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Mountain voices

O. Bennett

Olivia Bennett is Director of the Oral Testimony Programme of Panos Institute, which is a London-based organization specializing in information and communication for sustainable development.

Oral testimony from local people in highland areas.

Indian women recounted their struggle (sometimes even against their own husbands) to unite to protect forest resources

If we were educated we could put [our thoughts] on paper. But we are not. So what if we make a noise in the village? Our voice does not go beyond it,

complained Vimla Devi, 60 years, head of a women's group in a mountain village in Garhwal, Uttar Pradesh, India.

Since 1994, Panos Institute has been working with local community and development organizations to collect personal testimonies in highland areas, predominantly in Africa and Asia. The aim is to help people like Vimla Devi make their voices heard beyond their homeland in the Himalayan hills and valleys. This collection of oral testimony was designed in response to a growing concern that mountain communities are facing change and development at an unprecedented rate and much of the transition is dictated by lowland, urban and industrial interests over which they have little influence.

Some 300 interviews have been carried out in local languages among a variety of ethnic and occupational groups in the Himalaya (India and Nepal); the Central Andes (Peru); Mount Elgon (Kenya); the highlands of Ethiopia and Lesotho; southwestern and northeastern China; and the Appalachians (United States). Although there are interviews with minority peoples in China and scheduled tribes in India, the intention was not to single out the most remote or culturally distinct communities - the majority of interviewees are "ordinary" highlanders who are nevertheless encountering change, sometimes at a bewildering rate.

This was not conceived as a study in social science or cultural history. Panos' partners usually had no previous experience in such work and the interviewers had varying levels of education, so there was a deliberate capacity-building element and the process of information gathering was as important as the product. All the interviewers were local.

Some themes are common to all collections of oral testimony while others are of particular concern to certain communities: for example, the consequences of large-scale resource exploitation (Peru); deforestation (India); resettlement owing to dam construction (Lesotho); impoverished soils (Ethiopia); fertile land but limited access to markets (Kenya). Each collection is but a snapshot, and does not claim to represent entire mountain groups. The testimonies are anecdotal, subjective and sometimes contradictory. But such a range of individual voices forms a vivid picture of highland societies, their changing physical and social environments, and their concerns for the future - and is a crucial complement to more quantitative research. Above all, the stories highlight the complexity of change, and the indivisible links between the economic, social and cultural as well as environmental elements of mountain lives.


Everywhere people spoke of change in the environment, most commonly and dramatically as a result of deforestation. Other concerns included reduced or less reliable rainfall, the impact of roads and other infrastructures, the pressures of growing populations and the different pressures brought about by depopulation. Many of these factors are forcing people to adopt what they know to be short-term policies. The land, for example, being overworked:

The soil has lost fertility; it is no longer allowed to rest. It should be like a patient for a year, then it recovers,

reported an Ethiopian priest.

There was concern about the use of chemical fertilizer; it may bring higher yields but it also reduced soil quality and raised water consumption.

At first I thought it was wonderful, but our land was harmed in the same way that a man's body is harmed when he drinks liquor. It was too strong,

said Sudesha Devi (India). An Appalachian farmer (United States) expressed a similar anxiety:

Well, land is better taken care of, in a small sense of the word. But we're using an awful lot of chemical fertilizer and pesticide, insecticide, fungicide, you name it. And we're forcing the land to produce more than the elements, I think, will support it. It's just forcing crops out of land.

An elderly upland farmer in Lesotho, forced to move to make way for a dam project, complained of losing the "wisdom" of the land

People were keenly aware of the need to take particular care of their resources, since - with the exception of the fertile slopes of Mount Elgon in Kenya - most areas were agriculturally less favoured than the plains. A 72-year-old Wa woman in southwestern China explained,

Our place is not like other places, the water and earth in other places are warm, and grain can be harvested twice each year. In our place the water and earth are cold, we can only harvest grain once each year.

Highland farming, where even neighbouring fields may have subtly different climates, demands skill and familiarity with the terrain. Sebeli Tau, a farmer in Lesotho now forced to leave his land which was flooded by the water of the Mohale dam (destined for the industrial heartland of South Africa), said that his greatest loss on moving would be

the wisdom of living in that place,

and he listed his intimate knowledge of the steep fields and their microclimates: which crops grew best where and when, where to find medicinal herbs, wild vegetables, the first pastures. It is precisely this kind of knowledge, accumulated over time, that many narrators felt was undervalued by outside experts, and even by the educated local people.

An Indian woman spoke of the environmental degradation caused by excessive use of chemical fertilizers on fragile upland soils

One Garhwali farmer, when asked what was the attitude of the government officials to his forestry efforts, replied in frustration,

their thinking was bookish, that at this height this species will not grow... that these were species which had nothing in common... the government has actually put restrictions on [growing] these medical herbs. They have a clear point of view that below a certain height these cannot grow. [But] you have seen them....


Deforestation was probably at the heart of most fears for the future. There were many examples of careful husbandry. But narrators also spoke with sadness:

Earlier there were dense forests and there were many species. But now in the monoculture pine forests, there is no diversity.... People had a deep feeling for the forests and when I asked [why] they said they got their vegetables, medicines, as well as grass, fuel, etc. from the forest. If there was [a forest fire] everybody went in a group to put it out. Today it is just the opposite... people are indifferent because nothing which belongs to them is burning, it is the forest department's....
I haven't been planting trees after reading books, nor have I been trained anywhere or had anybody's guidance. Whatever I have done is on the ground and I have experimented and seen that banj, deodar, bans, surai, angu, chir, bhimal, timla and sisam etc. will all grow at the same place if a person is determined.... If someone says that it cannot be done, they can keep on saying it a thousand times - I have done it....

All this talk of organic diversity... we hear about it on the radio and in the newspapers.... Why is it limited only to paper? What diversity is there on the ground? Where will all this diversity take us if we only have pine needles?

Many spoke of old conservation practices breaking down. One factor was this sense of lost "ownership" of the forests; another was the impact of roads which had opened up access to forests, dramatically increasing loss of fuelwood and fodder. A Miao woman in China explained:

People from the plains cut down trees.... We planted the trees, those were our mountains. When plains people came to cut, our people were angry. People thought: if you can cut, we can cut too. Before, when there wasn't the road, when people from the plains came to steal, they would steal one tree. Now one truck can seat ten people, [so] many trees were easily taken. But since last year there isn't a single tree to cut. Now it's barren. People are rich, but the resources are used up.

As result of the theft of wood by outsiders, even the local people abandoned the old forest management practices, such as taking fuelwood only at certain seasons. Why protect the forest for other people?

Miao women in Yunnan, China talked about the hard living conditions

Farmers in Lesotho also found that the advent of roads dramatically increased theft in the mountains, in their case that of livestock. Wherever roads brought welcome access to health care, schools and markets they also brought crime closer. One Himalayan farmer warned:

The people complain there are no roads, no schools and no hospitals. People believe that if there are roads in the village, development has taken place. But what is the direct benefit of having a road in our village? The people here are connected not with roads, but with their forests. The grass will go. the trees will go, the stone will go from our village.

He went on to say that only when they have goods to sell - vegetables, woven baskets, carved stone handicrafts - will the road benefit themselves, rather than outsiders.

Medicinal plants are another commodity that is increasingly exploited by "outsiders".

If I see a new medicinal plant and it grows well on the hillside, I carefully sow it in my field. I love it and preserve it,

said a Nepalese traditional healer. But in another part of the Himalaya, 74-year-old Tegh Singh Mahant found he no longer had such freedom:

I practised in medicinal herbs, so I have some knowledge.... but we villagers are not allowed to collect [them]. The Indian Government, correctly recognizing their value and the need to protect this resource, appointed people to supervise collection, but instead of locals, a third person would get the contract to extract herbs. They are really exploiting the treasures of our jungle....


Many of those interviewed spoke of tensions between government authorities anxious to protect biodiversity and landscapes, and the local people's ability to act independently. A sense of frustration over differing perspectives was perhaps articulated most clearly in some interviews in Appalachia where it seems to some farmers that an alliance between the state, the environmentalists and a powerful leisure industry has rendered them as powerless as did the old logging or mining companies.

One farmer had no hesitation in calling the forestry services his "enemy". Pointing to a river running through his farm, he said,

You can't go in there - flood tears up something, you can't go in there and straighten it up.... That [wild and scenic rivers act], that would wipe me out. If they take this river, [conserving] a quarter of a mile on each side, I couldn't do anything with it. But yet, I still have to pay taxes on it. Quarter of a mile on each side. Called a study area, or something to that effect. Just sit there and look at it - that's what they want to do. That's what it amounts to.

I've got a bridge right here, that I can't take a big truck across now. Rood washed the piers out from under it. I can't fix it. They won't fix it. They say that's a non-essential bridge. Now, why is that non-essential, why is that bridge non-essential when that's the way I need to feed my cattle up on the top of the mountain? The property owner's not going to go out here and tear up a river that's got a water source for his farm. You're not going to go out there and destroy that. The property owner's the best manager they have.

A neighbour summed up the problem with forestry officials:

they're transplants, all of them, never stay in one place for too long. It's part of the federal philosophy. So, they're always kind of on the outside. And... if you're not on good terms with the local users, then they're... going to make your job twice as hard..... So, in the last couple of years, I've seen a real effort... to get more local folks involved in what's going on and how the land is managed.


In every collection, narrators mourned the loss of community spirit. People are more "selfish", "greedy", "materialistic". Yet it is not so much human nature that has changed, but the context in which people operate. Another Himalayan farmer:

I am filled with amazement at [the] enormous difference between now and then.... For example, [today] for canals there is the irrigation department but earlier... everyone went and did the work without wages. Or if the canal had to be repaired then the entire village went.... Whoever lit their fire first would provide ignition for the whole of the neighbourhood. Today it is just the opposite, every house has its own matchboxes. Fire is bought today with money, while there was fire without money then. It [has] made people self-sufficient but all that talk of community is over.

Yet most - even while lamenting a change in community spirit - were not so steeped in nostalgia as to deny that modern life has its advantages. Electricity, health care, agricultural support - all had improved lives and lightened workloads. And although communities were less interdependent, and were breaking down into more separate households, there were plenty of examples of community action, such as the Indian women who (successfully) united to save their forest. For Bachani Devi, this was at great personal cost:

My husband was a forest contractor. He cut a huge amount of timber... forest after forest... and I was against him in this struggle.... The whole village backed me... he never said anything to the agitators. But he was very angry with me....

And there were striking stories of collective endeavour. Lieu Feng Yin describes how she was (unusually) lucky enough to travel a little. Having seen for herself what had been achieved by planting a barren slope with trees, she was determined to do the same. She borrowed money and

... contracted a mountain slope for 40 years. My husband was [working] away from home then. Some villagers laughed at me, "Without her husband, a woman wants to transform the mountain, she must be out of her mind!" I tried to persuade my husband to help me, "You'd better come back to give me a hand in cultivating the mountain," I said, "What I am doing is beneficial in the long term. You see, those workers in the city have their pension. Where do you get yours? From the hills of course." At last he was persuaded not to leave home, but to plant trees with me.

She continued,

Most of the money goes to the education of the children, also to buy some rice or wheat flour. In fact, they [the villagers] earn little. Those who have skills can earn 30 to 40 yuan a day. Most of the men from the mountain area have no skills and can only do manual labour. For them the wages are very low. Also they have to come back to help at sowing and harvesting times, that made them earn less. The worst is that many didn't get a penny for their three or four months' hard labour. About 20 percent of them were fooled by those bosses in towns.

But her own profits from the mountain are slim and hard won. She has had to borrow more money to build a pond, then buy a pump and pipes, and more saplings. But her view is resolutely long-term, looking for rewards in ten or so years:

Many people think [migrating] is the only way to earn money. I don't think it is a solution for getting rid of poverty in the long term. That's why I would rather borrow money for cultivating the mountain than let my husband go out to earn money.

Even in the damaged environment around Cerro de Pasco in Peru the local communities retain pride in their collective traditions:

Here, an estancia is a place a family has on community land. It's not necessarily where the family actually lives. It's a dwelling or hut with pasture lands around it and it's near a river or a spring which is also used collectively. This land doesn't belong to the farmer, and is not fenced, so the livestock move around - there is no danger of confusion because each little animal can be identified by the colours on its ribbon. All the land belongs to the campesino community.... This area was strictly livestock-based and [when it] became a mining area... this was a major change. I am from a campesino community, my family and I are witnesses to the changes and we really want to preserve some of our customs which are part of our tradition and our heritage. We cannot continue losing our true culture: this is what identifies us.

Leon, another campesino was more pessimistic:

Before, we used to use our wool, sheep wool, alpaca wool, llama wool, for [weaving] and we don't any more. I used to know the natural dyes, from plants, which were hard to fade. Now everything's plastic and the dyes all synthetic, and there's no real wool. Very occasionally they still use lambswool, but it's looked down on these days. Livestock? There's not much of it. On the higher ground we have a small number, a few sheep and things, but there's no way of bringing back this way of life for the campesinos.... The communities are becoming, quite frankly, just full of old people, that's all. The young people go to the cities....

It's not that people have become disinclined to work together - but the conditions which meant that communal ownership and activities were the most sensible economic option have changed. Nevertheless, spiritual or cultural affinity with mountains remains strong, as Vicente (Peru) explained:

The animals' feast is celebrated with Carnival. We begin [by] taking a table up the mountain with an offering of coca, liquor, fruit and sweets. We take this offering to the mountain, the patron of the animals, because the mountain looks after the animals and all owners have absolute faith in him....

We choose the best coca leaves and we put them in the glass for the mountain and that's the way we share with our patron, with the grandfather, with the Great Shepherd. We give this to him in faith, so that next year the little leaves in the glass will become good crops.... Small and large farmers alike do this. Each year they bring the legacy back to life. Although there have been some changes over time, the essence of this is the same, the relationship between campesinos and the land.

Narrators in all the different communities spoke of powerful spiritual feelings concerning their mountain environments, and mentioned sacred sites and practices, sometimes with traceable links to environmental conservation. The Himalayan mountains and rivers in particular are steeped in religious significance, and many of the narrators lived on the main routes to important pilgrimage centres. This has economic ramifications. Providing food and shelter for pilgrims had been an important element of a multilayer livelihood system. The advent of roads brought a significant drop in the number of pilgrims travelling on foot - and a key source of off-farm income dried up.


Few narrators could survive on farming alone. Few grew sufficient food for the year. Some had skills or crafts to offer, some merely their labour; many migrated seasonally. Some lived in symbiosis, as in some Ethiopian communities where Christians farmed the land of Muslims, who wove the cloth worn by farmers, and the artisans, who made the tools used by the farmers.... Indeed, many testimonies bore witness to just how complex a mutual help system can be in a subsistence society. Repayment for grain at a crucial moment might be in the form of some seeds when they have germinated, or when an animal had produced offspring. Such a system requires time. And one change felt by many was that the pace of life had quickened.

A Miao woman in China had adopted a totally pragmatic approach to her traditional clothing:

I always think these Miao clothes cost too much time [to make]. They should only be used to commemorate our historical tradition or some festivals. Why? Because women spend too much energy and work on them. Especially families who are poor - a woman will sell eggs to buy the threads and cloth, so that the living standard of the family will drop. Things need to be considered from the point of view of money: can I make money from doing this? If not, just don't waste too much time.

The interviewer, also Miao, took a different approach:

I also think women are too hardworking. From morning to evening they just work. So I think when they are making the skirts, they put their spirit in it. It's a kind of spiritual connection - just a little part of life which belongs to their own world, through which they gain some kind of psychological satisfaction, because it's the embodiment of their life values. I think, without this, then women's whole life would be too hard, too bitter.

Markets are slowly opening up for the weaving and other crafts of ethnic minorities. Indeed, all the interviews from China were characterized by a sense that there were many new opportunities to generate off-farm income. For others, such options were shrinking and traditional crafts dying as their communities became less self-reliant and those with money bought manufactured goods from outside. Everywhere, out-migration was on the increase. However, the desire to revive crafts with appropriate support and marketing was striking.

Another livelihood strategy that is undergoing major change is the joint family - whether extended, polygamous and polyandrous. As Wycliffe from Mount Elgon, Kenya explained,

Polygamy is still practised by the Sabaot but not as much. It is normally practised not because somebody likes the prestige of having many women: people tend to go for second wives because of responsibilities. For example, if a Sabaot has land here and has another piece of land in Transzoia, it becomes difficult to manage the two farms effectively - unless there is a responsible person whom you trust. And I do not think there is any person a man can trust more than another woman whom he has opted to marry.

Joint families had made economic sense, villagers said again and again, and now economic factors were directing a shift to smaller family entities - in Kenya, the expense of educating children meant that men were much less inclined to have more than one wife.

Changing social attitudes were also affecting social systems where women were accustomed to having more than one husband. Asuji of Jaunsar, India, spoke of the advantages of polyandry:

We feel that a family should remain a joint one. But these days everyone wants to marry separately. We feel that land and house should not be partitioned. In single families the property is ruined. Educated people are of the view that one man should have one wife, but people who are involved in agriculture do not think so.... Every type of work can be done easily in a joint family, such as farming, managing cattle, fetching grass and wood, and so on, but these tasks cannot all be done by a separate family.

But she knew the outside world did not share her views:

You make fun of us regarding our system of polyandry. We like our customs. Why are we mocked? Everyone has their own customs.


Many narrators had, like Asuji, experienced prejudice from outsiders -sometimes because of their ethnic identity, sometimes because they were just regarded as less sophisticated or intelligent. Many said their isolation did make it harder to progress - they wanted exposure to new ideas, different experiences, so that they could explore for themselves a way of developing their own communities.

It is our inability to read or hear of new developments which has harmed us,

said Ethiopian Hamza Mohammed.

A Lahu woman, in the mountains of southwestern China, explained that

People who live in the plains wear better clothes, are well informed and have a good life. People who live in the mountain area are poorly informed, cannot see what others have done well, and so we seem more stupid and foolish.

Her view was echoed across all the continents:

No one can gather fine wool with a blunt knife - we need knowledge, we need experience, said a Himalayan farmer.

Beatrice, a farmer in Mount Elgon, Kenya, explained how exposure to other communities had brought together the previously isolated women:

If you just stay in one place, you will know nothing... you travel so that you know that so and so did this, in a certain place they do that. And when we saw how developed those other women were, we began thinking that if they were doing it, we should also try. So we began our own [women's group].

Radio has done much to break down people's isolation:

Listening to the radio is like going on a tour of the world,

said an elderly Ethiopian priest - but few in his village could afford one.

Access to education varied enormously among the narrators, but those who lacked literacy were adamant that it was a crucial first step in development - not least because then they could go to markets, to buy and sell, without fear of being cheated. Everywhere, education was the Holy Grail, but increasingly people were realizing that it was also the source of increased distance between generations, of raised but unrealized expectations of employment and of the very great increase in migration.

In the Nepalese foothills, depopulation was a major concern, and education seemed to reinforce it.

Those who have learnt a little will set off for Kathmandu to find their fortune,

stated Padam Bahadur Ghimire. On the other side of the mountain, a woman echoed his words:

It is the era of the educated. But once young people are educated, they run away. Those who have intelligence and money are coming up to the mountains [to enjoy its beauty], and our people are running down there to earn money.

Young people leave to find work. They don't go because they hate their land, the majority go to escape the poverty,

said Peruvian Delma Jesus Flores and, like many interviewees, she pleaded for a chance to create jobs in the mountains. Invest in us here, so many said:

We have the raw materials, let us process them.

Countless ideas were put forward for small-scale industry, from food products to fine crafts:

Capitalize on our knowledge of traditional dyes, of medicinal herbs. We need credit, training, and markets - not middlemen.

People resented large-scale developments, rarely seeing the benefits.

It's synonymous with progress, that mine, but only for those who get the benefit. It's not for us, there has been no investment in our favour.

They've pillaged this place, not only our minerals but our peace of mind,

said a Peruvian labour organizer.

These are not communities that want to stay fixed in the past. Many - not just the young - welcomed aspects of modern life, saw the possibilities of new technology, were open to new ideas and wanted to communicate and learn from the outside world. And they recognized that the changes their communities were undergoing were far more than physical: people's mental landscape was altering too.

Many communities are searching for a way forward that allows them to build on their knowledge and skills, and to see their inheritance as a source of strength, not something to be jettisoned. Change may be unstoppable, but need it always be on others' terms?

The problem in Mount Elgon in Kenya is not that we don't have assets, but that we don't have the people who can act as a bridge between us and the government,

said Andrew, a teacher.

Poor representation in the political and development arena is a constant frustration for mountain people. Of course, many rural communities feel on the fringes of decision-making, but for mountain communities that distance is not just political. Isolation, combined with the physical and cultural complexity and diversity which characterizes highland regions, undeniably presents development challenges. And as the world's population increases and becomes urbanized, forcing governments to find ways of providing energy and water on ever greater scales, the tendency to exploit mountain resources for lowland regions is unlikely to diminish. No wonder hill farmers such as Jagat Singh Chaudary (India) despairingly ask,

Does the government want the development of people in the hills? Or does it want development of people outside, based on what they can get from the hills?

The challenge is to meet national development needs without further marginalizing mountain peoples. They are the custodians of environments that are essential to the survival of the global ecosystem. Warned an Indian Ayurvedic doctor:

This is a transition period. On the one hand people are losing their traditional knowledge; on the other, they are not getting, adequate training in modern techniques. As a result, they are losing the assets they do have.

Further erosion of mountain people's ability to care for those assets will be the world's loss, not just their own.

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