Developments in Non-Alpine Mountainous Areas


Challenges and Development Trends in High Asia

Pamir-Hindukush-Karakoram-Himalaya as an arena of opportunities and constraints.

The perception of high mountain regions has undergone a significant change over time. The International Year of the Mountains (IYM 2002) intended to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Rio conference on Environment and Development. Chapter 13 of the Agenda 21 addressed mountain issues and received widespread international attention and acceptance. Again five years later we can look back to substantial awareness which has been generated for mountain issues. At the same time, intensified research has opened our eyes for extensive deficits in action and knowledge. Consequently, this contribution aims to give a state of the art report for High Asia, a term which was coined more than 170 years ago by Carl Ritter when he compiled the available information from his contemporaries.

by Hermann Kreutzmann, Freie Universität Berlin - Institute for Geographic Sciences
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"Roof of the world" at Baroghil, Eastern Hindukush. (Source: H.KREUTZMANN).
In former times, mountains were perceived as fearful areas, intimidating people who had to travel across them feeling insecure and diminished by the sheer masses and huge dimensions of structures and processes. With the advent of romanticism this perspective has changed into adoration. We find numerous admiring expressions in literature and arts since.

The 20th century was characterized by the search for a Shangri La where longevity prevails. Different remote mountain worlds such as Hunza, Pamir and Tibet have been linked as the inhabited "roof of the world" (bam-e dunya) to this myth. At the same time, mountaineering and trekking pose as much an attraction to people from the industrialized world as the search for esoteric stimulation, well-being and closeness to nature in remote locations and Lamaist monasteries and hermits' retreats.

The academic research experienced a change of paradigm when the "Himalayan Dilemma" (IVES & MESSERLI 1989) was perceived as much as an inadequacy of perception of complex problems as well as a short-coming of appropriate concepts, methods and the interpretation of results. Consequently, Jack Ives titled his latest book "Himalayan Perceptions. Environmental change and the well-being of mountain peoples". The interrelationship between humankind and environment, between culture and nature needs to be established against the background of new approaches and needs to be tested in empirical studies on different scales. Presently, it is high time to discuss the position of people in mountains and to highlight recent developments in scientific research. Let us look at a perception presented by the authority and nestor of global history. Fernand Braudel identifies a difference between the mountain ranges which are familiar to us such as the European Alps and the Pyrenees on the one side and remote mountain ranges such as High Asia on the other.

Baltit Fort in the Hunza Valley (Source: H.KREUTZMANN).
"As we have seen, the mountains resist the march of history, with its blessings and its burdens, or they accept it only with reluctance. And yet life sees to it that there is constant contact between hill population and lowlands. None of the Mediterranean ranges resembles the impenetrable mountains to be found in the Far East, in China, Japan, Indochina, India, and as far as the Malacca peninsula. Since they have no communication with sea-level civilization, the communities found there are autonomous." (BRAUDEL 1972)

It is common to perceive observed phenomena in high moutain regions mainly as the result of natural framework conditions rather than as the visible effects of human action and environmental construction. This perception is encountered especially when mountain regions outside the industrialized world are in focus, as the quotation from Braudel proves. The perceived mountainous exceptionalism is mainly linked to the availability of natural resources and the higher degree of risk and hazardous processes compared to lowland regions (see for the Hindukush-Himalayas LI TIANCHI, CHALISE & UPRETI 2001). Consequently, high mountain ecology and the interrelated economic sphere are specified by verticality (see FUNNEL & PARISH 2001). Human utilization strategies are linked to the natural potential of their zonal location and/or altitudinal stages. Other characteristics include high kinetic (or potential) energy, significant incidences of catastrophes such as rock falls, avalanches, mud flows, earthquakes and glacier lake outbursts. Accessibility is hampered by environmental conditions. Thus, high mountain regions are generally quite remote from the centres of economic activities and do participate in exchange relations to a lesser degree. Nevertheless, exceptions exist: The Inca and Maya empires were centred in tropical mountain regions. Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan managed to accumulate quite some wealth in subtropical mountain abodes which could compete with low-lying empires of monsoon Asia. These periods of comparative strength and affluence are bygones at least since colonial times.

Verticality seems to be the prime indicator for the explanation of mountain exceptionalism. Mountain communities were often described as the relics of archaic populations, secluded from mainstream developments and preserving autochthonous patterns of behaviour. Most likely, James Hiltonís novel "Lost horizon" (1933) stimulated the quest for a "Shangri-La" (see BRAUEN 2000) and the search for the remote valleys where longevity is the rule and not the exception. This phenomenon is attributed, yet never convincingly proved, to the Hunza Valley in the Karakoram and some valleys of the Caucasus (see TIERNEY 1990). Persons living in the mountains seem to be closer to the gods. This exceptional proximity to divine spheres has been a constant feature of a wide range of belief systems. The sacred mountains (see BERNBAUM 1990 and 1997; GRATZL 1990; HUBER 1999) such as Kailash in Tibet, Mount Meru in Hindu belief, Palitana and Girnar for Jains of Gujarat, Burhan Haldun in Mongolia, Miwa-noyama and Fuji San in Japan, Emei Shan and Tai Shan among others in China, Mount Athos, Parnass and the Mount Olympus of Greece, Mount Sinai, Mount Ararat (Azat Masis) and Adam's Peak in Sri Lanka and many others are the destination of pilgrimages, the locations of topographically perceivable purity and of mythological ascriptions and narratives. From the sacred sphere to the profane and secular aspects of life might be a long way for outsiders. For mountain dwellers all events seem to happen in the same arena.
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