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

Because the narcotics trade is driven by seemingly unquenchable
demand in the developed countries, production cutbacks in one place
lead almost immediately to expansion somewhere else. This is what
happened in the 1990s when reduced production in Peru and Bolivia led
to soaring production in Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela. It is
probably what will happen with the opium trade as well, now that the
Taliban have managed to radically reduce production in Afghanistan.

It is tempting to treat the crisis of the world's mountain peoples as
someone else's concern. Geopoliticians can cite good reasons for not
taking a hand in addressing problems in Karabakh, Kashmir or
Kyrgyzstan, or for treating the chaos in Afghanistan, the Balkans,
Chechnya or Colombia as beyond the capacities of any one country or
group of countries to solve. An extreme form of this approach is "to
build a fence" around the trouble spot, as the United States sought
to do with Afghanistan in the 1990s, or to let the conflict burn out
like a fire in an old mine. Considering the modest contributions of
many international agencies and donor groups to addressing these
issues, it is clear that many of them have also adopted this
strategy, even while cloaking their inaction with various and sundry

The problem with this approach is that it underestimates the degree
to which crises in the world's mountain regions affect directly the
developed countries and the international order as a whole. Like it
or not, the various mountain-related crises have a way of drawing in
the major powers--witness how rebel leader Subcomandante Marcos
succeeded in eliciting the support of European countries in his
crusade on behalf of Chiapas' mountain folk, or how both China and
India are coming to see the struggle in Nepal's mountains as a test
of their own voice in that country's affairs. As outside powers are
drawn in, their separate interests often collide in ways that can
destabilize international relations on a global scale. Local problems
in the Balkans and Kashmir have turned those regions into
international flash points of the first magnitude. A similar process
may be underway in Afghanistan, as China and India both rush to forge
links with opposing sides in that conflict. China is now helping the
Taliban restore old power plants and is re-examining the possibility
of a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan through Taliban
territory, while India is actively supporting Ahmed Shah Masoud's
Northern Alliance with arms.

Even the most modern armies are poorly suited to wage war in mountain
regions. As every American "revenoor" found out to his regret, as the
British discovered a century and a half ago in Afghanistan, as the
czarist army learned during the decades it spent fighting the rebel
Shamil, and as the Russians are still learning in Chechnya today,
even large numbers of modern warriors can be fought to a standstill
by poorly-armed but mobile mountaineers doing battle on their own
territory. Any government that thinks it can bludgeon mountain people
into submission is engaging in a most destructive form of

Can anything be done, then? For most of the 20th century the typical
way to address an issue of this magnitude was to governmentalize it
and direct richly funded programs toward its solution. This is what
the United States did with the Tennessee River valley in the 1930s
with the Tennessee Valley Authority and then in the 1950s in
Afghanistan's Helmand Valley, where it successfully created a massive
system for water control and irrigation on the TVA model. It is what
Turkey is attempting to do today with its restive Kurdish
southeastern provinces. Such an approach can bring about fundamental
change, but such change is not necessarily for the good. It runs the
risk of leaving behind the affected populace, alienating people and
driving them into passive or even active opposition when what is
needed is to engage and involve them. Moreover, such a "top down"
approach is fundamentally undemocratic, treating mountain people as
objects to be acted upon rather than as the self-governing citizens
they aspire to be.

The fact that the same criticism can be leveled against governmental
social policies directed toward many other populations does not make
the resulting problem for mountain peoples any less severe. On the
contrary, the traditions of isolation and self-sufficiency that
prevail among mountaineers make them react all the more negatively,
and at times violently, to "top down" approaches.

Until the problems of mountain peoples are correctly diagnosed,
effective prescriptions are impossible. It cannot be denied that
differences over religion, political loyalties, ethnicity, inter-clan
rivalries, territorial claims and a hundred other issues as seemingly
minor as the cut of one's mustache or beard have all played a role in
the conflicts that rack mountain societies worldwide. But all of
these can and have been resolved in times when the people involved
are able to feed themselves, carry on their traditions, and
participate, if only minimally, in the good life as they perceive it.
For millions of mountaineers today these are merely dreams fed by
radio or television, and the prospects of ever fulfilling them recede
year by year. This is the bitter, rocky soil from which sprouts every
mountain conflict in today's world.

The solution to the global crisis of mountain peoples is therefore
startlingly simple to conceive, albeit hard to do: promote
development. Ask the most battle-hardened Colombian from the
highlands, an Afghan from Kandahar, or a Nepalese from Tansen, and
they will all agree that their first need is to escape from poverty.
As clearly as any economist from the World Bank, they understand that
this means development of their capacity to provide for their
families; development of access to education and training relevant to
their needs; development of their ability to tap even minimally into
the benefits of modern life while preserving valued aspects of their
local traditions and natural environment; and, above all, development
of their ability to fill or create jobs that will give them the
wherewithal to achieve these goals.

Few, if any, mountain people today think this can be accomplished by
returning to the past. Nor are they prepared, unless forced by
desperation, to throw over everything they know in order to start an
unknown life with unknown prospects in some far-off city. What most
want is the ability simply to adapt their traditional way of life to
modern circumstances, and thereby to build peaceful and secure
conditions for their families.

Can this be accomplished in remote mountain regions, especially in
grim conditions of economic collapse and civil strife? There are
ample grounds for skepticism. The United States has spent hundreds of
millions of dollars on large-scale rural development projects abroad
that apply a "one size fits all" approach to rural poverty, whether
it occurs in plains, valleys or mountains. So have other governments,
foundations and international agencies, and they, too, have little or
nothing to show for their efforts. Some schemes have been killed by
waste, corruption and outright theft, but far more have succumbed to
what might be called the disease of "grandomania"--the false notion
that there is a "silver bullet" that will transform basic conditions
in a single stroke. Such grand schemes usually take the form of large
and costly projects that look good in annual reports but accomplish
little on the ground.

Fortunately, a better model exists and has been successfully tested
in several mountain zones. This model often begins with emergency
humanitarian relief but then shifts into hands-on assistance carried
out at the village level. It works best when performed by carefully
trained and closely supervised local men and women with a minimum of
help from costly foreign consultants. They might rebuild roads,
install small hydroelectric generators, or create infrastructures for
eco-tourism, but the most fruitful efforts are focused on more modest
tasks, like helping to dig village irrigation ditches, setting up
self-sustaining tree nurseries, upgrading seed grains, improving
animal husbandry, or teaching rudimentary accounting to women who
manage credit organizations. Not surprisingly, the Swiss government
is one of the best practitioners of this work. Working with villagers
living near the impressive walnut groves in Kyrgyzstan's Jalalabad
district, they are creating the basis for a viable nut and lumber

This hands-on, village-based model of mountain development has been
refined over two decades inthe forbidding environment of Pakistan's
Northern Areas, that part of Kashmir adjoining Afghanistan and China
that was assigned to Pakistan at the time of the Indian partition.
Here, in parched valleys beneath the 23,000 foot-high peaks of the
Karakorum Mountains, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) has
wrought a fundamental turnaround. Where formerly there was abject
poverty, drug dealing and near-total illiteracy, there are now stable
agricultural communities, an honorable level of subsistence,
self-funded micro-credit institutions and cottage industries. Nearly
every village has its own school, built by the villagers themselves.
Not only do they collect money to pay the teachers' salaries, but the
villagers pay to send young men and women from the communities to
Karachi for further study so they can return and become teachers.

Essay Types: Essay