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YSE Extends Its Reach Into Asia
With Himalaya Initiative

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Some years ago in the Dolakha district of eastern Nepal, a British linguist and anthropologist named Mark Turin was standing on a precipice late on a sunny afternoon at the end of a long climb. It dawned on him that in every direction around him was a separate mountain valley and that each valley was home not just to a different culture, but to its own language.
Nepal, a nation roughly the size of Montana, has 110 languages from four different language families. Turin and Sara Shneiderman, an anthropologist, both newcomers to Yale this semester, have spent much of the past 20 years studying one such culture, the Thangmi, a community of about 35,000 people concentrated in eastern Nepal. But that day on the precipice, the cheek-by-jowl richness of the Himalayas hit Turin with a sudden emotional force.

The same ragged landscape that had made the mountains a mother lode of biological diversity had made them a linguistic mother lode, too. For much of their history, these remote valleys had been largely inaccessible to one another, as well as to the outside world, and isolation had helped produce both a biological and a cultural flowering. Biological, cultural and linguistic communities now also face the same threats to their survival, as the forces of modernization, from cell phones to climate change, roll across these mountains. For Turin, understanding each part of this equation is essential to understanding the others.
I’ve been around enough as an administrator in academia to know that you can launch out onto the battlefield and then look around and see that the troops aren’t behind you. It makes much more sense to try to grow this sort of thing from the bottom up.
— F&ES Dean Peter Crane
That’s also the approach being taken by the new Himalayan Initiative at Yale: It isn’t enough for a hydrologist, say, or a religious studies scholar to work in relative isolation. Instead, village leaders and nongovernmental organizations within the Himalayas, as well as conservationists, anthropologists, art historians, political scientists and other specialists from the outside world, need to be talking and working together.

So far the Himalayan Initiative is just a promising idea, the product of two working sessions over the past year in New Haven, and one this past August in Dehradun, India, a center of natural resource studies in the foothills of the Himalayas. The ambition is to encourage loose collaborations across campus, as well as with researchers on other campuses here and abroad, under the rubric “environment, livelihoods, cultures.”

The tentative character of the effort is calculated. “I’ve been around enough as an administrator in academia,” says F&ES Dean Peter Crane, “to know that you can launch out onto the battlefield and then look around and see that the troops aren’t behind you. It makes much more sense to try to grow this sort of thing from the bottom up, rather than for a couple of administrators to say, ‘This is the direction we’re going.’ We need to facilitate a little, to find out where the faculty and students want to work.” The strategy, in effect, is to attract a coalition of the curious. Or as one researcher put it, “I don’t know yet what the initiative is about. But I’m delighted to play along with it.”

The idea of a multidisciplinary effort focused on the Himalayas originated soon after Crane arrived at F&ES in 2009, during a meeting with Kalyanakrishnan Sivaramakrishnan ’91—Shivi, for short—a professor of anthropology and of forestry and environmental studies. Sivaramakrishnan, who got a doctorate in anthropology in 1996, has done his field research mainly in the forests of India’s eastern plains. He readily acknowledges, as does Crane, that he has no special knowledge of the mountains. But he saw a deepening involvement with the Himalayas as a natural part of his brief to expand the work of the South Asian Studies Council at Yale, which he chairs.
The Himalayas are “the heart of where nations, cultures, languages and ecosystems collide, and I think it’s very savvy and prudent of Yale to have realized that.”
— Mark Turin
Having earned his master’s at F&ES, Sivaramakrishnan was also familiar with the extensive work by an earlier generation of F&ES faculty and students in Nepal and Bhutan. “Maybe there’s an opportunity for us to work together,” he suggested to Crane, “and maybe this is not just an environmental studies activity, but something broader across the campus.”

The idea made strategic sense for F&ES, especially to Crane as a newcomer: “When you come into a complicated organization, the normal pattern is to see a huge amount of activity across a variety of topics and areas,” he says. “One of the challenges is trying to find the principal components of that activity—what are some of the main axes of activity that explain a good deal of what’s going on?” F&ES researchers have traditionally looked at forestry and other environmental questions from a community perspective, emphasizing equity issues, poverty issues, human rights and the special problems of marginalized and indigenous peoples—all highly relevant in the Himalayas. The Himalayan idea also drew together three areas, says Crane, that “might seem disparate, but really ought to be unified components of our program”—the work in Nepal and Bhutan and the rapidly increasing engagement by F&ES and the university at large with India.

Yale has been working since 2008 to establish itself as the leading center of India studies in the United States—an effort characterized by Yale President Richard Levin as parallel to the university’s work in China and logical in the context of both countries’ rising economic and geopolitical stature. The India connection also makes a certain historical sense. In the 17th century, an agent of the British East India Company named Elihu Yale piled up a fortune in Madras—now Chennai. Some of that wealth went to support the fledgling American university that now bears his name.

Levin promised that Yale would “provide a deep and rich curriculum covering all aspects of Indian civilization—its languages and literatures, religions and history, as well as its politics, economics and society. We also need,” he said, “to engage with the problems that confront contemporary India: equitable and sustainable economic development and public health.” So far Yale has committed $30 million and raised an additional $15 million for its programs on India.

Other academic programs focusing on India or China have rarely paid much attention to the Himalayas. South Asian studies has typically been dominated by Sanskritists and Indologists, who regard the Himalayas as the periphery, says Turin. East Asian studies often treats the mountains as “the barbarian fringe.” Beyond the academic world, Westerners typically gloss over the enormous diversity of the Himalayas and, instead, romanticize them, in Shneiderman’s words, as an “undifferentiated zone of cultural fascination,” somewhere between a backpacker’s paradise and Shangri-La. “Whereas for us,” says Turin, the Himalayas are “the heart of where nations, cultures, languages and ecosystems collide, and I think it’s very savvy and prudent of Yale to have realized that.”

Political relations among the many nations in the Himalayas have often been testy and sometimes violent, with the result, says Sivaramakrishnan, “that it’s almost impossible for them to talk about a lot of large transborder issues”—not just climate change, but water rights, the health of rivers, plant and animal biodiversity and the disappearance of cultures and historical traditions, among others. It’s also “very hard for any individual country in the region to pursue an ambitious program of research, documentation, conservation and learning from the wealth of materials and cultures that exist within the area. So one of the things we hope,” he says, is that “by deliberately having a broad program that spans all the countries and all the disciplines,” the Himalayan Initiative “can bring to the fore the kinds of issues that actually require working across these national borders.”
Yale is well-positioned to encourage that kind of cooperation. The university’s modern connection to the Himalayas dates from the 1970s, when Bill Burch, now Frederick C. Hixon Professor Emeritus of Natural Resource Management, began consulting with community forestry projects in Nepal. National parks and other natural resource management programs then were typically “anti-people,” he says. “People were the problem.” But his students “came to realize they weren’t going to get things done if they didn’t include people.” Burch also taught that development wasn’t about doing things for people, but about giving them the means to do things for themselves. That philosophy appealed to the collective spirit in Nepal, which now has 14,000 community forestry groups.

Burch also worked in Bhutan after that country began to open itself to the outside world in the late 1980s. With the help of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), he arranged for a series of Bhutanese students to come to F&ES over the years. Many of them returned home to lead their country’s natural resource management programs. (Among others, they include Sangay Wangchuk ’93, regarded as “the father of Bhutan’s national parks system”; Deki Yonten ’01, the head of species monitoring for Bhutan’s nature conservation program; Tobgay S. Namgyal ’98, director of the Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation; and Tashi Wangchuk ’99, director of the Bhutan Museum of Natural History.)
One of the things we hope is that by deliberately having a broad program that spans all the countries and all the disciplines, the Himalayan Initiative can bring to the fore the kinds of issues that actually require working across these national borders.
— Kalyanakrishnan “Shivi” Sivaramakrishnan ’91
Yale faculty continue to work in Bhutan, with Tim Gregoire, Ph.D. ’85, J. P. Weyerhaeuser, Jr., Professor of Forest Management, and research scientist Moe Myint ’08, consulting on the country’s first national forest inventory. It’s aimed partly at fulfilling the commitment in the new Bhutanese constitution to maintain 60 percent forest cover in perpetuity and partly at earning financial support for that commitment through the U.N.’s REDD program on reducing carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.

For Burch, this is “a critical moment in the Himalayas when people are not content to be exotic decoration on a beautiful landscape.” As relative prosperity finds its way into the mountains, he says, people are developing new aspirations for their children and also demonstrating greater concern about the changes happening around them—including deforestation, glacial retreat, shifting agricultural practices, livestock fencing in old wildlife corridors and rapid urbanization. He describes Bhutan’s Thimphu-Paro corridor, between the capital city and its airport, as a developing world Bos-Wash corridor, notable for its young, educated elite—and also for its traffic jams.

But even as people leave behind the customs and languages associated with former subsistence societies, old beliefs still echo through the new culture. They shape attitudes and decisions in ways that might not be apparent the first, or even fifth, time around—particularly to natural resource managers who tend, says Gregoire, to have only a cursory knowledge of Buddhism, Hinduism or other cultural forces in the Himalayas. Hence the potential value of collaboration even with someone as unlikely, by his own admission, as Andrew Quintman, an assistant professor of religious studies at Yale who studies 600-year-old Buddhist and Tibetan texts.
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.

Buddhist 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.

Environmental 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.”

Beyond 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.