Joëlle Smadja (ed.): Reading Himalayan Landscapes Over Time. Environmental perception, knowledge and practice in Nepal and Ladakh. Pondicherry (Collection Sciences Sociales 14. Institut Français de Pondichéry) 2009.
In the context of the post-"Himalayan Dilemma" debate, we have to appreciate the compilation of chapters edited by Joëlle Smadja who is the directrice de Centre d'Études Himalayennes at the CNRS in Paris. The English translation of the French edition (Smadja 2003) is a contribution to the ongoing debate and presents results from empirical research. Therefore it appears straightforward to begin her introduction with a reflection about the state of dominant knowledge systems, uncertainty and complexity. Not surprisingly, the initial text box is devoted to the so-called "Theory of Himalayan Environmental Land Degradation", the critique of which was the key argument of the "Himalayan Dilemma".
But this is only the reference point for the take-off and the necessity of a temporal-spatial approach is argued for incorporating cultural dimensions for the enhancement of an understanding of changing landscapes in a wider sense. "Reading Himalayan landscapes" proves to be the key issue. Literally different languages are applied and varying interpreters are engaged to understand the environmental text and subtext based on local knowledge, fieldwork in a number of case study areas, and published and archival sources.
The task seems too big and too complex for a single researcher. Therefore, a pragmatic approach is adopted. First, key themes are announced in the introductory chapter, such as frame conditions and their relationship to environmental destabilisation and demographic growth. Perception of environments and their representations are highlighted as well as the historical development of landuse, landcover change and resource management. Options and risks in present-day usage are addressed from a contemporary perspective. Second, Joëlle Smadja is supported by a team of twenty contributors to this volume who are more or less closely affiliated with the CNRS Himalayan research group UPR 299 (formerly "milieux, socétés et cultures en Himalaya", recently renamed "Centre d'Études Himalayennes") in Paris. Third, the case study areas have consequently been selected according to the research activities of the CNRS team. The middle and lower mountains of Nepal and especially the Salme region feature prominently as case studies as well as Ladakh mainly through the long-standing and fruitful research of Valérie Labbal and Pascale Dollfus. The spatial restriction of focus is important to bear in mind as the readers are exposed to a specific selection of regional studies from which interpretations are derived. Certain Himalayan regions are prominently represented while others receive no attention. This statement holds true not only for this collection.
We need to keep in mind how and for what purpose such knowledge was generated. The early foreign explorers-cum-spies arrived disguised as ambulant pilgrims and worked as spies for the cause of the "white man's burden" in bringing development to the remote parts by controlling or neutralizing it. This kind of knowledge production has been scanty and of rather recent origin compared to the long settlement and cultivation history in the Himalayan Mountains. European conquerors and geographers perceived the Himalaya for long as a "natural boundary" and a buffer zone separating Central and South Asia. At the end of the introduction it is evident that time and space are the main dimensions of investigation. Both are constantly referred to and should remind us of the cultural landscape as the result of human activities and spatial appropriation over long periods of time.
The main body of the book is organized in four parts, the first of which deals with the frame conditions of environment and population. The entry is devoted to "unstable and often densely populated environments". Joëlle Smadja discusses geographical categories and units of measurement. Pascale Dollfus and Valérie Labbal refer to the Ladakhi case of attributing certain properties to landscape elements that are recorded by drawings and photographs. Olivier Dollfus and Monique Fort focus more on the natural landscape and processes of landscape transformation. A rather different perspective is taken by Philippe Ramirez who interprets statistical information about population growth and density in a spatial context and compares it with agricultural and other economic activities.
The second part of the book, devoted to "perceptions and representations of landscapes" begins with a lucid chapter by Marie Lecomte-Tilouine on the interpretation and appropriation of landscape in Nepalese contexts. It opens up a multi-dimensional space of perceiving environments in emotional and biological settings, divine and religious world views, territorial demarcation, transformation and ordering of space and worlds. The connex of sanctity and power, of holiness and authority opens up new venues for "sacred geographies". Major findings of the readings in the landscape of Salme are contributed by Joëlle Smadja. The Tamang settlement strategies and their utilization of space are introduced as processes of transformation. The permanent dwellers shift habitations not only seasonally, but also appropriate space over time. New crops are introduced as innovations from outside such as in the case of maize. The dependence on and the dangers of water are part of local livelihoods as well as land rites. Pascale Dollfus and Valérie Labbal contribute a toponymic collection of place names from their two research areas in Ladakh: Hemis-shukpa-chan and Sabu. Lucile Viroulaud relates an interesting case from the village Pathardi in Tanahun district about land distribution between Christians and Hindus in a Magar village.
The third part of the book is devoted to "historical data on land use and resource management". Pascale Dollfus, Marie Lecomte-Tilouine and Olivia Aubriot investigate the persistence of human activities in Himalayan agriculture and provide archaeological evidence, interpretations from myths, epics, chronicles and later reports and historiographies from Ladakh and Nepal. Philippe Ramirez looks on the estimation of trees and forests in the 18th and 19th century from the perspective of official documents. Bruno Muller is interested in rules, regulations and the legal history of privileges and traditional rights in connection with the utilization of pastures and forests. Blandine Ripert, Isabelle Sacareau, Thierry Boisseaux and Stéphanie Tawa Lama focus on discourses and regulations exemplified by the Nepalese resource management and environmental policies since the 1950s. The whole agenda from the Himalayan ecological crisis to the Himalayan dilemma is presented including all the buzzword phenomena such as sustainable development, nature protection, NGOs, etc. Here we find a tour de force through all the concepts and approaches from international development practice applied in the Himalayan laboratory of Nepal.
The fourth and final part bears the title "local practices, between choice and constraint". Satya Shrestha investigates the link between environmental protection and pauperisation in a case study of a community at the southern border of Rara National Park. Here we are confronted with a blue print approach to nature protection when external agents interfere in local practices. Isabelle Sacareau continues with the same subject in the regional context of the Annapurna Conservation Area and presents the example of Modi Khola in a historical perspective. Blandine Ripert returns to Salme and investigates the effects of land right changes, privatisation and communal utilization as an example of local practice. Gérard Toffin followed the practices of private woodcutters and studied their social organization and deprivation. Tristan Bruslé, Monique Fort and Joëlle Smadja supply the final case study from the Palpa district in the lower hills of Mahabharat where French bocage-type landscapes are found in Nepal. Historical photographs mainly from 1932 are compared with the visible state of affairs 65 years later.
The brief conclusion by Joëlle Smadja is meant to be a final reflection about reports on the state of environments from different angles. The confrontation of all researchers with "artificial landscapes" and the persistence of change are acknowledged as well as the temptation for political actors when remote natural resources are identified to be exploited to their benefit and on the expenses of local people. The editor concludes that a global, but unequally structured information society permits public access to knowledge while leaving the identification of its goals to the powerful and influential actors. They define the meaning of development, set the agenda, and reserve the right for asking the important question: What is at stake: The protection of the environment against human beings or their protection against being deprived of their vital resources?
When the book was initially released in its French edition, this reviewer criticised that a "sharing of knowledge" would be difficult as the readership might be restricted to a minority outside the Himalayan countries. Six years later, the English edition printed in Pondicherry is at hand and is a welcome contribution to the scholarly work on Nepal and Ladakh.
Joëlle Smadja (ed.) (2003): Histoire et devenir des paysages en Himalaya. Représentations des milieux et gestion des ressources au Népal et au Ladakh. Paris.