Sherpa Perceptions of Climate Change in Nepal

A review of Sherpa Perceptions of Climate Change and Institutional Responses in the Everest Region of Nepal, by Pasang Yangjee Sherpa.

Pasang Yangjee Sherpa’s dissertation explores diverse Sherpa perceptions of climate change as separate from, though affected by, institutional understandings and actions. Sherpa presents “a case of how small scale socio-cultural systems are increasingly interconnected to global geopolitics and global commerce, and yet the voices of the local people remain unheard and their concerns continue to be masked by what elites in the global scale socio-cultural systems deem to be important” (p. vi). By presenting a robust and complex study of dynamic Sherpa culture and the mistakes and misperceptions of outside interveners, this dissertation not only contributes to ethnographic anthropology literature, but also evidences the need for recognition of indigenous rights and new approaches to climate justice.

Chapter 1 introduces the dissertation by contextualizing the study at the intersection of two rich scholarly traditions: first, ethnographic anthropology, particularly studies carried out on Nepal and the Sherpas by western scholars since 1950s (e.g. James Fisher, Barbara Brower, Vincanne Adams, Stanley Stevens, Sherry Ortner); second, scientific studies on climate change and the burgeoning literature on adaptation, particularly in the Everest region. The chapter provides a brief historical overview of Nepal’s political transitions, and highlights important landmarks in the development of the Everest region, such as the start of substantial foreign aid flows in the 1950s and the establishment of Sagarmatha National Park in 1974. Increasingly, tourism drives the area’s economy and shifts Sherpa culture, bringing visitors, migrants, and money. Institutions such as the Himalayan Trust, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) have also helped shape the physical and social landscape. While these changes have been documented in anthropological studies of the Khumbu region closest to Everest Base Camp, the neighboring Pharak region, on which this study focuses, “has been virtually ignored in the literature on Sherpas” (p. 13).

In Chapter 2, Sherpa describes some of the challenges of conducting research as a “native anthropologist” (p. 25), who must not only collect data, but also balance the roles of observer and analyst with those of participant and (proper) Sherpa woman. Sherpa articulates the double challenge of her position: “During my own fieldwork, I felt the need to advocate for a greater understanding of the Sherpas by the institutions claiming to assist them in responding to the effects of climate change, and simultaneously I needed to question the existing Sherpa hierarchical structure” (pp. 27-8). This chapter also describes the development of the author’s interest in exploring perceptions of climate change as she watched awareness and institutional activities evolve throughout pre-dissertation fieldwork. Sherpa’s interest centers on the disconnect between institutional rhetoric of inclusion and actual Sherpa experiences; she sets out to capture the voices of a diversity of actors, across ages, genders, residences, and occupations to better capture perceptions across social stratification.

Chapter 3 describes modern Sherpa history, economy, and identity. In contrast to the static depictions of a homogenous, traditional people that are commonly broadcast by outsiders, Sherpa culture is conveyed here as socially constructed, heterogeneous, and transforming through globalization. While Sherpas self-identify with a common religion, language, and dress, the author distinguishes varying beliefs and livelihoods among multiple Sherpa individuals and groups. Her primary example is the difference between conditions in villages off tourist routes and those in villages on tourist routes. Case studies reveal that the latter enjoy substantially increased access to finance and services, as well as to information, including information about climate change. Through analysis of the annual Dumje Festival in Pharak, the author explores the importance of transnationalism in the Sherpa community, particularly the role of United States’ remittances and education. These discussions serve to nuance the reader’s understanding of the Pharak Sherpas and to illustrate the difficulty of transmitting the concept and implications of climate change to and among dynamic actors within the Sherpa community.

Chapter 4 describes the international scientific and political response to climate change, profiling institutions, agreements, and events surrounding the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and other significant developments in climate change history and international governance. The latter half of the chapter focuses particularly on the impacts of climate change on indigenous peoples, featuring short case studies illustrating the vulnerability of various groups as well as international movements to highlight and combat these issues.

In Chapter 5, Sherpa parses the complex set of policies and institutions responsible for addressing climate change throughout Nepal and specifically in the Everest Region. These include governmental, international, and NGO institutions; national plans, policies, and knowledge centers; and local adaptation and Glacier Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) mitigation activities. Sherpa provides case studies of Everest-specific programs, but concludes that programs are imagined from and initiated in Kathmandu, without the guidance or even awareness of the Pharak Sherpas.

Chapter 6 provides additional exploration of institutional responses to climate change in the Everest region, describing GLOF impacts and mitigation efforts, an awareness-raising Nepal Cabinet meeting held close to the Everest Base Camp in 2009, and the WWF “Climate for Life” campaign, among others. Two case studies, one of a 2008 ICIMOD workshop on climate change adaptation and increasing local peoples’ resilience, and one of a 2011 “Andean-Himalaya Glacial Lake Exchange and Collaboration Expedition,” demonstrate the exclusion and inefficiency common to previous regional climate response activities. Moreover, these activities routinely privilege publicity over meaningful engagement and local priorities.

Chapter 7 documents the author’s field research, methodology, and key findings. Sherpa first details her methodology and categories of analysis, using ample quotations to derive these categories and to present the captivating stories of her informants. She codes Sherpa perceptions of climate change according to four main themes and associated sub-themes: sources of knowledge (e.g. changes in snowfall, GLOF events); knowledge systems (e.g. religion and science); influences (e.g. awareness workshops, media); and social heterogeneity (e.g. age, gender). An “Illustrations” section provides additional excerpts from interviews and informal meetings that convey the nuanced and varied attitudes among different Sherpa demographics and individuals. The author concludes that, despite this diversity in how Pharak Sherpas perceive and understand climatic variation, “the term ‘climate change’ as the researchers and governmental and nongovernmental institutions use it is a foreign concept for the majority of the Pharak Sherpas… [I]nstitutional responses have not been effective so far” (pp. 153-4). Many locals attach religious or spiritual implications to environmental changes, often simultaneously with scientific explanations. The inability of outside institutions to recognize these co-existing knowledge systems prevents effective explanations and interventions.

Chapter 8 concludes with a summary of the context and major findings of the research, reflects on some limitations and contradictions of the research, researcher, and Sherpa society, and offers insights on the future development in the region. Sherpa flags several emerging issues including transnationalism, in-migration, and economic stratification, which will change simultaneously with the climate and substantially impact future culture and research. Sherpa ends with an argument salient beyond Pharak, that is, “unless institutions can treat local peoples as equal partners with credible knowledge, capable of making significant contributions, institutional responses to the effects of climate change at the local level will not be effective and may be detrimental” (p. 172).

Sherpa’s rich and specific ethnographic analysis, and the links drawn between grounded and descriptive local understanding and a preeminent, timely, and global topic, provide an important example of the uneven impacts of global change on indigenous communities. The dissertation is a significant contribution to the rich tradition of anthropology in Nepal, as well as to the broader field of development studies. Sherpa’s dissertation is notable not only for its analysis, but also for its frank discussion of the experience of emic, or semi-emic, research. As one of the first Sherpa to earn a doctorate degree, and particularly as a Sherpa woman, the author stands on the vanguard of “native anthropology” that confronts new methodological and ethical challenges even while it opens an intellectual frontier. The growing numbers of scholars in similar roles stand to benefit from Sherpa’s success, and from her honest account of her process.

Hilary Oliva Faxon
Department of Development Sociology
Cornell University
hilary.oliva.faxon@gmail.com

Primary Sources

Semi-structured interviews
Participant observation
Climate change science and policy literature review
Sherpakyidug website

Dissertation Information

Washington State University. 2012. 206 pp. Primary Advisor: John Bodley.

Image: Mane, prayer stones on the trail to Mt. Everest. Photograph by Author.

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  1. I am interested to study your research work completely. Would you mind to inform me where I can get the copy please. I am advocating social justice in Nepal from 2006. I am going to lead Mt. Everest Expedition – 2016 for climate justice.

    For these, I believe your research work is significantly important for me.

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