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

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