Ladakh pashmina-goat nomads dwindle
VSCITY LIFE is easy, Tsetan Paljor mocks, spinning a prayer wheel as he sits by a stream where, on a small island, three crimson-robed llamas take a nap. City dwellers don’t have the stress we have, he says: are goats eating enough? Do snow leopards roam? Mr. Paljor, 69, is a member of the Kharnak, one of the three Changpa tribes, who live in Ladakh, in the far north of India. As far back as we can remember, these tribes have bred goats native to the Changthang Plateau, the only goats to produce pashmina, the most prized and expensive type of cashmere.
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To call life here hard is, for this city correspondent, an understatement. The Changthang Plateau is 15,000 feet above sea level. The air is so thin that it hurts the head and bleeds from the nose, and leaves visitors breathless. Winter temperatures drop to -35 Â° C and, other than the lush green on the creek banks, there are few signs of plant life. It is a barren landscape, mountains rising bare on all sides.
It hasn’t always been that way. “There was grass on that mountain,” said Tsering Phuntsog, the 65-year-old tribal leader, pointing to a nearby slope. But over the past decade, temperatures have risen and precipitation has decreased. âIt doesn’t rain when it’s supposed to rain. It doesn’t snow when it’s supposed to snow, âhe says, and when it does, he doesn’t do enough.
The result is that there is not enough grass left for the animals to graze. The little brush that emerges is not ideal for goats. Less weed means less pashmina. It also means inferior pashmina. It weakens animals: they fall ill more frequently and premature births multiply. Additionally, tribal elders complain, the fodder the state government used to send has dried up since an administrative change in 2019 separated Ladakh from the rest of Jammu state. -and-Kashmir and made that the two new “Union Territories” Delhi, the capital of India.
What can be done? One answer is prayer: the napping lamas are visiting because the locals are in the middle of a week of chanting to the Buddha. âBut still very few falls,â says Phuntsog. A more immediate solution is to move each month in search of greener pastures, compared to six or seven times a year in the past.
The shortage of fodder is exacerbated by the lack of labor. Barely 20 families remain among the Kharnaks, raising some 13,000 animals between them: mainly goats but also sheep for trade, horses for transport, yaks for wool and female dri – yaks – for their milk, which is churned into butter and added as a calorie-booster to tea that nomads drink throughout the day. Here the body needs as much energy as it can get. The youngest adult member of the tribe is 28 years old. Most are in their sixties. There are not enough men to take care of the grazing herds.
Emigration began around 15 years ago, says Paljor, when young people started to study in Leh, the largest city in Ladakh, about 150 km away. They rarely returned. âBut in 2009, eight or ten families left together, and that’s when we realized it was a demographic crisis,â he says. Admittedly, winters are harsh, and until the state recently built an all-weather road, the valley was cut off from the world for part of the year. “But if they keep on leaving, all the culture will be gone.”
It is not only young people who are moving to cities. The latest loss was Tsering Angchuk, 68, who left the tribe in August to be with his daughter and son-in-law in Kharnakling, a settlement just outside Leh where many Kharnaks built houses (“ling” is the Ladakhi equivalent of “-ville” or “-ville”). âIt’s good to be there. In fact, we should be there, âMr. Angchuk said, referring to the valley, while sipping butter tea. âBut as you get older there is no one to look after you or the herd. So there is no other choice but to come here. It is true that life is easier in the city: âYou don’t have to worry about feeding the goats or the sheep being eaten. But there is a difference, he adds, between ease and happiness.
As the tribe dwindles, they must rely on outsiders to fill the void. In recent years, the elders have employed migrants to graze their animals, paying 25,000 rupees ($ 335) per month, a 40% premium over the cost of daily labor in Leh. But restrictions on coronaviruses over the past two years have reduced the supply of workers, who are now demanding higher wages.
Nomads will pay. They recently realized how valuable their wool is, after years of trading it with street vendors for apples and jaggery (a type of sugar), or selling the whole animals to butchers for a fifth of the price. that they are currently getting.
Living conditions are also expected to improve. Last year, the local government announced Rs 2.5 billion in development assistance for Changthang, to be spent on things like all-weather roads, electricity, mobile towers and fodder. âThis is the 21st century. Nomads are now learning to read and write. After all that, you can’t tell them to go back to cattle and grazing, âsays Tashi Gyalson, head of Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council. âThose who want to stay with the cattle, we do what we can for them. “
Mr. Angchuk, the last emigrant, is also optimistic. On the one hand, he says, the Buddha will never allow their culture to die out. On the other hand, you never know: young people may end up realizing that they belong to their homeland, where they have their own identity. But most important, he says, âare modern times. Winters can be harsh. But now we have ways to deal with it. â
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This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “How green was my valley”