Need to Rewrite the Mountain Perspective!

Jul 1st, 2014 | By | Category: Advocacy, Biodiversity, Ecosystem Functions, Environment, Experts Speak, Forest, Governance, International Agencies, Lessons, M-20 CAMPAIGN, MOUNTAIN ISSUES, Opinion, Resilience, Rio+20, Vulnerability, Water
Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma India

Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma

Tagged as fragile, remote and marginal, these three aspects have featured prominently in discussions and deliberations concerning development in the mountains in our part of the world. Retired but active academician N S Jodha, a former senior staff with the Kathmandu-based Integrated Center for International Mountain Development, has been credited for using these three features to define, what in popular parlance is called, ‘the mountain perspective’.

Discussion link:  

Ever since it was proposed over two decades ago, ‘the mountain perspective’ has been the leitmotif of most research/development on mountain issues in the region. One of the reasons for it (the mountain perspective) not to be contested had to do with the three features being ‘obvious’ in the mountain context. Since replacing these `three words’ by searching from the thesaurus would have not added any spice, the mountain fraternity did not see any reason in dabbling with it.

As a consequence, ‘the mountain perspective’ has hung around and for good reasons too! Without doubt, it has given a sense of purpose and legitimacy to those working for and on mountain issues at the grassroot, on the tree trunk and atop canopy. The guiding mantras, fragility, marginality and remoteness, have helped generate widespread empathy for those engaged in ‘development’ of the mountain communities. Though not directly credited, ‘the mountain perspective’ has been effective in providing financial back-stopping too.

One would have imagined that with such a clear perspective on the mountains on offer, the ecology of the region and the economics of its people should have been better. Conversely, however, assessments made in the recent past indicate that fragility and marginality in the mountains have only worsened. Despite the issue of remoteness having been addressed through communication penetration, both software and hardware, the mountains remain a region of gross uncertainty.

If the mountain perspective was so well orchestrated, what might have gone wrong in putting the driving principles emanating from it into practice? Contrary to common belief, ‘the mountain perspective’ has been seriously flawed in the first place. Pitched around the physio-graphic features of the mountains, the narrative had hinged itself on the inherent debility of the region. Could anything built on a weak foundation end up being robust and durable?

At another level, ‘the mountain perspective’ could only provide a constricted view on the mountains. Far from providing an open platform, the mountain perspective held a priori idea on the region. Neither could researchers view the mountains any different from what they were made to understand nor could policymakers stretch their imagination beyond ‘the mountain perspective’. The idea of ‘mountains‘ had got caged within the pre-determined boundaries!

That mountains are nature’s repository of the best and the beautiful; that its treacherous slopes have riches to sustain humanity for several millennia; and that its peaks are global store houses of life-saving liquid has been subsumed within the over-hyped discourse on debility of the region. The political economy of development unleashed on account of unquestioned mountain perspective led to perpetuation of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ syndrome. No wonder, most mountain people continue to consider themselves grossly under-developed.

Built upon the locational inadequacies, ‘the mountain perspective’ had literally ignored the spiritual and cultural threads crisscrossing the peaks and the valleys. That the communities ‘belonged’ to the mountains and sought to create a living relationship with them was clearly ignored in favor of the shortcomings that got highlighted in development discourses. The self-esteem of mountain people got a severe beating and continues to be so.

If foregoing narration is any indication, it is time ‘the mountain perspective‘ is rewritten because it has long been ‘irrelevant‘. The self-depreciating features `fragile, remote and marginal need to give way to positive expressions viz., rich, robust and exquisite. Had the mountain perspective been crafted around such positive expressions, the approach to development would have definitely been different. It would have allowed people in the mountains to play to their strengths and set the agenda for their own ‘development‘.

Please go at discussion thread at: 

Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma wrote this article for Climate Himalaya’s Expert Speak Column during June 2012, which is being re-posted for further discourse. Dr. Sharma is a development analyst based in New Delhi, India.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Climate Himalaya team.


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15 Comments to “Need to Rewrite the Mountain Perspective!”

  1. […] the internet. Five days ago, Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma asked me for my comments on his article “Need to rewrite the mountain perspective” that was posted at Climate Himalaya’s […]

    • Vir Singh says:

      Mountain Perspective evolved by Dr. NS Jodha at ICIMOD, first of all, is not a decade old but more than two decades old. It had invited lot of comments from all corners of the world. The perspective, the first of its kind, was instrumental in pulling the mountains out of geo-political marginality in a short period. Mountain agenda just two years after, which was put forth at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 was largely attributable to the Mountain Perspective. Three of the mountain characteristics Jodha has elaborated, namely Diversity or Heterogeneity, Niche or Comparative Advantage, and Human Adaptation Mechanisms are the positive attributes of the mountains. These attributes could be celebrated. These are of vital value in the sustainable development interventions in mountain areas.

      Mountain Perspective as evolved by NS Jodha could be used and it has been used as one of the strongest framework for mountain development intervention. We would need to depend on this perspective perhaps for ever, and in fact, it would hardly find any alternative.

      – Vir Singh, Professor of Environmental Science, GB Pant University, Pantnagar – 263145, Uttarakhand

      • Dr. R. S. Tolia says:

        I fully endorse the view point expressed by Prof Vir Singh of GBP University.

        As a practitioner may I add that perhaps no concept has been as powerful as propounded by Prof NS Jodha when it comes to looking at issues which impinge on mountain concerns and looking for possible solutions. Both as a diagnostic tool and solution-provider the ‘mountain specificities’ provides you with a composite tool cum design box. As a matter fact Jodha’s theoretical framework would remain synonymous with ICIMOD’s single most major contribution to the mountain agenda. I leave no opportunity to mention this and I would like to repeat the same again here.

        This reminds me of the latest book on ‘Justice’ by the Indian Nobel Laureate Prof Amartya Sen when he says that the concept of Justice is better understood by the concept of ‘injustice’, rather denial of justice !

        I would like to thank Prof NS Jodha once more for the ways he has been helpful to all of us, the practitioners for understanding the mountain issues better.

  2. Pabitra says:

    Interesting article. However, Dr. Sharma’s persuasive narrative, in my opinion, draws more from cultural and spiritual threads that keep mountain lifes together than the scientific evidence of the feedback loops and stability of mountain ecologies, measure for measure with other ecologies like wetlands, mangroves or deserts. If am not wrong, evidence suggests, mountain ecologies are of higher sensitivity to constraints put upon them compared to many other ecologies.

    That makes me reflect that possibly Himalayan Perspective may not be legitimately reworded as ‘robust’. ‘Rich’ and ‘Exquisite’, ok but not ‘Robust’.

  3. Giridhar Kinhal says:

    Well said Dr Sharma ji.

    What you are highlighting is aesthetic part, which may be relevant at best for the ecotourism values: which is again an orientation for the rich! How would those syllables highlight the agony of the mountain poor, who intrinsically deserve a special approach and attention for being in such inhospitable and harsh living conditions with life standards, if there are any, as per the definitions developed elsewhere.

    While an “either or” approach may not be useful and complete we need to accommodate both to enhance the mountain understanding. When we talk of delivering feasible development to the mountain people it is necessary to highlight the fragility, remoteness and so on and when we talk of the mountains as treasure of “aestheitcs” we may have to emphasize the “global commonness” and their “Uniqueness”

    However, I find a lot of elemets in your article to trigger a good discussion

  4. Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma says:

    My response to Dr Giridhar is as under:

    Misery/agony/plight are perspectives with a definitive ‘purpose’, quite often to legitimize the entry points aimed at correcting ‘their’ conditions within an ‘us versus them’ paradigm. If I have understood it correctly, the idea is to bring about what has for last two decades been referred to as ‘sustainable development’. Yet, the trouble is that neither has sustainable development been defined nor achieved but there is no dearth of experts/practitioners working on it, who according to economist Lant Pritchett are part of the phenomenon known as ‘ignorant armies clashing by night’

    It may be pertinent to bring here the case of The Prince of Wales, long ridiculed by architects in the UK for his conservation and general battiness, who has presented Dharavi slums in Mumbai as a model of sustainable development in his book ‘Harmony’. The argument being that the ‘absence of physical assets such as power, water and sanitation’ is less important than the presence of the ‘immensely important but less tangible element of community capital.’ Prince Charles was more keen on organic and naturally emerging order, ‘the rich complexity and diversity that holds the community together.’

    I have used ‘slum’ as an example to reflect ‘agony’ as a common denominator. I suspect such insightful perspectives are as much relevant for the mountains. The challenge is to bring these in ongoing ‘mountain’ discourses.

  5. Narpat S. Jodha says:

    First of all let me thank Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma for provoking (?) this opportunity for clarifying a number of issues relating to conceptualization and promotion of MOUNTAIN PERSPECTIVE by ICIMOD.

    Once any one looks at next para descrbing mountain perspective and compares it with Dr. Sharma’s description and interpretation in the enclosed note, it becomes very clear that Sharma’s assessment (of mountaim perspective evolved by ICIMOD) grossly suffers from SKEWED PERSPECTIVE ( imbalances and partialities).

    1.Since early 1990s, when ICIMOD started using the term mountain perspective (MP), the term focused on the mountain specificities ie. specific dominant features namely, (1) fragility 2), limited accessibility;3) marginality; 4) diversity;5) mountain niche (unique opportunities including human daptation capacities/ experiences besides the biophysical, ecological / resources and services. FURTHERMORE THE ABOVE conditions have both bio-physical as well as socio-economic dimensions and a range and a variety of inter –linkages. Furthermore , they have intra mountain region spatial variabilities. The communities in the mountain regions have adapted to these conditions and their imperatives using two-way adaptation systems. Ie. harnessing the positive opportunities/ niche etc and as far as possible amending the constraining conditions with out depleting the resources ( eg. Through terracing, water harvesting, agro forestry,herbal resource protection snd usage trance-humance and migration as well as feasible trade links, collective institutional arrangements to evolve and enforce multiple institutionsall arrangements to regulate nature – society interactions.. ( Jodha et at. al. 1992). The above mentioned features of mountain areas and their imperatives, the mountain specificities occupy central position while designing and implementing any intervention in mountain regions. Disregard of centrality of mountain specificities in development interventions would mean , MOUNTAIN DEVELOPMENT WITH OUT MOUNTAIN PERSPECTIVE. ICIMOD during its early phase of work documented concern for as well as disregard of mountain perspective both at development policy/ intervention levels as well as traditional agriculture and resource management levels in the selected areas of ICIMOD member countries.

    2. DR. Sharma’s disregard of what is mentioned in para 1 above, clearly reflect the SKEWED PERSPECTIVE of his assessment of mountain perspective as evolved and used by ICIMOD and various agencies engaged in mountain development. Mountain specificities with their intra mountain variations and their visible or less visible inter linkages have associated imperatives vis a vis the choice and promotion of specific activities in mountain context . The latter may range from sustainable resource management to diversified production activities , retaining mountains as holy lands with pure and pleasant environment religious activities may flourish as Sharma pleads for. The real issue is choice of activities vis a vis mountain conditions. These choices are largely a product of nature-society interaction patterns, which are a dynamic phenomena. If the over all societal ( including economic and political processes are stronger and less sensitive to nature’s attributes, the nature society interaction patterns may damage the nature’s integrity, as it happens while promoting mountain development without mountain perspective, including inappropriate intensification of resource use ( not marginal and fragile lands but productive valley rich lands, horticultural and herbal potential as well as minerals and water potential). The nature and intensity of activities involving enhanced low land – high land links , rapid process of economic globalization, where market forces tend to overtake all other concerns- ( social, cultural, religious, etc) make the modern society less sensitive to these issues.

    3. In the light of the above discussion Dr. Sharma’s assessment that Mountain perspective is flowed and it should be rewritten. As it is, it provides constricted view on the mountains Far from providing open plateform, mountain perspective held priori idea of the region. I could not understand all this. He calls for recognizing beauty and richness of mountains their valleys and resources they provide to humanity. These virtues have been elaborated by poets, some traders and admirers of beauty of mountains. Who looked at mountains with specific perspective. Our purpose while doing this work since last 20 years or so was to look at potential and limitation of mountain resources ( specificities) and their imperatives to identify and facilitate their sustainable use and development at local community levels and policy levels, which in my view is more important than just admiration of mountains. I will end this para by quoting a field incident happening during our field studies during 1991.

    During one of the field trips an American anthropologist ( an ex-peace worker, knowing a little Hindi language) accompanied us. One of the mornings when we were interacting with a farmer it was a beautiful morning with mix of sunlight. a few clouds and rich forest strip along a small river.. Admiring the beautiful sight, the anthropologist told the farmer , “ brothe,r your area and vicinity looks like a heaven; you really live in the heaven . the farmer in turn asked,

    The visitor if he woud like to view the heaven from close.. Then farmer showed this by completely removing his coat , behind which half torn unclean shirt was covering his arms and body. He said yes we are really Swarg wasi ( residents of heaven, where people go after death as per Hindu thinking.

    –NS Jodha

  6. K N Vajpai says:

    To start with, I would very much agree with a very interesting and thoughtful article of Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma on an age old and flawed notion of ‘Mountain Perspective’.

    A native of higher Himalayas when we see his thoughts on Sustainable Mountain Development (SMD) perspective, I find them provoking and challenging equally. I would say that by now we have been dealing with the world with skewed and flawed observations about our mountains, therefore, our guiding principles of ‘SMD’ were built on a weak foundation.

    We can clearly see that ‘fragile’ ‘remote’ and ‘marginal’, as envisaged in our perspectives of mountains, hardly achieved any substantial results in last 20 years, and in real sense we, as mountain people, still continue to consider ourselves ‘under-developed’. Since this is still the case, we need to re-define mountain development on ‘social’ and ‘environmental’ perspectives, and explain widely that what we mean by ‘Green’ economy in this region.

    In my view during Rio 1992, we coined a term ‘Sustainable Development’ and now we have a calculated move for another terminology that usher a path for ‘Green Economy’ crusaders.

    I find that Dr. N S Jodha’s narration was in a social perspective on mountains, which in general tried to define mountains based on anthropocentric parlance. Therefore, this discourse needs a furthering perspective, which looks into deeper dimensions of social and environmental changes, as in due course our mountains are going to be ‘green’ pastures for rest on behest of ‘fragile’ and ‘marginal’.

    Our ancestors say that ‘we should be proud of’ the bounty of the nature that we live and the kind of life style with basic resources and rich culture we have. For example by putting a variety of pumpkins, bottle gourds, cucumber, etc. on their roofs generally our forefathers said that the world should not ‘underestimate’ us by our economic situation but, should know us equally rich through our ‘culture’ (social situation) and ‘region’ (rich environmental resources).

  7. With due respect to the learned commentators, I have a strong feeling that this debate is getting too technical and detached from common reality. That Dr. Jodha’s view of the mountain specificities remained central to Mountain Perspectives internationally is not, in my opinion, under debate here. What are under debate, I think are;

    1.If these perspectives have earned mountains sustainable development in quantifiable terms to be felt by mountain communities or whether they have made mountains progressively detached from mainstream developmental thrusts and made them more of a ‘show-piece’ of ecological pristine-ness. I have a feeling that Industry and Investment are fraught with dilemma and doubt : are we going to destroy the pristine beauty? Nobody eats beauty. At least in India mountain communities are still backward in terms of traditional measures of GDP, infrastructure, health, education and standards of living compared to other parts of the country. That is a valid scenario from where a thought asking the correctness of the MPs springs.

    2.Mountains are less polluting compared to plains yet mountain eco-systems are more vulnerable to Climatic variabilities created by pollution from other parts of the world. That being the reality, is there real wisdom in marginality? Can mountains develop independent of other parts of the world? Are we headed for a North-South like interest clash with a ‘fragile’, ‘remote’, ‘marginal’ paradigm?

    3.If the perspectives, taken correct for arguments sake, are transcendental in as much as “We would need to depend on this perspective perhaps for ever” as Prof. Vir Singh says? Two decades are a long time. Has nothing changed in the interim, climatewise or economywise or awarenesswise so that at least the perspectives require a rational and scientific review?

  8. Dr. Vimal Khawas says:

    I think it is high time we re-look, revisit and re-frame some of the mountain perspectives. Out of several mountain specificities outlined by Dr Jodha, we really need to re-look two of them: Remoteness and Marginality.

    Mountain may be fragile and diverse due to its own geologic and socio-cultural reasons but it cannot be always remote and marginal.

    I am located at Gangtok. For me Kathmandu is a remote location. Similarly, New Delhi is remote for the people of North East India! Therefore, the term remote is very subjective in nature. I don’t think mountains are anymore remote in nature!

    Similarly, the technical meaning of marginal is unimportant, insignificant etc. How can mountains be marginal at this point of time when scientists are telling the world that our future security shall depend on the MOUNTAINS. Even today the human security of the world largely depends on the bio-resources provided by the mountains!

    Vimal Khawas
    Sikkim University

  9. Dr. Amba Jamir says:

    While we cannot deny the fact that there are remote and marginal communities or regions – in mountains or anywhere for that matter – ‘Remote and Marginal’ definitely seems alien and not a mountain perspective.

  10. Dr. Keith Virgo says:

    I absolutely agree, ‘remote and marginal’ are terms used by people outside the mountain areas!

  11. Sidney Clouston says:

    I think that the Mountains are important as they often store snow and provide water for growing food crops and cash crops in the lower areas as the streams and rivers flow to the sea. Water storage by hydropower
    dams are an important consideration for electrical power and resorts near the lakes formed behind the dams.
    The vast majority of the water flows and is removed by irrigation that develops areas that are not naturally
    appropriate for growing. Mankind rules nature because of the developed innovations that have been applied.
    There are costs in the battle against nature and benefits when working more in cooperation with nature.

    Urban planning with policy adjustments are needed to be considered. Hydropower uses gravity and the force
    of flowing water to extract some benefits. The water is not used in power production it is only the force that
    flowing water provides to spin turbines. Irrigators down stream still get their water rights allocation.

    Best regard,
    Sidney Clouston
    Clouston Energy Research, LLC
    Michigan, USA

  12. Good comments have come in on this issue. I request Dr Sharma to make a compilation and initiate another set of deliberations on those issues that require further thrashing.
    with best,
    Giridhar Kinhal

  13. K N Vajpai says:

    For the reference of readers and forum discussants, I am putting here some of the important aspects of ‘Mountain Perspective’ as written by Dr. N. S. Jodha in 1992. While heading Mountain Farming Division at ICIMOD in Nepal, he wrote a detailed note titled ‘Mountain Perspective and Sustainability: A framework for development strategies’ that contains a number of definitions and literature references in support of ‘Mountain Perspective’ (MP).

    To make his case of Mountain Perspective he mentioned that “MP implies to explicit and implicit consideration of specific mountain circumstances and their implications while conceiving and implementing private or public activities in mountain areas at different levels of decision making.”

    Here I would like to highlight his points above ‘Specific mountain circumstances’, ‘private and public actors’ and ‘decision making levels’ in existing circumstances.

    It further notes that “the important conditions characterizing mountain areas which, for operational purposes, separate mountain habitats from other areas called-Mountain Specificities”. There are six types of ‘mountain specificities’ described by him in two main categories. The first order specificities include; Inaccessibility, Marginality, Fragility, Diversity or Heterogeneity, and second order specificities as; Natural suitability or ‘niche’ and Human Adaptation mechanism in the mountain habitat.

    In present perspective, I would like to highlight that these specificities were meant for ‘operational purpose’ as described by author.

    Remoteness: Dr. Jodha emphasized ‘remoteness’ of mountains on socio-cultural and economic dimensions, while other writers defined it based on mountain slopes, altitudes, terrain conditions, seasonal hazards, inaccessibility, isolation, distance, poor communication and limited mobility.

    On how many fronts we in mountains are still ‘remote’ on socio-cultural and economic aspects, and what led to such situation?

    Fragility: Desfil in 1988 defined ‘fragility’ in mountain areas, due to altitude and deep slopes in association with geologic, edaphic (land/soil) and biotic factors that limit capacity of mountains to withstand with even small degree of disturbances. Further, it incorporated vulnerability due to irreversible damage, over use, change in land vegetation and economic life support system of mountain communities.

    The point here is that; do we still have similar physical and biological fragility in existence and what efforts were put in this direction to overcome such situation?

    Marginality: The ‘marginality’ was defined as a situation which is not at par with mainstream situation. It applies to physical and biological resources or conditions as well as people and their sustenance system. Many authors said that the basic factors contributing to such status of any area or community are remoteness and physical isolation, physical and low productivity resources and several man-made handicaps, which prevent participation in the mainstream pattern of activities.

    Dr. Jodha wrote that “the mountain regions being ‘marginal’ areas in most cases against prime areas, share above attributes of marginal entities and suffer the consequences of much different status in different ways.”

    The point here is that, do we still suffer with such consequences and are marginal to mainstream populace?

    To look deeper in to the ‘mountain perspective’ and ‘mountain specificities’, we need to see that the types of gaps perceived by Dr. Jodha 20 years back, based on his assumptions then on preceding 40-50 years (as he says),do we still have similar gaps between developmental ‘efforts’ and corresponding ‘achievements’ in terms of measurable gains on social, economic and environmental front?

    In his mountain perspective document (during 1992) he observed ‘negative’ trend related to crop yield, availability of mountain product, economic well being of mountain people and condition of natural resources and environmental conditions. On specific issues he wrote ‘negative’ trend in mountains related to; land slide, water flow in community irrigation system, agriculture yield, agriculture diversity, regenerative processes, food availability, fodder and fuel collection, composition of forest fauna and plant species in pasture. The positive trends were reported in poverty migration, unemployment and out migration.

    While writing such a perspective in 1992, Dr. Jodha found that above factors lead to ‘unsustainability’ in mountain region, and that was a matter of serious concern. In that context he called for a fresh look to the ‘conventional’ approach of mountain development.

    The point here is that, does he still think that there is no need of fresh look in the ongoing approach of mountain development based on his Mountain Perspective? The discourse here would be that what went wrong in terms of the said circumstances, actors and decision making? I shall stress that it is 20 years since this perspective has come to exist.

    While his main focus was on mountain agriculture, he emphasized upon a new paradigm shift on the conventional developmental strategies in mountain region, and therefore a new ‘operational framework’ to incorporate ‘sustainability’ concerns. I want to highlight that:

    1. What would be the take of Dr. Jodha now on sustainability concerns?

    2. Where do we stand now? Is there a replicable, scalable and effective developmental model for Pan Himalayan reality?

    As suggested by Dr. Jodha then that the central focus of the framework will be based on ‘mountain perspective’, and the understanding and incorporation of which alone can determine the relevance and effectiveness of any development intervention in mountain areas.

    I would like to highlight that:

    1. Did our country governments in HKH region understand and incorporate this perspective in their policies and plans, and were there substantial achievements after incorporating them?

    2. Do we still feel that the factors and processes as highlighted in the perspective where disregarded as mountain characteristics to incorporate them in operational interventions by said public and private entities?

    3. Do we have recorded evidences on success and failure on this front?

    During this discourse, although I see there are various opinions coming in on Dr. Jodha’s assumption of mountain perspective, but, by going deeper in to the implications and evidences, I strongly feel that there are a number of reasons to challenge and revise this age-old perspective on ‘mountains’!

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