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Upstream, Downstream, China, India: The Politics of Environment in the Himalayan Region

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There is a long history of debate about the changing Hindu Kush-Himalaya (HKH) environment, but with important disjunctures between research, international environmental agendas and institutions, and various different domestic policies at the national level. Within academe, a retreat from the Theory of Himalayan Environmental Degradation (THED) since the late 1980s has not been reflected to any degree in domestic policy agendas of India and China. Here, we make a comparative analysis of the “upstream downstream” debates (which claim that the resource use practices of upstream users have serious detrimental costs to those downstream) in two of the most powerful and populous countries of the HKH region: India and China. We find that the rejection of THED is, on the whole, contradicted but sometimes appropriated by different national players within important political arenas, and in this sense it becomes a discursive pawn in “games of the state.” Parts of the retreat from THED are simply ignored, and others are actively resisted. Set against these discursive maneuvers within domestic politics, the academic “state of the game” has undergone profound changes, shifting away from technically derived and science-led imperatives of environmental management toward issues of plural environmental truths, environmental justice, and hybrid knowledge. However, national debates have taken their individual routes, shaped largely by national political events. Thus, the poststructuralist turn in the social sciences in the academy and in some policy arenas, too—the deconstruction of one grand environmental narrative after another (e.g., deforestation, the wood fuel crisis, overstocking), the faltering claims of positivist science to deliver truth, and growing attacks of uncertainty—all this has had a contingent, but usually peripheral, impact upon national academic, political, and policy agendas in China and India. Some conclusions about policy studies are drawn.

Keywords: China; Hindu Kush-Himalaya; India; environment; epistemology; floods; forestry; land tenure; natural disaster; natural resources; policy; political ecology; politics; science; soil erosion

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: School of Development Studies, University of East Anglia 2: Department of Geography, Sarah Lawrence College

Publication date: 2004-09-01

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