Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh

 February 27, 2001
Source: AsiaSource 

Helena Norberg-Hodge, a linguist by training and a native of Sweden, has been extremely critical of conventional notions of development. She is the author of the highly acclaimed Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1991). She first went to Ladakh in 1975 and shortly thereafter founded the Ladakh Project, with the goal of providing Ladakhis with the means to make more informed choices about their own future. For her work as Director of the Ladakh Project, Helena Norberg-Hodge shared the 1986 Right Livelihood Award, otherwise known as the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’. She is the Director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture in London.

In this interview, conducted prior to an Asian Social Issues Program event at the Asia Society, Ms. Norberg-Hodge discusses the implications of development as it is currently constituted and also what her vision of an alternative development would consist in.

You have said elsewhere that one “has to go back to pre-colonialism to understand development. Colonialism is part and parcel of a process which was later on called development.” Could you please elaborate on this? What precisely are you talking about when you say development?

I’m talking about development as it was conceived following the Second World War, a program that was designed to lift people out of poverty; this is how it was perceived by the general public as well as by its authors. But what development entailed was essentially pursuing the same policies that had started under colonialism: for example, encouraging production for trade, as opposed to production for home needs. What happened under colonialism was that powers from Europe moved across the entire globe in search of resources, and they used force, and as we know, even killing, slaughtering, enslaving people, or carrying them to another part of the world, to work in monocultures for export. In the Western world, we came to identify countries according to what resource they provided for the center; so whole countries became tin countries, coffee countries and so on.

These economic policies continued after the Second World War, following independence and formal decolonization, under the name of development. After independence, the colonial leaders left but they were replaced by a local elite who had been trained to pursue the same policies. So if we look carefully at what happened to resources, to agriculture, or to money, we will find that fundamentally the same basic formula was used: encouraging larger and larger scale monocrops and encouraging production for export and import. So what was thought at that time in the development era (as it is today in the name of globalization) was that if you promote export-import you’ll be better off. This goes back to the belief that the principle of comparative advantage is accurate, that this is the way to create prosperity. On the surface it has a great deal of appeal for many reasons.

First, local populations around the world have always identified goods from the outside with luxury, quite understandably, because they were a luxury: it was once the case that prices reflected the fact that goods had been carried half-way across the world (whether it was fine cotton or tea in Europe or turquoises in places like Ladakh). These were considered as luxuries and local people were very happy to have them. So when you promote trade as a fundamental of economic development it is quite easy to persuade people that this is going to be in their interest.

Second, this makes a lot of sense because no part of the world can produce everything that it would like to have and so it appears as though increasing trade will increase prosperity and well-being. However, we should have noticed, even after the colonial era, that such a fundamental restructuring of the economy, particularly in food, was actually very damaging and that it created a lot of suffering and a lot of poverty while generating wealth for a tiny minority.

Is it not the case that you base most of your assumptions about what constitutes development, and more importantly, what its consequences are, on your experiences in Ladakh. But Ladakh, you must concede, is rather an anomaly, in the sense that it was neither colonized nor had a very large or heterogeneous population. How can you extrapolate from that to the rest of the South?

What Ladakh can help us do is to see what an economy can look like when it hasn’t been colonized. In this way Ladakh is very important because it shows that in an area of very scarce resources, there is a remarkably high standard of living. An area geared towards fulfilling the basic needs of its population, and relegating trade to a secondary position, creates a prosperous local economy, and trade adds to it, which is the way it should be (which is also why we are in no way opposed to trade; we are opposed to economies enslaving themselves to the traders).

Let me go back to what I said about development and colonialism. It is important to keep in mind that when this process of Europe moving out across the world and seeing the whole world as its resource-base happened, governments favored and worked with large companies that were already very powerful. But because governments worked with them and aided and abetted trade, they were aiding and abetting the traders. So what we had was a process whereby these giant corporations became so powerful that they were able to help encourage and shape policy.

In effect when local, regional, national economies keep favoring trade, they are favoring the traders at the expense of the local producers and consumers. And since traders are in a much smaller number than the local producers and consumers, they are actually favoring a minority. That minority becomes so mobile that it becomes very hard to control its activities and its accumulation of wealth. Structurally it is actually a very shortsighted and counter-productive policy for nation-states to pursue.

What Ladakh offers us is a living example of what is possible if a country focuses on helping itself and its own people and uses trade to benefit them rather than benefiting the traders. Ladakh is a remarkable and powerful example because it is an exceptional area. It is exceptional because it has very scarce resources, a harsh climate, and only a four-month growing season. Due to the harsh climate conditions, the yields in Ladakh in terms of agriculture were not as high as in many parts of India at the time that the conquistadors and colonials arrived. In India, there were areas where yields were as high as 10 tons a hectare; in Ladakh they were on average three tons a hectare. Ladakh proves that even in such difficult circumstances people were very well off because their economic priorities were different.

When I criticize development, however, I am in no way basing it just on Ladakh. I am basing it on a mass of evidence from around the world, of the poverty that has been created, of the hardship and the madness of promoting the same formula (of trade for the sake of trade) without considering its wider or long-term implications.

As I’m sure you’re aware, a number of people argue that positions such as yours in fact deprive poor people of the “choice” to develop or not. Why would a subsistence farmer continue wanting to be a subsistence farmer if s/he could instead own a VCR, potentially quadruple household income, and move out of a rural area into a city. How do you respond to these sorts of critiques?

I think it’s very important that we start taking responsibility for what policies and changes will benefit the majority rather than looking at what an individual would do under current circumstances. If I were a subsistence farmer, and I were offered VCRs and a nice standard of living in the city, I would certainly take it and I don’t blame any farmer for opting to do that. What I’m talking about, whether in Ladakh or here, is that we, as societies and concerned citizens, need to look at where these policies are taking us collectively. I do find that even subsistence farmers today respond when you provide information which shows that moving into the city in search of the VCR is not leading to prosperity for the vast majority.

The evidence is now so abundant – and frightening – because millions of farmers are being uprooted with the promise of having that lovely, consumer lifestyle and we know that in many cases, not even 10 per cent achieve that goal. The remaining 90 per cent, without any doubt, ultimately settle for a lower standard of living. When they leave the village, they are leaving a relatively secure source of food, water and community. Conditions are not ideal is most rural areas of the so-called “Third World” (terrible poverty following generations of colonialism, monocropping, an exploding population, to give only a few indicators), but they are vastly better than in most urban slums.

I think it is very important that we keep in mind now that by offering the dream of a consumer lifestyle to people we are being fraudulent because we know that the numbers do not add up. We also know that the consumer lifestyle is one that requires that you use more than your fair share of resources. This is a formula that can never fulfill its promise so we really owe it to ourselves and to other people to speak the truth: to say that if you choose to leave the village, you are leaving the security of being able to perhaps grow a few potatoes, have help from friends and family, and manage somehow. You are moving into a much more anonymous situation, a situation where even your food has to be imported. This means — for those of us who are concerned about the environment — that in slums, even the slum-dweller depends on imported food, which means that CO² emissions go up. With millions of people leaving their lands for the slums, CO² emissions are skyrocketing. We have to realize that the increase in CO² emissions in the South is the consequence of “slumification.” By pursuing such policies, we are increasing the environmental burden and poverty at the same time.

Development policies today are fundamentally urbanizing. They are destroying the livelihoods of small farmers, fishermen, small-scale producers, and are responsible for centralizing them into these urban sprawls and slums. This is a consequence of policy, not a consequence of overpopulation. Overpopulation has nothing to do with urbanization because one has a better chance of building something that is workable in the village than in the city.

You have said elsewhere that, “the most important reason for the breakdown of traditional cultures is the psychological pressure to modernize.” Could you please elaborate on this?

The breakdown of local economies and cultures occurs at two levels, the structural and the psychological. I see them as equally important and the problem is they operate simultaneously so that together they are a tremendous force on people.

At the structural level, government policies offer jobs, education, benefits, health care, and energy resources in the urban centers, while in the villages, most of these facilities are not offered, or if they are, they are of inferior quality. So this attracts people into urban areas. At the same time, economic policies that promote trade for the sake of trade destroy marketing opportunities for rural people, destroy their economies so they are economically forced out of their villages.

Simultaneously, at the psychological level, you have media, advertising, even schooling, promoting the notion that the future is urban, the future is, in effect, a Western consumer lifestyle. This lifestyle is associated with looking like a white European, eating European-style food, wearing European-style clothes, and worst of all, having the skin color, eye color, manners, and language of a European. The end result is that young children are being made to feel that their own language, their own skin color, their own way of being is inferior. I have witnessed this very, very closely in Ladakh and it is in no way an anomaly. We have ample evidence that millions of people around the world experience it in the same way. They have translated my book and video, Ancient Futures into more than 35 languages; they use it regularly at the grassroots to raise awareness. Even though the book is about Ladakh, many people have responded by saying that the story of Ladakh is our story too.

This psychological pressure that I witnessed so closely in Ladakh literally led, in a very short time, to young people feeling that they, as individuals and as members of a culture, were inferior and inadequate. It was a tragedy to see that, particularly because it was so stark.

Ladakh again offers an opportunity to understand a process that in many parts of the world took many, many years, because in Ladakh they were shielded from the influence of the outside world and so it all happened very suddenly. When I first arrived and learnt to speak the language, the level of self-respect and dignity was higher than in any other culture I had ever experienced. There were all sorts of indicators that make this indisputable, for instance, the complete absence or low incidence of suicide, aggression, and depression.

But then very quickly, after a whole barrage of changes, (tourism, advertising, media), it became very clear that young people got the impression that in Western modern society, people had almost infinite leisure, almost infinite wealth, incredible power and they found the culture their parents were offering them silly, useless and backward. Everything in education and in the media was reinforcing this. So they developed a shame for being who they are and their skin color (young women now use a dangerous skin-lightening cream called Fair & Lovely). The sale of contact lenses around the world is going up everyday. Often advertisements in Thailand, South America, India, carry the message: “Have the eye color you wish you had been born with.” That is blue, of course.

It is a disaster, a tragedy, and we need to work together and support each other in our identities. We also need to recognize that what I witnessed in Ladakh in terms of loss of self-respect is just as serious in the heart of the Western world. In Sweden where I grew up, blonde, blue-eyed girls are developing terrible complexes, often around being slim. Eating disorders are increasing rapidly; six-year old girls are saying they hate their bodies. So this is a universal problem, which is why we must work together to understand that a homogeneous, consumer culture is denying all of us the right to accept ourselves the way we are. Right now the typical Coca-Cola advertisement takes great pride in promoting multiculturalism; often they have people with black skin color or black hair, and include Asian women, and white women, all together as one happy family. The imagery is still of a consumer lifestyle, and that is at the heart of the problem because human beings are looking at a standard of perfection they can’t emulate. Children need to have real live role models because real live role models never have perfect eyes and perfect teeth and perfect bodies; they are just human beings.

You have also suggested that development policies as they are currently constituted cannot but amplify peoples’ increasingly besieged sense of identity, thus creating the conditions for identity-based conflict (ethnic, sectarian, religious, etc.). Could you explain how and why this is the case? (The most recent evidence in support of your argument is the ongoing violence in central Kalimantan in Indonesia, where the indigenous population of Dayaks are killing Madurese migrants who moved to the area as a result of a government program aimed, ostensibly, at reducing population pressure in Java.)

Fundamentally there is a link between policies that promote trade for the sake of trade and policies that promote a centralization of the demographic pattern, or urbanization. As I mentioned before, the entire infrastructure is set up to contribute to both urbanization and globalization in terms of increased trade. If you have a completely decentralized population, it becomes, from the point of view of the traders, very hard to deliver Coca-Cola and McDonalds everywhere. Structurally the dynamic is to further this concentration of population.

Equally structural and endemic to the system is using more and more technology instead of human labor. Using fossil fuel and other forms of finite energy and fuelling more and more technologies to take the place of human labor.

These three factors together – policies that favor trade for the sake of trade, urbanization, and the use of technology instead of human labor – create a system (and this is particularly evident in the South), where small-scale producers, producing for a local economy, are being decimated economically and being shoved into slums. Simultaneously, as I mentioned before, their identities are threatened. In urban centers, jobs are very limited, space is limited (the price of land shoots up), so suddenly, these people find themselves in a highly difficult and competitive situation (people are forced to fight for accommodation, for jobs, etc.). The entire process is one of centralizing power and control.

In addition, what is happening everywhere around the world – I don’t think there are any exceptions – is that the people in power will tend to favor their own kind. Now this still goes on in the West, but in the West, the boundaries of my own kind and others are not so clear. In the South people are often associated with community identity, either ethnic or religious. These ethnic and religious divisions mean that people in power clearly favor their own group and the other groups become more and more disenfranchised and often more and more violent. I have seen this as a pattern in many places and I can report that whether it is the Buddhist government in Bhutan vis-à-vis Hindus, or the Muslim-led government in Kashmir, or the Hindu-dominated government in India, it is the same pattern. So it is very important that we don’t identify particular ethnic or religious groups as being the problem and that we look instead at the structures and see what happens when power is centralized in this way.

Another factor is the centralization of jobs. This is true even in the West; if you want a job in America or in England or Sweden the job centers are diminishing in number. In England, for instance, jobs are centralized in London, Bristol, and a few other cities. As a result, populations are being pulled in that direction, some of them traveling four hours a day in one direction because they can’t afford to live near their jobs.

There is another aspect to this problem which is that poor labor is pulled in to do the dirty work; again a pattern that I have seen in Sweden, in America and even in Ladakh, where the dirtiest jobs will be done by the most impoverished in the region, or from the periphery. In the case of Ladakh, there are Nepalis and Biharis coming to build the roads, clean the lavatories, etc. These are often people who have to leave their families, often young men, who come on their own, are often not very happy, will often drink more, and will often be those responsible for crime and violence. It is vital that we realize that this has nothing to do with racial or religious characteristics; it is simply a pattern among the marginalized in conditions of extreme structural inequality.

The systems of destruction must be understood so that we can find levers and points to change them and it is quite evident to me that we need to decentralize rather than centralize, localize instead of globalize. The economic dynamic we have now is leading to an uprooting and to displacement of populations at an ever-escalating rate.

Once you threaten a local population’s integrity with enough instability and enough pressure from the outside, it will lead to conflict and friction. We must also not forget that this pressure is combined with very intensified competition for scarce jobs. This is making it impossible for people to coexist. I believe that most of the violence we are seeing in the world today has to do with this structural problem. It does not have to do with any group’s innate tendency for friction or intolerance.

How do you think IMF and World Bank policies fit into all this? What is the impact of these policies on the South?

IMF and World Bank policies have been fundamental to this whole process. They were established to further this process of so-called development, i.e., furthering exactly the problems I’ve been talking about (centralizing jobs, particularly by subsidizing and encouraging centralized energy infrastructures; aiding a process whereby technology is made artificially cheap and human labor is driven up in price and therefore human beings and their labor are marginalized; and encouraging urbanization and trade for the sake of trade). These are the structural features of their policies.

As fundamental to the process as the World Bank and the IMF was the GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which was set up at the same time, and was specifically intended to increase trade. What the World Bank was saying was helping to build up infrastructure and the IMF was helping to provide the money to keep this going. There have also been export-import banks, or ECAs (Export Credit Agencies), that have been helping this process.

At the same time, it is important to look at these policies without demonizing any individual institution or any individuals. The system we have inherited goes back so far that there are not very many people who have looked carefully at its dynamic; many people who have promoted this kind of development have sincerely believed that it was the only way to eradicate poverty. This remains true to this day.

However, after a while, one expects people in power to be willing to listen to the problems that these policies have created, and this is getting a bit frustrating now. The information gap is widening and in a way we have less communication than we used to. I am hoping there will be more public debates between people who favor continuing in the same direction and those who oppose it. We have found that it is difficult to get the real powers-that-be to engage in serious debates about such issues.

Does development have to mean destruction (to use your words)? What would a more socially, ethically, and environmentally responsible development consist in?

I certainly think we can reserve the word “development” for positive change, for something we would like to see. I think it is not only possible, but absolutely necessary, that people experience positive change which we can call development (particularly those in the South, who have been ravaged for so many years by destructive policies in the name of “development”).

There are a few points I would like to make. First, we must realize that institutions and elites in both North and South owe a debt to the poor. We need to move beyond this old analysis of North and South and understand that the peoples and structures that have furthered this development are now in both North and South.

Second, new policies need to look at reversing processes of centralization and urbanization (both prompted by an emphasis on trade for the sake of trade). We urgently need to be looking at a reduction in trade and emphasizing the building up of healthy local economies, particularly when it comes to food and farming. This will lead to food security and diversified production so that local populations can have an adequate and wide-ranging diet. I am convinced that investing in local economies will cost far less money than current policies. It will require less energy, but it will require energy that is decentralized, so we need to build up decentralized energy infrastructures.

Third, particularly in the South today, one of the most rapid transformations can be brought about if we help to build up a decentralized, renewable energy infrastructure. This must be done using renewable energy, emphasizing the fact that there cannot be one panacea, so we must look at the possibility of using water, wind and solar energy together. We worked for 20 years with that in Ladakh, we know it costs less money, we know it is feasible, but there is almost no funding for it anywhere in the world today. This is an urgent priority for a healthier development.

Four, we also urgently need to realize that in order to build up such a decentralized development there needs to be more attention paid to the fact that every eco-system, every village, every bit of soil is different from every other bit. So there needs to be a shift towards developing research, and science and technology, that is more related to place, that builds on diversity and strengthens diversity, while of course continuing international information exchange. The problem is that the information exchange we have today is essentially about exporting and imposing one standardized Western model. This model was based on having the whole world as a resource-base, so it is a completely unreplicable model, which is why, everywhere it goes, it can only create a tiny wealthy elite and poverty for the rest. The model that could work is one that builds on diversity.

In Ladakh, for instance, just by introducing greenhouses, we managed to increase diversified production by a huge factor. They now have green vegetables in the winter which they did not have before. So the potential for regions to produce a wide range of wonderful foods is enormous if we move away from this centralized, top-down model and help this more decentralized and diversified economic model to flourish.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of AsiaSource.

Photo courtesy of One World

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