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The steady decline of Ladakh’s nomadic herders

Military tensions, ecological concerns and a tourism boom, all threaten to wipe out the Changpa tribe’s traditional occupation.


On December 18, 2020, RK Mathur, the lieutenant governor of the union territory of Ladakh, chaired the first-ever meeting of the State Board for Wildlife Ladakh.

Under the Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Act, 2002, every state and union territory has to constitute such a board, whose key responsibilities include advising the local government in the “selection and management of the areas to be declared as protected areas”.

At the meeting, the board ordered the rationalisation of two vast wildlife sanctuaries in Ladakh – Changthang Cold Desert Wildlife Sanctuary and Karakoram Wildlife Sanctuary. In simple terms, rationalisation refers to the delineation of boundaries of a designated area. In a protected area, like a wildlife sanctuary, it also involves categorisation of key areas within the delineated boundaries. This is crucial to planning different conservation management efforts within the area.

The board recorded two broad reasons for this order. First, as population had grown, the use of land had changed, as had the likely further needs for development – this made it imperative to precisely mark out protected territories. Second, that there was an increased requirement of land for defence infrastructure in the region.

Of the two sanctuaries, it was Changthang where both these problems were particularly pressing. In the past five years, the region has seen significant conflicts between locals and the administration over the use of land, as well as heightened military tensions with China.

The board assigned the task of rationalisation to the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, an autonomous scientific advisory institute under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

An interim report that the institute submitted in December 2021 to the Ladakh government’s forest department noted that there were vast discrepancies between the official records on Changthang, and reality on the ground. Specifically, while the official notification of Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary, from 1987, mentioned that the protected area covered a region of 4,000 square kilometres, the map and the description of the sanctuary in the notification indicated that the sanctuary area accounted for around 13,000 square kilometres.

These discrepancies were not unknown earlier, but this was the first time they were documented in detail.

“The notification had serious errors and was very ambiguous in terms of the sanctuary’s boundaries,” said Yash Veer Bhatnagar, a scientist with Nature Conservation Foundation, a Mysuru-based non-government wildlife research and conservation organisation, and also a member of the State Board for Wildlife Ladakh.

 

The report noted that “much of the area” that technically fell within the sanctuary needed to be excluded from it “due to population growth and land use changes”. It added, “Similarly, as per national needs and army presence, much of the area needs to be rationalized from the notified sanctuary area.”

Pangong lake in Ladakh’s Changthang region. In December 2020, the State Board for Wildlife Ladakh ordered the rationalisation of Changthang sanctuary, as well as Karakoram sanctuary. Photo: Mukesh Gupta/Reuters

Many locals Scroll.in spoke to welcomed the process of rationalisation.

In Ladakh, the tourism industry has mushroomed over the last decade. In 2014, Leh, its most popular destination among tourists, saw 1.80 lakh visitors; by 2018, this number had nearly doubled, to 3.27 lakh visitors. After a dip for two years due to Covid-19, Leh saw a windfall in tourist numbers, with around 2.5 lakh tourists visiting in just June and July this year.

But confusion about the boundaries of protected areas has long been a source of conflict between locals, known as Changpas, and the government. In April 2019, for instance, the administration demolished several structures locals had built for tourism services in Spangmik village in the Pangong area. In response, locals protested by marching towards the China border, as a symbol of rejection of the administration’s authority – they were stopped by the Indian army, close to the border.

This was just one incident in a long history that residents of the region believed indicated the administration’s bias against them – some told Scroll.in that in the 2019 incident, other constructions in the same area were left untouched. “They allow construction by the tourism department and the army, but not locals,” rued 48-year-old Namgial Ombuchan, a pastoral nomad from eastern Ladakh’s Chushul village. “At the time of demolition, the authorities didn’t demolish their own huts or those of the army, but only those of the ordinary locals.”

Rationalisation, many believed, would help resolve such conflicts. “I feel rationalisation will help Changpas have alternative economic opportunities,” explained Tsering Angchok from Phobrang, India’s last village on the eastern Ladakh border. “It will be easier to do constructions and make some investment in tourism sector.”

Less clear is the effect that this change will have on those of the community who continue to practice the traditional occupation of herding – wool from goats they rear have been the primary source of raw material for Ladakh’s famed pashmina industry, which was worth 100 crore in 2021.

range of government measures has ensured that the pashmina industry has remained stable over the years. These include programmes by the textile ministry targeted at promoting the production and sale of pashmina, as well at improving the living standards of the nomads who rear pashmina goats.

But India’s share of global production is only 1% – the trade is dominated by China, which supplies around 75% of the fabric to the world. India’s position is likely to be further challenged as, for a variety of reasons, herding declines as an occupation among the community. These include pressures from the army, new and more stable avenues of employment, as well as changing vegetation patterns as a result of climate change.

For now, only those of an older generation, who have a close bond with the land, remain in the profession.

“I will do this work as long as I am alive,” said 48-year-old Ombuchan, who owns 250 sheep and goats. “I have three children, and all of them go to school far off from here. They don’t want to do this work.” Even if they did return to the region, he added, “they won’t be walking behind sheep and goats, because it entails a lot of hard work. They might do something related to tourism or find a job to make easy money.”

The Changthang region is a high-altitude cold desert with an average altitude of 4,500 metres above sea level, comprising an area of 22,000 square kilometres. With a population of a little more than 13,000, according to the 2011 census, it is India’s most sparsely populated region.

Bird Migration across the Himalayas, an edited volume by Herbert HT Prins and Tsewang Namgail, defines the landscape of Changthang as one “marked by high-altitude steppe, brackish lakes, wetlands and mountains” and its climate as being “characterized by extreme cold, strong winds, relative aridity and high radiation.”

According to the Wildlife Institute of India’s interim report on rationalisation, the region is dotted with many high-altitude lakes, out of which 13 are major lakes and 10 are marshes along major rivers. It is also a habitat for a spectrum of animal species, including endangered snow leopards, great Tibetan sheep, yaks, Tibetan wild ass, black-necked cranes and Tibetan gazelles.

Tibetan wild ass in Changthang. The region is a habitat for a spectrum of animal species, including snow leopards, great Tibetan sheep, yaks, black-necked cranes and Tibetan gazelles. Photo: Wani Zeeshan

In 1989, in recognition of their distinctive lifestyle and occupation, the Changpa community, who inhabit the region, were given the status of a Scheduled Tribe by the Jammu and Kashmir government. While many of these pastoralists are of Indian origin, a significant number of them trace their origin to Tibetans who migrated towards India during the late 1950s and subsequent years.

The 1987 notification of a section of the Changthang landscape as a wildlife sanctuary observed that the area had “adequate ecological, faunal, floral, geomorphological significance for purposes of protecting, propagating and developing wildlife or its environment.”

But while the notification stated that 4,000 square km was to be protected, and maps issued with the notification indicated that 13,000 square km was protected, Bhatnagar explained that on the ground, the government essentially treated the entire 22,000 square km as protected area.

This, he said, was detrimental in every way: from the perspective of the locals, for the defence establishment, and for wildlife conservation.

“The thing is, if you are considering the entire Changthang region as a sanctuary then effectively everything and anything the defence forces do there, is illegal,” he said. “Similarly, anything and everything that is done by the government in terms of the welfare of people, like installing water supply or making roads, is illegal.”

 

Meanwhile, from the conservation perspective, it was simply too sprawling an area to administer as a protected territory, he explained. Rather, what was needed was to identify core areas, for which conservation objectives could be set and pursued.

The conflicts within the protected area only intensified after the state of Jammu and Kashmir was divided and downgraded in 2019 by the Central government into two union territories: one bearing the name of the former state, and the other, Ladakh.

When Ladakh was a part of the Jammu and Kashmir state, “there weren’t many restrictions or objections from the wildlife department. That’s why so many constructions, even though temporary, have taken place on the banks of Pangong lake over the years,” explained Tashi Namgyal Yakzee, executive councilor of Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Leh. The council is one of two autonomous governance bodies in the union territory whose members are elected through direct vote by the public. (The other is the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Kargil.)

“After we became a union territory, it became a serious issue,” said Yakzee, who holds the portfolio of animal and sheep husbandry and wildlife in the council. He added that the lieutenant governor “was forced to act. Then the wildlife board was constituted and a decision of rationalisation was taken.”

According to Yakzee, rationalisation will pave the way for key development works in the Changthang region.

This work is expected to be boosted by a Rs 245 crore development package for the Changthang region, which the lieutenant governor announced in August 2020. Under the package, the government aims to develop critical infrastructure, including for housing, health and education, and avenues of employment in the region. Tailored according to the region’s pastoralist economy, “most” of the package’s funds are to be utilised in the construction of insulated houses for the Changpa nomads in the region, according to a government release. Two museums that showcase the Changpa community’s lifestyle and culture are also coming up in the region under the plan.

But progress on all these fronts is slowed down by the fact that the rationalisation is yet to be completed. Yakzee explained that the ambiguity about the boundaries of Changthang wildlife sanctuary was acting as a hurdle, since wildlife laws prohibited infrastructural work in the area. “Once the rationalisation is done, the scope for these impediments doesn’t arise,” he said. “We are all waiting for its completion.”

Insulated homes for Changpas under construction in Changthang’s Tso Kar area. Many believe that the process of rationalisation will speed up developent in the region. Photo: Wani Zeeshan

Rationalisation is also expected to expedite defence-related infrastructure projects in the region, according to a senior government official in the Ladakh administration. In the aftermath of border tensions in 2020 along the Line of Actual Control, the board had cleared many proposals for establishing army outposts and laying down roads in the region. Work on many of these projects is still ongoing.

For now, all the defence-related projects within the wildlife sanctuary region are assessed and cleared by the National Board of Wildlife. Once certain areas are identified as lying outside protected areas, the official explained, the army will not require the board’s clearance for work in them.

While many welcome the process of rationalisation, and the accompanying development, some anticipate that it will likely intensify the multiple pressures that herders have been facing in recent years.

These include pressures from the army: nomads across eastern Ladakh complain that in the aftermath of border clashes with China in 2020, the army began denying access to pastures for their livestock due to the lands’ proximity to the Chinese border.

Tensions with China had increased that year to a level not seen since the 1962 Sino-Indian war. They peaked in June, after 20 Indian soldiers were killed in clashes with Chinese forces in eastern Ladakh’s Galwan Valley.

Among the areas to which herders found their access restricted was Gurung Hill, near eastern Ladakh’s Chushul area. During the 2020 border standoff between India and China, the hill, located south of Pangong lake, became one of the places where Indian army forces mobilised to preempt any intrusion by Chinese soldiers.

For the nomads of Chushul, the army’s deployment on the hill deprived them of a key winter pasture for their livestock.

“Earlier, we used to cross the hill and graze our livestock on its foothills on the other side,” explained Namgial Ombuchan, the nomad from Chushul, who had been visiting the hill to graze his livestock for decades. “But now the army is not even allowing us to come near the hill. They wave red flags and chase us away.”

 

At the same time, the army – along with those who set up tourism enterprises – also indirectly contributes to the traditional pastoralism because it offers locals relatively stable employment.

Seventy-year-old Tsering Angchuk explained that many locals had chosen “to work on a decent monthly salary as labourers with the army or BRO”, the Border Roads Organisation. Others, he said, had “invested in tourism business like camping sites and cottages”. In contrast, he added, “Rearing livestock is a difficult job and there are no holidays or rest.”

Angchuk lives in Phobrang, India’s last village on its eastern border with China. He is a retired paramilitary personnel who has also in the past served as the village’s sarpanch, and as an elected executive councilor of Leh’s autonomous council. Until last year, he had a flock of around 90 sheep and goats. In summers, Angchuk would send his livestock with other nomads of the village to pastures for grazing. “I would pay for them in the form of barley and fodder that I grow on my farm,” he explained. In winters, he liked to take care of the animals at his home or some nearby winter pastures in the village.

However, this winter, he was simply unable to tend to his animals because of his advanced age.

Angchuk has four sons and three daughters. None of them are ready to take up their father’s work. All of them work with different arms of the government, far from their home.

“It isn’t possible for a 70-year-old man to take care of livestock,” he said. “Therefore, I sold them.”

Angchuk’s decision has become a norm in Phobrang. “Ten years ago, 99% of this village was nomadic and everyone had goats and sheep,” explained Angchuk. Today, out of a total of 110 families in the village, only 14 have members who are nomadic pastoralists. All of them belong to the older generation of Changpas, whose children have either shifted to Leh in search of work or better education.

A Changpa nomad hut in Leh’s Chumanthang region. In the face of multiple pressures, such as from the army, fewer members of the community are continuing with their traditional work of herding. Photo: Zeeshan Wani

Nowhere is this phenomenon more visible than in eastern Ladakh, in villages like Man, Merak, Spangmik and Lukung, situated on the banks of the famous Pangong lake. Not so long ago, locals recount, all the villagers engaged in livestock rearing and barley farming to earn their livelihood. But within the last two decades or so, the region has transformed into a tourist hub, and almost every household has converted its house into a homestay or cafe for tourists. “All of us are Changpas culturally, but with a new source of livelihood,” said Chewang Rigzin, a practitioner of Tibetan medicine in Merak.

Apart from these economic pressures, some experts believe that climate change is also likely to have a negative impact on the occupation of livestock rearing.

A study published in August by Nature Climate Change journal, projected that the Tibetan Plateau, of which Ladakh is a part, also known as the “water tower” of Asia could lose significant water storage capacity by 2050 due to climate change. The freshwater systems on the plateau supply water to nearly 2 billion people. In the Indus basin, the river system which originates on the plateau, and which supplies water to India and Pakistan, the water-supply capacity is expected to decline by 79%.

“Water scarcity is a big issue in Changthang,” noted Dr Kunzes Angmo, of Leh’s High Mountain Arid Agriculture Research Institute, or HMARI, who has worked as a researcher in Changthang. “Older people say there used to be a lot of snowfall in the past. Now it’s not happening. Besides, the precipitation is not happening at the right time.”

Alongside this change, she noted, the region’s vegetation was changing. “Earlier, there were more palatable grasses for the livestock,” she said.

She also noted that a plant known as Cirsium, or creeping thistle, “is increasingly growing in Changthang. It’s a weed with thorns and is not palatable. During my recent observation in the region, I saw it everywhere. This is something which can be problematic in future.”

Studies attest to Angmo’s observations about shifts in vegetation patterns. In April 2020, a study published in the journal ‘Food and Scientific Reports’ pointed out that Ladakh’s native species of vegetation are under pressure from weeds like CirsiumThe study warned of the plant eventually driving out nomads from the region.

“These weeds are now fast occupying the pastures and reducing the palatable plants or grass species in eastern Ladakh-Changthang of cold and arid regions,” it noted, “and therefore compelling livestock to migrate in other parts of the region in search of forages.”

 

Residents have also observed shifts in climate and vegetation over the years. In perhaps the most catastrophic example, in early 2013, the region witnessed its worst snowfall in nearly 50 years, resulting in the death of over 18,000 Pashmina goats due to harsh weather and lack of fodder.

“The climate is upside down. We are witnessing a lot of heat in winters and biting cold in summers,” said Guru Tsering, a 51-year-old nomad from Chumathang, who, in mid August, was camping with three other nomad families of his village in the pastures near the panoramic Yaya Lake.

Tsering added that there are some years when herders struggled to find grass “Last year, there was bad grass and our livestock had a really difficult time finding fodder,” he said. There had been “relatively better” grass this year, added Tsering.

Guru Tsering with a family member in Chumanthang. Tsering has observed dramatic shifts in the region’s climate in recent years, as well as major changes to the vegetation of the landscape. Photo: Wani Zeeshan

Tsering, like many nomads in Changthang region, is on the verge of giving up livestock rearing. His four children study in Leh city. His knees give him trouble, as a result of which he has put on weight and is unable to move like he used to. “I think I will be able to do this work for the next four-five years only,” he said. “After that I will look for work in the army or GREF,” the General Reserve Engineer Force.

Tsering owns 350 sheep and goats, but doesn’t own any land. His is one among the four families in Chumathang who still rear livestock. “There are a total 16 families in Chumathang who had been working as Changpas for nearly 150 years,” Tsering pointed out. “Now, it’s only four of us, and we don’t know till how long we will continue to do this.”

The shifts in the lives of Changpas is also likely to affect Kashmir’s handicrafts industry – most nomadic herders derive their livelihood by producing world-famous pashmina or cashmere wool sourced from Changra goats reared in the region.

Official estimates suggest that around 2,500 Changpa families currently engage in pashmina production. But according to those in the region, this number is dropping steadily, although as of now no official estimates are available of this shift.

“We are witnessing nomads selling their livestock and shifting to Leh for better opportunities, in front of our eyes,” said Thinles Nurboo, general secretary of Leh’s All Changthang Pashmina Growers Cooperative Marketing Society, a federation of 22 cooperatives who procure pashmina from growers and market it outside Ladakh.

For now, the decline in number of livestock itself has not been dramatic. According to an estimate by Leh district’s sheep husbandry department, there are currently around 2 lakh sheep and goats in the Changthang region. Around ten years back, this number stood at 2.3 lakh. “There is some decline in the number of households who have left livestock rearing as an occupation. But the number of livestock is not declining to a great degree,” underlined Dr Tundup Namgyal, Leh district’s sheep husbandry officer.

But in the absence of a steady rise in livestock numbers, the production of pashmina in recent years has also not shown significant growth.

In 2014, the production stood at 45 metric tonnes; this rose to nearly 50 tonnes in 2016. But in 2021, the production stood at 45 metric tonnes again, according to Leh’s sheep husbandry department.

According to Namgyal, for now, the department’s efforts to control diseases and improve yield from animals has ensured that the total production of pashmina fabric has not dipped. “The average productivity per animal has gone up,” he said. “Earlier, it used to be around 190 grams per animal which has gone up to 250 grams per animal. At present, the situation is more or less stable.”

In fact, procurement by the All Changthang Pashmina Growers Cooperative Marketing Society also remains high: every year, the cooperative procures between 60%and 70% of the total 45 tonnes of pashmina produced in Ladakh. The rest of the produce is procured by entrepreneurs and dealers directly from the nomads. “In 2020-’21, we procured 11 tonnes of Pashmina. The next year, the procurement rose to 17 tonnes,” explained Thinles Nurboo.

But Nurboo cautioned that this increase was at odds with the decline he had observed in the overall number of growers in the business. He believes that the rise in the cooperative’s procurement could simply be because more growers sold their pashmina to the cooperative in 2021-’22, as opposed to selling to other buyers the previous year.

A Changpa herder with pashmina goats in Leh. Some experts believe that the decline in herding as a livelihood could eventually hurt Ladakh’s lucrative pashmina industry. Photo: Noemi Cassanelli/ AFP

According to Nurboo, the real picture of the pashmina industry might emerge only gradually, owing to a lack of data about the growers and their selling patterns. “We are issuing grower cards and data is being compiled,” he said. “We’ll get an idea about how much pashmina is there and how many growers are there. We can also track the growers and where they are selling.”

Nurboo added that despite the challenges it faced, the pashmina sector remained lucrative and held the potential to allow Changthang’s nomads to retain their traditional identity and lifestyle. “Ladakhi pashmina is a brand and has a huge potential in the international as well as local market,” Nurboo said.

But in order to tap this potential, he explained, growers would need to be given greater incentives to remain in the business.

Currently, pashmina is purchased in raw form from nomads, and rises sharply in value as it is put through processes such as cleaning and dehairing. “There’s a huge difference in what a grower gets for his produce and the final products made from the fine quality fabric,” he said.

 

According to a pashmina dealer in Kashmir, who asked to remain anonymous, raw pashmina, sourced from Changpas, is typically procured for between Rs 3,000 and Rs 4,000 per kilogram. After dehairing and cleaning, the material is turned into wool, which sells at between Rs 18,000 and Rs 20,000 per kilogram. A kilogram of raw pashmina yields around 250 grams of wool. This wool – either through machinery or manual work – is turned into a similar quantity of yarn, which is used to weave shawls, stoles and other fabrics. A shawl, which typically needs 200 grams of pashmina yarn, sells for between Rs 8,000 and Rs 10,000 – an increase of more than 1,000% from the raw pashmina.

Nurboo suggested that the government needed to introduce a policy “where the nomads themselves process the fabric at their own level and then sell it to the outside market. It will automatically add value to their produce and many might find the trade profitable enough to not give it up,” he said.

Ladakh’s infrastructure to process pashmina is also limited. Dr Tundup Namgyal of the Leh’s sheep husbandry department explained that the existing Pashmina dehairing plant in Leh can only process a limited amount of the raw wool. “We are establishing another advanced dehairing plant in Leh and the work is on. It will be completed soon,” he said.

Some initiatives are underway to help boost Ladakh’s pashmina industry. Among them is Looms of Ladakh, cooperative of local women of the Changthang region, who process pashmina themselves, and design products for the market. The initative was set up in 2017 by Prasanna Ramaswamy G, a serving Indian Administrative Officer in Leh, and his wife, Abhilasha. It can now absorb 200 local women as employees, and thus serves as a significant example of how the industry can be boosted with innovative ideas of localised entrepreneurship.

Nurboo noted that the All Changthang Pashmina Growers Cooperative Marketing Society, besides procuring pashmina from growers at a minimum support price, also promotes local entrepreneurship around pashmina. “We work with various student organisations and provide career counseling to them, related to the intricacies and opportunities in the pashmina trade,” said Nurboo.

However, Nurboo conceded that there were gaps in government policy on pashmina. “The new pashmina dehairing plant has been built in Leh, which is far for the people of Changthang. It should have come up in Changthang itself and local people should be trained and employed to run it.”

Dr Kunzes Angmo, the researcher at Leh’s High Mountain Arid Agriculture Research Institute, feels the protection of the traditional livelihood of Changpas will need interventions at the grassroots level as well. “The problem in Changthang is very basic,” she said. “There are no basic facilities like electricity, communication, educational and health institutions. If we are able to provide them all these facilities within their native setting and at the same time add value to their work, many of them will go back to their older, sustainable ways of livelihood.”

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Ref: Changpa tribe: the steady decline of Ladakh’s nomadic herders (scroll.in)

Cover picture by Shiuli Jamuar