The Himalayas are fraying — but an interdisciplinary approach can help us save it

Ecologists and agricultural scientists at recent conference in Meghalaya brought up impacts of human economy on hilly and mountain ecosystems

By Sanat K Chakraborty
Published: Thursday 30 November 2023
Photo: iStock__

Uncertainties and extreme climate behaviour leading to death-inflicting calamities and rapid loss of biodiversity, accompanied by soil and genetic erosion, are not only threatening human existence, they are hastening the process of the Earth’s demise. 

Signs of environmental devastation and deepening ecological crisis are more visible than anywhere else in the high hills and mountains of the Hindu-Kush Himalayan (HKH) region, which sustains life and livelihoods for over 1.9 billion people.

The HKH region, covering the entire stretch of the majestic Himalayan landscape that hosts the world’s highest mountain peak Mount Everest, binds countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh together. These countries have built their economies by exploiting all the bounties of nature.

But now the Himalayas are faltering while facing the brunt of climate change. In the near future, as the trends indicate, the frayed mountain ecosystems may no longer be able to provide for and sustain the insatiable human demands for goods and services, warned Eklavya Sharma, an internationally acclaimed expert on mountain ecosystems research and development. 

Sharma successfully steered the Hindu Kush Himalayan Monitoring and Assessment Programme under the aegis of the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development based in Kathmandu, Nepal. 

The warnings are written all over the surface of the warming glaciers and desecrate the Himalayan landscape, he said while unpacking the key findings of the first comprehensive assessment report on the HKH, which was released recently.

Over 300 scientists from the HKH region and other foreign experts participated in the five-year exercise to “to assess the current state of knowledge of the HKH region, understand various drivers of change and their impacts, address critical data gaps, and develop a set of evidence-based and actionable policy solutions and recommendations.”

Since 1500 AD, the region has already lost 70 to 80 per cent of the original habitats of endemic species. With the current rate of loss, the remaining fourth of the original plant species and their habitats are likely to be wiped out by the end of 2100 AD, Sharma  stated. 

Of course, such foreboding of a looming apocalypse is not new; scary alerts are set off every now and then from academic and scientific fora. Similar alerts reverberated inside the Central Agricultural University in Meghalaya from November 22-24, 2023. 

An assortment of ecologists and agricultural scientists gathered at the international conference on Agriculture in Hilly and Mountain Landscape: An Interdisciplinary Perspective made an impassioned call for urgent assessment of the carrying capacity of the hills and mountain ecosystems, as the development of roads, hydro-energy and tourism infrastructure booms in the Indian Himalayan states amid increasing frequency of human-induced disasters.

The conference, which was jointly organised by the Indian Society of Agricultural Economists (ISAE) and the Central Agricultural University, Imphal, brought together scientists and researchers who have been studying the impacts of human economy on hilly and mountain ecosystems. 

“It is, perhaps, for the first time that we’ve tried to explore an interdisciplinary framework to address the emerging complex issues,” Dinesh Marothia, the ISAE president said.

Paradox of poverty amid plenty

The Indian Himalayan Region, comprising nine states, two union territories and hill districts in Assam and North Bengal, constitutes 16 per cent of India’s geographical areas and it is home to 86 million people of diverse ethnic communities and cultures. Starting from the edge of the Pamir plateau in the Northwest, the Himalayan arc runs eastwards along the Tibetan highlands that extend up to the Arakan-yoma ranges in the Southwest on the Indo-Burma bio-geographic region, bordering the northeastern states of India. 

In terms of bio-resources (especially water and biodiversity), the Himalayan region contributes about 36 per cent of forest, nearly 60 per cent of endemic plant species and meets 63 per cent of water demands of the uplands and downstream population of the country.

Ironically, despite having rich natural resources, the people in hilly and mountainous regions suffer from multi-dimensional poverty, besides economic, poor access to energy, nutrition and health. The combined impacts of climate change, land degradation and dwindling ecosystem services pose serious challenges to ensuring  food security and providing sustainable livelihoods for the vulnerable populations.   

A disturbing trend is outmigration in hilly and mountain states. People, especially the youths, are leaving the villages and migrating to urban towns and cities in search of livelihoods and income.

Those who are staying back are shifting from farming to non-farm activities, especially in the Western Himalayan states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, to take advantage of the booming tourism sector spurred by improved road connectivity and communication networks.     

However, it’s clear, the scientists conceded, that the so-called ‘sustainable development model’ based on ‘balancing’ or ‘trade-offs’ between environment, economy and equity has not yet been proven to be a useful and effective framework.

“It is not the Indian Himalayan region alone that is facing such problems and challenges,” MS Rathore, the director of the Centre for Environment and Development Studies, Jaipur and a visiting fellow at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom,  pointed out. Such depressing situations exist across the Aravalli ranges too. 

Ironically, “when we talk about the Indian mountains, we only think of the Himalayan region, or may be the Western Ghats. We seldom talk about the Aravalli range; we don’t even want to recognise it as mountains,” he rued. 

The Aravalli is the oldest mountain range in India, which starts from Delhi and extends about 692 kilometres southwest, passing through Haryana, Rajasthan and ending up in Gujarat. It may be termed the water tower of the western region, with over a dozen rivers flowing out of the Aravalli range, providing a number of agro-ecological services and playing a crucial role in containing the spread of desertification.

The Aravallis govern Rajasthan’s environment and are critical to economic growth and wellbeing of its people, said Rathore. However, the hills are being exploited in the name of economic development, he added.

While market forces and technology packages are pushing for new cropping patterns in the state, “Illegal and unregulated rampant extraction and mining activities under the political patronage across the mineral-rich Aravallis are destroying its vital ecological resources, exposing the people to devastating consequences, particularly water crisis and environmental pollution,” Rathore said. 

Bias against mountain people

Besides the indifference and inaction of governments in the hilly and mountain states, the political class is also ignorant and often unaware of the gravity of the threats that come from such reckless extractive economic enterprises, which not only destroy the environment but also affect agriculture and other allied activities, which are the mainstay of the majority of the people.

Agricultural scientists and researchers were also quite unequivocal about the ‘absence of mountain perspective’ in research and development planning. There is always a mismatch of development priorities and resource allocation.

“We need a separate approach to scientific research and paradigm of development to maintain the integrity and stability of the hills and mountain ecosystems that provide for all the basic essentials of life and livelihoods of people and other living beings cohabiting on the Earth,” said Tej Pratap, an eminent botanist and specialist in mountain farming. 

The mountains and valleys are fast changing, Pratap pointed out. “Indigenous knowledge and agro-biodiversity associated with the traditional agro-ecosystems are disappearing. Farmers are no longer custodians of seeds and local livestock; all this has been taken over by corporate and market players. The pastoral communities are giving up Pashmina in favour of meat production,” he said.  

One of the main reasons for desperation and hopelessness among the rural and farming communities in the uplands and mountain areas is the persistent bias (of scientific research) against the traditional farming and agro-forestry practices, which have supported millions of families for generations. All these are now vanishing fast, Pratap lamented. 

However, the conference afforded the agricultural scientists and researchers a wonderful opportunity to review their approaches and learn afresh new ideas that came up for deliberation, he said. One of the most significant issues that deserves proper attention is the hidden potential of traditional shifting cultivation system, popularly known as Jhum, which is widely practiced in the Eastern Himalayan region, especially across the uplands of the northeastern region. 

Even though differences in perspective exist among scientists, Dhrupad Choudhury, an independent international consultant who has extensively studied the varied practices of shifting cultivation or swidden agriculture — a predominant land use system across the tropical Asian region — argued that “jhum, the rotational agro-forestry model, along with fallow forest management practices can play a vital role in climate change mitigation and addressing the complex issues of poverty, hunger, food security and sustainable livelihoods. 

Interdisciplinary research to rescue

Scientists are struggling to grasp the nature of the challenges imposed by the constant change of variabilities in nature, especially the geo-physical and bio-chemical processes, as consequences of mindless human activities.

At the pace at which the changes are happening, the scientists admit, they find little time and resources to formulate appropriate research and evidence-based policy responses to address the emerging issues as well as ensure protection of the fragile but life-supporting mountain ecosystems.

However, “threats can be reversed, landscapes can be restored, and ecosystems services can be improved by following prosperity path of regional cooperation, better mountain-specific policies and urgent actions in the HKH region,” Sharma said.

Agro-ecology or regenerative agriculture is the current buzz across the world. An interdisciplinary approach is the key to better understanding of the complex socio-ecological problems faced by the human societies.

“In the contemporary world of science, if you see the recent trends in the last decade, many leading universities of the world – Cambridge, Oxford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, are of the view that we cannot produce the best outcome from our research if we only engage ourselves in our own disciplinary thinking,” observed Marothia.

Though “scientists have inherent arrogance attached to their respective disciplines,” Marothia opined, “the complex socio-ecological problems cannot be effectively addressed, unless they embrace a holistic view, transcending their disciplinary bias.” 

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