Helena Norberg-Hodge was born in New York City and grew up in Stockholm, Sweden. Her studies in philosophy, psychology, and art took her across the world. At age 25, she was fluent in six languages.
In 1975, Helena joined a German film team traveling to Ladakh, also known as "Little Tibet." This remote Himalayan town is located in western Tibet but governed by India. Helena's job was to pick up some of the complex language to help in the filming of a documentary. Helena thought she'd only be there for six weeks. Instead, the trip changed her life and her life's work.
Before leaving for Ladakh, Helena thought she understood most world events. But in Ladakh, she discovered the happiest people she had ever seen. Visitors had not been allowed in the area since the 1940s, and the city's remoteness had protected its culture from outside influence. Despite the harshness of living in a mountain desert with a short growing season and only glaciers for a water source, the people had a remarkably high standard of living. When she asked her guide, Dawa, to show her Ladakh's poor section, he told her there were no poor people in Ladakh.
"That first trip to Ladakh, I saw with my own eyes that it is possible for people, when they are free, to create wealth out of barren desert," Helena says. "I saw that it is possible to live differently, to live in a way that is truly more sustainable and ... peaceful and joyous and happy when people are free to develop according to their own values and their own needs."
In 1977, Helena returned to America to study linguistics at MIT with Noam Chomsky. In 1978, she and her future husband, John Page, returned to Ladakh. By then, the Indian government had opened the area to outsiders. Those external forces cause massive and rapid disruption. Ladakh's proud and self-sufficient people were becoming demoralized and debilitated.
Even Dawa, Helena's earlier guide, had changed. "He had become a walking advertisement for Western fashion," Helena says. "Metallic sunglasses, a T-shirt emblazoned with an American rock group, skintight jeans, and basketball shoes. I told him I hardly recognized him."
Helena believes that those running the global economy are imposing structural violence in our world. "The message of the Grandmothers, the message from indigenous cultures and peoples around the world has been managed, marginalized, brainwashed, and corporatized in a way that makes it very very difficult to get [the Grandmothers] message out," she said.
Helena is fighting to rebuild the strength of Ladhka's local culture and economy. She is also battling the effects of this worldwide global economy. For 25 years, she and John live 6 months out of the year in Ladakh. Helena's book, Ancient Futures: Learning From Ladakh, has been translated into 42 languages and made into a film. Helena also founded the International Society for Ecology and Culture and is on the editorial board of 'Ecologist" magazine. She also co-founded the International Forum on Globalization and the Global Eco-Village Network. For her efforts, Helena received an Alternate Nobel Prize.
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