Mountain People - A Searcher's Guide


In this issue Cultural Survival focuses on mountain people - a subject that only takes shape after some initial turning and prodding, because "mountain people" is the kind of catch-all term which tends to fall apart when you take a close look at it.

First, not all people agree on what a mountain is. For example, the people in Nepal's middle mountain region are well-situated in full beholding distance of the 23,000-foot-plus Himalayan massifs. While they live on 12,000-footers as high as many of the Rocky Mountains, to them, the slopes they terrace and live upon are not mountains but hills.

In contrast, Peak 8 in the forested Klamath Mountains of northwest California, despite its modest 5,193-foot height, is considered to be not only a mountain, but also a sacred mountain to the Yurok and Karuk Indian people living along the Klamath River nearby.

The encyclopedia declares that mountains are geographical regions that rise above the surrounding land surface. This is a practical definition; the idea is that mountains are identified not by their height but by contrast with nearby lowlands. The relative, rather than absolute, rightly takes precedence, and legitimizes the all-important local and regional view.

For example, the low and round Liu Pan Shan in China's Ning Xia Autonomous Region, which appear to the eye to be no more imposing than California's modest coastal hills whom they resemble, nonetheless impose typical mountain hardship on the people who live in them. These peoples' agricultural opportunities are more constrained than are those of the people on the nearby plains; their seasonal climates are more extreme; their soil erosion in the soft loess even more massive than that in the Yellow River Valley. The regional government recognizes that it is unable to change the eternal mountains of Liu Pan Shan, and so has opted instead to remove a portion of its population - a drastic cure for the problems of mountain people.

In the Catskills of New York, the livelihoods of the people of the tiny company town, Corbett, depended on their mountain resources; when jilted by a shift in market demand - from wood-based to synthetic acetate - the townspeople experienced the same dislocation that is the fate of mountain people the world over whose livelihoods depend upon erratic world demand for their mountain ore or mountain timber.

Mountains are indeed a local phenomenon, despite the fact that a Catskill can't hold a candle to a Himalaya. When searching for mountain people, no potential geography should be left unexamined - neither the marginal mountains, highlands, plateaus and uplands nor the Andes and the Himalaya.

Using this kind of definitive generosity, Jack Ives, president of the International Mountain Society, has determined that a quarter of the world's people live in the mountains - or feel that they do. It begins to look as if the club of mountain people is hardly an exclusive one. But we still don't know: who lives in the mountains? Do these people have anything in common? Is there such a thing as mountain people?

Flatlanders seem to subscribe to the idea that mountains all have something in common. Their mental pictures of mountains are built around the romance that there is something elusive and of great value to be found in the mountains, something just over the horizon - the Shangri-la of perfect repose, the immense fortune of the Inca's lost gold or the health promised by Alpine spas.

Mountain people recognize that these values placed on mountains cannot be exported. Values, like mountains, are relative, and so the following situation arises: flatlanders come looking for their own dreams and sometimes they find them, but too often the treasures of the mountain people appear to the flatlanders as dust.

What's there, at river's edge, unknown to you, doctor?

Take out your binoculars, your best lenses.

Look, if you can.

The doctors are the planners and the developers, the outsiders who come in helicopters. Arguedas makes a point: the mountains that are discussed in universities and national capitals often have very little to do with those on earth; instead they are creations which rest upon a lowland state of mind.

Anthropologists have made rigorous efforts to define "mountain people" in order to give themselves a common language to compare notes across mountain ranges. They have come up with the useful concepts of "Alpwirtschaft" and "verticality", views appropriately based on the characteristics that distinguish mountain life from flatland life, and upon the adaptations these immutables of geography require from those who reside there.

They begin appropriately by asking themselves what makes mountain environments distinct from lowlands and flatlands. Height and slope are ubiquitous in the mountains, and many other environmental conditions follow naturally upon these distinct features: temperature and precipitation extremes; shallow soils and low biological productivity; variable exposure to sunlight; heightened vulnerability to erosion. Central to the concept of extreme climatic variation is the fact that increased altitude expresses itself similarly to increased latitude, with 100m change of height equivalent to 100 km change of latitude. Subsistence farmers living in these conditions, then, must be able to farm successfully in several different climates.

The roughness of mountain terrain imposes further political and economic constraints. Mountain people are often isolated from flatlanders and from one another by language; transportation in mountains is difficult because roads, when they exist, are plagued with landslides, washouts or avalanches; mountain people are often oppressed minorities under political systems that even majority cultures find difficult to maneuver within.

Given similar hardships, mountain farmers often adopt similar survival strategies. Worldwide, mountain farmers terrace the slopes. In the Himalaya, the Andes and the Alps, they depend on both agricultural and pastoral production. A single village or family group will plant crops on river flats or mountain terraces, or graze herds on high pastureland that may be available only a few months a year.

In addition, Andean and Himalayan farmers are similar in that the extravagant climatic variations they experience encourage them to plant dozens of crop varieties, even on small farms. Rugged mountain topography worldwide discourages shifts to mechanized production. While mountain farmers' multipronged strategies enhance their chances or survival in the mountains, these same strategies also exacerbate the difficulties farmers have when they are thrown into world agricultural markets that thrive on mechanized farming and monocropping.

Pastoralism is another option for mountain farmers. In high altitudes with short growing seasons, produce-on-the-hoof is herdspeople's way to use most fully the different agricultural belts available to them. They manage this by holding pastures in common, a method that depends strongly on the goodwill of communities which control the lands the herds pass through on their way up and down the mountains. The strategy assumes freedom of movement for the herds. When political borders are drawn, or the increasingly colonized mountain lands become owned by individuals, the mountain equivalent of "fencing in the range" occurs. Mountain herders either lose their grazing rights or must pay increasing fees to maintain them. Communal pastures shrink in size and are overgrazed and degraded. Consequently, the herdspeople's economic well-being is threatened.

For the purposes of this issue of Cultural Survival, however, a comparison based on agricultural and pastoral customs is insufficient. A mountain people need not live in the mountains at all. News from Tibet has historically emphasized the Tibetan's religion, whose history has been formed by the country's mountain-influenced isolation. The Buddhist religion has given strength to refugee Tibetans in their decades of exile: for these Tibetans, the absence of mountains is significant.

The environmental aspects of mountain life are comparable to some degree, but not sufficient in and of themselves to allow useful generalizations. Each mountainous area has its distinct history and culture.

Take the two most often compared mountain areas, the Andes and the Himalaya. Their matching geographical high-mountain-ness does not suffice to make a comparison. The plights of many of their people, trapped in rural poverty and holding weak minority positions in their own national governments, are similar - but these similarities do not distinguish mountain dwellers from oppressed or poor people the world over. Unfortunately, comparisons can't really be culled from available anthropological information on the Andes and the Himalaya: the bodies of work available on people in the two regions have evolved separately and have now diverged to opposite, yet equally valid, conclusions.

In the Andes, mountain people were disvalued throughout hundreds of years of colonial domination. Not until the first decades of this century did "proofs that the despised race of the heights was none other than the noble race of the Incas promote a change in regional consciousness from shame to pro-Andean pride". To outside observers, it's as if the resiliency of the Quechua and their tenacity triggered a sense of wonder, and set forever a view of Andean people as survivors in the face of long-term and massive oppression. Resiliency became the theme of the Andes. More recently researchers have expanded their explorations of Andean human ecology to include the Andean's adaptations to social injustice, but in few cases have the lessons gained from the political and economic view been translated into policy.

In the Himalaya, on the other hand, fragility has become the theme. The apparently increased loss of land and life in the Himalaya from landslides and floods in the early 1970s shifted research concerns from the anthropological to the environmental. The environmental degradation of the Himalaya, and the firewood and fodder shortages that followed, have guided both research and government policy in parts of the region for the past two decades. Nepal's amended national forest policy was augmented by a country-wide afforestation scheme; in India a Gandhi-inspired local movement, the Chipko, received enough support from the scientific community and from international public opinion to influence for the better India's archaic forestry policy. While the diverse cultural pockets that abound in the Himalaya still draw study and concern, cultural survival in the Himalaya has taken a back seat to the overriding issue of survival itself.

Interestingly enough, researchers who have tried to find important and relevant data for the Himalaya (such as the amount of firewood burned per family per year) have been stymied. Even within short horizontal distances, climatic, biological and cultural conditions vary greatly. Thus, despite increasingly good intentions, a potentially lethal situation proves quite obstructive to management on a national scale. The variations among contiguous valleys or within the same valley are but a microcosm of the difficulties which arise in attempts to compare among ranges, and in the search for common themes among mountain people.

My own views about mountains and mountain people were arrived at by the somewhat awkward method of journalistic trial and error. I found similarities among mountain people in their topographically imposed cultural adaptations, but more importantly, I found similarities in the circumstances that arise with large-scale incursions into mountain environments.

Mountains have historically been repositories for minerals, timber, water and hydropower, unclaimed land and untapped markets, wilderness, beauty and peace - all of which are in high demand and short supply among flatlanders. While mountain people themselves are too diverse to be easily compared, their misfortunes in the face of massive timbering or huge and poorly planned dams and mines, have much in common.

These types of demand are by no means recent. For example, 200 years ago the rulers of the Kathmandu Valley inadvertently caused severe deforestation in Chautara, their district to the north, by requiring that district taxes be paid in the form of locally smelted ores. Similarly, the slopes around Simla were heavily forested until just over 100 years ago when builders commandeered massive amounts of lumber to turn the town into a British resort.

Large-scale resource exploitations, historical and ongoing, all have in common a sort of magnifying glass effect: they exert intense ecological, political and economic pressures on small geographical areas - areas whose environmental constraints have already limited peoples' options for change.

The situations are not always impossible to manage. Where the environment constrains, advantageous economics can supply the options. For example, take the case of Obergurgl, a village in Austria's Tyrol. In the 1840s, the desperate village council imposed upon the inhabitants a complete ban upon marriages, for the population had grown larger than the environment's ability to provide. Today the population is much larger, but because of the reliable ski business in the village, people can afford to educate their children. Now the excess population moves to cities where they find a place within the economic life of the country. Thus the village has seemingly transferred its population problems to the rest of the country. There are, however, other consequences of the dependence on the ski business. The biological productivity and diversity of Obergurgl's high valley has been markedly reduced since the introduction of skiing and tourism. Furthermore, the people's respect for their mountain environment, too, has been eroded.

In Nanche Bazar in Nepal, Sherpa people have almost unlimited opportunities for employment; financially they are among the better-off Nepalis. Yet one cannot forget that they have paid an unconscionable price in their much diminished male population, lost in fatal accidents while accompanying foreign climbers to the peaks.

In Ladakh, a region in the western Himalaya whose traditional culture has been exposed only recently to the potentially destructive influences of industrial technology and mass tourism, the price of change has yet to be calculated. Outsiders and the changes they bring have so far been met with serenity. Local leaders have banded together to counterbalance outside influences by offering alternatives to resource-intensive technologies in the form of small-scale energy systems and other appropriate technologies which are more in line with the Ladakhi approach to life.

On the whole, success stories are altogether too uncommon. Mining, for example, has the tendency to produce long-term damage in the form of acid mine drainage which poisons creeks such as those throughout the Rocky Mountains. In the shorter term, it leads to extreme cycles of boom and bust, with attendant unemployment and forced migration; such has been the case both in Appalachia and the Andes. In addition, the exploitation of mountain rivers by hydroelectric projects can displace mountain people or rob them of their water.

With these many incursions, even the spiritual aspects of mountains have been threatened. Holiness, too, is fragile, and can be sustained only by a community of people who share the view that their mountain is even "larger" than its rocks and snow. Sacred mountains are vulnerable on two levels - both to the physical degradation of the mountain and to the erosion of belief in the people who respect it.

On the whole, the concept of "mountain people" is perhaps more useful to flatlanders than it is to mountain people. Mountain people are those who oversee massive resources, who have evolved unique strengths in their ways of living and of adjusting to their implacable environments and incursions from the greedy of the world. They practice exemplary philosophies, and their spiritual connection with their own mountain homes is so strong, and completely alien to life in modern society, that we can't help but respect and envy it, even as we engineer its passing.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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