Journal Article Excerpt
by Katharine N. Rankin
After all the worn-out orientalist representations of Tibet and the Himalayan region, it is refreshing to find a book that examines the contemporary life of Himalayan pastoralists in relation to the rapidly changing political economy of Asia. Especially since the making of the internationally acclaimed film Himalaya (aka Caravan), the remote region of Dolpo bordering Tibet in western Nepal has been thrust into the limelight as a twenty-first-century Shangri-la. Kenneth Bauer's High frontiers: Dolpo and the changing world of Himalayan pastoralists shares a geographic focus on the remote valleys of Dolpo, but resists the familiar trope of the nostalgic search for an 'other' to the West. Instead, the book reveals a culture in transformation, articulating with processes of state-building and modernization. High frontiers strikes an optimistic note: it shows the creativity and skill with which the people of Dolpo are adapting a delicately balanced pastoral way of life in a geopolitically sensitive frontier region to the exigencies of the modern state system. Along the way it also refutes some cherished Western principles of economics and environmental management.
The book can be usefully viewed as comprising three sections with discrete analytical objectives and methodological approaches. The first two chapters draw on the author's ethnographic fieldwork in Dolpo to reveal the rhythms of Dolpo's agro-pastoral system. The nomadic way of life associated with highland pastoralism forms the backbone of a complex socio-economic system encompassing seasonal subsistence agriculture and trans-Himalayan trade, each supported by distinctive cultural and religious practices. A second block of chapters deals with political-economic change in the region, dating from the early centuries of the Christian era up to recent processes of state-building in Nepal and China. The emphasis here is on how the people of Dolpo have continually adapted in the face of successive disruptions to the traditional way of life outlined in the previous section. The concluding chapters consider Dolpo as an object of representation--by planners and naturalists and tourists and the producers of the film Himalaya. We see how each has done an injustice to the people of Dolpo--disregarding local knowledge, romanticizing tradition, exploiting generosity without honouring practices of reciprocation.
Bauer himself acknowledges, with ample doses of humility, the partiality of any historical account. None the less, he strikes me as well credentialled to undertake this study of Dolpo. Having worked for the World Wildlife Fund Nepal Programme in the mid-1990s, he had participated in the practice and rhetoric of development that became an object of study in Dolpo. With a Fulbright fellowship he then initiated several years of independent research, during which he experienced the full round of seasons in Dolpo's high valleys as well as the nomadic lifestyle associated with pastoralism. Bauer speaks, or at least studied, the local Tibetan dialect and at some point along the way he founded a non-profit organization that undertakes grassroots development projects in Himalayan communities. The Dolpo research first appeared as a Master's thesis in rangeland management at Berkeley. The revised monograph reflects this specialist orientation, but would be suitable reading for students of anthropology and environmental or Asian studies at graduate or upper-level undergraduate levels. The book will also appeal to more generalist readership, given its accessible style and the ground-level view it offers of a remote corner of the world that has recently captured the imagination of Western audiences.
The strength of the book lies in its strategy of blending anthropological and political-economic analyses. The ethnographic research offers a fine-grained view of Dolpo socio-economic systems and how they are underpinned by cultural practices and beliefs. Archival research on the Himalayan frontier enables the author to examine how local cultural practices articulate with wider political-economic currents in Asia. Thus we see how the people of Dolpo are encountering modernity not merely as the recipients of top-down change, but also as actors and agents of their own history. Through local perspectives on macro-scale change, we also see the inadequacy of established principles of natural resource management to interpret the contemporary situation in Dolpo, or plan for its future. For example, the notion of the 'tragedy of the commons' rests on the expectation (based on the experience of eighteenth-century England) that the actions of self-maximizing individuals will inevitably degrade common lands; the remedy: privatization. ...