Securing Solidarity through Diversity: Landscapes and Cultures Together

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Cultures binds civilizations through practice, perception, delicacy and dignity. Culture marks differences between groups, but within groups, culture is an inherent confederation, a unique string that connects and unites individuals.  

Every year, on 11 December, we celebrate mountain culture through World Mountain Day. This annual commemoration recognizes that mountain culture is a unique blend of livelihoods and physical conditions, but also that cultures within the mountains reflect the diversity of people living anywhere. In other words, our strength lies in our differences, not our similarities. The cultural diversity that we see in the mountains reflects the array of lifeforms we see in this region.  We don’t want to be all the same, but we do want to understand each other. This is what we strive for, a unity in diversity!

Photo: Jitendra Bajracharya/ICIMOD

Numerous cultures, traditional and modern, unique and similar, dynamic and complex, view mountains as gardens and paradise. All the different mountain cultures are bound by the physical conditions in which they form. The Himalaya are often referred to as the “water towers” Asia, rich in terms of natural resources and magnificent in displays of various landscapes, ecosystems, and species. Every form of flora and fauna bears some responsibility for shaping the HKH’s diverse mountain cultures. 

Mount Kailash and neighboring Lake Mansarovar in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China provide one stirring example of culture unity and diversity coming together harmonious co-existence. These two natural icons represent a sacred network of myths, beliefs, and religious practices, and create a path of pilgrimage, meditation, and sacrifice for people from all around the world. Every year, thousands of people from Nepal and India (Hindus, Buddhists, Bonpos and Jains) take part in “Kailash Yatra,” a journey to Kailash in honor of their deities. For Tibetans, Kailash (known to them as ‘Kang Rinpoche’) exemplifies their national and religious identity. Over at Lake Mansarovar, Hindus think of Lord Brahma who created this massive freshwater lake, sitting at 4,556m about sea level. They also think of Lord Shiva and “Shakti,” the masculine and feminine principles for activating one’s power and energy. Tibetans call this lake “Tso-Maphan” and consider it to be the holiest body of water in the world, pure and cleansing. Together, all these mountain cultures come together in unified sacred area and breathe life into their individual belief systems, drawing strength from each other and the spiritual aura that transcends borders and landscapes.

I consider cultural habits and environment as two inseparable elements: they complement each other and cannot be separated. As such, cultural habits and the environment are equally important when we talk about conservation. The Millenium Ecosystem Assessment in 2005 recognized the “cultural services” of landscapes, suggesting that nonmaterial benefits should be considered carefully in any conservation program. Similarly, the UNESCO–MAP biosphere reserve concept also highlights the value and importance of sacred sites in its discussions of sustainable use and development of natural resources. 

It is because of this cultural stability through diversity that we, as a part of Kailash Sacred Landscape Conservation and Development Initiative (KSLCDI) at ICIMOD, have been able to contribute towards the well-being of people residing in three different countries: Nepal, India and China. Despite the political boundaries, the cultural associations and linkages across borders have acted as a uniting thread for promoting livelihoods and conserving biological resources in all these countries. Be it in the form of developing value-chains in Himalayan Nettle (allo) in far-western Nepal or Indian Butter Tree (chyura) in Uttarakhand, India, KSLDCI seeks to honor livelihoods of mountain people by following a mantra of transboundary-ness, a mantra of sustainability.

We cannot learn and we cannot develop without culture. It is our road map for navigating life.  So when we speak of mountains and mountain people, let us remember that it is the physical and spiritual landscapes we should recognize before all our work. 

I strongly believe that our cultural practices should polish our behavior(s), and encourage us to lead a disciplined and healthy lifestyle. A practice that evokes strength and wisdom in each one of us to contribute to humanity: the only language we should speak and understand!