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Image: at the crossroads in Sary Tash,Kyrgyzstan ©Martin Saxer, 2013

09-07-2018

In the highlands of Asia, an area spanning the mountain regions between the Pamirs and the eastern Himalayas, livelihoods are shaped as much by remoteness as by connectivity. With ERC funding, Dr Martin Saxer intends to shed new light on these areas at the edge of nation-states yet in the centre of geopolitical concerns.

What happens at the Afghan-Tajik border, in Kashmir, Tibet or Northeast India has a global impact. These frontier areas are depicted as refuges for transnational insurgents, as realms of authentic tribal culture, as trafficking routes for drugs and wildlife, or simply as underdeveloped rural peripheries. Policy-makers struggle to comprehend the dynamics involved, and local communities continue to feel misunderstood.

Remoteness is often assumed to be the defining condition of the highlands of Asia – they are isolated and far away from developed urban centres and state control. However, connectivity with the outside world is an essential feature of these zones which were for centuries crossroads of intensive exchange until, in the mid-twentieth century, they became peripheries at the margins of China and India. In the last years, these hotspots of tension and insecurity have increasingly become again areas of trade and exchange. Old trade routes closed for generations reopened and the quest for natural resources and new markets is attracting new actors and capital.

Dr Saxer studies this ongoing and poorly understood transformation, focusing on four locations: the Pamirs of Tajikistan, the Himalayas of northern Nepal bordering China, the Indian-administered Kashmir, and the interface between China’s Yunnan Province and neighbouring Myanmar. Building on extensive field work, he came to understand that remoteness and connectivity are not two independent features in these areas but are intertwined in many ways. He is investigating this dynamics adopting a comparative perspective, taking into account local histories as well as larger geo-political processes.

Apart from gaining insights into the role and position of remote Asian highlands in the world, this project is laying the groundwork for a better understanding of seemingly remote areas around the globe.

Martin Saxer was a Clarendon scholar at Oxford and received his doctorate in 2010. He conducted extensive fieldwork in Siberia, Tibet and Nepal and published the book Manufacturing Tibetan Medicine: The Creation of an Industry and the Moral Economy of Tibetanness (Berghahn 2013). He currently leads a 5-year research project funded by an ERC Starting Grant under the title “Remoteness & Connectivity: Highland Asia in the World”.