue to be targeted as agents of forest destruction, here, too, recent research suggests that assumptions about livestock impacts have obscured the fact that traditionally managed grazing does not degrade forest. Yet, despite the questions raised in the last decade, the crisis scenario persists as the guiding vision for managing Sagarmatha, and park management premised on assumptions unsupported by facts brings its own environmental and human costs.



Sherpa livestock have enjoyed pride of place in most explanations of the initial removal of forest and the subsequent suppression of regeneration. That is the message, certainly, in nearly all attempts to come to grips with the dynamic interaction of forests and Sherpas in Sagarmatha national park. In almost every account promoting SNP, in plans for management of the park, and in reports by trained and lay visitors alike who comment upon the status of forests, livestock rank high as culprits in the retreat and degradation of woodland. A New Zealand forester, H.D. Hardie, explained:

‘The remaining forest is fast disappearing and will have probably vanished altogether in a few years unless properly protected and managed… The main problem... is that heavy grazing by yaks and other livestock destroys all young tree growth through browsing and trampling and thereby prevents natural regeneration of the forest.’

Overgrazing is commonly associated with environmental deterioration, particularly in vulnerable high elevation environments. Yet in such landscapes, where options are severely limited, survival mandates the most careful mediation of human use of nature. This is certainly true for the Sherpa in Sagarmatha. Over many generations of residence as stock-keeping farmer-traders, this group has accommodated to a forbidding environment through careful stewardship of resources, sometimes through explicit conservation mechanisms, more often as a result of the complex orchestration of land use required to make a living from dispersed mountain resources.

Sherpas live in perhaps a dozen loosely aggregated main villages. Many dozen subsidiary settlements are scattered up slope and down. These serve as toeholds along a gradient of environmental opportunity: intermittently occupied clusters of houses are interspersed with privately owned agricultural fields at different altitudes, each shaped by subtly differing climates, soils, and vulnerability to environmental perturbations. These scattered settlements also function as way-stations for stock keepers, providing the stone huts and walled hayfield/corrals that permit Khumbu Sherpa stockmen access to dispersed communal grazing grounds.

Sherpa stock keepers maintain a bewildering variety of animals. In addition to keeping some sheep, a few may have a horse or two; most, however, are cattlemen who keep yak, a few pure cattle, and a wide array of yak-cattle hybrids. The specialized adaptations to cold and high altitude that distinguish pure yak are passed on, only slightly tempered, in these offspring; cow genes apparently confer some protection against the vector-borne livestock diseases that are a scourge at lower elevations. Yak, cattle, and hybrids produce milk, hair, manure, labour, calves, and other essentials of life in the mountains, for both local use and trade.



The species mix in Sherpa herds means more than diversified product and market options. Genetic diversity is one factor in a spectrum of elements that serve to mitigate the impacts of livestock on the Khumbu environment. As the tolerances to cold and altitude are tuned by genes, so are other aspects of cattle physiology and behaviour. Yak and nak show a preference for high places, and move upslope over the course of a day of range grazing. Pure cows are more reticent, likelier to spend the day close to home, drawn to water more than ridge tops. Adult hybrids seem often to strike a medium, and on a long slope above 3600 metres in September one would be likely to find a stratification from cow to yak that corresponds loosely with altitude.



Thus a simple connection of biology and behavior makes for spatial and temporal distribution of animal pressures within a mixed Khumbu Sherpa herd. There appear to be differences in nutritional needs or diet preference as well. Yak are grass specialists, less inclined to browse; cattle by contrast consume shrubby vegetation, too. So the mix of types means a mix of tastes and again a better distribution of demand across a wider range of preferred forage.

More than genetics underwrites Sherpa animal husbandry: the availability of labour and land further shapes livestock management.

Herders have an essential role in Khumbu yak-keeping as in range livestock management anywhere. They must drive stock to new pastures, tend the animals, corral them when it is called for, ward off predators. The dispersed and relatively unproductive high pastures here support family cattle herds of no more than a few dozen animals. Only in winter is it common to combine the stock of several owners; for most of the year each owner must see to his own animals.

For those who are substantially engaged in animal husbandry, livestock management is further organized by land tenure and access to resources. Dozens of subsidiary settlements serve the Sherpa cattlemen. An owner may have holdings in one or a number of settlements. The small house shelters herders and young animals and stores hay for winter; the hay and potato crops sustain beasts and tenders during winter visits. And access to grazing is contingent on control of property in the satellite settlements. Owners from different home villages share space; among them they regulate access to adjacent grazing, and share the expectation that every owner’s livestock will be moved as necessary, abetted by a livestock regulating ritual.

The grazing of Khumbu cattle is further subject to regulatory control by local authorities who set a season of protection, di, for territory in the vicinity of villages. Though explicitly intended to address other complex cultural issues, the di functions as a restrotation grazing system would, excluding livestock and reducing their impact on both forage and the wild-hay crop harvested against winter. When it works (and in the last decade the di in most villages had faltered or failed outright because of tourism engendered change in Khumbu economy and society), this ritual regulatory mechanism keeps cattle off lower elevation ranges during the critical summer growing season, adding another element of animal management.



Sustainable animal husbandry requires a careful calibration of number of animals, available feed and strategy of management. In Khumbu, a severely constrained high-mountain landscape, a number of factors interact to insure that Sherpa yak and other cattle move continually, covering the widest possible territory, exploiting the widest range of resources. Heterogeneous biology means livestock with different diets, habits and tolerances; ritual mechanisms protect vulnerable lowland range; family labour provides herders to push the stock along; scattered private properties serve as way-stations in the exploitation of widely dispersed pastures; a community of users, all in the same game, encourages all participants in careful stewardship of the resources on which all depend.

Analysis of forest patches in heavily grazed areas near Khumbu’s main villages shows that fir forest grows well in the presence of livestock. Livestock management strategies worked to reduce the impact of people on environment. Sherpa herders have valued not only their herds but the whole environment that supports a way of life, and have managed grazing in this context.



Today, tourism interferes with these strategies, particularly by undermining the di and reducing the wide dispersal through time and space so critical to sustainable livestock management, as herders shift to jobs as guides and load-carrying eclipses dairying as the primary function of Sherpa cattle. But neither the ingenuity and effectiveness of the traditional life way, nor the disturbance and response engendered by the changing economics of tourism, are factored into park regulations or the collective understanding of people-environment interaction in the Everest region. And no generalized theory of Himalayan degradation, biased at the outset against livestock, encompasses any piece of this fluid, environmentally tuned but vulnerable system of land use.

Despite hundreds of studies spanning, now, four decades, we know less today about the way Khumbu’s people and environment interact than we did when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa made it back from the summit of Everest. At least, though we may know more, the questions have ramified far faster than answers, and uncertainties remain. If 40 years of close looking brings no resolution of such questions for Sagarmatha, what are the implications for the whole of the Nepal Himalaya?



So what, ultimately, can we say about Nepal’s environment? Given the diversity inherent in the physical environment, given the intricate interaction of landscape, history, policy, and human use, and given substantial limitations of information and understanding – even about the most studied places like Sagarmatha/Khumbu – what do we really know?

We know that generalizations about the Nepal Himalaya are of limited usefulness. The Himalaya rise to more than 8000 metres through ranks of lesser ranges from the humid flat lowlands of the Gangetic plain; thousands of streams, rivulets to major rivers, energized by the rapid rise of the ranges, slice the highlands into a finely divided gridwork inimical to easy transit and conducive to high diversity in floral, faunal, and human realms; peoples from source regions north, south, east and west, bearing cultural traditions as varied as our species has devised, filled in the livable valleys and made livable the steep slopes; the nationally integrating, internationally isolating policies of the state forced autonomy while keeping the world at bay until the middle of this century, when the floodgates were opened and an uncoordinated inundation of international development dollars washed over Nepal, bringing at least as much mayhem as benefit. What single rule could hold in such a landscape?

We know that we don’t yet know enough about how nature works here, or about how a particular set of practices permit any given group to survive; nor do we understand the interactions of people and landscape as they have operated through time. And we can only guess about what the future holds. Are we looking at crisis, at the imminent collapse of ecosystem and culture system? Is there a resilience in both people and landscape that will flex to accommodate the pace and nature of the manifold transformations that appear so threatening, now, to so many?

We know that hasty intervention into people’s lives and nature’s processes can exacerbate the very problems we seek to address. We know that despite its apparent geographic isolation Nepal is as subject to geopolitical processes, to radical social, economic and political transformations, as any other nation on earth.

Nepal, despite an aura of the exotic and international rhetoric long on disaster hyperbole, is something of a microcosm of the whole world. Too many people making too many demands, impelled or encouraged to unsustainable exploitation of the environment by short term government policy objectives and growth addicted economies: these are the factors threatening the global environment almost everywhere, North and South.



The uncertainties about how people and nature interact, about the processes and implications of the changing relations between humans and the planetary resources that ultimately support us, are true in any context. We may have better measures of rates of erosion from Iowa cornfields, a clearer notion of the interaction of state policy and citizen response in the more familiar, longer studied context of the North – or we may not. Uncertainty about all such processes and perceptions is, or should be, universal: the more we study, the more aware we become of complexity and diversity. The response to our growing awareness of uncertainty remains a question: Act on the best information available or wait for conclusive data? Intervene with outside expertise or get out of the way of indigenous managers? Advocate a peoples’ revolution or firm government control?



Finally, there’s a concept too often missing from the contemporary discussion of human/environment interaction. It’s an old idea, which it has been argued is a northern preoccupation, currently out of favour as ecologically naive, debunked by Seminar contributor Ramachandra Guha – the idea of wilderness. Because we can’t seem to find it anymore – every corner of the earth now bearing some mark of man – except as a romantic vision, we’ve written it off. But think a minute about what Nancy Newhall said in her early collaboration with photographer Ansel Adams: ‘Wilderness has answers to questions man has not yet learned how to ask.’

Wild nature provided the evolutionary context that shaped us and most other organisms with which we share the planet. We need to remember those roots and be a little careful about dismissing the idea of natural processes proceeding without human intervention. If we can’t have pure wilderness anymore, still I think we can’t lose sight of the need for places that come close – because we don’t have all the answers. We don’t know everything about the way the world of nature and man work, together and separately. We don’t know the consequences of our actions. We can’t always predict what will follow from our choices as managers or politicians or scientists or scholars.

The most important lesson from the discussion about environmental degradation in the Nepal Himalaya is, perhaps, the awareness of our limitations.