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 AKDN has extended this work into the Pamir Mountain region of
Tajikistan, only recently the scene of civil war and the main transit
route for drugs from nearby Afghanistan. In a mere decade this
formidable area of somber granite and glaciers at 15,000 feet, dubbed
"The Roof of the World", has become self-sustaining in agriculture
for the first time in a century. Fighting has stopped. Drug
trafficking is down. Similar efforts have begun in the adjacent
region of Afghanistan.

All this costs money, of course. Fortunately, Japan, the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, and major public and private donor agencies and foundations have been willing to invest in this transformation. Yet how much are these millions of dollars compared with the vast costs of fruitless mega-projects elsewhere, the billions the United States is paying to interdict drugs in the Americas, or the high price of conflict and misery that have been averted?

These successful initiatives prove that the key to successful development in impoverished mountain regions is not money but brains. To replicate these models in Afghanistan, Karabakh, Chiapas, the Balkans, Ecuador, Nepal, Chechnya, Kashmir or Colombia requires scores of men and women with practical skills, local knowledge--what James C. Scott calls metis--and subtle leadership abilities. It requires a kind of mountain development entrepreneur who is capable of filling existing jobs in mountain areas and of creating new enterprises and jobs for others. It is precisely such people who are lacking, and whose absence drives mountain people to take desperate and sometimes self-destructive measures.

Back in 1859 the founders of Berea College in Kentucky realized the need for such men and women and created the world's first institution of higher education devoted explicitly to serving people in that "neglected part of the country" defined by mountains. In August 2000, the presidents of Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and His Highness the Aga Khan joined forces to establish the University of Central Asia. Its mission is to prepare leaders and entrepreneurs in mountain development, not only for Central Asia but for all the world's mountain regions. When the day comes that Afghanistan, or any other strife-ridden mountain country, is ready to move forward once more, local UCA graduates will be there to help.

Critics ask if this focus on economic development makes sense so long as the political situation remains unresolved, as in Kashmir, when paramilitary bands roam the hills, as they still do in Tajikistan, and when terrorists from mountain regions imperil th01e peace in neighboring lands, as they do from Afghanistan in several countries of Central Asia. They claim that the politics must be set right first, so that economic renewal can follow. The problem with this approach is that it usually mires in unsuccessful efforts at peacemaking while the conditions fanning mountain conflicts grow ever worse. Far better is to pursue both courses together, or even to lead with humanitarian aid and economic renewal in mountain areas so as to provide living models of what could be achieved through self-help under conditions of peace.

We may blame the terrorist, drug dealer, local warlord, the farmer who raises coca or poppies, the head of an old-style mining firm that exploits equally the land and its people, or the regional governor who steals from the public till. But spending time and money hounding down every one of these purported villains will not improve the lot of most mountain folk. A fresh crop of villains will quickly emerge to replace those who are removed.

Nor will things change for the better until mountain populations themselves take the lead in improving their lives. As this happens, ethnic and religious assertion may lose its appeal as an answer to despair, the apocalyptic messages of religious extremists will fall on deaf ears, and flight to the city will cease to be the sole or best avenue to self-improvement. Practical experience has shown that bench-level programs of economic and social development can lead mountain people to this critical discovery about their own powers. At that point they will themselves become effective agents of improvement in the political and civic realm.

That is why the UN has proclaimed 2002 the "Year of the Mountains." It hopes to convince international agencies, foundations and donor countries that such programs work. If and when such programs of mountain development are extended to all the major zones of crisis, the world's mountain territories will cease to be regions of despair and conflict and become, if not Shambhala, then at least areas where healthy human communities can sustain modern economies amid settings of timeless beauty and majesty.

S. Frederick Starr is chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

Essay Types: Essay