Sumdo, India – At sunset, a group of Tibetan nomads gather at a large prayer wheel in the isolated Indian mountain village of Sumdo.
Light from the setting sun catches the faces of men, women, and some children, but there are few young families. Where are all of the nomads going – and why?
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The people gathered this evening are refugees who fled China’s Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, crossing from western Tibet over the mountains to India’s side of the Changthang Plateau. When they arrived in India, many of them joined another group of nomads already living there – Ladakhi pastoralists who have lived in the region for thousands of years, moving seasonally with herds of goat, sheep and yaks.
As of last year, 2,300 Tibetan nomads were living in eight camps on the Changthang Plateau.
India is home to about 80 million nomads, who belong to hundreds of distinctive groups. Many make their livelihoods as travellers, blacksmiths, craftsmen, storytellers, entertainers and herdsmen. But, while the situation for nomads in India differs from village to village and state to state, most nomadic communities are witnessing a breakdown in traditional modes of living.
On the Changthang Plateau, the biggest obstacles nomads face are the harsh environment, climate change, lack of education, poor healthcare and economic instability.
Sonam Palkyi and Yungdung Dolma fled from western Tibet in the 1960s, and have lived outside Sumdo, a small Tibetan settlement on the Changthang Plateau, ever since. Today, they are both in their 60s.
They say the difficulties posed by Changthang’s evolving landscape cannot be underestimated. Each year, their pastureland shrinks, probably because of a combination of climate change and increased tourism in the area.
Palkyi is quick to note the trials of nomadic life. “Many animals die during the winter when supplies are cut off. Generally for nomads, it is all problems,” she said. “But we don‘t have any choice. So we have to live this life anyway. We had to escape from Tibet. So this is the only option we have.”
While both women’s sons have left for the town of Choglamsar, on the outskirts of Leh, their daughters remain at home and assist their families with herding.
According to Dolma, the main obstacle to their children’s development – especially that of their daughters – is lack of education. In a place where people depend on shrinking grasslands for their income, and do not receive much governmental assistance, education is seen as a way towards a better future.
Although there is one small primary school in Sumdo, children seeking quality education must board at schools in the Leh area, and these schools are becoming more expensive.
Their economic situation is challenging, said Palkyi. “We get almost nothing … During summer we sell some dairy products like butter and cheese. And we sell wool and cashmere. So that’s the only source of income for us. But half the income we have to spend on animals themselves, so our income is very limited.”
Tibetan and Ladakhi nomads living in Changthang say they are forced to sell their cashmere to a government-run cooperative with a monopoly on the trade. Many nomads are underpaid, forced to accept the only deal they can get, although some independent merchants visit during the summer.
Given the economic difficulties, a large number of Tibetan and Ladakhi nomads are no longer able to sustain a nomadic lifestyle. Many move to urban areas, such as Leh or New Delhi, to pursue work in the service industry.
The nomads of the Changthang Plateau are not alone in the challenges they face.
According to Elliot Fratkin, a professor of anthropology at Smith College, pastoralist societies – in which people make their living by herding animals, often taking them from one place to another to graze – currently face greater threats than ever before.
These threats include “the expansion of farmers, ranchers, and game parks on their lands; the privatisation, commodification, and subdivision of the range; the growth of cities, the outmigration of poor pastoralists to urban areas, and dislocations brought about by drought, famine, and political conflict”.
Nomadic societies also have to grapple with a legal system that often works against them. Nomads generally lack the legal protection needed to maintain their traditional lifestyles in a rapidly modernising world, and they are frequently invisible from human rights treaties and jurisprudence. Land that nomads use is often viewed as empty land that the government can “reclaim”, forcing inhabitants to resettle and adopt a new, sedentary lifestyle.
Dr Jeremie Gilbert, a reader in law at the School of Law and Business at the University of East London, suggests that international human rights law based on “precepts of universality and equality” could ensure that nomads are officially recognised and protected.
“Right now, law predominantly supports a sedentary approach to citizenship and justice,” Gilbert noted. “To get citizenship, one needs a permanent abode. To get access to justice, one needs a permanent residency.”
One place to start might be with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, suggested Gilbert. If nomads are protected at the international level, he explained, it is more likely that legal recognition will follow at the national and state levels.
Fortunately for the nomads of the Changthang Plateau, the Indian government is uninterested in the harsh, inhospitable high-altitude plateau they call home. But their economic challenges remain daunting.
The market for many of their crafts, natural fibres and homemade dairy products is shrinking – which could eventually cause their way of life to die out.
Are there ways of overcoming the many difficulties these nomads face? Can technology be harnessed to improve living conditions and provide a platform for small start-ups? Can nomads’ heritage be preserved for posterity? And if many nomads would happily abandon their lifestyle given the opportunity, is this a bad thing?
These types of questions are paramount for Dhondup Tashi, the Central Representative Officer of the Sonamling Settlement for Tibetan Refugees, based in Choglamsar.
“Tibetan nomads in Changthang region are the ones who preserve the genuine Tibetan culture in the true sense,” he said.
“They not only preserve the culture in physical form, but they also live the culture in every way in their daily lives, from morning till evening.”