Harsh Climate Causes out-migration of Nomads


Athar Parvaiz 


Bihkit  Angmo’s family  in Kharnak area of the vast Changthang belt of Ladakh is one of the few families among Changpa pastoral nomads that have stayed back to rear Pashmina-producing goats. Over the past few years the unprecedented climatic variations — which didn’t only cause problems for the nomads but also killed their Pashmina goats — have forced many nomad families to migrate towards the Leh city for alternative livelihoods. This, experts say, can leave a serious impact on the rearing of famous Pashmina goat unique to the Changthang belt.

“In many parts of the world, the pastoral nomads are under pressure of marginalisation and modernisation, as their land is being used for agriculture. Though the Changpa pastoral nomads are not prone to the same pressures as the land of Changthang has no potential for agriculture, the chain of adverse conditions like abnormal weather conditions and shortage of winter are forcing the Changpas to abandon their nomadic lives, their traditions [and culture],” writes Veena Bhasin of Department of Anthropology, University of Delhi in her paper Life on an Edge among the Changpas of Changthang, Ladakh.

“Climate change is emerging as a real threat to the Changpa society. The capacity to adapt to climate change is strongly linked to the capacity to respond to shocks and long-term transformation of any type,” she explains.

Changthang, north-west of Indian capital New Delhi, used to receive a snowfall of around five inches in the past, but the heavy snowfall in January 2013 and the one in the winter of 2008 has dismayed the local community which is known for rearing the famous Pashmina goat.

As per the records maintained at the District Sheep Husbandry Office in Leh, as many as 24,624 goats perished due to weather upheavals in the winter of 2013. The heavy snowfall caused extreme fodder shortage as the goats couldn’t graze because of the heavy snowfall. Pastoralists say that this was “quite unusual” for them.

The 2008 heavy snowfall had also killed thousands of goats because of fodder shortage and hypothermia following exceptional snowfall.

The Changthang region, which is part of the larger Tibetan Plateau, does not normally witness heavy snowfall. That may now be changing, given the heavy snowfall twice in six years that deprived the Changpas of fodder for their animals.

“In the past six years I could witness such heavy snowfall twice,” Angmo, 53, told this correspondent outside her tent in Kharnak, a nomadic settlement 173 km east of Leh, the main town of Ladakh region. “This new trend of snowfall several feet high has left us quite worried.”

Three summers in past six years brought their own problems, leaving areas parched and barren. “It was terrible, we had to go long distances to find suitable pasture for our livestock,” said Angmo.

Migrating for Livelihoods

Some 83 families out of a total of 98 in Kharnak have migrated to Leh city, according to the figures available in the district sheep husbandry office.

“For the past several years our surveys show that five to 10 families from the Changthang area migrate to Leh city every year,” said Mohammad Sharief, the district sheep husbandry officer.  According to Sharief, there are an estimated 2,500 Changpa families managing about 200,000 goats in Changthang. Each goat produces 250 grams of wool in a season. The wool sells at about 35 dollars a kilogram.


A herd of Pashmina goats
A herd of Pashmina goats at Korzok in Changthang

Nomads from Changthang have set up their own neighbourhood in Leh called Kharnak Ling. “All the families that have migrated from Kharnak and other belts of Changthang have settled here,” said Sharief. Local residents of Leh city said that they are witnessing a slow migration of Changthang community members towards the urban area.

Forty-three-year-old Motub Angmo is among those who migrated from Kharnak five years back to settle in Leh. The hard mountain life had got to her family, she said, and they moved out after selling off the 300 goats the family had.

“Now that we have no livestock, our men go and work as labourers at construction sites or in the agricultural fields,” she said. Her five children go to a proper school now in Leh. The mobile schools that the government had set up for nomads in the mountains did not succeed. Some of us, Angmo said, work as tourist guides while some work in other capacities in travel agencies.

Future at Stake!

If things continue this way, Sharief said Pashmina-goat rearing would come to an end in the next two decades. That would also mean the end of the livelihoods for about 300,000 people in the Jammu and Kashmir state who depend on pashmina from Ladakh, directly or indirectly, says Shariq Farooqi, director of the Craft Development Institute in Srinagar, the summer capital of the state.

Kashmiri craftsmen have used these for generations to make the renowned pashmina shawl, woven with hand and often embellished with fine embroidery. A pashmina shawl can cost about 200-600 dollars. Pashmina exports fetch millions of dollars annually.

“We all rely on pashmina for making shawls,” Ashraf Banday, a pashmina trader in Srinagar, said. “Any threat to its production means a threat to our livelihood.” As it is, he said, the Kashmir pashmina industry is suffering because of duplicate products in the market. “Any decline in pashmina production will make it even more vulnerable.”

Wool of the Pashmina goat is extremely warm, given the cold the animal has to survive in — temperature can drop to minus 35 degrees Celsius in the parts of Tibetan Plateau such as Ladakh. More than 14,000 feet above sea level, the plateau is often called the Roof of the World.

With a diameter of 14-19 microns, strands of pashmina are said to be six times finer than human hair.

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