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Remoteness and Connectivity: Highland Asia in the World

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - Highland Connections (Remoteness and Connectivity: Highland Asia in the World)

Reporting period: 2019-11-01 to 2020-04-30

Remote areas in Asia’s highlands are of great geopolitical concern. What happens at the Afghan-Tajik border, in Kashmir, Tibet or Northeast India has a global impact. Crisscrossed by the fragile borders of rising powers and rich in natural resources, a multitude of stakes and analytic positions are attached to these frontiers; they figure as sanctuaries for insurgents, as realms of authentic tribal culture, as trafficking routes for drugs and wildlife parts, or simply as rural peripheries in need of development. Public imaginaries oscillate between these simplistic assessments, policy makers struggle to comprehend the dynamics involved, and local communities continue to feel misunderstood. What is missing is a conceptual framework that puts these assessments and cases in a global context and captures their entanglements. Addressing this challenge was the primary concern of this project.

Remoteness is generally assumed to be the defining condition: the rugged highlands of Asia are considered backward, authentic, or unruly because – for better or worse – they are isolated and far away from developed urban centres and state control. However, state-of-the-art research on circulation and mobility shows that connectivity with the outside world is an essential feature of livelihood strategies in remote areas. They frequently find themselves at the crossroads of intensive exchange of natural resources, labour, capital and manufactured goods. Migrants, smugglers and saints pass through. Geologists, tourists, NGOs, reporters and missionaries come here to look for resources, opportunities, and target groups. Highland Asian livelihoods are shaped as much by connectivity as by remoteness.

Starting from the hypothesis that remoteness and connectivity are not two independent features but constitute each other in particular ways, the primary objective of this project was to explore the nexus of remoteness and connectivity to gain a better understanding of Highland Asia in the world and lay the groundwork for a new apprehension of the role and position of remote areas in general.
"Carried out by a team of researchers based at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, LMU Munich (Germany), we approached this through in-depth field research in the Pamirs of Tajikistan, the Himalayas of northern Nepal, India-administred Kashmir, and the interface between China’s Yunnan Province and neighboring Myanmar with its rebel-held special regions. Collectively, we have carried out more than 50 months of fieldwork. Building upon this research, we put our insights in a comparative perspective, giving attention both to the local histories and the larger geo-political processes that engulf all of them.

Our inquiry revolved around two larger sets of questions: first, the socio-spatial relations and asymmetries that contribute to the making and unmaking of remoteness; and second, the mobilities, motives, and opportunities emerging in this the evolving nexus of remoteness and connectivity.

Findings are presented in two monographs, four edited collections, two dozen journal articles and book chapters, numerous blog posts, an exhibition and a feature-length documentary film. In broad strokes, they can be summarized as follows:

Remoteness is not a primordial left-over of a bygone era, but rather as a condition that is actively made in the here and now. A generation after the end of the Cold War – with more than half of this period under the ‘war on terror’ – we see remoteness return in ways we have yet to fully understand. Often driven by national concerns for security and migration control, we witness a revival of colonial fantasies of the remote, strange and wild frontier – with large sociopolitical consequences for both global ‘centers’ and ‘margins’.

Simultaneously, we see how the promise of connectivity roars through the highlands in the form of infrastructural mega-projects – roads, railways, hydropower. The grand vision of smooth transport across some of the worlds most rugged terrains, however, does not have the anticipated effects of wiring ""remote"" and backward regions ever more closely into national and global agendas. It often leads to friction, increasing securitization and more restricted mobility for those living in these areas. This double-bind of connectivity dreamt large and a return of remoteness profoundly shapes of the social-cultural, economic and political realities we encountered."
"As our events and activities on the return of remoteness, infrastructure, and materiality/connectivity involved scholars working in a variety of contexts around the world. Our insights triggered new and productive debates in the study of borderlands and mobility. A number of new concepts emerged from the project, such as “pathways” – the lines of movement along wich life and dreams congregate in the Greater Himalayas (Saxer 2016) or “curation at large” (Saxer 2019) emerged and have since been take up by a number of scholars in the field. We made substantial progress toward the overarching aim of the project, namely to develop a radically new understanding of seemingly remote areas around the globe.

Apart from workshops, conference panels and publications, we dedicated time and energy in outreach activities to make our insights accessible to a wider audience. The exhibition ""Highland Flotsam/Strandgut am Berg"" found resonance in Munich and plans to take it on tour are well developed. Our documentary film ""Murghab"" had its international premiere at the Locarno Film Festival and is now on the international festival circuit.

In summary, the team left a lasting mark on the debates around the uneven processes of globalization in our current era, that is, a form of globalisation, that works as much from the edge as it does from the centre. This notion of globalisation benefits tremendously from an anthropological perspective that is equally informed by the legacies of the discipline and an analysis of the current world disorder from the margins."
Road construction on the Afghan side of the Panj river. ©2017 Martin Saxer
On a summer pasture in the Tajik Pamirs near the Afghan border. ©2017 Martin Saxer
Shipping containers in Kyrgyzstan; material sediments or trade imbalance. ©2014 Martin Saxer.
Road construction in Humla, Nepal, near the Tibetan border.©2016 Martin Saxer.