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1 May 2000 Pathways Towards a Sustainable Mountain Agriculture for the 21st Century: The Hindu Kush– Himalayan Experience
John Farrington
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Pathways Towards a Sustainable Mountain Agriculture for the 21st Century: The Hindu Kush– Himalayan Experience by Robert E. Rhoades. International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, Kathmandu, 1997. 176 pp. US$ 20 (developed countries), US$ 15 (developing countries). ISBN 92-9115-645-0.

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This is at once an exhilarating and a frustrating book. The author's vision is wide, “to think innovatively about old problems, and to devise means of involving the very people who benefit or suffer most from development interventions: mountain farmers” (abstract). His canvas is also broad, arching across the 8 countries that share the Hindu Kush– Himalaya. For this reviewer, his most illuminating proposals are that we should reconceptualize sustainability as a process of capacity building for problem solving, that an approach to decision-making is needed in which socioeconomic and biophysical dimensions are “scaled,” and that practical participatory approaches are needed that mobilize mountain communities for sustainability. Further, he rightly urges that asset-based conceptualizations of poverty (Chapter 6) and longitudinal studies of how people have managed change should occupy a stronger role in our methodological armory. This reviewer also empathizes strongly with his assertion that postmodernistic relativism and specificity are unlikely to generate new policy insights for the region.

Less convincing is the author's advocacy of “montology” or of an interactive database (MASSIF) drawing together published and “gray” materials across the range of disciplines. Many will see the proposal that his publisher (ICIMOD) should coordinate such a database as special pleading and may be further irritated by recurrent evidence of the author's special relationship with ICIMOD, some bordering on eulogy (eg, pp 29–40), some more in keeping with a commissioned report than a book (eg, “I recommend that ICIMOD …” [p 119]).

What of the central notion that this region should be viewed as a totality if sensible policies are to be generated? Major cross-frontier resource flows (such as silt and water from Nepal and India to Bangladesh) argue for such breadth (but figure surprisingly little in the analysis), and lessons learned in resource management in some areas may be useful to others, as Chapter 8 suggests in respect of watershed management. On the whole, however, the major differences between countries, in terms of political and economic traditions, may in practice override any potential benefits of cross-learning.

There are some surprising gaps; forestry and livestock scarcely merit a mention, despite their strong interaction with agriculture. Migration is mentioned (pp 92–93) as a seasonal strategy, but long-term out-migration is ignored. The acknowledged Nepal-basis of much of the author's information occasionally leads to overgeneralization (watershed development in India, eg, is far from donor-driven [p 119]). The book would have benefited from stronger subediting, for instance, to give meaning to the sentence on China on p 84, to rectify the “corrections” made by spellcheck, and to ensure that photographs did not carry too much detail for their small size. Overall, however, providing that they can mentally filter out excessive references to ICIMOD and the CGIAR, many readers will find this a stimulating and worthwhile read.

John Farrington "Pathways Towards a Sustainable Mountain Agriculture for the 21st Century: The Hindu Kush– Himalayan Experience," Mountain Research and Development 20(2), 201-202, (1 May 2000).[0201:PTASMA]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 May 2000

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