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Lessons from an ancient culture
Interview with Helena Norberg-Hodge
by Monte Leach

An interview with Helena Norberg-Hodge, about her work in a pristine, ancient Himalayan culture as it faced the siren song of western-style development. 

San Francisco, California, USA
Ladakh is a desert land high up in the Western Himalayas, located in what is now India's state of Kashmir. Often referred to as Little Tibet, it has been home to a Tibetan Buddhist culture that has endured for more than 1,000 years. Helena Norberg-Hodge arrived in Ladakh in 1975 as part of an anthropological film team, coincidentally at the time of Ladakh's first exposure to Western-style development. In the intervening years, she has worked with the Ladakhi people to protect their culture and environment from the effects of rapid modernization. In 1978 she founded the Ladakh Project, with the goal of providing the Ladakhi people with the means to make more informed choices about their own future. Her efforts led to the formation of the indigenous Ladakh Ecological Development Group, with whom she shared the 1986 Right Livelihood Award, also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize. She also works to educate those in developed countries on the effects of economic globalization, and to promote sustainable ways of living. Share International US editor Monte Leach spoke with Norberg-Hodge on her recent visit to the San Francisco Bay Area.

 Share International: How did you first get involved with helping to preserve the Ladakhi culture?

Helena Norberg-Hodge: I trekked into remote valleys and spoke to Ladakhi people everywhere. I saw quite a remarkable self-reliant wealth and above all an amazing self-esteem – people who were models of what it means to feel completely secure in their own identity and place. They seemed to be the most open, happy and humble people. And they told me they had never known hunger. They had a standard of living much higher than I would have expected – none of it from so-called progress. 

SI: How did their way of life begin to be undermined?

HNH: The Indian Government had a territorial dispute with the Chinese, and decided to develop this area as a way of ensuring that it became a closer part of India. Their approach to development was based on a Western model which had nothing to do with local knowledge and resources. This included pushing chemical fertilizers and pesticides, including DDT and other outlawed pesticides. It meant subsidizing white rice and white sugar from the outside. These subsidies for imported food were destroying local food production, and creating a total dependence on imports – this in a place that was snowed-in for more than six months of the year. It was making the region very vulnerable. Subsidized fossil fuels like kerosene and coal being brought in to heat houses also led to subsidized transport. It meant that roads the government was building were actually destroying the local economy.

"They seemed to be the most open, happy & humble people."


Tourism also became part of the Indian Government's plan to develop the area. Nearly every foreigner who came there was just amazed by how peaceful, happy and beautiful the place and people were. The foreigners would say: "Oh, what a paradise. What a pity it has to be destroyed." When I heard this for something like the 100th time, something within me snapped. I was closely involved with the local people, and I knew not a single one of them thought of this as destruction. Not a single local person ever said: "What a pity we have to be destroyed." I realized the foreigners had seen that in the rest of the world this type of economic growth could be very destructive. I also realized the local people knew nothing about it. Around that time I read a book called Small is Beautiful. It gave me the conviction that things could be done differently and meeting the outside world didn't have to mean destruction.

I started talking to the local people about what development had meant in other parts of the world. I realized they were getting a completely wrong view of what life was like in the West. They were saying: "My God, you must be incredibly wealthy." They were getting an impression that we never need to work, that we have infinite wealth and leisure. It is not that they were unintelligent, but they had limited information about this other world.

That led me to realize that I could do work which would provide more accurate information. My goal was not to tell the Ladakhis what to do, not even to tell them that they should stay exactly the way they were, but to provide as much information as possible on what life is really like in the West. That included information on our problems of pollution, unemployment, and poverty, and that a lot of the poverty in the so-called Third World was due to our wealth in the developed world. I also wanted to show that many Westerners who ended up a part of this system were struggling in their own country to find a more environmentally and socially equitable way of living. I gave examples that some people were using solar energy and growing food organically, and implementing a range of more sustainable and equitable alternatives.

Great interest and appreciation

SI: What kind of response did you get from the Ladakhis?

HNH: On the whole the information was received with great interest  and appreciation. The end result was that the message showed them they need not feel ashamed about who they were, or think they were backward or primitive. There were also modernized young men who for a while thought this approach would hold them back, but they have on the whole now changed. I think the support now for this work is tremendous, and growing all the time in Ladakh.

"...An amazing self-esteem..."

SI: How did your work evolve there?

HNH: I worked with local people to help set up an ecology group that was trying to show you can have solar energy and greenhouses and other changes which don't create poverty, dependence and pollution. An ecology center was built in 1983, but before that we had already demonstrated solar heating technology – solar ovens and water heating in many villages. We also introduced solar greenhouses, which were very successful. Hundreds of them were built throughout the region.

In the last five years I have set up a women's alliance, which now has almost 4,000 members. It is becoming a very influential body. The mothers and grandmothers are not concerned with competing with men, but with having their voices heard. What I found there as well as in the West is that strengthening real face-to-face community is the most important resistance to the modern, consumer culture. The consumer culture pushes young children to compete with one another for more scarce consumer products, and it isolates people further from each other. 


Ladakh - "What a paradise."

We gather as a community and talk about this. People say: "No, it is not making us happier, so let's not do it." When it is a group of mothers who do this, they can influence their children. If you try on your own, it often becomes very difficult because you feel as if you're choosing between community and the child. If the child wants some Nike shoes and his friends have them, you feel you're isolating the child if you say "No." The actual truth is that the whole process is leading to more isolation, but it doesn't look that way.

SI: Do you think Ladakh is still going down a Western path, or has that changed since you started your work there?

HNH: I think what I helped to start in Ladakh has become quite a major trend. In terms of consciousness, our work has spread to virtually everybody, and has provided a certain brake on the destruction. It has also created a counter movement. The leaders of our ecology group have now become the majority in the new local government, and are creating policies for organic agriculture, renewable energy and crafts.


SI: What are some of the lessons you have learned from your experience in Ladakh?Helen98.jpg (6008 bytes)

HNH: One of the major lessons I've learned in 23 years of living in this ancient Tibetan culture and seeing ittransform is that the current global economy with its consumer culture divides people from each other. I've realized one of the most important things that needs to be done is to strengthen the community structures in the villages of the South, and to rebuild real community structures in the industrialized world. That is what a lot of our work is about. We found it quite a magic wand if you also rebuild those communities in an economic sense – having local relationships that reduce dependence on the monetary system. This means that people start once again to develop a conscious good neighborliness – baby-sitting for each other, driving each other to the hospital – caring for one another without needing money, reducing the need for commercialized, so-called professionalized services.

Even more important is to start changing production and consumption patterns to shorten the distance between producers and consumers. An important part of the work of our institute is showing how a community which takes the initiative to build up a local food economy can start answering a whole range of needs. It leads to reduced transport, reduced packaging, reduced refrigeration, and many other benefits.

SI: What advice would you give to those in the developed world who agree with this approach?

HNH: The advice would be to help create a more self-reliant economy, particularly food security. That comes from people being able to get food from relatively near at hand, and this has far greater implications than we realize. I would recommend that they do the same in the developed world, where they live, to the extent that they care about the developing world. They should realize this insane corporate-dependent system means people on the other side of the world are our wage slaves. They are not producing food for themselves. They are not producing shoes and clothes for themselves. They are working for a pittance to satisfy our needs.

We need to be more self-reliant. There is no reason why America should not produce most of its own food for most of its people, and trade in items not available domestically – for example tea or bananas – but without subsidies, so that bananas would cost more than local apples because they come from further away.

We also need to do everything we can to bring information to those local people about why a more self-reliant economy is in their best interest, particularly right now in this corrupt and volatile situation where we have seen the collapse of the economies in Asia. We have to be very careful today not to create more dependence and instead to inform people of the vulnerability of the global economy and help strengthen the local food economy.

Our educational materials are designed to help people understand what they can do to regain more power over their own lives, and also to free themselves from the psychological and spiritual damage of this commercial culture. It takes quite a while to look at all the insidious ways in which we are divided from a deep sense of connection to the earth and to one another, which we see at the heart of the spiritual. We see spirituality as a connection of love and empathy among people and between man and nature. Our materials look at the contradiction between today's economy and that way of being, and help people to think through how insidious that is and what they can do to change it. This leads to many people getting involved in their local community, particularly in building a local food economy and other projects. It also leads to people discussing how painful the process is for themselves, with a clearer understanding that these structures were originally human-made but have taken on inhuman proportions, and they affect us profoundly. We have found that this formula for helping people get together is a powerful way of healing both at the personal and planetary level.

From the December 1998 issue of Share International

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005