Understanding Socio-Economic Transitions in the Mountains
article written by Jayanta Bandyopadhyay
19.04.23 | 12:04

Understanding the complex changes in mountainous regions is challenging compared to the lowland areas. Human interventions in mountains have been reductionist, hindering progress in analysing their identity and impacts. This article identifies characteristics of the mountains to help understand and make necessary positive changes. A more interdisciplinary approach can lead to a holistic framework for designing sustainable transformations that ensure well-being for people and the environment.

a Conceptual Framework through “Mountain Characteristics”

For a long time, the perceptions of socio-economic and cultural transitions in all parts of the world have been guided and promoted by the traditional ideas of economic growth, but these perceptions have been facing fundamental challenges in their utility and continuity in the process of policy-making for socio-economic transformations. Changes in the environmentally fragile and ethnically-diverse regions, such as mountains, need to be assessed with a conceptual framework that is much more comprehensive than the one guided by reductionist concepts of economic growth. Additionally, understanding the factors that encourage or hinder socio-economic well-being and cultural evolution in the mountains need to be recognised and internalised in policy-making.

One important step towards promoting well-being in mountainous regions, both for the environment and the communities, is to differentiate the social, cultural, and environmental characteristics of mountains from those of the surrounding plains. This distinction can help us better understand the unique challenges and opportunities of mountainous regions, and design sustainable transformations that ensure the well-being of both people and the environment.

In his work, N.S.Jodha, has articulated several ‘Mountain Specificities’, which inspired me to provide an ecosystem-oriented set of distinguishing features of the mountains and uplands in the form of ‘Mountain Characteristics’, as seen in Figure 1.

Figure 1: The Mountain Characteristics and their Inter-Relationships

These mountain characteristics offer a useful starting point for developing a holistic framework for identifying desired human interventions in the mountains and uplands. However, as economic concepts continue to evolve to counter reductionism, the assessment of the impacts of the interventions on socio-economic well-being and environmental stability requires a consideration of a different set of parameters, identified as Mountain Characteristics. These characteristics significantly influence socio-economic transitions and environmental stability/instability in the mountains. Incorporating these implications could result in a new conceptual framework for promoting socio-economic and environmental well-being in mountainous and upland regions.

The Himalaya: Mountain Characteristics in Action

The Himalaya, with its towering vertical formation and sloping landscape, is a prime example of a mountain range with significant environmental and socio-economic characteristics. The Himalaya has gained its vertical formation over the last two million years, and this primary characteristic of vertical formation and slope creates conditions for the generation and operation of secondary mountain characteristics, including environmental and socio-economic features. The environmental characteristics of the Himalaya, such as its climatic and biological diversity, create its complex ecological status, while its structural fragility from the tectonic processes and verticality, makes it susceptible to avalanches, landslides and other natural hazards. Human interventions, such as expansion of farmland, construction of roads, contribute further to this fragility. The socio-economic characteristics of the Himalaya are shaped by economic linkages between the mountains and the nearby plains, as well as by human interventions in the mountain areas.

The Most Important Socio-Economic Characteristics of Mountains

Mountain Characteristics are crucial in designing interventions to promote environmental stability as well as community well-being. Among these characteristics, ethnic diversity, marginality, and migration are particularly significant socio-economic factors in mountains and uplands. A new conceptual framework that considers these unique characteristics is needed. By internalizing Mountain Characteristics, policymakers can develop more effective strategies to promote sustainable development and well-being in mountain regions, such as the Himalayas and beyond.

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N.S. Jodha, ‘Mountain Perspective and Sustainability: A Framework for Development Strategies’. Paper presented at the International Symposium on Strategies for Sustainable Mountain Agriculture, ICIMOD, Kathmandu, 1990.

Cover image by Nathan Langer.