Open Access
How to translate text using browser tools
1 August 2000 Review of Web Sites, CD ROMs, Books
Jack D. Ives
Author Affiliations +

Himalaya: Life on the Edge of the World by David Zurick and P. P. Karan. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1999 (released 11 January 2000). xiv + 355 pp. US$34.95. ISBN 0-8018-6168-3.

* * *

David Zurick and P. P. Karan have produced an aesthetically pleasing volume on the Himalaya. They define their region in the strict sense to include the extremely mountainous land between the Indus gorge in the northwest and the gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo–Bramhaputra in the east, together with parallel strips of the North Indian–Pakistan plains and the Tibetan Plateau. Their coverage provides brief, highly informative sections on geophysics, climate, biogeography, prehistory, history, and ethnic evolution. The main weight of the work then goes on to analyze the current status of the region's demographics, environment, economy, political relationships, and, especially, the impacts of “modernity.” A short concluding chapter (pp. 271–295) discusses “landscapes of the future” in an attempt to assess the routes that may be taken in the struggle between growing pressure on resources and efforts to alleviate poverty. There is a valuable, large appendix (28 pages) devoted to tabulated data for 1960, 1970, 1980, and 1990 on population statistics, forest area, cropped area, and population density (defined as persons per hectare of cropped land). The appendix includes older data sets for specific districts, where available. Twenty pages of endnotes, which include literature references noted numerically in the text by chapter, are followed by a very short author/subject combined index.

The book includes numerous black and white photographs that amply demonstrate the great range of Himalayan landscapes and human activities. Some of these are of outstanding aesthetic and scholarly value, eg, on pages 12, 34/35, 46, 76/77, 146, 188, 232, 292/293 (although some are impaired by reproduction of poor quality, while others would have added value had they been dated).

The authors state that much of their research was supported by a major grant from the US National Science Foundation, which facilitated visits to more than a hundred individual districts across the region and detailed study in 7 representative sites. This fieldwork was extensively supplemented by archival research and contributions by experts from the various Himalayan countries, together with that of their own graduate students; in total, they indicate a study of nearly 50 person/years.

Himalaya is rightly presented as the first quantitative regional study of the world's greatest mountain range. The details of the authors' various analyses rest, in large part, on the considerable data base that they have accumulated by district: the 120 districts are named and designated on a reference map on page 296. Many of the data on specific topics, such as population, forest cover, cropping area, and so on, are introduced in map form at relevant points in the text. These, however, are tiny sketches, often with 6 gray tones that, in some instances, are rather difficult to decipher— especially where national borders are omitted, as in the example on page 171.

Treatment of such a large and complex region, as the authors note, sets a serious challenge in presentation format. Thus, considerable repetition is not surprising; in some instances, it is both necessary and reinforcing. Nevertheless, the reader is informed on three occasions that “Chipko” means to hug trees and on two that an American missionary was the first to introduce apples into Himachal Pradesh in the 1930s. There are also occasional lapses into flamboyant language: “But the destructive impacts of the large dams loom large on the jagged mountain horizon” (p. 236). Some ambiguities and very one-sided stipulations arise, such as a statement to the effect that more than 50% of the population of Nepal is “below the poverty line” (p. 278), with no definition of “poverty line”, and “The rivers [Indus, Ganga, and Brahmaputra] thus have a spiritual meaning for the native people of the mountains,” when surely there are many times more lowlanders for whom there is an equally strong spiritual association.

The tendency to make big statements can become disconcerting: “An entire world will be flooded at the event”—this, the prospect of a collapse of the Tehri dam. Is this another Biblical flood? And the very frequent use of the word “worlds” (plural), as in “Himalayan worlds,” is rather overdone. Similarly, “alpine” is frequently used to describe “alpine forests,” “alpine grassland,” “alpine habitats,” “alpine societies.” This is hardly a contribution to scholarly rigor: there is no such thing, in my estimation, as “alpine forests” except in the sense of the Alpine forests of such countries as Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and France; in addition, the “alpine zone” is usually taken to mean that altitudinal belt lying above the mountain forests. India and China are referred to as “superpowers” without qualification. A more critical editorial control would have eliminated these albeit very minor yet numerous blemishes.

My main apprehension about the book, however, is on a more personal theme. It relates to the authors' central discussion of the so-called “Theory of Himalayan Environmental Degradation.” This first appears in the Preface and in Chapter 1; it is discussed again from Chapter 8 onward, so that it could come to be seen as the book's primary raison d'être. On page 10, following their elaboration of Eckholm's central theme (Eckholm 1976), the authors introduce the thrust of their argument by referring to “the influential 1989 book The Himalayan Dilemma” (Ives and Messerli 1989). Later, in Chapter 8 (pp. 132–135) under the heading “A Grand Theory of Ecocrisis,” they repeat their outline of the “Himalayan environmental degradation model” and state that “Jack Ives and Bruno Messerli wrote The Himalayan Dilemma to refute the above scenario” yet go on to refer to the theory, or model, as “their theory” (ie, the theory of Ives and Messerli). The ensuing detailed discussion of “their [our] theory” throughout the remaining 200 pages of the book runs the risk of leaving readers, especially those not fully informed (their [our] book is now out-of-print), with the belief that the Theory of Himalayan Environmental Degradation is indeed the theory of Ives and Messerli, when nothing could be further from reality. This treatment is misleading and must be corrected.

In the Preface, the authors introduce two paradigms: the first might be described as that of Erik Eckholm and a group of like-minded writers—the supercrisis approach; the other, Ives's and Messerli's (et al) refutation of it. Zurick and Karan remark: “The major intellectual problem with both paradigms is that the mountains are so vast and complex as to make any generalization untenable,” and they affirm that their book falls into neither paradigm. This is a remarkable statement. First, more than 10 years ago, Ives and Messerli objected to the tendency to generalization by believers in supercrisis by stipulating that the “Himalayan region is so varied and so complex that generalization is counter-productive” (Ives and Messerli 1989: 9; Ives et al 1997). We also state with vigor the “need for plural problem definitions and plural solution definitions” (p. 242 and other authors). We strive to define the mountain farmer (women and men) as part of the solution(s) rather than part of the problem(s), dedicating the book to them as “the best hope for resolution of the dilemma.”

Zurick and Karan have undoubtedly filled in many data gaps and have achieved the first approach to a quantitative regional description. Nevertheless, many of their viewpoints were anticipated more than a decade ago, and some of their statements are actually retrogressive. This comment is illustrated with a single yet powerful example—their treatment of the major issue of highland–lowland interaction between deforestation of the Himalaya and downstream impacts in Gangetic India and Bangladesh:

The Himalayan Dilemma makes the linkage between upland forest change and lowland floods a pivotal point in the authors' [ie, Ives and Messerli] ecocrisis model. The authors discount the relationship between trees in the mountains and floods in the lowlands despite studies by India's Water Research Institute that show how the linkage between forest removal and increased siltation in rivers is, indeed, a strong component of landscape change in the Himalaya-Ganges region. (page 141)

This is an intriguing stand. Zurick and Karan give no further justification for their “inference” and not a single reference in support (eg, to any publication emanating from India's Water Research Institute) so that the reader cannot make a balanced evaluation. Our very early attempt to sever the assumed highland–lowland linkage is quite detailed and our emphatic references to problems of scale received little attention from Zurick and Karan. Subsequently, there has been further extensive support (Hofer 1993, 1998; Wu and Thornes 1995; Schreier and Wymann 1996; Hofer and Messerli 1997), yet none of these publications is referenced as part of this discussion by Zurick and Karan. Hofer's treatise (1998) is a monumental contribution to this issue of highland–lowland interaction and overwhelmingly substantiates the conclusions of Ives and Messerli (1989), together with Hamilton's (1987) conviction that floods occur in Bangladesh when it rains in Bangladesh. As early as 1989, Ives and Messerli had raised the specter that the numerous dams themselves must affect the movement of water and sediment between the mountains and the plains and that the environmental damage on the plains, in large measure, was likely due to infrastructural changes on the plains. Added to this is the rapid extension of people and infrastructure into flood-prone areas that has occurred over the last several decades, so that increased human losses would have occurred whether or not major floods increased in magnitude and frequency.

Furthermore, I must draw attention to the poor balance of the references. The authors have overlooked many significant sources, although some of the 1998 publications may have become available when the preparation of the text was well advanced. Some examples are Berkes and Gardner (1997), Berkes et al (1998), Duffield et al (1998), Kulu Valley Himachal Pradesh–Uhlig (1995), Hoon (1996), Chakravarty-Kaul (1998), Central Indian Himalaya– Gilmour (1988), Gilmour and Fisher (1991), Gilmour and Nurse (1991), Griffin (1989), Jackson et al (1998, Nepal and social forestry). Moreover, Forsyth (1996, 1998) has written incisively on “mountain myths revisited” and “testing the theory of Himalayan environmental degradation.”

Finally, while problems of warfare in the region do receive passing reference, the magnitude of the direct and indirect impact of the international conflicts, on-going and latent, along with widespread governmental corruption, may be the most significant threat to the Himalaya and its people (Hewitt 1997). There is barely a passing reference to the atrocities committed by the Bhutan authorities on their citizens of Nepalese descent, resulting in a large movement of refugees into eastern Nepal and the ensuing tri-nation (Bhutan, Nepal, and India) tensions. Already in 1989, Ives and Messerli stated that the Himalayan problem “is not environmental, but socio-economic, and especially political.”

Nevertheless, the book is recommended to all Himalayan and mountain scholars. It is another worthy step along the way to fuller understanding of the Himalaya, and its price is quite modest. As more of the authors' large database is unraveled and analyzed, it is to be hoped that a fuller and more closely reasoned second edition will appear in the not too distant future.



F. Berkes, I. Davidson-Hunt, and K. Davidson-Hunt . 1998. Diversity of common property resource use and diversity of social interests in the western Indian Himalaya. Mountain Research and Development 18:19–33. Google Scholar


F. Berkes and J. S. Gardner . 1997. Sustainability of Mountain Environments in India and Canada. Winnipeg: Natural Resources Institute, University of Manitoba. Google Scholar


M. Chakravarty-Kaul 1998. Transhumance and customary pastoral rights in Himachal Pradesh: claiming the high pastures for Gaddis. Mountain Research and Development 18:5–17. Google Scholar


C. Duffield, J. S. Gardner, F. Berkes, and R. B. Singh . 1998. Local knowledge in the assessment of resource sustainability: case studies in Himachal Pradesh, India, and British Columbia, Canada. Mountain Research and Development 18:35–49. Google Scholar


E. Eckholm 1976. Losing Ground. New York: World Watch Institute, W. W. Norton. Google Scholar


T. Forsyth 1996. Science, myth, and knowledge: testing Himalayan environmental degradation in Northern Thailand. Geoforum 27:375–392. Google Scholar


T. Forsyth 1998. Mountain myths revisited: integrating natural and social environmental science. Mountain Research and Development 18:107–116. Google Scholar


D. A. Gilmour 1988. Not seeing the trees for the forest: a re-appraisal of the deforestation crisis in two hill districts of Nepal. Mountain Research and Development 8:343–350. Google Scholar


D. A. Gilmour and R. J. Fisher . 1991. Villagers, Forests and Foresters. Kathmandu, Nepal: Sahayogi. Google Scholar


D. A. Gilmour and M. C. Nurse . 1991. Farmer initiatives in increasing tree cover in Central Nepal. Mountain Research and Development 11:329–337. Google Scholar


D. M. Griffin 1989. Innocents Abroad in the Forests of Nepal. An Account of Australian Aid to Nepalese Forestry. Canberra, Australia: ANUTECH Pty. Ltd. Google Scholar


L. S. Hamilton 1987. What are the impacts of Himalayan deforestation on the Ganges-Brahmaputra lowlands and delta? Mountain Research and Development 7:256–263. Google Scholar


K. Hewitt 1997. Risk and disasters in mountain lands. In: Messerli B, Ives JD, editors. Mountains of the World: A Global Priority. London and New York: Parthenon Publishing Group, pp 371–408. Google Scholar


T. Hofer 1993. Himalayan deforestation, changing river discharge, and increasing floods: myth or reality? Mountain Research and Development 13:213–233. Google Scholar


T. Hofer 1998. Floods in Bangladesh: a highland-lowland interaction? Geographia Bernensia, G 48. Berne, Switzerland: Institute of Geography, University of Berne. Google Scholar


T. Hofer and B. Messerli . 1997. Floods in Bangladesh: Process Understanding and Development Strategies. Interlaken, Switzerland: Institute of Geography, University of Berne, Schlaefli and Maurer. Google Scholar


V. Hoon 1996. Living on the Move: Bhotiyas and the Kumaon Himalaya. New Delhi, London, and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Google Scholar


J. D. Ives and B. Messerli . 1989. The Himalayan Dilemma: Reconciling Development and Conservation. London and New York: Routledge. Google Scholar


J. D. Ives, B. Messerli, and R. E. Rhoades . 1997. Agenda for sustainable mountain development. In: Messerli B, Ives JD, editors. Mountains of the World: A Global Priority. London and New York: Parthenon Publishing Group, pp 455–466. Google Scholar


W. J. Jackson, R. M. Tamrakar, S. Hunt, and K. R. Shepherd . 1998. Land-use changes in two Middle Hills districts of Nepal. Mountain Research Development 18:193–212. Google Scholar


H. Schreier and S. Wymann von Dach . 1996. Understanding Himalayan processes: shedding light on the dilemma. In: Hurni H, Kienholz H, Wanner H, Wiesmann U, editors. Umwelt Mensch Gebirge. Festschrift for Bruno Messerli. Jahrbuchder Geographischen Gesellschaft Bern, Bd. 59/1994–1996. Berne, Switzerland, pp 75–83. Google Scholar


H. Uhlig (edited by Kreutzmann H). 1995. Persistence and change in high mountain agricultural systems. Mountain Research and Development 15:199–212. Google Scholar


K. Wu and J. B. Thornes . 1995. Terrace irrigation of mountainous hill slopes in the Middle Hills of Nepal: stability and instability. In: Chapman GP, Thompson M, editors. Water and the Quest for Sustainable Development in the Ganges Valley. London and New York: Mansell, pp 41–63. Google Scholar
Jack D. Ives "Review of Web Sites, CD ROMs, Books," Mountain Research and Development 20(3), 288-289, (1 August 2000).[0288:]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 August 2000
Back to Top