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Talking Policy: Judith Matloff on the Role of Geography in Conflict Zones

Mountains stand as a symbol of both solidarity and isolation. This is particularly true for the various rebel groups and militias that have used rugged terrain to resist central governing authorities. In her book, No Friends But the Mountains, Judith Matloff explores the nature of geography as both a literal and symbolic barrier between mountain communities and the rest of a country. World Policy Journal spoke with Matloff about the role of geography in shaping societies and how peace and prosperity can be achieved in mountainous regions.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: In your introduction, you talk about the World Mountain People Association (WMPA), and how people of mountainous regions see themselves in a distinctive light. At what point did you decide that you wanted to write a book specifically on the role of mountains in development, and why do you think there are more conflicts in mountainous regions than elsewhere?

JUDITH MATLOFF: The genesis of the book came in the most prosaic of ways. I had been going to mountainous regions as a foreign correspondent writing about conflict, and I noticed I was in elevated areas—very remote, inaccessible areas. However, the epiphany came when I was playing the game Risk with my family, and my son asked, "Where have you worked?" I brought a globe over to show him, and he was running his hand over the globe and said, "Mom, they're all mountains." It set off a lightbulb, and I thought, "That's really interesting." Of course he went on to win the game of Risk, but that really got me thinking about looking at things from geographic point of view, not just political or ideological perspectives. I thought there might be a geographic continuity to this body of work I developed. Then I heard about the World Mountain People's Association. I was afraid of being accused of being a geographic determinist, a charge leveled against Jared Diamond. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but there are many different components as to why the world develops that way it does. To say geography is destiny and there is no human agency is too narrow-minded, but you can't ignore geography or discount the fact that geography is a factor. I didn't want to play into cultural stereotypes, but then I heard about this mountain organization, and they're geographic determinist more than anybody. They subscribe to that idea that "yes, we're different from you," and if they're saying it, and they're representing 70 countries, there's probably something to it because they know of what they speak.

WPJ: Environmental or geographic determinism, the idea that geography helps shape human development and perspectives, was delegitimized for a time because some scholars felt that it supported Eurocentric views and that could be used to support colonialism or racist beliefs. However, the idea has had a resurgence in recent years, with authors such as Jared Diamond and Robert Kaplan gaining significant attention. How does No Friends But The Mountains fit within this debate regarding geographic determinism?     

JM: I would love to stand on the podium with such illustrious thinkers. I think geography is just one more component to it. There has been a resurgence of geographic determinism; geography has been something we have neglected over the decades due to its past associations. People didn't want to seem racist, or colonialist, and talk about things in terms of "natives." Given the connotation, I think I would prefer the term "geographic humanist," or perhaps "environmental possibilist." However, without a doubt, geography is something you can't discount. A mountain stands in the way of things. You can't discount that a river serves as a means of transport and as a point of contact. It's a new way to frame old problems, or maybe it’s an old way of framing problems that need a fresh look. 

WPJ: In your book, you discuss the Kanun, the Albanian honor code, which has led to the deaths of thousands of Albanian men. Despite various attempts to stamp it out, via mediators or jail time, the traditions persist. Why do you think this honor code has kept such a strong hold in the mountainous regions of Albania?

JM: The central government isn't strong. There used to be many more types of the Kanun, and this is the last remaining one because it comes from the most remote area where the mountains basically serve as a wall between this part of the country and the rest. If there had been roads and there'd been more cross-pollination of ideas, if people had received the same education that others received elsewhere in the country, if they traded more, if they had not been so cut off and isolated, these customs would have died out or they would have become more assimilated. Your question really hits upon the main theme of the book, which is that geographic isolation leads to a psychological and existential one. 

WPJ: In the chapter on Albania, One for One, you discuss the idea of legal pluralism—the existence of two doctrines of rules that compete, such as modern law and traditional social law. How are governments trying to convince mountain communities to give up traditional law? And typically what are the consequences of these government campaigns?

JM: The problem is that Albania wants to join the EU, even if it's falling apart, so they have to have rule of law and certain standards of governance in order to even qualify. If you have blood feuds going on, it becomes an obstacle to joining. The official legal system outlaws blood feuds, but this creates a paradox. If you're caught perpetrating a feud, you go to jail under modern law. Under the old law, families would be fighting, and then one side would suggest a truce, called a besa, and then they would sit down and publicly avow what they had done so that they could end it. Now, you can't publicly acknowledge a feud because off you'll go to jail. Ironically, by trying to stop honor killings, the modern legal system is instead further perpetuating them because there is no way out. Maybe a better solution would be to have an amnesty system, where clans could publicly have their besa, and then it all ends. The current paradigm creates disincentives that make it difficult to end the conflict. 

WPJ: With the Zapatistas in southern Mexico, the rebellion was less a matter of political ideology than a movement to hold onto to customs and traditions and protect what was seen as sacred land. How do mountain people maintain their cultures in an era of globalization and the internet?

JM: Well, there was ideology behind it—after all, Marcos, their leader, was not indigenous. He was an ideologue very opposed to NAFTA. Most of the adherence to the movement was about holding onto traditions, but there was an ideology among the leaders. However, much of the movement was focused around the local conditions. As to preserving culture, the mountain plays a role as a physical barrier that cuts them off from the rest of the world. The nature of a natural barrier insulates people from the outside world. However, it's not as if there is complete isolation; the Zapatistas drink a tremendous amount of Coca-Cola. It seems like a contradiction to the anti-NAFTA ideology, but the Coca-Cola gets in there, even if other things don't. Like strong cell phone reception or the internet. 

WPJ: The trafficking of drugs played a role in financing the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC), while in other rebellions around the world alternative contraband like diamonds or oil have been used to help obtain money. What role do mountains play in helping to create alternative economic systems, independent from the rest of a nation?

JM: If you look at every major illicit production area of poppies or marijuana, it tends to be mountainous. They can go about their business without government harassment. The climate is also good for production. Without a doubt the mountains play a role. Again, where there might be conflict or banditry, the mountains help to maintain this because of the physical barrier. Even if you could grow marijuana or other drugs in a desert, it would much more difficult to hide. In the mountains there are crevices and other places to conceal what you're doing. If you think about where heroin comes from—Afghanistan, Mexico—the terrain is suitable but the remoteness also helps. The thing with Colombia and the recent accord is that they're going to need to work hard to get economic development and roads into the mountains or this illicit activity will continue because the financial incentives are so great. They won't have peace if they can't link the mountains to the rest of society. 

WPJ: Nepal, despite protests, has been able to reintegrate many former combatants into the formal political process. Why do you think Nepal’s peace process has been relatively successful, when so many others have failed?

JM: I think they got tired. We saw that too with the FARC—they got tired. These aren't military victories that pull them to the negotiating table. It's more the psychological cognitive understanding. That brings up another point: There's been no point in history where a local mountain force has been defeated by conventional outside military force. It's always been through political means. The rebels decide, for whatever reason, they don't want to fight anymore. You can't defeat an irregular force in the mountains—not with conventional attacks. It all comes down to the mountains. 

WPJ: In the Himalayan chapter, The Dammed, you note that glacial waters help supply nearly half the world’s population with water. In that regard, how do you think climate change might affect the region?

JM: Well, there will be a lot of flooding. There's a huge rush at the moment to dam up a lot of the Himalayas. This compulsion of dam building is going to pick up in pace. People's livelihoods are going to be changed by the melting. It's going to have a galvanizing effect on people. Climate change is going to change both the physical and political landscape of the next century. However, the importance of the Himalayas, in terms of hydro-electric power, is not going to go away. Whether or not the glaciers are standing there, the water is still flowing. The waters will rise, which actually might incentivize people to build more dams to try to control them. It will drastically affect the landscape, but the water is essential to irrigating crops and powering the villages. Looking at India and China, they need to grow food and they need power. So the area will be very important, even with the shifts.

WPJ: Switzerland credits its peace to its “mountain mentality.” Surrounded by other nations, the country placated internal struggles and incorporated its mountainous communities better than most nations. Do you think it’s possible for the Swiss model to be exported to other mountain regions?

JM: It would be nice if they could. It's a model, and I think every country could benefit a bit from the cantonment system. It's the most direct form of democracy, where you're voting on the village level. You have so much say over your local affairs. It affords a lot of attractive alternatives. It would be a great model. But can you blow up someone's political system and implement the Swiss method? Probably not. It's intriguing though. It's counter-intuitive. We forget that Switzerland used to be very violent. It was only 150 years ago or so that they had a civil war. They used to export mercenaries. However, they had smart policy. They realized that there are mountains, and everyone is in their little villages, so if you give them power and leave them alone to do their own things, then they won't fight against the central authority. It works really well there, and I think it could work well in other places. The likelihood of actually seeing the Swiss model exported, though, is doubtful. 

WPJ: Given all that you learned in researching for the book, what prescriptive solutions do you think governments can take to reduce the number of conflicts in mountainous regions or attend to the unique needs of mountain people?

JM: To provide as much autonomy as possible. If governments are not as extreme as the Swiss case, they can at least give people control over their own local affairs. They can try to adapt their local customs of governance and make them compatible with the system. Making them compatible rather than in conflict with the central government is better for everyone. For instance, in the two Mexican cases, they have their own local forms of government—rather than fighting it, they have determined it is better to co-opt it and allow the local government to exist.

WPJ: Can you give a specific example in which greater autonomy worked in helping to bring greater prosperity and peace to a mountain region of a nation?

JM: The Basque country. I think ultimately, that's what did in the ETA, the separatist movement in the region. The Spanish government provided an enormous amount of local autonomy. They also threw in a lot of financial support, which helped. That helped to dilute the separatist movement. Providing money, giving them their own police force, and implementing a local tax system all help. They still have to give taxes to the central government, but they can have schools in the local language. That's the best way—autonomy and an economy.

WPJ: And as a last question, have you consider mountaineering as a hobby?

JM: I don't think I have the stomach for it. I love the mountain, but nothing terrifies me more than going up it with nothing but a rope and then looking down and seeing death below me!

*****

*****

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!

[Interview conducted by Stephen Barry]

[Photo courtesy of Judith Matloff]

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