Albert Einstein said that the mindset responsible for creating a problem cannot find solutions to it. Similarly, we cannot use the same mindset to solve problems we are facing in the Himalayas, where society and environment are experiencing some of the greatest challenges in the world. Not only is climate change posing a threat, but Himalayan societies are also undergoing rapid changes.

The Himalayas are facing unprecedented challenges. The region is a global climate hotspot with a five times higher rate of temperature rise compared to the global average. This can massively alter the entire Himalayan ecosystem, with impacts upon the 400 million people living downstream. Further, the recent wave of earthquakes in Nepal, Afghanistan and Pakistan adds to the risk level. Social tensions are also surfacing across the region. And governance throughout the region is often too weak to tackle the twin challenges of environmental sustainability and social development.

Back in 1968, Erik Eckholm warned that the Himalayas are in crisis because of rampant deforestation and unsustainable farming. He blamed the people and local action but failed to see the larger dynamics. This theory of the Himalayan degradation has since informed much of the conservation and development interventions in the region. Later this view was challenged by others, but not in fundamental ways. Guided by the theory, external interventions still target the local roots of the problems, ignoring their wider political and social roots.

Tackling the challenge

Alternative theories have also emerged and proposed new solutions to the Himalayan crisis. We joined this attempt, albeit in a modest way, through a collaborative process which we termed the ‘Future Himalaya Dialogue’. With support from the British Academy, and in partnership with Himalaya-based institutions, we convened a two-day meeting on 23-24 May 2016 hosted by the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. It was an attempt to foster dialogue among those who are engaged in the Himalayan sustainability and development agenda for over two decades.

We were motivated to hold the dialogue because in our two decades of work in parts of the Himalayas, we have seen Eckholm’s thesis still alive and active: People and institutions still blame either nature or the local people as the causes of fragility, underdevelopment and vulnerability in the region. The solutions still emphasise alien ideas at the expense of dialogues and deliberations that are grounded locally and regionally. We found this situation unfair to the people of the Himalayas and potentially disastrous for nature. We felt that the practice of development in the region, despite good intentions, has not really ushered in new thinking, one that embraces critical reflection, alternative knowledge, and transformative change. In many respects, the opposite is true. In the wake of recent climate awareness, the Himalayan challenge has been subjected to even more linear, technocratic and global frames of knowledge and interventions. Alternative attempts have remained too localised or suppressed by the dominant discourses and underlying political economies.

The Dialogue

The first ‘Future Himalayan Dialogue’ in Edinburgh brought a group of 20 people with two decades of experience in interdisciplinary and engaged research, development practice, and policy analysis in the Himalayas. Some have done advanced theoretical work on environment and society in the context of the developing world. Others have international and transboundary policy engagement in the Himalayas—working with donors, civil societies, national governments, and intergovernmental organisations in the region. The people invited also brought programme evaluation and teaching expertise, as well as sectoral expertise related to water, forests, biodiversity, climate change, political economy, institutional studies and policy analysis.

In the process, we did not reinvent the list of problems but rather fostered interdisciplinary dialogue to envision a pathway towards a better Himalayas. We drew upon our locally grounded work in parts of the region to explore possible solution pathways that can reconnect research, practice and policy. Our approach was critical and yet constructive and pragmatic—looking at what is already out there and exploring what we can add. The small group size ensured the quality of discussion and at the same time brought remarkable range of thoughts and perspectives into the debate.

Underlying problems

In the ‘Future Himalaya Dialogue’, we delved into various questions haunting the Himalayas. Critical social scientists questioned whether the western model of development really works for the Himalayas. Development practitioners challenged current conceptions of development, asking whose development the existing institutions are promoting. The participants were self-conscious not to impose ideas and solutions from outside, but also careful to recognise the emerging new terrain of moral and political space to influence policies on the Himalayas for the well-being of the disadvantaged local people and the resilience of the region at risk.

Researchers also questioned their own research practice, and envisioned new models of engaged and interactive research that can stimulate learning on all sides of the partnership. It was emphasised that the need is not only for a dialogue between various disciplines, but also for a move towards trans-disciplinary research. Questions were also raised about the politics of scaling—the way that there is a tendency to bring national and global perspectives to bear on local issues while not enough space exists for local perspectives to inform larger scale problem framing and solutions. The diversity of governance regimes found in the region was also noted, and implications drawn on how this complicates any effort to promote transboundary governance.

Ecosystems and social systems are often treated in isolation. Policy is seen as a specific document to be written and complied with, downplaying the political process that is integral to policymaking and implementation. Knowledge of the Himalayas is also fragmented, with a tendency for scholars to be specialists within nation states rather than across the region. The development regime has existed for over four decades, but the Himalayan actors still struggle to make sense of change and chart out appropriate strategies of change. What surfaced as a matter of significant concern was the limited investment in the generation of new knowledge from within the Himalayan region.

A key question identified was how to promote the generation of independent knowledge within the region, in such a way that it is not tied to specific development projects and is also capable of challenging dominant presuppositions guiding the development works in the Himalayas. Given the complexity and uncertainty of the future risks in the Himalayas, participants in the ‘Future Himalaya Dialogue’ highlighted the need to foster a critical, adaptive and interactive governance approach. They also emphasised the need to transcend grand ideological divide and to explore critical and pragmatic approaches that can help deliver the Sustainable Development Goals in the context of the Himalayas. But new mindscape—embracing new ways of thinking and acting—is needed to tackle the Himalayan challenge.

Ojha is a public policy expert; Nightingale is a professor at Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala with extensive research experience in Nepal

Article Published on The kathmandupost