Altitude Sickness

Altitude Sickness

Mini Teaser: Potted phrases like "ethnic tensions" and "age-old religious differences" bear little relevance to the true causes of mountain conflicts.

by Author(s): S. Frederick Starr

The simplest explanation for all this conflict in mountainous
territories draws from an old folklore-embellished argument well
known to every American: mountain people are naturally scrappy. North
Carolina's feisty mountaineers managed to strike adversarial poses in
nearly every conflict facing their state from the Revolution onward.
The Hatfield and McCoy families may have confined their
multi-generational grudge match to the area of Tug Fork in the
Appalachians, but they are enduring symbols of mountain folks'
tendency everywhere neither to forgive nor forget. Nor should we
neglect to mention the old-country home of many American
mountaineers--the Scottish Highlands, whose clans have fought and
feuded their way into indelible legend.

It cannot be denied that once aroused to battle, mountain people are
loath to give up. The sense of territoriality, independence and
cohesive social relations formed in isolated upland valleys are
perfectly suited to sustain conflicts over the long haul. One could
argue that relative isolation from the cosmopolitanism and culture
sharing of other regions has led to a general sort of illiberalism of
attitudes, as well as to an accentuation of the "mine versus thine"
mentality. In several cases, too, the relative isolation and
insularity of mountainous regimes has either contributed to religious
heterodoxy or provided a literal stronghold for it--Lebanon being
perhaps the most vivid example. And no one can deny that the martial
reputation of many mountain dwellers--Gurkhas, Druze, Hokka and
Pashtuns, for example--is well deserved.

The problem with this general line of argument, however, is that it
fails to account for the long periods of peace that have prevailed in
practically every one of the mountain regions now riddled by strife.
It is convenient to point in each case to some ineluctable point of
conflict that triggered the combative mountain psyche, but then one
must explain why for generations the same people managed to coexist
in peace.

Besides that, there is an even more compelling reason to discount
what we might call topographical-cultural arguments, and that is the
presence of a more pervasive explanatory factor. If one were actually
to visit all the various mountain territories where conflicts have
raged over the last generation, the one overwhelming impression they
would leave is not that of human belligerence but of human poverty.
With few exceptions, such as Taiwan, mountain people are on the wrong
side of the growing gulf between the world's haves and have-nots. Of
the billion people earning less than a dollar a day, three quarters
are rural, with mountain people forming a solid core of that
population. The UN's Millennium Summit may have vowed to halve
poverty by 2015 but the major international lending institutions' and
donor agencies' support for the entire rural sector, of which
mountain areas are an important part, plummeted by two-thirds between
1987 and 1998.

The exceptional poverty of most of the world's mountain peoples is
manifest by practically any measure. Their per capita income is
miserably low: from 60 to 80 percent of mountain peoples in
developing countries live below poverty levels established by their
own national governments. Abysmally poor roads, undeveloped or
nonexistent rail systems, and lack of air service deepen their
natural isolation. Electricity is often absent, as are basic
sanitation, public health and education. Telephones are few and
unreliable, even in district centers, and postal service is slow.
Despite their isolation, or perhaps because of it, mountain peoples
have been shortchanged in all the infrastructures needed to
participate in the modern world.

Not all mountain people live in misery, of course, and by no means
all the world's poor are mountaineers. But whereas many cultures in
the tropical jungles collapse suddenly with the destruction of forest
habitats, mountain peoples tend to endure, clinging to what remains
of their traditional lives in the face of intrusions from the
lowlands, even as they curse the lowland politicians who withhold
from them the benefits of modernity. The fact that many mountain
zones are on remote national borders and nearly inaccessible from
their capitals helps assure that their relative backwardness will
deepen over time. Worse, in many cases they are defined as security
zones, assuring that investments there are dominated by military
concerns rather than the needs of economic and social development.

At the same time, mountain regions are sufficiently linked with
lowland population hubs to feel what Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal
termed the "backwash effect." Cheap and poorly made products reach
them by truck, cart or in bundles carried on the heads of mountaineer
tradesmen. The effect of this rudimentary commerce is to gradually
undermine traditional skills and to draw upland villagers into the
low end of the money economy. The need to spend on simple items like
cooking pots and kerosene diverts resources from agriculture and
animal husbandry. The quality of seed corn, barley and livestock
gradually erodes, which undermines local production of foodstuffs.
Little by little mountain settlements and other marginal communities
that were formerly self-sustaining are forced to turn to the urban
centers for basic provisions, beginning with kerosene and cooking oil
and extending finally to flour. Soon they begin sending their young
men to the cities in hopes that they will remit some of their meager
earnings to their families back in the mountains.

This process, common to all marginal communities, presents particular
challenges to mountain peoples. Their very distance and
inaccessibility from lowland centers means that they often hold out
longer before beginning the process of interaction with burgeoning
urban centers, dropping further and further behind all the while.
Once begun, however, the process often takes on a desperate
character, proceeding with a cataclysmic intensity that ends with
large-scale out-migration and the collapse of the community.

The downward spiral of dependence brings few, if any, positive
compensations. The growing impoverishment of mountain peoples is
clearly registered in declining indicators of human development.
Across the western Himalayan chain barely a third of adults are
literate and the percentage is falling, as it is also in the Balkans
and the Caucasus. In the Atlas Mountains of Algeria illiteracy is
near universal. Tuberculosis, hepatitis and drug addiction spread
unchecked in many upland populations. Mountain peoples' contact with
commercial centers in the lowlands is great enough to bring HIV into
their world, but not great enough to bring any treatment for it.

Looming over all these problems is the spread of malnutrition. In
parts of Nepal, Peru and Tibet inhabitants of formerly thriving
mountain areas now experience basic food deficits for up to 40
percent of the year. Many have no choice but to flee to cities in
order to beg. Malnutrition in turn brings high levels of infant
mortality and shortened life expectancy.

Many of these conditions have been created and sustained even under
capitalism. Switzerland, a few other west European regions, and
resort centers like those in Colorado, Canada's Banff or Japan's
Nagano prefecture are the rare exceptions. Large impoverished swaths
of the Appalachians from Maine to Georgia are more typical of the
situation even in the world's richest economy. Until recent times,
mountainous areas of Japan were analogously depressed. In each one of
these cases, national politicians concluded that mountain populations
were sufficiently remote and politically passive to be ignored.

If the capitalist world's record regarding mountain peoples is less
than perfect, that of socialism and communism is appalling, and for a
simple reason: Marxism's "labor theory of value" placed no value on
natural resources, including water, which are among a mountain
region's chief assets. The Soviet system viewed mountain communities
mainly as a source of cheap labor, and thought nothing of forcefully
resettling entire upland populations in lowlands as cotton farmers or
factory laborers. Since the fall of the USSR such populations have
often sought to return to their former mountain homes, only to find
them in ruins. Embittered, these mountaineers returning from forced
exile have generated many of the conflicts in Tajikistan and the
North Caucasus that the Western press prefers to blame on religious
and ethnic animosities.

Essay Types: Essay