Category: Culture

© mick Stetson. All rights reserved.

Ghost Villages

Priya Gurung knows at least ten people who left her village to work overseas. Today, the young are no longer happy living traditional lifestyles, instead they dream of the success the modern world promises. In the rural mountain villages of Nepal, very few people remain. What were once thriving, autonomous villages only 30 years ago, are now filled with abandoned houses and uncultivated fields. The tragedy is that the traditions that helped these communities survive and flourish for centuries are at risk of vanishing, taking with them the vast archive of knowledge, expertise and imagination that make up the complexity and diversity of their culture.

Until the end of the 18th century, stateless people (those who are autonomous and not governed by a political power) occupied the greater portion of the world’s landmass — wild forests, steppes, deserts, rugged mountains and other inaccessible remote areas. With the advent of the industrial revolution, state powers needed a large supply of laborers to produce and maintain the products necessary for amassing state revenues. Thus began a large enclosure movement that would eventually enroll the stateless people on the periphery of state control. In Southeast Asia, including Nepal and India, this enclosure movement took place in the late 20th century. The state powers’ strategies were more about “soft power” than coercion, inveigling stateless people (including subsistence agriculturalists) with distance-demolishing technologies — all-weather roads, railroads, airplanes, electricity, telephones and now modern information technologies. The oldest state-building strategy has been establishing permanent settlements that pay tribute or taxes to the political center, usually under the guise of “civilizing” the nomadic barbarians. It would appear that in our modern era this activity has ended, yet if we substitute other words for it, like “development,” “progress” or “globalization,” then it’s apparent that the political agenda of the past is still alive today.

My photographic interests are centered on the diversity of people and how they express their unique cultural identities. This project is important to me because it shows some of the hidden costs of modern industrialization and its accompanying lifestyle. It demonstrates that there’s a price for progress, not only of the waste it generates, but also its impact on cultural traditions and identity — in particular, the loss of diverse artistic, intellectual and spiritual expression that collectively defines the human experience as lived until now.

© mick Stetson. All rights reserved.
— Priya Gurung explodes into laughter while performing a traditional dance with her sister, Pratima, and friends. Priya knows at least ten people who left her village to work overseas. Today, the young are no longer happy living traditional lifestyles, instead they dream of the success the modern world promises.
© mick Stetson. All rights reserved.
— It’s not uncommon for villagers to walk several kilometers through rugged terrain just to gather fodder for their livestock or sugar cane for their children. On the southern slopes of the Annapurnas, hill tribes have been practicing subsistence farming for centuries. The rugged, mountainous terrain ensured that places like this were reliable zones of refuge for those who wanted to live autonomously.
© mick Stetson. All rights reserved.
— Traditional family life for the hill tribes has recently been dislocated. Since more than 3.5 million young Nepali men and women have left their villages to work abroad, there are few people remaining. This is a trend that began in the 1990s, increasing annually so that today remittances from workers abroad make up almost 26% of Nepal’s gross domestic product. Although this appears to be a positive factor for helping to remedy Nepal’s ailing economy, it is only a temporary solution, and one that has some dark repercussions.
© mick Stetson. All rights reserved.
— A mother and her son sow maize, using the family’s buffalo to make the furrows. The buffalo is an important element of this kind of subsistence farming, providing work as well as food: meat and milk. At first it appears that this agricultural method is outdated. But imagine modern machinery in this context instead, along with its continual maintenance and energy consumption. Obviously, the modern method would be more of an albatross than a benefit or convenience.
© mick Stetson. All rights reserved.
— The grand matriarch of this Gurung village (Priya’s grandmother) and her daughter tell stories of young people who have left the village to seek their fortunes in the modern world. They tell us how the remittance payments these workers send home have become one of the family’s main sources of income. Although there are many stories of success, like Om Gurung’s story, there are also many tragic ones, making the elders reconsider their former recommendations.
© mick Stetson. All rights reserved.
— Pratima Gurung, like other young teenagers of rural Nepal, dreams of something better than what village life can offer. As young people are lured away from the traditional, rural lifestyle, the village populations have dramatically decreased. Currently, the villages in this region contain only about 25% of their original population of 30 years ago.
© mick Stetson. All rights reserved.
— Priya’s grandmother looks after several children whose single parents are working in the fields or forests. Almost every home in the village has a son or daughter working overseas. If they are married, then their spouse remains in the village, taking care of the children and maintaining their farm.
© mick Stetson. All rights reserved.
— Some migrant workers report that life was easier in the village. But without tangible evidence, this message is mostly overlooked by the few young people who remain here, waiting to find their niche in the modern world below. Will Priya and her friends follow the allure of modern society or return to their cultural roots? These are the choices they soon need to make.