The Best of End Times: A Conversation with Anna Tsing

REPOST from Edge Effects - a digital magazine produced by graduate students at the Center for Culture, History, and Environment (CHE), a research center within the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

The Best of End Times: A Conversation with Anna Tsing

By: Charles Carlin

September 19, 2017

The Anthropocene—the name given to the understanding that humans are altering our planet on a geologic scale—holds many meanings. For some, it is a call to actively and consciously manage and manipulate Earth. Others see it as proof we must defend the planet from humans as much as possible. Anthropologist Anna Tsing, meanwhile, has gone on a hunt for “arts of living” in this complex and unstable world.


Tsing edited the volume Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene(University of Minnesota Press, 2017) with Heather SwansonElaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt. When considering what will emerge from the ecological devastation unfolding around the world, they are far from optimistic. But they’re not elegiac. Instead, they curate a journey through ways of knowing our world that includes biologists working on the microbial scale, poets grappling with questions of meaning, and historians tracing the living legacy of nuclear energy gone wrong. Each essay offers a way of describing and understanding the “entanglement” that defines life on earth.

I spoke on the phone with Anna Tsing about this wild book, working across disciplinary boundaries, and finding one’s way through the tangle of troubles and creativity of the Anthropocene.


Listen here:


Charlie Carlin: What has led you to your interest in the Anthropocene and ambitious transdisciplinary projects like this one? 


Anna Tsing: For a number of years, I was doing research on matsutake mushrooms that resulted in the book The Mushroom at the End of the World. One of the most exciting things about that research was the real joy I saw not only with pickers but also with scientists working on fungi, with social managers of the forests, and all kinds of people who were involved in mushrooms. It gave me a sense that when you have an object of such charisma and pleasure as fungi, disciplinary divides stop being quite as important as they are, perhaps, in the classroom.

The other project to tell your listeners about is the Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene group that I’ve had the pleasure to co-direct with Nils Bubandt. We are in our fourth year of a project funded by the Danish National Research Foundation. It allows us to experiment with collaborations across disciplines. We have ecologists and biologists on our team, as well as anthropologists, art historians, artists, philosophers, and various folks from the humanities and the arts. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet was our first big effort to see if we could conjure up together some of the kinds of pleasures and commonalities that I had seen in my mushroom research.

CC: This book is organized around two central figures: monsters and ghosts. How did you arrive at these? Do you imagine that monsters and ghosts continue to live as enlivening or organizing figures in work that Aarhus does or in your own scholarship?

AT: One way of seeing it is that ghosts and monsters each show us as potentials for trans-disciplinary collaboration. Monsters take us into all the new work that biologists are doing on symbiosis and the ways that organisms are not that modernist figure of an individual that has to survive by itself, but are involved in all sorts of entanglements with other species and other individuals. That seems monstrous to us because we’re used to an idea of individual organisms—humans and nonhumans—that may interact with others because they eat them or are eaten by them, not because they can’t develop, they can’t become who they are, without these other organisms. These are our monsters.

It also a way of understanding a pact that’s beginning to open in collaborations between biologists and folks working in the humanities and social sciences who are also interested in dismantling this figure of the modern individual. All over the world people don’t see themselves as individuals but as entangled in complicated ways. This common monstrosity—this common refusal of the modern individual—takes us into a path for collaboration and into some really exciting new scholarship.

Our use of the term Anthropocene is to describe a time in which business as usual is likely to kill us.

Similarly, the ghost figures take on ecologies of damage in which pasts are always there haunting presents. It’s a haunting with all the things you can’t leave behind, in contrast to that modernist dream that you can break from the past and everything will be new and shiny. These ghosts continue to remind us that pasts matter.

These ghosts, too, open a door towards both a potential for transdisciplinary work and a set of some of the most exciting stories that need to be told in our times on both sides of the line between the humanities and the social sciences. So, yes, these figures help us.

The other thing to say about them is that they are an attempt to break down the lines between kinds of figurations that are seen as serious and scholarly and those that come out of vernacular traditions of understanding the world. We are trying to keep a playful spirit alive rather than trying to develop a formal classification system.

CC: The book strikes a challenging emotional tone, attending to the severity of this mass extinction we’re living in, but also to the creative challenge and delight of getting to know, to describe, and to move forward in our world in a different way.

AT: Yes. We are trying on one hand to take the danger of the Anthropocene very seriously. Livability in its broadest sense—not just for humans, but for all of life on Earth—is being challenged by the industrial ecologies we’ve brought into being. On the other hand, rather than paralyzing our readers with fear, we are hoping, through the wonder of all these arrangements in the world, to mobilize a sense of activity and possibility within this very terrible time that we’ve created.

One of the essays that tries most directly to address that is Deborah Bird Rose‘s essay on shimmering. She talks about the possibility for the disintegration of one of the most important coordinations in Australian nature between the flying foxes and the eucalyptus trees that are pollinated by them all across the nature. This could break down merely because humans think flying foxes are pests and feel fine killing them. At the same time she wants to capture what she learned from aboriginal teachers about the beauty and the wonder of the shimmer of flowers and to remind us why there are flowers in the first place. They are so bright and beautiful precisely because they want to coordinate with pollinators. We get the benefits of this world created of shimmer.

CC: One of the things that this book doesn’t do is spend a lot of time on just the level of concept. There isn’t an essay specifically arguing what we should call our era or whether we should think about this as a “great Anthropocene.” Each one of these essays is grounded in experience of the world. Could you talk about that choice of keeping the essays down to Earth, so to speak?

AT: It’s actually an extremely important part of our conception. Our goal is to argue that the place to begin with these necessary transdisciplinary collaborations is in engagement with the details of the world rather than working out philosophy first and then trying to hammer it down into the world. We need to begin instead with ants or with lichens or with other ways of knowing the world—snake spirits and volcanoes—and to build out from them a sense of what is possible in terms of bringing scientists and humanists together and in making an intervention into the terrible hegemony of business as usual.

We’re offering a kind of nature writing about damage, rather than an imagination of untouched plenty.

It’s not intended as a way of walking away from those dangers but indeed as engaging in the center of them. Our use of the term Anthropocene is to describe a time in which business as usual is likely to kill us. But our way of engaging that, then, is to begin with the concrete materiality of the world around us, and to argue that we need to start noticing it more.

We try to put that into practice in the essays by showing how these concrete engagements and particular stories can tell us more than a generalized statement. We think about extinction, say, through the story of how red knot birds fly five thousand miles to feast on the eggs of horseshoe crabs. Then, as the industry for medical testing has taken away all the horseshoe crabs, suddenly the birds are going to starve. That kind of a figure for understanding extinction might be better than whether or not the Anthropocene is good or bad.

CC: While there is this new vocabulary of symbiosis and entanglement that moves through the book, there aren’t a lot of mentions of words like naturewildernesswildnessconservation, or preservation. And of all the genres in the book, a genre that isn’t readily apparent is nature writing—one that has traditionally crossed those boundaries between natural history, science writing, philosophy, and perhaps ethics. The language might not be immediately legible to what we would think of as more traditional environmentalist or conversation communities. I wonder what message or challenge or intervention this book has for them.

AT: That’s a great question worth thinking through. In a broad sense, nature writing could be considered a style that makes experiences of environments and nonhumans accessible to people who haven’t been explicitly trained in some kind of scientific or scholarly knowledge base. In that broad sense, what we’re doing is nature writing.

I think there is an interesting difference. Most classical examples of nature writing give us praise of the human experience within the magnificence of nature. This book asks how we experience the damage wrought by industrial civilization. We’re offering a kind of nature writing about damage, rather than an imagination of untouched plenty. This is a kind of nature writing exploring radioactive chambers where you can see the radioactivity or noticing sewage-filled canyons where tomatoes are growing up in the midst of old tires. This is a kind of nature writing in which readers feel the pressures of extinction as well as the wonders of biodiversity. It’s a different kind of nature writing, and I think we really need it.

Featured image: A detail of gut bacteria by Nicola Fawcett, August 2015; Anna Tsing; and a photo of a smokestack in Sweden by Eric Fosberg, July 2009. 

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission. 

Charles Carlin is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a wilderness guide. He is interested in how ethics and the philosophy of subjectivity intersect with the messy realities of life. These interests come together in Charles’ dissertation entitled, “The Therapeutics of Subjectivity: Nature, Ethics, and Ceremony in the American Wilderness.” Wild places in America have been sites of vicious dispossession and exclusion, but they are also places where scholars, activists, and wanderers have developed radical ecological ethics and politics through stunning experiences with the more-than-human world. He last appeared in Edge Effects with “The Ethics of Ceremony at Standing Rock.” Charles lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with his wife and son. Website. Contact.

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Niels Bohr Professor at Aarhus University, and Co-director of Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA). She is the author of three prize-winning books: In the Realm of the Diamond Queen: Marginality in an Out-of-the-Way Place (Princeton University Press, 1993), Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton University Press, 2004), and The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton University Press, 2015). In addition to the new edited collection Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene (University of Minnesota Press, 2017), she has co-edited Communities and Conservation: Histories and Politics of Community-Based Natural Resources (AltaMira Press, 2005), Nature in the Global South: Environmental Projects in South and Southeast Asia (Duke University Press, 2003), and several other volumes. She is also the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship.Website. Contact

Belt and Road Infrastructures: Modernist dreams, local dilemmas?

Screen Shot 2017-12-13 at 14.39.36.png

{repost from IAPS Dialogue}
By Jessica DiCarlo

Last summer, I drove from the Laotian capital up the two-lane road that is slated to become the Vientiane-Vang Vieng expressway (of which China will hold a 95 percent stake). The billboards I whizzed by increasingly included Chinese characters. In Vang Vieng, I found myself speaking Chinese with guesthouse owners. Gift shops signs written in Chinese prohibited bargaining. The Vang Vieng cement factory, just south of town, is lauded as a symbol of China-Laos cooperation, yet the haze that settles over the valley tells another story of economic tradeoffs. The factory employs some Laotians, but others complain of changes in air quality. As a popular tourist spot, the town relies on the rushing water of the Nam Song river and clear dramatic karst views. Yet, this is changing as the landscape is consumed by concrete and pavement. The cement factory is one building block among many in China’s infamous Belt and Road Initiative.

First announced in 2013, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI; 一带一路) commits USD$1 trillion to massive infrastructure projects, such as roads, rail, seaports and airports. Numerous explanations for China’s massive push for infrastructure development are circulating, and include the expansion of trade routes, the promotion of peace and cooperation, and the provision of necessary infrastructures to developing countries. The scope and scale of the BRI has profound implications for geopolitics, capital markets and the environment: The initiative spans 69 countries across Asia, Africa, and Europe, meaning approximately 4 billion people, three-quarters of the world’s energy resources, and one-third of global GDP. The BRI promises connection, prosperity, and sustainable development. However, what is sustainable about the increasingly interconnected environmental, political, and cultural implications of these projects?

The primary motivation of the BRI is to bolster economic growth and as such, reports of new trade corridors and more efficient transportation networks often lead the headlines. While the BRI emphasises connectivity via the construction of ports, roads and rails, energy infrastructure, from coal to renewables, is a major focus of BRI investment. One Chinese energy scholar remarked, the BRI “will facilitate the development of an energy revolution”. China’s domestic energy perspective is trending increasingly towards renewables. In 2016, China announced the country’s “greenest” social and economic Five-Year Plan. This domestic focus on investment in renewables coupled with the BRI energy goals, concern for climate change mitigation, and rising energy demands has led to increased attention on securing water resources for hydropower.

China’s interest in hydropower is longstanding; even before the implementation of the BRI, China was the world’s largest dam builder. As the upstream country of many major river systems that flow through South, Central, and Southeast Asia, China exerts substantial ecological and economic influence over downstream countries. With the introduction of the BRI, downstream countries (such as Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand in the case of the Mekong River) must address longer standing water questions surrounding environmental impacts, governance and hydrohegemony alongside the swift implementation of BRI projects. While host countries collaborate on these projects, they generally hold less stake than the associated Chinese firms who jockey for quick implementation. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB; a primary lender for BRI) Energy Sector Strategy has signed up to many global environmental initiatives (e.g. the United Nation’s Sustainable Energy for All or SEforALL), however the BRI currently lacks transboundary water cooperation as well as local level policy frameworks for project implementation.

Despite this and in response to the growing regional and BRI energy demands, hydropower projects are proposed in water sensitive and politically complex areas in China’s neighbouring countries, and may eschew common compliance processes. The Don Sahong dam in Laos is the second dam to be built on the mainstream of the Mekong, but would be disastrous for food security and fisheries. The Nam Ou Cascade Hydropower Project in Laos is also a significant piece of the BRI. International Rivers foundthat the contractor for the project, the Chinese firm called Sinohydro, has yet to make environmental impact assessments or community resettlement plans publicly available. What’s more, Sinohydro is violating its own policy by operating within a national park.

At the same time, there is growing recognition that proposals backed by the Chinese state for massive infrastructures can come at high political and environmental prices. Just this year, the USD $2.5 billion Budhi Gandaki hydroelectric project in Nepal was scrapped due to financing conflicts with the construction company, and the USD $14 billion Diamer-Bhasha dam in Pakistan due to unfavourable Chinese financing terms. Similarly, in 2011 Myanmar cancelled the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam, and recently reinforced this position by announcing their withdrawal from any hydropower development.

Infrastructural building blocks: a view from the ground

From pouring concrete, to diverting and harnessing the power of the Mekong, to carving a rail route through the Pamir Mountains, infrastructure construction requires more than political handshakes and billions in bank loans. They need vast amounts of material resources – large machinery, pipelines, fuel, steel, electricity, concrete, land – and a tremendous amount of labour. The mechanisms to acquire or produce these inputs need to be available.

Consider the construction of a large dam on the Mekong River. Roads and power lines must be installed for access to remote mountain regions. Building materials like timber or steel are often locally produced. If not, how are they transported, and does that change the local environment? New factories to produce the materials have their own environmental consequences. Power lines are also required to transport electricity away when the project is functional. Where might that electricity go? There is speculation that some dam projects in Laos may provide electricity to mining operations, which seems contrary to visions of sustainable development.

Human labour is often imported with these large projects. Tens of thousands of workers bring demands on local ecosystems and communities. Workers need food, water, shelter, and sanitation systems, and may displace opportunities for local employment. This can place strain on already resource-poor rural regions, and result in mixed receptions by host communities. Just this year, the Chinese Embassy in Laos issued a safety warning for its citizens after Chinese migrant labourers were attacked and one was shot dead in Xaysomboun province. This is just one of the many ways cultural politics may manifest around large-scale infrastructure projects, as development is struggled over in locally and historically specific ways.

The BRI relies on the rhetoric of shared futures, collaboration, and improved livelihoods for recipient countries. Yet, economic expansion particularly via hydropower projects will intensify water demands, reshape river ecosystems and possibly increase pollution. The BRI brands itself as a sustainable development project, yet by conventional sustainable development metrics and standards there is serious misalignment between the BRI’s goals and actions. If the BRI is to promote “sustainable” development, questions must go beyond addressing energy access and economic development to consider who/what will capture the benefits and bear the (often environmental) costs of these massive projects and when.

Greening the Belt and Road

In May 2017 in response to criticism of environmental standards, China released their Guidelines for a Green Belt and Road, which aim to “promote green development, strengthen eco-environment protection, and jointly build a green silk road”. These guidelines will either offer lip service, or move to address existing problems and build contextually appropriate governance structures. While a step in the right direction, these guidelines operate at a high-level scale that continues to neglect local environmental changes and cultural politics. With these issues present, the questions remain: are these large infrastructure projects and all the materials, transport and labour bound up in them in fact sustainable?

In the language of the BRI, sustainable development has broad application. It is linked with everything from social wellbeing to economic growth to energy infrastructures. In this critical moment, as international development pivots towards Chinese-backed megaprojects, are “sustainable” and “green” simply buzzwords to facilitate a massive push to extend an economic empire around the world? Perhaps these concepts are rooted in western ideals rather than material processes; and when no one is held accountable, they become meaningless beyond their publicity value. Despite its emphasis on infrastructure and other place-based developments, the BRI lacks a local context.

By focusing on the economic aspects of development, BRI explanations shroud the very material ways large infrastructure projects transform landscapes and everyday life, carrying significant political and socioeconomic implications in recipient locations. These impacts manifest in China’s neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia where energy development projects lead to radical social and environmental transformations. As these megaprojects take shape, questions remain of how the ecological impacts and cultural politics of “development” will be managed or contested between local, national and transnational levels.

The Road by Zhang Zanbo

"For almost four years, Chinese filmmaker Zhang Zanbo documented the construction of a massive highway through a rural district in Hunan Province. Organising his often startling up-close footage into chapters, he reveals a project rife with corruption, violence and cynicism. His success in showing events from the conflicting perspectives of three constantly skirmishing sectors makes this a singularly comprehensive indictment. Dislocated peasants see their homes literally dynamited, and clamour for compensation. Migrant workers regularly risk their lives for paydays that never seem to arrive. Fending off their demands, the embattled construction company also juggles dubious alliances with local Party officials, police and gangsters.

Through it all, a gargantuan new symbol of Chinese industrial power takes shape to cut a swathe across mountain and valley. Whether it will pass safety requirements or even conform to legal construction standards is anybody’s guess when government building inspectors arrive. Or are they too persuadable? Director Zhang has himself suggested that the title might not refer just to the Xu-Huai Highway, but also to the road taken by China."

-New Zealand Intl. Film Festival

Indigenous Research Methods: A Reading List

Repost from {HelenKara}


By: Helen Kara (Thanks for this great list and your thoughts!)

"Last week I wrote about challenging the dominance of English in writing for research and academia. That theme is also relevant to this post, though here it’s more about challenging Euro-Western epistemologies and methods than the English language itself. Over the last year I have built a personal library of books about, or relevant to, my investigation of Indigenous research methods and ethics. The point of this, for me, is to bring these methods into my scholarship, alongside creative and conventional methods, as appropriate. The point is not to become an ‘expert’ on Indigenous research; for a white British person, that is not, should not be, an option. At the start of this work, I worried about being extractive, but I found comfort in the words of Margaret Kovach, an Indigenous researcher from Saskatchewan in Canada, who encourages non-Indigenous scholars to help make space for Indigenous methodologies and assess their value on their own terms. This is what I am trying to do.

For those who are new to this topic, ‘Indigenous’ denotes the native peoples of colonised lands, such as Aboriginal Australians or Inuit Alaskans, while ‘indigenous’ denotes the native peoples of non-colonised lands. So I am an indigenous Brit who will never be an Indigenous researcher. Some people described as Indigenous are unhappy with the term because they feel that it makes them seem like one homogeneous group, whereas in fact there is tremendous diversity. For example, there are hundreds of tribal and language groupings in Australia alone. However, as it is the term most commonly used in the literature, I’m sticking with it for now.

The first book is the foundational Decolonizing Methodologies by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, a Maori researcher from New Zealand. In fact I bought the first edition of this soon after it came out in 1999, the year I began my MSc in Social Research Methods. The second edition came out in 2012. This book shows how research was used as a tool of imperialism to help subjugate colonised peoples through, among other things, complete disregard for Indigenous knowledges and Indigenous peoples’ own research methods. It highlights the value of these knowledges and methods, and calls for research to be linked explicitly with social justice.

Shawn Wilson is an Opaskwayak Cree researcher from Canada who has also lived and worked with Indigenous peoples in Alaska and Australia, as well as spending time with Indigenous peoples in New Zealand, Morocco, and elsewhere. His book, Research Is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods(2008), is based on his doctoral research and describes a paradigm shared by Indigenous researchers in Canada and Australia. It’s not easy to get hold of; I tracked down a Canadian bookseller who seems to have bought up the last available copies, and I fear it may be going out of print, which would be a great shame as it is readable and insightful.

Margaret Kovach is a Plains Cree and Salteaux researcher from Canada whose Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations, and Contextscame out in 2009. Her book covers epistemologies, methods, and ethics. It is a work of considerable scholarship that is also accessible and full of wisdom.

Bagele Chilisa is a Professor at the University of Botswana. Her book Indigenous Research Methodologies (2012) gives an uncompromising and international account of some of the theories, epistemologies, ontologies and methods used by Indigenous researchers. While no book on this subject could be completely comprehensive, Chilisa makes a good job of showing the diversity, as well as some of the commonalities, of Indigenous methodology.

Donna Mertens from the US, Fiona Cram from New Zealand, and Bagele Chilisa have edited a collection called Indigenous Pathways into Social Research: Voices of a New Generation (2013). They have contributions from Indigenous researchers from all around the world: Vanuatu, Mexico, Cameroon, Hawai’i, Alaska, Papua New Guinea, and many other countries. These are fascinating accounts, highlighting personal, political, and ethical challenges, and how they have been overcome. They also say a lot about Indigenous methodologies around the world.

Also in 2013, Maggie Walter, a trawlwoolway researcher from Tasmania, and Chris Andersen, a Métis researcher from Canada, brought out Indigenous Statistics: A Quantitative Research Methodology. This book demonstrates the pervasiveness of Euro-Western thought in the construction of statistical research, using national censuses for ilustration. It offers a framework for Indigenous quantitative research, nayri kati or ‘good numbers’, which places an Indigenous standpoint at the centre. There is a short video online of Maggie Walter talking about Indigenous quantitative research.

Lori Lambert is a Mi’kmaq researcher from north-eastern Canada who has also worked with Indigenous peoples from Montana, US; northern Manitoba, Canada; and Queensland, Australia. Her book, Research for Indigenous Survival: Indigenous Research Methodologies in the Behavioral Sciences, was published in 2014. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first book to position Indigenous methods within a Euro-Western disciplinary category. Like other Canadian writers, such as Wilson and Kovach (above), Lambert includes the voices of people she has worked with alongside her own in her narrative.

Another essential text, though not specifically about research methods, is Southern Theory by Australian academic Raewyn Connell (2009). This book is subtitled ‘The global dynamics of knowledge in social science’ and in my view is essential reading for anyone engaging with social theory. During my MSc, I was taught social theory as the preserve of dead white men, and I am sure this is still being taught in many Euro-Western universities today. Connell’s book gives the lie to this approach.

This list is not exhaustive; it is just my personal library. One limitation is that I can’t afford expensive books. While I was writing this blog post, I had a message from my friend and colleague Roxanne Persaud, alerting me to Susan Strega and Leslie Brown’s edited collection Research as Resistance: Revisiting Critical, Indigenous, and Anti-Oppressive Practices (2nd edn 2015). I would love to read this book, but even the paperback is over £60 which puts it out of my reach.

These books are not comfortable reads for Euro-Western scholars, but they are hugely important. We need to know how research has been, and is, misused by Euro-Western cultures in order to learn how to use it better. Indigenous scholars are extraordinarily generous in their assessment of the potential value of Euro-Western methodologies, even those methodologies that have been instrumental in stealing their lands and their cultures and traumatising generations of their peoples. Yet most Euro-Western researchers either ignore Indigenous research entirely, or conclude that Indigenous peoples must have picked up a few tricks from the colonisers. I’m not sure which is worse. Indigenous research methods pre-date Euro-Western research methods by tens of thousands of years, and there is a great deal that Euro-Western researchers can learn from these approaches."

Mountains need more champions

Help Wanted: Vulnerable mountains with communities mired in poverty need more champions

Repost from {StraitsTimes} by Nirmal Ghosh

WASHINGTON - Late last month (June), unnoticed by a media distracted by tweets and testimonies and troops and terrorism, a small group of people met quietly in Washington DC to talk about mountains.

The meeting of the Mountain Institute, a non-governmental organisation that works on environmental and livelihood projects in the world's mountain zones, came just days after a United Nations meeting in New York City that focused on oceans.

At the UN meeting, the international community for the first time collectively pledged a plan of action to stop the overfishing and indiscriminate pollution of our seas.

The world's mountains have not been so lucky. Unlike oceans or islands threatened by rising seas, mountains lack prominent champions and struggle to get attention at international forums even though they are equally vulnerable to environmental stresses including global warming.

Countries which in some cases depend completely on mountains have had few charismatic political leaders, and have been largely unable to mount an effective united front.

Then-president of the Maldives, Mr Mohamed Nasheed, grabbed world attention in October 2009 by holding a Cabinet meeting under water.

Nepal, one of the most densely populated mountain countries in the world, followed suit two months later with a Cabinet meeting at Everest Base Camp which caught attention as well - but only briefly.

One by-product of this relative marginalisation is that mountains, with some exceptions like parts of Europe's Alps, remain zones of chronic human poverty.


Gomukh glacier, source of the Ganga, India. ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

Gomukh glacier, source of the Ganga, India. ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

From the Mekong to the Ganges to the Rio Grande, all the world's major rivers have their headwaters in mountains, and one of every two people on the planet depends on mountain water in one way or another - for drinking, as a source of energy or income, or for growing food.

In semi-arid and arid regions, up to 90 per cent of river flows come from mountains.

Himalayan rivers drain into the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the South China Sea; well over a billion people depend on their waters.

But while the world's mountains are home to about 13 per cent of humanity and cover some 22 percent of Earth's land area, their human communities are disproportionately poor.

In 2012, an estimated 329 million people living in mountainous regions of developing countries - including nearly half the rural population - were vulnerable to food insecurity, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Stunningly, hunger among mountain populations had increased by 30 per cent over the previous 12 years.

H20 in three form - ice, vapour and water.  ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

H20 in three form - ice, vapour and water.  ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

Mountain people "lacked secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life," the FAO said in its The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2015 report.

In north America's Appalachian Mountains, 17 per cent of people live below the US' poverty level, compared with 15.5 per cent nationally.

According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, 24.4 per cent of Appalachia's children live below the poverty level compared to 21.7 per cent nationally.

Appalachia has become the reluctant poster child for rural American poverty, to such an extent that there has been a backlash there to "poverty porn" in the media.

On the other side of the planet, 42 per cent of Nepal's poor live in the mountains, with an additional three per cent pushed below the poverty line by the earthquake of 2015, says Dr Neeta Pradhan, director of the Mountain Institute's Himalayan programme.

Himalayan river, Uttarakhand, India.  ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

Himalayan river, Uttarakhand, India.  ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

Nepal is one of the most densely populated mountain countries in the world, and has far from recovered from the effects of the earthquake.


There are some success stories. Tourism has lifted large parts of Europe's Alps from poverty.

Tourism has also lifted mountain economies in Nepal - but only in certain zones popular with trekkers and climbers.

Harvesting medicinal and aromatic plants in the Himalayas for the Indian and Chinese markets has been successful but also limited to tiny pockets in the vast Himalayas.

Some donors, non-governmental organisations, and the government, have attempted to help.

Harvesting medicinal and aromatic plants in the Himalayas for the Indian and Chinese markets has been successful for example. But these are still limited to tiny pockets in the vast Himalayas.

Indian woman with headloads of wood for cooking in the lower Himalayas.  ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

Indian woman with headloads of wood for cooking in the lower Himalayas.  ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

The record of Nepal's Local Adaptation Plans for Action (LAPAs), which are meant to strengthen the resilience of mountain communities in the face of climate change, has been spotty. Many LAPAs remain not adequately integrated with national plans or linked with planning and funding mechanisms.

Such plans are often meaningless to locals living in remote and rugged terrain. Young men continue to migrate to the plains - and abroad - to find employment. They may send back money, but leave few young able-bodied people to do the hard work required - farming and gathering water and fuel wood, for instance - just to survive in the mountains.

Thus on the national level in many countries, mountains are often taken for granted while their populations are left to their own devices or left to migrate to make a living.

And at the international level, mountains remain an afterthought at best.

At the 2015 Paris conference on climate change which produced the Paris Agreement on curbing the emissions that drive global warming, when Bhutan asked for language on mountains to be included, it was ignored.

"We struggle at some of these climate change or sustainable development meetings," says Mr Andrew Taber, Washington-based Executive Director of the Mountain Institute.

"At the country level we struggle against marginalisation, and at the international level we have to struggle to get greater attention."

Observe. Walk slowly.


Science, as you know, my little one, is the study
of the nature and behaviour of the universe.
It’s based on observation, on experiment, and measurement,
and the formulation of laws to describe the facts revealed.

In the old times, they say, the men came already fitted with brains
designed to follow flesh-beasts at a run,
to hurdle blindly into the unknown,
and then to find their way back home when lost
with a slain antelope to carry between them.
Or, on bad hunting days, nothing.

The women, who did not need to run down prey,
had brains that spotted landmarks and made paths between them
left at the thorn bush and across the scree
and look down in the bole of the half-fallen tree,
because sometimes there are mushrooms.

Before the flint club, or flint butcher’s tools,
The first tool of all was a sling for the baby
to keep our hands free
and something to put the berries and the mushrooms in,
the roots and the good leaves, the seeds and the crawlers.
Then a flint pestle to smash, to crush, to grind or break.

And sometimes men chased the beasts
into the deep woods,
and never came back.

Some mushrooms will kill you,
while some will show you gods
and some will feed the hunger in our bellies. Identify.
Others will kill us if we eat them raw,
and kill us again if we cook them once,
but if we boil them up in spring water, and pour the water away,
and then boil them once more, and pour the water away,
only then can we eat them safely. Observe.

Observe childbirth, measure the swell of bellies and the shape of breasts,
and through experience discover how to bring babies safely into the world.

Observe everything.

And the mushroom hunters walk the ways they walk
and watch the world, and see what they observe.
And some of them would thrive and lick their lips,
While others clutched their stomachs and expired.
So laws are made and handed down on what is safe. Formulate.

The tools we make to build our lives:
our clothes, our food, our path home…
all these things we base on observation,
on experiment, on measurement, on truth.

And science, you remember, is the study
of the nature and behaviour of the universe,
based on observation, experiment, and measurement,
and the formulation of laws to describe these facts.

The race continues. An early scientist
drew beasts upon the walls of caves
to show her children, now all fat on mushrooms
and on berries, what would be safe to hunt.

The men go running on after beasts.

The scientists walk more slowly, over to the brow of the hill
and down to the water’s edge and past the place where the red clay runs.
They are carrying their babies in the slings they made,
freeing their hands to pick the mushrooms.

The return from "the field"

The field team (Katie+Jessica+Bikash) returned yesterday from Dolakha having completed 79 household surveys, 18+ district level interviews, 10+ leading farmer/key informant interviews, 5 focus groups (organized and informal) and numerous informal interviews and observation experiences. 

We were able to gather interesting and provocative data around several of our project topics including agricultural transition, technology adoption, issues surrounding relief, recovery and reconstruction, roles of ngo/ingo/government in aforementioned activities, market-oriented activities, and status of ecosystem and community services post-disaster.  

On top of it all - we attended a Thamang wedding and funeral, visited Kalinchock (K+J), hosted our own house party (?!), suffered only minor leech attacks (Katie was the exclusive victim), performed an interpretive dance and rowdy version of 'the wheels on the bus' at the local school, and ate our weight in famous Dolakha potatoes. We made wonderful and warm connections, met a whole host of fascinating 'characters', and have ALOT of new facebook friends. 

Jess, Bikash and Katie atop a bus returning to Charikot 

Jess, Bikash and Katie atop a bus returning to Charikot 

Learning from the ladies in Sundrawati

Learning from the ladies in Sundrawati

Hanging with Boch's best and brightest young teachers at the SaraSwathi English Boarding School

Hanging with Boch's best and brightest young teachers at the SaraSwathi English Boarding School

Surveys and laughter high in Sundrawati's ward 6

Surveys and laughter high in Sundrawati's ward 6

Bikash in his element - forming relationships and getting the local scoop

Bikash in his element - forming relationships and getting the local scoop

Jess doing a little work trade - weeding in the garden for an interview

Jess doing a little work trade - weeding in the garden for an interview

Katie interviewing community forest president, Lakshmi

Katie interviewing community forest president, Lakshmi

Katie and Jess before storming the district offices...charming the "boss of bosses" with card games and badmitton

Katie and Jess before storming the district offices...charming the "boss of bosses" with card games and badmitton

The Feminization of Agriculture in Nepal


The feminization of Nepal's remote villages is becoming increasingly visible. The very young and old remain while the youth, due to decreasing crop yields, demand for cash income and interest in more 'modern' lifestyles, seek opportunity elsewhere, often in Kathmandu or abroad. 

For more, check out an article by our research partners at Forest Action: Feminization of Agriculture and its Implications for Food Security in Rural Nepal

Post-disaster community resilience in Nepal

On the 25th and 26th of April and 12th of May Nepal was struck by massive earthquakes. One year later we wanted to explore which farming systems fared better or worse after this natural disaster, and better understand the aid and development landscapes. We travelled to Charikot, the district headquarters of Dolakha and one of the hardest hit districts where 99% of all houses were partially or completely destroyed, to begin our fieldwork at the second epicentre of the 2015 earthquakes.

Photo: DiCarlo 2016 |  Sundrawati, Dolakha District, Nepal

Photo: DiCarlo 2016 | Sundrawati, Dolakha District, Nepal

The post-earthquake situation

From our first field site of Sundrawati, we have seen responses to the earthquake unfolded in stages. Community members were the first to act, neighbors helped clear debris and search for survivors and dead. INGOs and NGOs flooded in soon after. Though the national government aimed to keep a “one door” policy, chaos soon ensued as aid in the forms of food, materials and money arrived from across the globe as was asymmetrically distributed. However, this initial influx of aid was followed by a period of “limbo” with reluctance to rebuild, as locals feared they would not receive government-promised support if they showed individual initiative.

Farming communities were among the most heavily affected by the earthquake. Farmers had to prioritize cuing for relief materials over planting seeds and tending fields. Now, a year later, shelter, food security and livelihoods remain top priorities. Many continue to live in “cottages” made of tin and timber, unable to build a more “safe and comfortable” shelter. Others continue to camp in rudimentary shelters awaiting aid and many farms remain fallow. As the agriculture officer in the district capital of Chandrikot lamented: “the quake has set back farming development by at least 10 years”.

“Black gold and green deserts”

Nepal is in the midst of deep agricultural transition. Subsistence farming practices are giving way to more market-oriented approaches and causing manifold landscape change, irrespective of the earthquakes. Instead of traditional maize, rice and millet, kiwi and potato provide quick cash and income with less labor input. In the post-disaster period, these changes have catalyzed this transformation. Disturbed post-disaster landscapes in Nepal are particularly suited to cardamom, which can be intercropped under early successional alder stands (Alnus nepalensis; otis). Local farmers refer to cardamom as black gold because of its easy cultivation, high market value, and potential for perennial production of up to 10-20 years. Even on the most highly valued farmland growing cardamom allows farmers to make an easy profit with which they purchase their staple foods, such as rice.

Not all landscape change is positive. Many small-scale farmers, seeking to optimize labour inputs, are converting their most marginal fields to pine forests (Pinus roxburgii). Pine’s shallow root systems exhaust critical water resources, leaving little for other understorey species, hence the term “green deserts”. Though the timber can eventually be sold, the payback period is long and clear cutting leaves slopes vulnerable to landslide and erosion.

“No water – no food”

Despite historically pervasive tensions over water use in the region, post-earthquake damage to spring sources and irrigation infrastructure have heightened conflicts. Large cracks in water-heavy paddy fields prevented rice cultivation the first season after the earthquake, aggravating food security throughout rice-dependent Nepal. Village dependent spring sources were widely reduced or disappeared due to sub-surface tremors altering water tables. Some new sources appeared, but far too few to make up for the loss. Throughout mid-mountain Nepal, these shifting landscape patterns are accompanied by increasing impacts from climate change and have exacerbated migration from the hills.

We hope our research can show how the future of Nepali farming systems and food security remains inextricably entwined with its water and forest resources, and require the capacity to cope and adapt to environmental shocks.

Social Science Baha

Katie and I will present our first paper from this research (on cardamom cultivation and agricultural transitions) at the Social Science Baha’s Annual Conference on Nepal and the Himalaya, 27-29 July 2016 in Kathmandu.

Photo: DiCarlo 2016 |  Sundrawati, Dolakha District, Nepal

Photo: DiCarlo 2016 | Sundrawati, Dolakha District, Nepal

Photo: DiCarlo 2016 |  Sundrawati, Dolakha District, Nepal

Photo: DiCarlo 2016 | Sundrawati, Dolakha District, Nepal

Photo: DiCarlo 2016 |  Cardamom intercropped under a canopy of alder, Sundrawati, Dolakha District, Nepal

Photo: DiCarlo 2016 | Cardamom intercropped under a canopy of alder, Sundrawati, Dolakha District, Nepal

Photo: DiCarlo 2016 |  Sundrawati, Dolakha District, Nepal

Photo: DiCarlo 2016 | Sundrawati, Dolakha District, Nepal

Photo: DiCarlo 2016 |  Home destroyed by the 2015 earthquake in Sundrawati, Dolakha District, Nepal

Photo: DiCarlo 2016 | Home destroyed by the 2015 earthquake in Sundrawati, Dolakha District, Nepal

Greetings and welcome

We are two women geographer-explorers seeking to examine critically the world around us. We use this blog to share our current research and ponderings around issues of landscape change, human and cultural migration and transition, dispossession, precarity and property, political economy and ecology. We share stories of high mountain communities, adaptation and resilience, overland adventure, and other juicy gems along the way. We welcome thoughts, feedback, potential collaborations, and new and interesting questions.