Sustainability Heroes: Helena Norberg-Hodge, A Case for Localization

Ladakh isn’t what it used to be.

When Helena Norberg-Hodge first traveled in 1975 to Ladakh, part of India but known asLittle Tibet due to its location on the Tibetan plateau and cultural commonalities with the country, the people were happy, the air was clean, children and the elderly alike were valued, and money wasn’t a concern, as everyone, in essence, lived off the land.

But at the time, Ladakh had recently been opened to tourism and development, and everything changed. Becoming part of the international economy wiped out subsistence farming. Houses once made of mud were now built of cement, the land became more crowded, and the skills the Ladakhis had developed that had served them so well all of those years started to fade into obscurity.

Today, Ladakh shares the problems of many places around the world — the air is dirty, the streams are polluted, unemployment abounds, and people of different religions who once got along peacefully no longer always do. Norberg-Hodge is determined to change that, in Ladakh and elsewhere. The pioneer of localization is the founder and director of the International Society for Ecology & Culture (ISEC), a nonprofit that aims to protect biological and cultural diversity.

Norberg-Hodge has earned her credentials, becoming fluent in seven languages (including the difficult local dialect in Ladakh); studying in England, the U.S., Sweden, Germany, and Austria; and working with famed linguist Noam Chomsky.

Based on her time in the northwest Indian community of Ladakh, she wrote a book called Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh that chronicles what she saw when she first arrived, as well as what happened in subsequent years. She writes:

“When I first arrived in Leh, the capital of 5,000 inhabitants, cows were the most likely cause of congestion and the air was crystal clear. Within five minutes’ walk in any direction from the town center were barley fields, dotted with large farmhouses. For the next 20 years I watched Leh turn into an urban sprawl. The streets became choked with traffic, and the air tasted of diesel fumes. ‘Housing colonies’ of soulless, cement boxes spread into the dusty desert. The once pristine streams became polluted, the water undrinkable. For the first time, there were homeless people. The increased economic pressures led to unemployment and competition. Within a few years, friction between different communities appeared. All of these things had not existed for the previous 500 years.”

Today, ISEC works to lessen the dependence on the global economy with programs that promote decentralizing and diversifying economic structures. Through books, presentations, lectures, seminars, reports, articles, videos, and more, the organization educates people on the benefits of acting in an ecological, sustainable way. Just one example of an ISEC program, the Women’s Alliance of Ladakh was formed in 1994 to raise the status of rural women and strengthen local culture and agriculture. There are about 6,000 women from 100 different villages involved in the Alliance today, which facilitates annual festivals celebrating local knowledge and skills, including traditional spinning, weaving, and the preparation of indigenous food; regular clean-up campaigns to encourage community responsibility for the environment; and programs aimed at resisting some of the more detrimental elements of non-Ladakhi culture that have seeped in.

The world is changing and Ladakh will change with it, but if Norberg-Hodge has anything to say about it, the place she’s come to know and love so well will retain those qualities that made it special in the first place — and she continues to work to make that true everywhere.

To learn more about ISEC and Norberg-Hodge’s work, click here.

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