The Himalayan Geography course I took while studying abroad in India provided a broad overview of northern Indian cultures and environmental systems and the interactions between them. The emphasis of the course was experiential learning, so our written coursework only involved reports field trips, examining or researching one aspect of the trip that had particularly struck us. During the trips, our instructor took us on smaller hikes, showed us traditional and nontraditional influences on local life, and gave mini lectures on local topics. The lectures between field trips gave us general knowledge on much of the Himalayas, such as the movements of glaciers in the mountains and the effects climate change has already wrought on the area.
This was one of the first times I had the opportunity to experience first-hand an environment and culture influenced by colonialization and climate change. Our instructor told us about the effect of the British Raj on the mountains in Uttarakhand, especially on the health of the jungle there and the consequences for local farmers. The British government encouraged cutting down trees in the jungle to increase their own economic gain, and the massive loss of oak trees that followed left the remaining trees, underbrush, and even farmers’ cows struggling to grow as lushly as before. The British influence also extended to systems of privilege in the area – although India has been independent for more than fifty years, people with ties to Europe or with English ability are much better able to comfortably support themselves and their families, and people without the opportunity to form those connections must remain on small farms in poverty.
Our instructor is also a part of a local NGO, Lok Chetna Manch, and part of his work with them involves finding ways to rehabilitate the jungle around Ranikhet. Lok Chetna Manch participated in an international project to reinstate traditional lifestyles and farming methods in villages, including some in northern India, in an attempt to show that traditional ways of life can successfully support people. Their project was so successful that nearby villages asked to be included. From these experiences and stories I learned something new about sustainable agriculture – small-scale, traditional agriculture is more sustainable than the one-size-fits-all monocultures used farther south in India and in the Midwest in the United States. Adapting farming methods to a small region and rehabilitating the local environment can lead to more stable and successful agriculture.