Kumaon is a mountainous division of a newly independent Indian state, Uttarakhand. The rural region with dramatic topography and the hill people who live there are often represented as ‘backwards’ by scholars, historians, and politicians alike. Although once subjected to an extractive history of British colonial and Indian national imperatives, the hills region now thrives economically in its current development trends. In this study I explore why the isolated, seemingly ‘underdeveloped’ region of Kumaon that has only recently emerged is now able to succeed in fulfilling its own grassroots development vision. I propose an answer rooted in identity politics and a regional social movement. I examine the interdependency between geography and social and historical social processes, to inform my analysis of the local identity-based development strategy. The analysis uses data collected through qualitative, ethnographic interviews and participant observation in the field. Supplementing the primary data with literature on identity assertion as a response to colonial and neocolonial processes, I argue that Kumaon has thrived and made significant progress because development there is inextricably linked to a regional identity of isolation and to collective movements for social change. These social movements distinguish Kumaon and have contributed to the evolution of a conservationist and rights oriented regional identity, which has helped form a particular vision for Kumaoni development focused on the environmental and economic rights of the people living in its hills.