Integrating Indigenous Knowledge into Hazard Mitigation the Darjeeling Himalayas

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By Alison Holm

Residents in the mountain regions of West Bengal, India know that the ground is shifting beneath them. They point to the long cracks running through some of the homes in their villages, or talk about the once-fertile cropland that has been destroyed by landslides and is no longer a viable source of income. Landslides pose a serious threat in the Darjeeling District, which lies in a multi-hazard area prone to heavy rains and seismic activity. While there are a number of natural causes of landslides, anthropogenic drivers of landslides are increasingly significant with the rapid population growth and unrestricted, unregulated urbanization that characterizes the area. Today, while residents recognize landslide hazards, and have historically mitigated for natural landslide risk, there is a significant disconnect between local knowledge and disaster management strategies in the region.

Local residents may not recognize all of the drivers of landslides or distinguish between natural and anthropogenic causes, there is a shared recognition of the risk associated with landslides. Collectively, indigenous knowledge about the land and the local institutions that govern everyday life are important factors in developing community-based disaster management capacities. The integration of local knowledge and institutions is especially critical to landslide risk reduction among hill populations in the Darjeeling District. In order to be effective, disaster risk management needs to be highly localized and context-specific, but the local needs of mountain regions are often not reflected in state and national policies and disaster planning. Particularly in rural areas, local residents become the defacto first responders in disaster scenarios. Many villages in the Darjeeling District are accessible only by walkable pathways and, even if these pathways were to be mapped, realistically it would require someone with intimate knowledge of the area to navigate to affected areas in a disaster.

Landslides frequently render roads in the area impassible, highlighting the need to equip local residents to both mitigate for and respond to disaster settings rather than relying solely on outside assistance. Before landslides even occur, local residents are in the best position to heed warning signs as well. Just as residents in several villages near Kalimpong pointed to cracks in homes throughout the communities, locals are often the first to recognize if springs suddenly appear or disappear, or if there are changes in tree growth (i.e. bends developing in tree trunks), both of which are signs of slope instability that could lead to landslides.

Indigenous knowledge, which tends to be more qualitative in nature, has often been seen as less valid than more scientific or “expert” knowledge, and as a result disaster risk reduction efforts tend to focus on technical or engineering solutions. However, there is growing recognition of the value of indigenous knowledge and increasing calls to integrate indigenous and scientific knowledge in disaster management. Incorporating local knowledge and institutions into disaster risk reduction strategies won’t be a simple task in the context of the Darjeeling District – traditional forms of indigenous knowledge and institutions have been eroded as a result of colonial rule, centralization, later decentralization, and the so-far ineffective implementation of local governance at the village level. However, indigenous knowledge and institutions remain critical to effective disaster mitigation efforts in the region.

Back to Introduction: Studying Landslide Risk in the Darjeeling District, West Bengal, India