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Rochester Himalayan project receives environmental history award

“Climate Witness: Voices from Ladakh,” an international project led by Rochester historians, aims to preserve oral testimonies at a time of rapid climate change in the Himalayas. (Courtesy of Tanya Bakhmetyeva)

Work to preserve testimonies of a people and their culture is recognized as an “outstanding model of applied environmental history scholarship.”

Several University of Rochester historians are being honored for their work in chronicling the history of climate change in Ladakh, a mountain region in the far north of India.

Tanya Bakhmetyeva, an associate professor of history and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies who serves as the associate academic director of the University’s Susan B. Anthony Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, together with Stewart Weaver, a professor of history, have been awarded the 2021 Public Outreach Project Award by the American Society for Environmental History for their project “Climate Witness: Voices from Ladakh.” Daniel Rinn, who earned his PhD in history from the University in 2020, is also part of the prize-winning team and the designer of an interactive website that the group is in the process of building to make their research accessible to the public.

More about “Climate Witness: Voices from Ladakh”

The society’s award is presented every two years to an environmental history project. “Voices of Ladakh offers an outstanding model of applied environmental history scholarship for the public good,” writes the awards committee in its citation. This project stands out for the “scale and significance of its collaboration and potential impact.” Through its website, the project “compiles and presents oral histories of climate change in the Himalayas, a region of the world relatively underrepresented in environmental history scholarship. Skillfully bridging the local and the global, the collected testimonies, archive, and website are the fruit of an international effort,” the committee writes.

The website is geared toward researchers, climate activists, and local inhabitants alike and offers insight into the regional effects of climate change. Mountain environments are particularly susceptible to climate change, placing Ladakh—which translates roughly to “land of high passes”—on the front lines of global warming. “Looking closely at the region,” Weaver says, “allows us to draw larger conclusions about the challenges of climate change at high altitude, and the ways in which mountain communities are both struggling with and successfully adapting to them.”

Bakhmetyeva and Weaver have been researching climate change and local strategies of resilience and adaptation in the Himalayas since 2017. Based in Rochester’s Department of History, they are part of a larger collaborative project that also includes Nancy Chin, a Rochester associate professor in the undergraduate public health program, and community-partners from the Himalayan Cultural Heritage Foundation, and the Central Institute for Buddhist Studies in Leh, the principal town of the Union Territory of Ladakh.

Over the course of two summers, in 2018 and 2017 respectively, the team collected and recorded a wide array of local testimonies in this high trans-Himalayan land. Last year’s research trip to Ladakh, however, was abruptly cut short: Weaver had to head back to the United States within just three days of touching down in Leh due to the rapidly spreading pandemic.

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