Heritage as Weapon: Contested Geographies of Conservation and Culture in the Great Himalayan National Park Conservation Area, India.
Mountains are one of the last refuges of biodiversity worldwide. As the global discourse on nature conservation becomes prominent within sustainability debates and local populations continue to be blamed for environmental destruction, projected territorial expansion of protected areas will likely lead to high levels of conflict and contestation around mountains of the world. At the same time, deeper penetration of transnational advocacy networks and wider connections of civil society will bring new tools of resistance to bear on this conflict. We propose that democracy plays an increasingly critical role in assisting local opposition to thwart new restrictions on access to natural areas prioritized for conservation. We illustrate this larger argument through the case of the Great Himalayan National Park Conservation Area (GHNPCA), recently designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Indian Himalayas. In their opposition to exclusion, local communities have employed heritage as a weapon, successfully marshaling the representation of the region as the “Valley of the Gods” and putting their cultural heritage to work against global conservation agendas. Tourism posters depicting the sacred geography of numerous local deities allow local communities to justify opposition to the conservation status that restricts access to their gods, while channeling their demands through elected representatives. The state navigates this complex territory between global and local heritage uneasily, primarily through a series of compromises at the local level. This article focuses on the ways in which mountain heritage—local and global, cultural and natural—is negotiated in the crucible of democracy.