Himalaya: Life on the Edge of the World

David Zurick + P.P. Karan

John Hopkins University Press 1999
A book review by Danny Yee © 2005 http://dannyreviews.com/
Covering those areas of the Himalaya that lie within Nepal, Bhutan, India and Pakistan, Himalaya: Life on the Edge of the World is a broad survey of geography, history and society, with a focus on environmental and development issues. It is a serious work by academic geographers, with thirty pages of statistical tables in an appendix, but one aimed at a broader audience.

Part one starts with debates over an environmental "supercrisis" in the Himalaya. It then gives a geographical overview of the region and the lives of its people. Part two is a brief history, covering myth and prehistory, the medieval era of princedoms, the colonial period, and the modern Himalayan states. Part three looks at theories linking mountain deforestation with lowland floods, the fragility and instability of mountain landscapes, the pressure of population on farms and forests, and poverty and environmental risk. And part four looks in detail at the impact of the modern world on the Himalayas: new markets, migrations, roads; the control of nature through dams and hydropower, forest industries, apples, mines; and tourism. It ends with a country-by-country survey of the current situation and pressing issues (this material is now perhaps a little dated).

Zurick and Karan stress the importance of — are almost advocates for — indigenous rights, the involvement of locals in planning decisions, and a decentralised, balanced approach to development. Perhaps oddly, given this, they don't discuss broader politics at all, or the problems of corruption, crime, and undemocratic governments.

Life on the Edge of the World is easy enough to read — it's no monograph — but it remains fairly abstract and a little dry, with academic language and unexciting generalisations.

"The agriculture land to forest ratio is one measure of stress within the organic farming systems of the Himalaya. It works best to illuminate conditions at local scales, where the geographical linkages between farms and forests are well known. ... Other measures of stress in the farming systems include direct population pressure on the crop land and on forests. These pressures also show the intensity of land use in Himalayan subsistence economies. Such measurements were determined at the district level for the entire Himalayan range, utilizing available census and archival information. They show the broad trends that have shaped the mountains into a heterogeneous and highly dynamic landscape, where environmental pressures are great in some places but relatively minor in others."
There are some fascinating details, but more case studies of specific locations would have made the volume both more engaging and more compelling. The text is accompanied by an excellent selection of black and white halftones and maps illustrating changes in forest cover and population, but there is no large general-purpose map of the region showing all the places mentioned in the text.

Some editing could have made Himalaya: Life on the Edge of the World more appealing to general readers; as it is, I can understand why I found a large pile of copies remaindered. I still recommended it highly to those with an interest in the area who are comfortable with a textbook-style social science approach.

May 2005

External links:
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
Related reviews:
- books about India + Indian history
- more geography
- books published by John Hopkins University Press
%T Himalaya
%S Life on the Edge of the World
%A Zurick, David
%A Karan, P.P.
%I John Hopkins University Press
%D 1999
%O hardcover, references, index
%G ISBN 0801861683
%P 355pp