Cassie Denbow: The Hindu-Kush Himalayas (HKH) is one of the most diverse ecological regions in the world. Stretching from Afghanistan to Myanmar, the mountainous region encompasses the world’s highest peaks, 30% of the world’s glaciers, and provides between 1.3-1.8 billion people with water and other natural resources. The Western Indian Himalayas are the segment of the Hindu Kush Mountains located in western India. They encompass three states, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu Kashmir. Uttarakhand, the newest of the three, was formed in 2000 when it split with Uttar Pradesh in a quest for autonomy and political independence. In all three states, somewhere between 70-80% of the population is involved in agriculture.
The under -development of mountain communities translates to insufficient infrastructure to help farmers adapt to the rapidly changing climate scenarios. As a result, climate change poses a huge threat to both the livelihoods of millions of people, but also to the economies of the western Indian Himalayan states.
This study addresses three parts of the climate discussion in Raithal and Nateen two agricultural and animal husbandry based communities in the Garhwal Himalayas, Uttarakhand. There are three primary components:
- Documenting community reported climate changes and the impact of these changes on cash crops and community livelihoods;
- Gauging and recording the community understanding of what is causing weather changes specifically, are they caused by human influences or a higher power;
- Eliciting community based suggestions on how farmers can adapt to changing environmental conditions.
It is important to note that the focus of this study are the regional climate change experiences of community members . The scientific data is an important tool for understanding changing weather patterns in the Himalayas. However, the experience of those who live and understand various ecosystem functions in the region is an equally critical tool to develop a complete climate change picture .
The Land of the Gods, and Cash Crops
Uttarakhand state in India is often referred to as the land of the gods due to its high mountain vistas and religious holy sites with a wealth of ecological and cultural diversity. The state is divided into two primary regions, Garhwal and Kumaon with 13 districts within the two. The Garhwal region, the location of this study, contains the pilgrimage locations of Haridwar and Gangotri, as well as Dehradun, the state capital.
When discussing the development of rural communities, it’s important to take into account the influence of the surrounding geography. The study villages Nateen and Raithal are located below the Dayara Bugyals (meadows), a series of high alpine meadows used for various animal husbandry practices like grazing goats, buffalo, and cows. For generations the villagers have divided their year between the communities themselves, and the shelters on top of the high mountains. In addition to animal husbandry the community members historically grew kitchen gardens to supply vegetables for personal consumption. These gardens regularly included mixed growing practices such as Dalhan, a mix of high protein legumes, and Tilhan, a mix of oil producing seeds such as mustard. By growing a wide diversity of both oil producing seeds and dal, families have historically ensured their own food security.
In the past thirty years an economic shift has occurred. With the introduction of potatoes as a cash crop, famers moved away from a primarily subsistence based farming community to that of a profit based one, growing kidney beans, amaranths, potatoes, and wheat. This switch increased incomes and improved access to schools and institutions of higher education, in addition to technology and automobiles. While cowbells still clang through the mountains, satellite dishes peak from rooftop after rooftop.
Reported Weather Changes
The shift to cash crops, while economically beneficial, has left community members susceptible to increasingly erratic weather patterns. The villagers reported especially wet growing seasons that ruined potato crops in the ground and caused landslides, delaying the delivery and transportation of produce. During the winter they saw substantially reduced snowfall levels. While village elders told of winters past where going outside was nearly impossible, recent winters brought little snow. The lack of snow, and accompanying freezing ground, impacts the storage of seeds, typically buried in below ground vaults and covered with sheds for protection. While community members were yet to see a change in potable water flows, they expressed concern that a continuing lack of snow would impact the glacial melt therefore harming future water access.
Development And The Gods
A combination of higher incomes within the community and better road access to the region is creating a development boom. As foreigners and nationals alike are able to reach the mountains faster and safer, chai shops (tea shops), hotels, and restaurants have followed. In addition, Delhi’s need for more and more power, has spurred the construction of massive hydroelectric dams to harness the river power throughout the region, such as the Tehri Dam and ongoing work at Pala Maneri Hydro power. The added traffic from transport of people, goods, and building materials, in addition to the complications surrounding waste management, is creating a complex situation that requires the benefits of development to be discussed within the context of the environmental cost.
This nexus, in addition to conversations with academics in larger towns, guided the second part of the study; what role, if any, rural community members saw themselves having in the reported climate changes. The results were mixed by age and education level. It was the younger generations, those that benefited from increased access to education that came from higher income levels when cash crops were adopted, that correlated the changes with human involvement. The community elders generally viewed the climatic changes as a result of higher powers beyond their control. As explained by one woman interviewed, she understood the connection between increased emissions from diesel trucks and construction but due to the economic and social benefits for her family, she was unwilling to advocate against it.
Community Adaptation Suggestions
Synthesizing the interviews given, it was important to find out how farmers thought the community could adapt. Throughout the process, community members expressed a range of emotions for the climatic changes spiraling around them. Everything from fear and despair, to hope that tourism moving to the region could provide a tangible alternative to agriculture. Farmers were asked what they could do to secure a more stable future. 33% of those interviewed wanted to increase the diversity. Aloe vera and the “chip potato” were cited as possible income producing crops that could be worked into the communities field rotation. Aloe vera, a plant that did not historically grow in the region, is successfully being grown in kitchen gardens .
The “chip potato” a variety of potato created by the Indian Tobacco Company for the sole purpose of producing potato chips is durable and works well with wet climates, an increasing reality of the farmers. At the time of the survey, only one family in the community was growing the variety. While potato crop production was generally dismal during the 2011 growing season, the chip potato thrived. Other suggestions included increasing irrigation techniques and increasing the use of chemical fertilizers.
As with many countries and regions grappling with the benefits of development versus the cost, there is a need for a serious discussion that incorporates the wants and needs of the community with that of the environment. The Van Panchayats, a community supported conservation group developed in the region, could be a powerful tool for just that sort of dialogue. While there is an immense and valuable set of knowledge on the land and ecosystems held by farmers, it is critical to not overlook the wants of the current generations. TV, radio, cellphones, and education have opened their world up. The manual, and currently economically un-rewarding, labor entailed in mountain farming is not an appealing future career. A series of interviews conducted at schools throughout the region confirmed this. Consistently, there was little interest in farming. Future jobs most commonly listed included tourism, government jobs, and teaching.
Recognizing the sensitive ecological needs of the natural environment in addition to the rapidly shifting wants of the younger generations to leave agriculture, a challenge is presented to development workers, environmentalists, and the community at large. Maintaining the rich Garwhali culture is critical, but so is finding a development strategy that provides the increased income desired by the community while still protecting the environment. It is up to regional NGO’s and community groups such as the Van Panchayats to develop strategies that do so.
Those who love the Himalayas must understand that the strongest advocates are those who already inhabit the region, their unique knowledge and skill set to live with the land contains invaluable lessons and solutions. Listening to their experiences is key.
Author: Ms. Cassie Denbow (USA) writes a detailed note of her study during fall 2011 in Uttarakhand, where she explored and interviewed people in the study area of Uttarkashi district. During this study Cassie was a trainee on Sustainable Development and Social Change Programme at World Learning India/School of International training based in Jaipur www.worldlearning.org . Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org and blog http://luminescentglee.blogspot.in/
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