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7. The human dimension: what are the facts?

Poverty in the Himalaya
Women and young people



The preceding chapters have been concerned primarily with the physical components of the Theory of Himalayan Environmental Degradation. While the discussion has repeatedly expanded to questions of human intervention (it must be admitted, for instance, that deforestation is essentially a human process), we have concentrated on the physical facts and pseudo-facts of progressive reduction in forest cover and the assumed and real consequences of that reduction in terms of landscape degradation and far-distant downstream effects. At issue has been the relationship between natural, or geophysical, processes and human intervention (accelerated erosion, sediment transfer, and downstream flooding). We have concluded that human intervention has the potential for significant landscape changes at the scale of the micro-watershed or individual mountain slope. Yet even here we point out that periodic catastrophic rainstorms, for example, will tend to over-ride the effects of human activity. At the macro-scale, however, natural processes will reduce the role of human interventions to insignificant proportions, although this is not to claim that they are unimportant in specific locations.

Our approach to this discussion has relied heavily upon geomorphic theory, documentation of actual deforestation for those few areas for which information is available, and the few data sets that we can accept as reliable. This has resulted in our sweeping attack on conventional wisdom by exposing its lack of solid factual support and its dependence upon intuition, emotion, and the dramatic reactions of short-term visiting 'experts' whose opinions have been reiterated so often in the recent literature that they have become 'facts.' These 'facts' have then been popularized by a group of writers and journalists (cf. Sterling, 1976; Eckholm, 1976; Myers, 1986) and have permeated the mass media and the conservationist literature. This, we believe, is how the latter-day myths, the 'sacred cows,' of the Theory of Himalayan Environmental Degradation have come to life.

Despite our insistence that much available information is inadequate, or even invented, we have attempted to sift out facts that we do believe to be reliable, to use the theoretical base of our own discipline, and to conclude that the physical process components of the Theory are either invalid or unprovable. In this case, therefore, we submit that the Theory as an entity cannot be defended.

We persist in our belief, however, that the Himalayan region is facing a serious and accelerating crisis, both in terms of its degrading environment and in the increasingly desperate poverty of its rapidly growing population. In this chapter we will attempt a review of the information that leads to the definition of this growing poverty, and of the deductions drawn from it. We must also ask what are the standards by which a country, or community, or an individual human family is judged to be in a condition of poverty. This leads to an assessment of the data base as well as of the perspectives of those who set the standards.

We have not yet tackled the causes of this increasing poverty nor the relations between poverty and the apparently uncontrollable population growth. Perhaps we would do better to admit that, while we can make some tentative suggestions, we cannot produce a definitive answer, and simply put out a call for more research. This approach would be nothing less than an abrogation of moral responsibility; a giving way to the criticism that, when a university professor does not know what to do he collects more data; vast sums are already being spent on 'pure' end 'applied' research, and even vaster sums on development projects throughout the region. But how can research and 'development' proceed and succeed if they are based upon unreliable conventional 'scientific' wisdom and when the Himalayan Problem remains shrouded in uncertainty. Thompson and Warburton (1985a) and Thompson (1987) have asked the unthinkable question, unthinkable, that is, in terms of conventional science: if you don't know what the facts are, you can ask, what would you like the facts to be? This leads to their advice that, since the prevailing uncertainty is not likely to go away, then we should explore how we can use the uncertainty to good effect. This will be taken up more fully in the concluding chapters.

This preamble to a discussion of the human dimension indicates the necessity for a change of pace, in comparison with Chapters I to 6. The subject matter is very different and much more diffuse. We believe that the foregoing chapters hang together, in that they move, link by link, down the chain of the Theory of Himalayan Environmental Degradation.

To illustrate this need for a change of pace, we are prompted to raise the question: is there such a theory in relation to the human dimension? Our answer is that, most definitely, there is: it embraces the whole congeries of assumptions that leads providers of aid to believe that they are bestowing development on a series of 'target' populations. This is the idea of pulling Least Developed Countries (and communities within LDCs) up to the scientist's bench, or the surgeon's operating table, and doing the necessary to them. It is that aspect of the Theory that Griffin (1987, and see Chapter 10) is attacking so effectively and that the Bahugunas and Bandyopadhyays are resisting so strongly. A major consideration is that, contrary to all these mindless statistics and indicators (which we will go on to review) those 'ignorant and irrational peasants' do not just sit there waiting for development to hit them. (This paragraph is largely based on a personal communication, dated February 1987, by Michael Thompson.)

We wish to emphasize, therefore, that the so-called ignorant and overly fecund subsistence farmer is the central element of the Theory. We will try to arrange this chapter around this statistic, who, after all, is a human being with sensitivity, knowledge, and desire, like anyone else. The positive contributions of the subsistence farmer, in converting steep mountain slopes to productive agricultural terraces, in maintaining the stability of those slopes by dint of the muscles of his and her back, arms, and legs, aided by a great body of accumulated environmental lore, is as much at issue as the negative impacts, some of which are real, some assumed. Similarly, the villager's, or subsistence farmer's, attitudes toward forests, for instance, often in the face of negative governmental intervention, will largely determine whether or not remaining forests will be preserved and whether or not afforestation projects, large or small, will succeed. To quote Thompson et al. (1986) once again, it is necessary that we overthrow the conviction that the subsistence farmer is part of the problem and argue that he is part, a very large part, of the solution. This view has also been championed by Macfarlane (1976), Campbell (1979), Dani and Campbell (1988), and Messerschmidt (1978, 1981, 1987), and many other development anthropologists; this will become apparent later in this chapter.

To enter the complex issue of the human dimension we will concentrate initially on a discussion of the meaningfulness and reliability of the socioeconomic and demographic data base and on the manner in which it is used. It is reasonable to ask: if, as we think we have shown, the physical 'facts' are largely unreliable, why should the human 'facts' tee any better?

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