Although supported by little quantitative or long-term data, a widely accepted paradigm for the international development community was established that became the foundation for dozens of multi-million dollar conservation projects throughout the Himalaya and Hindu Kush region. Especially during the 1980s, these well-meaning projects were typically designed to ‘reverse the trends of environmental degradation’ through tree planting, the introduction of ‘appropriate’ technologies such as improved cook stoves, and better land management.
Challenging the ‘Himalayan Crisis’
However, challenges to this scenario began to emerge by the mid-1980s. Largely initiated by publication of the paper ‘Uncertainty on a Himalayan Scale’, authors Michael Thompson and Michael Warburton questioned the lack of quantitative data and/or case studies in illustration of the negative trends, as well as the reliability of popular figures and statistics being used to illustrate the problem.
By the early 1990s, however, the ‘Himalayan crisis debates’ began losing steam. The programmatic focus of most donors began to shift from government-led natural resource management initiatives, to those emphasising locally-led community forestry, biodiversity conservation, and new protected area programs (climate change would not surface as an issue for another decade).
A wide range of new mountain-oriented organisations and programs emerged as a result of the ‘mountain crisis’ debates, publicity, and impact. They include the establishment of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in 1984, the inclusion of mountains within the UN’s 1992 Rio Earth Summit action plan for the 21st century (known as The Mountain Agenda), creation of the Mountain Forum in 1995, and establishment of FAO’s Mountain Partnership in 2002.
In a recent paper on geographical scholarship in Nepal, geographers Elsie Lewiston and Galen Murton also point out that critiques of the ‘Theory of Himalayan Degradation’ in the 1980s may have also paved the way for policies in support of the community forestry programs that emerged in the early 1990s, in addition to a new focus on the value of traditional and indigenous knowledge.
But were the ‘crisis in the mountains’ scenarios really based upon ‘myths, misunderstandings, and misinformation’, as forester Larry Hamilton of the East-West Center maintained? Or could they have been based upon actual fact, or at least triggered by certain social and biophysical conditions that may have existed over 70 years ago?
In retrospect, the answer is that early development practitioners probably had good reasons to be concerned. Although the linkages between ‘farming marginal land’ and increased monsoon river siltation levels were a bit of a stretch, it is hard to believe that the early foreign and Nepal government experts could not recognise a potential problem when they saw one. The more I view Toni Hagen’s films of his journeys through Nepal in the 1950s and 1960s, re-read Harka Gurung’s Landscape Change in the Nepal Hills, or flip through Facebook’s ‘Old Photos of Nepal’ page, the more I see hill slopes with fewer trees, and more land under terraced cultivation than today. There was much less infrastructure, and overall the landscapes look more stressed and less resilient.
In fact, a 2019 study by the East-West Center showed that forest cover in Nepal between 1992-2016 increased from 26% to 45%, based upon the use of comparative Landsat satellite images. A recent Nepali Times article by Peter Gill show this has primarily been the result of Nepal’s community forestry programs, coupled with the massive outmigration since the early 2000s.
With the change to community-based forestry management in the late 1990s, and the growing role of remittances as a source of family income, Nepal’s forests became not only more sustainably managed, but there were also fewer demands upon their resources. Land that was formerly farmed or grazed was now allowed to return to second-growth forest.
However, many scientists believe that Nepal’s commendable increase in tree cover has not been accompanied by an equivalent restoration of biodiversity and forest function. Cardamon plantations have proliferated since the early 2000s, bringing in much-needed income, but at the expense of the removal of much of the sub-tropical forest understory and, as a consequence, wildlife and native plant habitat.
The proliferation of new roads throughout Nepal is now being linked to an unprecedented over-exploitation of rare and medicinal plants because of easier access provided to formerly remote sites, as well as to increases in landslide frequency, slope instability, and river siltation. Lewiston and Murton point out that while ‘outmigration and land abandonment [have] contributed to absolute forest coverage, it has also contributed to declines in soil fertility and increases in invasive species’ that in turn impact biodiversity.
Paralleling the development of the ‘Theory of Himalayan Degradation’, the Sagarmatha (Mt. Everest) National Park in the Khumbu was frequently cited as a representative case study of historical landscape stability, followed by contemporary landscape change and degradation in the High Himalaya.
Historically, this interpretation maintained that major landscape transformations (large-scale conversion from virgin forests and wilderness that the first Sherpa found, to the shrub/grasslands found on most south-facing slopes today) were the result of 500 years of settlement, population growth, and pasture expansion by the ancestors of the Sherpa people; but that ecological stability nevertheless predominated because of the effectiveness of indigenous management systems.
Contemporary issues such as increased forest loss, uncontrolled grazing, and accelerated soil erosion were believed to have been encountered and/or exacerbated only since the late 1950s. Factors of influence, according to most studies, included the imposition of nationalised forest policies in 1957, the consequential breakdown of traditional indigenous management systems, impact of Tibetan refugees who arrived in the early 1960s, misunderstandings associated with the establishment of national parks in the 1970s, the rapid growth of tourism, and various other factors.
In 1984, I spent 10 months in Khumbu as a PhD candidate in geography from the University of Colorado at Boulder, in part to test the credibility of these widely-accepted scenarios of degradation. Based in Khumjung, this gave me and my botanist/geologist wife, Elizabeth, ample opportunity to examine each of the various claims of landscape change and disturbance in some detail.
We talked to people, took detailed measurements, photographs, and sometimes just stared at the forests and mountains in front of us for hours, thinking about change. Several of our conclusions regarding the popular historic and contemporary landscape change and degradation scenarios are described below.
Historical Landscape Change
Were the Sherpas really the first people to inhabit the Imja valley, crossing the Nangpa La (5,806 m) from Tibet some 500 years ago? Did they really find a thickly forested wilderness before them, stretching from today’s Thame to Namche Bazar, Tengboche to treeline at Pangoche? And were they really the ones who cleared the south-facing slopes from Thame to Pangboche of their original forest cover?
According to the region’s soils, which are capable of telling their own story… probably not. Trail cuts, cattle wallows, and slumps along the trail from Thame to Pangboche do indeed reveal old, buried soil formations that were formed under moist cloud forest conditions, and not the dry shrub-grasslands found today.
Such ‘podzols’ are characterised by a distinctive ‘E’ or grey horizon (Figure 3) that has been leached of its iron and other mineral content from the constant seepage of water. Podzolic soils are still common today within the thick, fir-birch-rhododendron forests surrounding the Tengboche monastery, and can be seen at trail cuts from Tengboche to Debouche.
By identifying the pollen species found in the different soil horizons, collecting and dating the lumps of charcoal found at various depths, and identifying tree species represented by each piece of charcoal, we were able to reconstruct the vegetation history of the Khumbu over the past several thousand years—and the results were surprising.
In brief, the pollen, charcoal, and soil records suggest that moist and closed forest conditions did indeed exist some 2,000 years ago on today’s south-facing shrub-grasslands. These forests became more and more open as the centuries went by, as indicated by increasing abundances of disturbance-loving bracken ferns.