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Seeds of Hope

Nicola Graydon

1st December, 2003

Ladakh is framed by the Karakoram mountains to the north and the Himalayas to the south. Yet even in this remote environment the forces of global consumerism are intruding. Nicola Graydon reports on the locals' inspiring defence of their culture

Likir, a village three hours drive west of the Ladakh capital of Leh, is a place of near indescribable beauty. At an altitude of 3,500 metres, it’s a verdant oasis curving down from the stark peaks of the Himalayas. Walking around the village, which is arranged on three levels, is to be made constantly aware of the presence of human hands nurturing life out of a desert soil as thin and unforgiving as the sharp high-altitude air. Tumbling streams run in stone-built channels through vegetable gardens, orchards, livestock pens and hectares of terraced barley fields fringed with poplar and willow.

In the short summer months these fields once sang with the voices of villagers celebrating the abundant harvests that resulted from their work. Now they are all but silent.

‘The young have all gone,’ says Dorjey Lundup. Seventy years old, he is the seventh generation to have lived in the same family home – a handsome building, three storeys high and decorated with threadbare prayer flags that give the house the air of a great ship floating on a sea of green. Lundup, the aba-le (father) of the household, is a master carpenter who carved the wooden throne for a recent visit by the Dalai Lama. He’s also an amchi – a traditional healer – and versatile chef. He’s a man of contagious humour. It’s only when he talks about the changes he has seen in his lifetime that he becomes sombre.

‘Our young men have gone to the army, our children are in school. Others have gone to the city to work in government jobs.’ He shrugs and spins the miniature home-made prayer wheel that sits above his left shoulder. ‘You’ve no idea how generous Ladakhis used to be,’ he continues. ‘Everything was shared. Neighbours and friends always used to help us with our harvest. Now, it’s all about money. No one has any time to be generous any more. We are losing what it means to be Ladakhi.’

For days now I have been a guest in Lundup’s home, experiencing firsthand the Farm Project of the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC). The ISEC is an organisation that seeks to promote locally-based alternatives to the global consumer culture. Working in the fields and living with local families, participants in the ISEC’s programme help to raise the status of farming and rural life in Ladakh, which has been increasingly undermined in recent years by misplaced ideas about what it is to be modern. Since the project started eight years ago, the sight of privileged Westerners getting their hands dirty – actually enjoying taking animals up to their grazing lands or making butter in simple wooden churns – has apparently helped many young Ladakhis regain a respect for their agricultural heritage.

A mountain paradise

Ladakh is situated in the northeast of India-administered Kashmir. One of the first Westerners to visit the region in modern times was Helena Norberg-Hodge, the ISEC’s founder and director. She was amazed by what she saw. In one of the most difficult environments in the world people not only managed to provide for all their basic needs, but produced an excess of grain that they traded for luxuries from the outside. ‘Over the centuries they had developed social structures that allowed them to make the most of their limited resources. Their lives were physically demanding, but they actually worked far fewer hours than we do in the West. Buddhists, Christians and Muslims lived peacefully side by side for generations. And, most importantly, they really seemed to enjoy life. I’ve never seen people more at peace with themselves, more content.’

A linguist by training, Norberg-Hodge mastered the Ladakhi language within a year and was uniquely placed to experience the impact on the traditional culture of the global economy. ‘The gap between rich and poor widened dramatically,’ she says. ‘There was no poverty when I arrived. Then suddenly there was unemployment, along with increasing corruption and crime. Families and communities began to disintegrate as they became separated from their own knowledge and from the land.’ And for the first time in 500 years there was violence and friction between Buddhist and Muslims.

In the remoter villages a good deal of the traditional agricultural economy still remains. But in those areas closer to the roads that link Leh to the Indian plains, the story is very different. Subsidised rice, sugar, wheat and other foodstuffs, trucked in at vast and hidden expense over the Himalayas, are dramatically altering the traditional diet and, more importantly, undercutting the price of locally harvested produce. A kilogramme of imported wheat flour, for instance, sells for half the price of local flour and is destroying the market for local farmers.

Yet, you might ask, if the traditional culture was so wonderful how come it was so easily undermined? According to Norberg-Hodge, it was the result of psychological pressures to modernise, which eroded the Ladakhis’ self-respect. ‘I saw firsthand how people who had previously been self-confident and assured came to view themselves as backward and inferior.

‘I remember being shown around the remote village of Hemis Shukpachan by a young Ladakhi called Tsewang. It seemed to me that all the houses I saw were especially large and beautiful, and I asked Tsewang to show me the houses where the poor people lived. He looked perplexed for a moment, then replied: “We don’t have any poor people here.” Eight years later, I overheard Tsewang talking to some tourists. “If you could only help us Ladakhis,” he was saying, “we’re so poor.”’

The introduction of media and advertising provided a glamourised view of Western consumer culture. And this image of infinite wealth and leisure was supported by the influx of Western tourists, many of whom would spend upwards of $100 a day – the equivalent of someone spending tens of thousands of dollars a day in Europe or North America.

These illusions of modernity had a profound effect on the minds of Ladakhis – particularly on young people, who had not yet formed strong cultural identities. In comparison to the images of life in Paris and New York, they saw their own lives as dirty and primitive, and desperately sought to imitate what they thought was modern. For young boys, that was Rambo; for the girls, Barbie.

‘Ladakhis soon began to develop some of the same neuroses we have in the West,’ says Norberg-Hodge. ‘They even started using an artificial cream called ‘Fair and Lovely’ to lighten their skin.

‘Every day on the radio “experts” of various sorts were extolling the virtues of chemical fertilisers, of caesarean births, of consumerism. There was nothing in the traditional culture to warn the Ladakhis that they were being sold a lie.’

Market forces conquer Shangri-la

In Likir on a Friday afternoon, Lundup’s son, Tsering, the 45-year-old headmaster of a school some kilometres away, bounds up the steep wooden stairs to the family home, appears in the kitchen in a suit and tie, greets his parents, disappears for a couple of a moments and reappears in a traditional jacket holding six rough scythes. We are going to one of the family’s outlying fields, where Nepali labourers, hired to replace absent relatives and friends, are harvesting alfalfa.
‘Sometimes I wonder if I should give up my job,’ Tsering Lundup sighs, as we pick our way along streams that are alternately flowing and dry depending on the irrigation flows that give Likir the feel of endless motion. ‘Here I am, working as a headmaster in order to pay people to do something I love to do myself. I suppose my job is valuable, but it seems like a kind of madness, doesn’t it?’

It didn’t seem appropriate to suggest that Tsering Lundup was a victim of ‘progress’; that the Ladakh of his childhood (called the ‘last Shangri-la’ in the National Geographic in the early 1970s) had been conquered by forces as effective as any military invasion; that his family had become prey to ‘market forces’.

But I was tempted to say something when some days later he took me to his new home on the outskirts of Leh, where he now lives with his wife and young daughter in a government ‘housing colony’. Grey concrete, warren-like houses – the very antithesis of traditional Ladakhi architecture – sit forlornly in the desert. Hardly a blade of grass is able to push its way through the cracked concrete paving. Dogs scavenge in rubbish, and water is delivered in huge trucks. The crystal mountain air is filled with diesel fumes, the stench of fetid drains and the grating gears of goods trucks making their way to Leh. It is a scene that would be unrecognisable to anyone who had passed this way just 10 years ago.

It’s an admirable example of the Ladakhi spirit that Tsering Lundup and his wife are able to live harmoniously in this nuclear-family hell. For me, this arid, soulless place brought only a crushing despondency about the fate of Ladakh.

Seeds of hope

Remarkably, Norberg-Hodge doesn’t share these feelings. When globalisation first threatened to overwhelm this unique civilisation, she helped to create a powerful movement to resist it. The resistance movement was based largely on bringing the Ladakhis fuller information about the realities of life in the West.

In 1980 she and her husband John Page set up the Ladakh Project, a small British-based NGO. The Ladakh Project was followed in 1984 by the locally-run Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDG), which set out to demonstrate alternatives to the petroleum-based development policies being promoted by the Indian authorities. Building on local traditions of sustainability, the group developed a wide range of appropriate technologies – including solar heating systems, village-scale hydroelectric units and greenhouses for winter agriculture.

If slightly worn by time, the LEDG’s Ecology Centre on the northern fringes of Leh remains a brilliant example of what can be done when the traditional meets the modern in an amicable truce. Built in traditional style, the building is partly solar heated and a small wind generator provides power for back-up lighting. In the garden are an array of solar cookers and dryers and a solar greenhouse. There is also an extensive library, with books on subjects ranging from Ladakhi history, flora, fauna and folklore to alternative technology and Gandhian philosophy.

The impact of the group’s work extends far beyond Leh. ‘The people of Zanskar, a remote valley to the south, are enjoying steady 24-hour electricity for the first time thanks to the installation of micro-hydros,’ says the LEDG’s director Sonam Dawa. (The 70-year-old gave up his job as a senior government engineer to head the group.) ‘By now people are realising they can’t depend on electricity run by diesel from God-knows-where. The stations are not run efficiently, and if they break down it takes a month to restore power.’ The LEDG is currently installing an 80-kilowatt station that will replace a diesel-powered one, and provide 1,000 homes with round-the-clock electricity. Five hundred households will also receive solar dish cookers; the other half will get solar box cookers.

Leading by example

Not surprisingly, the LEDG has become something of a model for grassroots organisations around the world. Representatives of NGOs from China, Peru, Bhutan and many other countries have come to Ladakh to learn from its success.

Another of the LEDG’s founder members, Thupstan Chhewang, is now executive director of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) – the regional local authority set up in 1995 and which has been dubbed the ‘first Green Party of the East’ because of its radical vision of a self-sustainable Ladakh and its understanding of globalisation issues. ‘We are looking to rid Ladakh of diesel by 2020, and with the help of the Indian government we will achieve that’, says Chhewang.

Like Dorjey Lundup, Chhewang is most concerned about the impact of development on Ladakhi youth, but believes that circumstances will ultimately force them back to the land. ‘We currently have a generation of children who are being educated for government jobs that simply aren’t there,’ he says. ‘They will be forced to look to our traditional local resources. They will go back to the fields.’

Among its many projects aimed at restoring greater economic self-reliance, the LAHDC is looking to promote the sustainable propagation of sea buckthorn – a berry that grows in abundance in Ladakh’s thin soil. Sea buckthorn is used as a medicine by local healers, and is a valuable source of vitamin C and antioxidants. ‘China is currently making 200 products out of sea buckthorn,’ Chhewang says. ‘As long as we propagate it sustainably it can really help us by bringing in revenue without taking us away from our culture. Our climate is such that we could become a major organic seed production centre for the rest of India.’

It’s a bit unusual talking to a government representative with ideas like Chhewang’s, and the LAHDC is yet to prove itself. For now the priority is changing education policy so that Ladakhi language becomes compulsory and term times are shifted so the children are on holiday during harvest. Chhewang is honest about the fact that politics make change difficult. ‘We have to take everyone, including the bureaucrats, with us.’ But he’s unequivocal about the value to Ladakh of the ISEC’s work. ‘Helena was among the first to propagate alternative ideas. She was a lone voice. At the time people were awed by development‚ while she was talking about respecting our own culture, and encouraging technology appropriate for our land. It’s had enormous impact.’

Pride after the fall

On the northern fringe of Leh, beyond the bazaar now replete with internet cafes, souvenir shops and honking traffic, are the headquarters of the Women’s Alliance – the most recent of the ISEC’s projects. Set up in 1991 to strengthen cultural self-respect and promote the best of Ladakh’s traditions, the alliance also seeks to counter the disempowerment experienced by Ladakhi women as the new economy centralises power in the capital rather than the villages. It boasts a membership of 6,000. ‘It’s no longer merely an NGO,’ says Chhewang. ‘It’s a movement.’

Built in traditional style, the alliance’s handsome centre houses offices, meeting rooms and a craft shop where village women sell everything from hand-woven shawls and baskets to brass spoons and vegetable seeds. The centre also hosts an annual festival celebrating local knowledge and culture. Women in traditional dress display skills passed down through generations – weaving, cooking, pressing oil from mustard and apricot kernels. To an audience of local dignitaries, the women speak eloquently about their attempts to preserve their culture. They have become the custodians of the land, and they know it. ‘Everything we need, we can make ourselves’, says the alliance’s director Dolma Tsewang. ‘We have so much in Ladakh. We must learn to use what we have, like our parents and grandparents did. We must be proud in our dress, our food, our land.’

Tsewang has been to Europe three times now, and is no longer seduced by the glitter of Western consumerism. ‘Your old people see their grandchildren once a year, and you don’t seem to have any time for enjoying your life. I think in many ways we are more wealthy here,’ she says.

Despite the rapacious Kashmiris touting for business in Leh, the diesel-spewing taxis and schoolchildren who cannot count to 10 in their own language, there is still hope for a sustainable future in Ladakh. In the smoky bar at the ultra-modern Ibex Hotel, even suited businessmen and handsome young trekkers are unsure about the gains of ‘development’. ‘This is the high point where we can look behind us and see what we have lost, and look to the horizon and decide what kind of a Ladakh we want in 20 years time,’ says one 27-year-old. ‘We need to find ourselves again.’

There is no doubt that the cash economy has severely undermined local self-reliance, that corruption is rife and that the gulf between the Levi’s-wearing youth and their parents is deep. But there is also an extraordinary awareness. People are already becoming jaded by the empty promises of progress, and are open to the possibility of an alternative route.

Ladakhi intellectual Thupstan Paldan is encouraged. ‘We are at a crossroads,’ Paldan says. ‘There was a time when we blindly followed development. Now we are beginning to realise that progress is not all good; that sugary tea does not nourish as our own salty butter tea; that rice does not make us as strong as barley. Young and old are getting rheumatism in the new cement homes, and even people in the remote villages are turning away from chemical fertilisers.’

Norberg-Hodge is more optimistic now than she has been for decades. ‘There is a new consciousness here. Renewable energy is now mainstream; the doctors are talking about the greater nutritional value of local food; and the agricultural experts have started advocating organic methods. It’s quite amazing to see the changes.’

Does she believe that Ladakh could once again become the ‘ecotopia’ it was sometimes described as in the past? ‘Ladakh can never go back, but perhaps it is coming full circle. Three decades ago I was impressed by the sophistication of the culture here: one based on real sustainability, co-operation and peace. While in the West we were only just beginning to discuss the environment, here everyone – young and old – had an intimate understanding of ecology, women enjoyed unusually high status, and communities had evolved highly complex systems of working together. These characteristics of the traditional culture have so much in common with the “post-industrial” values now found in the West. So maybe what we’re witnessing is a synthesis of the very old and the very new.’

Back in Likir, headmaster Tsering Lundup arrives at a distant field and hands out scythes to the Nepali labourers. Much to their surprise, he keeps one for himself and begins to hack away at thick green iris stalks. He says the stalks are a particular delicacy for sheep and goats.

‘Why would I want to leave this?’ Calling from the far end of the field, Tsering Lundup sweeps his arm around to indicate the horizon. Why indeed? The sun is gently falling behind purple mountain slopes, sweeping light over the distant monastery and skimming the thick barley buds nodding slightly with their own weight.

Whatever the noxious glamour of Western development and the pressures of globalisation, the pre-industrial past is more than just a memory. The generation currently in power in Ladakh grew up on the land. They will not easily let it go.


Situated in the high-altitude deserts where India meets China and Pakistan, Ladakh is a strategically sensitive part of the troubled Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Its first real exposure to the outside world came with contact with the Indian army in the 1960s: local labour was taken off the fields to work on roads, cash was introduced and diesel and kerosene started to replace local fuel.

The floodgates opened in 1974, when the Indian government decided to throw the area open to tourism and development. By 1986 some 6,000 tons of wheat and rice, 900,000 pounds of hard coke and 50,000 cubic feet of firewood were being imported into the region. In 1988 some 20,000 tourists came to Ladakh between June and September; that’s equivalent to almost a quarter of the indigenous population. Promises of a better life in the city, and the impact of an influx of heavily subsidised goods from outside, began pushing people off the land in search of jobs as clerks, trekking guides and taxi drivers. The century was comparable to the land exodus in the US last century or even the Industrial Revolution in Britain – only much, much faster.

For Thupstan Paldan, a monk and leading Ladakhi intellectual, the demise of the region’s agriculture is a catastrophe. ‘Our ancestors prepared these fields. They are the root of our culture. Self-sufficiency was a matter of pride. Now we’re dependent – on the army, on subsidies and on tourism.’ As Paldan points out, this is insanity for a place that’s inaccessible for eight months of the year.

Reality Tours

Advertising and the media bombard non-Western cultures worldwide with glamourised images of urban consumer culture, causing young people in particular to reject their own heritage.

The International Society for Ecology and Culture’s ‘reality tours’ give Ladakhi community leaders the opportunity to see with their own eyes what life is really like in the West. The tours to the UK include visits to old people’s homes, landfill sites and drug rehabilitation centres, but also offer the chance to witness inspiring examples of organic farming, local trading systems and sustainable communities. On their return to Ladakh, participants discuss their experiences on local radio and at village meetings – painting a more realistic picture of life in the industrialised world and helping to promote cultural self-respect.

Ladakhi ‘reality tourists’ on British society:
‘If he’s got brothers and sisters, why doesn’t he live with them?’ (To the director of a London homeless shelter.)
‘They were always spending money. They didn’t even make their own bread.’
‘They call it organic. It’s just like what we do.’
‘They have special doctors and special pills just for people who are unhappy.’
‘They were always rushing, or on the phone, or driving the children somewhere. They never seemed to have time to enjoy themselves.’

For more information

Ancient Futures: learning from Ladakh (University of California Press), by Helena Norberg-Hodge. (‘Everyone who cares about the future of this planet should read it,’ The Guardian.) To order copies of the book and the award-winning film of the same title by John Page (‘an extraordinary film… compelling viewing,’ The Times Educational Supplement), contact the International Society of Ecology and Culture (ISEC, see details below). The book costs £9.99 (plus p&p), and the video £12.00 (plus p&p).

The Ladakh Farm Project: The ISEC’s Farm Project provides a unique opportunity for people of almost any age and background to experience a traditional land-based culture coming face-to-face with Western consumerism. Participants stay with Ladakhi families for a month, sharing all the household and agricultural work. They also take part in regular workshops led by ISEC staff, in which the situation of Ladakh is discussed within the broader framework of the global economy. This is an intense and challenging programme, offering genuinely life-changing opportunities for cultural exchange. For further details and application forms, contact: The ISEC at Foxhole, Dartington, Devon TQ9 6EB, UK, or at PO Box 9475, Berkeley, CA 94709, The US.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2003


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