As a classic case of the outside world’s sometimes willful misunderstanding of the Himalayas, Quintman relates how early Buddhists in Tibet created a network of temples meant to subdue the “red-faced demons” of the wilderness. In paintings, they later depicted these “taming temples” on various points of the body of a grand demoness spread out across the landscape. The paintings represented the process of civilizing the mountains and making them sacred. But 19th-century British colonialists saw in them demon worship.
uddhist concepts of sacred geography still matter, says Quintman. About “hidden valleys,” for instance, the traditional belief is that certain holy people would come in the future and open them by ritual means. Thus a valley could become a powerful place for meditation and a peaceful refuge from the troubles of the outside world. It was the model James Hilton used for “Shangri-La” in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon
But hidden valleys also exist in the real world, and some of the most sacred now lie within heavily touristed areas, where they tend to get trampled by oblivious trekkers. A “new” hidden valley, previously off-limits because of its location on Nepal’s border with Tibet, was revealed to the outside world two years ago, according to Jon Miceler ’01
, a friend of Quintman’s who is now WWF’s managing director for the eastern Himalayas. One of Miceler’s jobs is to help that valley find a way to develop tourism without being destroyed by it. He’s hoping a collaboration with Quintman, on the lines envisioned by the Himalayan Initiative, will give the project the broader perspective needed to make it work.
Miceler’s ambition is to introduce a system of management by community conservancies based on a model that seems to be succeeding in Namibia, on the southwest coast of Africa. There, local conservancies control their own natural resources and benefit from them usually by making lease arrangements with outside tourism companies. Miceler believes Quintman “is going to bring a lot” to making this approach work in a Nepalese context, both because he is “an absolute wealth of information” on Buddhism and because his translation of The Life of Milarepa
describes the 11th-century Tibetan holy man who made the valley sacred in the first place.
nvironmental work in the region is in “a constant state of triage,” says Miceler, and the pace is accelerating because of the economic ascent of Asia. What nongovernmental organizations like WWF can offer Yale, he says, is access for its researchers and students to an almost endless variety of projects where urgent questions of environment, livelihoods and cultures intersect. The other side of the bargain is that academic researchers can bring training and technology to local field staff, as well as the big picture perspective that often gets lost in the rush of everyday hands-on work.
“What would be ideal,” says Crane, “would be to identify a couple of small projects that we could get started on, a couple of things that would get us rolling.” With that in mind, a Yale delegation consisting of Crane, Sivaramakrishnan and Gregoire traveled in August to Dehradun in northern India to meet with organizations active on Himalayan issues. The event was arranged by Rajesh Thadani ’94, Ph.D. ’99
, executive director of one such organization, the Centre for Ecology Development and Research, a nonprofit working in the Indian Himalayas. About 30 people attended on the Indian side, including forestry, climate change and remote-sensing scientists, social scientists, government officials and representatives of environmental groups and universities in both the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand and New Delhi.
The agenda, says Crane, was to find out “the important questions from their point of view and also the synergies between what we have at Yale and what’s available there on the ground. Are there areas where we have complementary strengths? Are there areas where we can help each other in a useful way?” The group also started to narrow down a list of potential projects, including the following:
a study of how widescale removal of forest litter for use as compost affects the health of habitats down to the mycorrhizal level, especially as human populations in the Himalayas grow, forests shrink and farmers shift to cash crops requiring more fertilizer
a study by natural resource scientists and anthropologists of changing patterns of agricultural abandonment, which used to happen on the scale of an entire valley but now happens one family at a time, with uncertain effects on forest succession
an accounting of ecosystem services in the western Himalayas, looking not just at economic valuations but at the effect on peoples’ lives in the Gangetic plains of India, which depend on the mountains for much of their water
The conversation was about “how this diverse talent could be used,” says Thadani, and “what kind of networks succeed. There have been networks formed in the past, but they died down after a while. The only way to keep it active is to have end objectives that are attractive to various players and that can’t be attained by any one player alone.”
eyond the starter projects and short-term goals, some people in New Haven are already thinking about how to build the Himalayan Initiative into a permanent part of the curriculum. Hiring people focused on the region is a start, says Turin. But what happens when they move on? “Sometimes these things can lose steam. You can bring in a lot of postdocs, you can generate a lot of energy and exuberance around it, but it needs to be locked down into what they call permanent posts, or lines in a budget.” Ideally, he says, “the Himalayan Initiative will mature into something—and I’m sure Shivi is thinking along the same lines—that has designated posts in key locations like forestry, anthropology and South Asian studies, with an endowment for a postdoc and maybe a part-time curator/librarian/collections manager, because otherwise you are always going to be piggybacking and leaching off of other peoples’ resources, and then you feel like a poor relation”—more or less the position Himalayan studies has always occupied in the past.
But maybe this is getting ahead of the game. For now, the Himalayan Initiative has barely entered the foothills, and it is a long climb to base camp.