From HIMAL, Volume 2, Issue 3 (JUL/AUG 1989)
It has been almost 15 years since Erik Eckholm’s book Losing Ground hit the stands and made many aware of the perils of Himalayan ecological degradation. Since then, there have been many studies on the processes of erosion, “mass wasting”, floods, forestry policy, stall feeding, topsoil runoff, and the perceived role of the hill peasant in all of this.
With more scientific study, there is today increasingly sophisticated understanding of the process of erosion in the hills. Some swear by Eckholm’s thesis of havoc in the Himalaya. Others go to the opposite extreme and profess not to know what the fuss is all about, for, they say, the Himalaya is “dynamic” and erosion is as natural as snowmelt in the summer. A few would even have you believe that there is no cause for worry.
The outcome of this debate, and its followup, is crucial for the Himalayan people. The truth must lie somewhere between those who say we are all doomed and those who refuse to worry. Himal seeks to provide a forum for all who have opinions one way or the other. In its own reporting, Himal will try to be careful not to be carried away by dogma on either side. Too often, concern for the environment is a fad among unconcerned elites. Environmental reporters get roped in to this “fashionable” pursuit of predicting armageddon on the high slopes.
We have often read and believed stories based on selective facts supplied by experts. A reporter lands up in a researcher’s home ground for a couple of hours or days, is willy-nilly fed a lot of information, which is then regurgitated into a convincing article. Such writing disregards the first rules of reporting by shunning background research, ignoring historical precedent, not questioning the researcher’s credibility and motives, and not getting a second opinion. This kind of journalism gives environmental reporting a bad name and none of us has been blameless, including Himal.
Here is a typical news report that came our way the other day. In the space of one page, and based on the say-so of one scientist doing research in one small catchment area, a journalist reports that mountain springs are drying up in the lower slopes of Himalaya, groundwater seepage has decreased 40 percent. Deforestation is rampant and desertification has begun. The report says that evaporation rate from the treeless soil is high, broad-leafed oaks and rhododendrons are being replaced by pines, pests threaten to eliminate different kinds of vegetation, and uncontrolled blasting is upsetting groundwater flow patterns. The weather, too, is changing; it is now warmer and drier in the Himalayan belt in summer, with average annual rainfall down by 30 percent, the report adds.
Doubtless, much of this breathless report reflects reality, but the sweep is too broad and unquestioning. The reporter’s task is not only to take the scientist’s word, but also to talk to the villager, to check the historical records, and to question other scientists who might disagree. If the facts require it, the reporter must write a less alarming, less “catchy” story. Cry wolf too many times, and the public will stop listening.
LOOKING TO THE WEST
A review of this magazine in the latest issue of the South Asia Journal, published in New Delhi, states: “Himal will do a great service it if eschews the fads and fancies of so-called environmentalists in the West in favour of initiating in-depth research and discussion of the ecology and ecological significance of the Himalayas, where ground-breaking work still remains to be done.” This last is very true. But “fads and fancies” are not limited to environmentalists in the West, and South Asian scientists and policy-makers too would do well to keep an open mind. and do then-homework. For it is not only journalists who are afflicted by intellectual laziness, nationalist blinders, and an inability to look at the others’ point of view.
It is wrong to presume that all Western scientists are remote from Himalayan reality, while all South Asian foresters, geologists, sociologists and economists are well “plugged in”. Can one forget the pioneering studies on Himalayan ecology, on the Nepal Himalaya in particular, that have been done by Westerners? Even today, quite a bit of the legwork is done by the expatriate scientist. An article in the most recent issue of the journal on the Himalayan environment includes a list of 61 names in reference, from “Baj-racharya” to “Zeimer”. Only seven are from South Asia.
On a brighter note, at least for those of us who put together this magazine, Himal expands its reach day by day. The other day a subscription arrived from Alice Springs, right at the heart of the Australian outback. We already have many readers in North America and Western Europe. Most important, we seem to be hitting stride in our own region, the Himalaya. Since we made it easier for our Indian subscribers to hook in through the Central News Agency in New Delhi, our Indian readership has been building up. Newsstand sales in Kathmandu continue to be brisk.
Himal does not have the resources of the mainstream media to market itself. It depends on you, our readers, to help spread the word so that it may be a more effective medium of dialogue among the people of the Himalaya. Please tell your local library and bookshop about Himal. Also, tell your friends and colleagues and, if married, get your spouse to read Himal as well.
Himal now coming to you straight from Kathmandu. We have come home after having printed our prototype
issue in Colombo and earlier issues in New York and New Jersey. This move meant that the May/June (grey) issue
had to be scrapped, but we will make up for it by giving you better reading from Kathmandu.