Ecology Ecology of the Himalaya
by
Shaila Seshia Galvin
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 January 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0139

Introduction

The Himalayan region, spanning Bhutan, Nepal, northern India, Pakistan, and the Tibet Autonomous Region, may be defined by its mountainous geography, but it is characterized by tremendous ecological diversity. This diversity results from the altitude, slope, and aspect of the mountains and complex glaciology and hydrology as well as the climate and the micro-climates that the range itself shapes. It is evident in alpine pastures and fertile valleys; high altitude deserts and montane; temperate, tropical, and subtropical forests; grasslands; and glacial lake and river systems. The ecological diversity of the region is matched by that of its human communities, which adhere to a range of religious beliefs and cultural practices and pursue complex livelihood strategies. Understanding this relationship—between people and the environment—has been an enduring theme in studies of Himalayan ecology. Some scholarship takes the Himalayan region as an important site in which to learn how human communities are shaped by the natural environment; other studies consider the reverse, how people influence the ecological communities within the Himalaya. In this respect, the Himalaya has been an important site for the broader study of human-environment relations. Contentious debates on population, environmental degradation, natural resource management, and conservation that extend well beyond the region are all well represented within this regional literature. Notable too is the way that these issues have proved of interest for academic inquiry, policy, and practice and have given rise to scholarship on political ecology, community forestry, pastoralism, climate change, and biodiversity and conservation.

General Overviews

Himalayan ecology has been approached and studied from a range of disciplinary perspectives that nonetheless are connected by a common concern with human-environment relations. Attention, broadly, to Himalayan ecology as a distinct subfield appears to have gathered momentum in the 1990s, in the wake of perceptions of an environmental crisis in the Himalaya. Prabhakar 2001 provides a broad overview of different Himalayan ecosystems. An edited volume, Maithani 1991 describes the ecosystems and environmental resources of the central Himalaya and places greater emphasis on the physical and natural environment and relatively less weight on the ways in which human communities shape and are shaped by it. Kapoor and Kapoor 1994 considers the reciprocal impacts of human activity on different Himalayan ecosystems. More recent works have expanded the ways in which human-environment relations are conceptualized in the Himalaya. Thus, Singh 1998 highlights the diversity within mountain ecosystems in what is now Himachal Pradesh but does so from an historical perspective. Guneratne 2010 covers a wide swath of the Himalayan region and shows how anthropological perspectives that attend to local understandings of environment and natural resources may be brought to bear on thinking about Himalayan ecology.

  • Guneratne, Arjun. 2010. Culture and the environment in the Himalaya. New York: Routledge.

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    A major contribution to broadening understandings of Himalayan ecology to include its social and cultural dimensions, this edited volume includes contributions from across Nepal and Indian Himalaya (with a concentration in Nepal and northeastern India).

  • Kapoor, A. K., and Satwanti Kapoor. 1994. Ecology and man in the Himalayas. New Delhi: M. D.

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    With contributions focused on the central and northeastern Indian Himalaya, this edited volume is among the first to consider the dynamic interrelationship of people and the environment across the region. Contributions in this eclectic collection range from overviews of ecological issues in particular Himalayan subregions to considerations of tribal and pastoral communities, forest soils and watershed management.

  • Maithani, Dev Dutt, ed. 1991. Central Himalaya: Ecology, environmental resources, and development. New Delhi: Daya.

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    Focused primarily on the central Himalayan region of what is now the state of Uttarakhand, the contributions to this edited volume examine issues relating to groundwater, forests, geomorphology, minerals, and land use.

  • Prabhakar, V. K. 2001. Himalayan ecology. New Delhi: Anmol.

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    General survey of Himalayan ecosystems and their components, including forests, flora and fauna, and management of wastelands.

  • Singh, Chetan. 1998. Natural premises: Ecology and peasant life in the western Himalaya, 18001950. Studies in Social Ecology and Environmental History. Delhi: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    This important contribution to environmental history and political ecology within the region develops the notion of “regionality” in contrast to the characterization of homogenous Himalayan mountain landscapes. Singh instead highlights the dynamic interaction among distinctive, but interrelated, land uses that include agriculture, pastoralism, forests, and wastelands, and he shows the ways in which people worked within and across these regions to manage natural resources, organize social and political life, and conduct trade.

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