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The cultural ecology of yak production in Dolpo, West Nepal

K. Bauer

DROKPA, 98 Main Street, P.O. Box 303, Tiburon, California 94920, USA


This paper presents the salient aspects of agropastoralism as it is practised in the Dolpo region of western Nepal. Dramatic political and economic forces are encroaching upon and changing Dolpo's way of life. Amongst these changes are the closing of the Tibetan border during the 1960's and the increasing availability of cheap goods and commodities like salt from the southern regions of Nepal. The effects of these changes upon the traders and pastoralists of Dolpo have been dramatic and their story is one of adapting—economically, culturally and ecologically—to shifting resources and shrinking economic niches. Social institutions and geographical circumstances in Dolpo have helped maintain this transhumance system unto the present. However, government policies have undermined the resilience and viability of this way of life.

Keywords: Agropastoralism, cultural adaptation, Dolpo, indigenous knowledge, Nepal-Tibet border, rangeland management, Trans-Himalayan


Dolpo encompasses four rugged mountain valleys in the Trans-Himalayan region of north-west Nepal. This region is home to Tibetan-speaking, Buddhist pastoralists who live in some of the highest altitude villages in the world. Dolpo is within Nepal's largest district and is today one of the least developed and most sparsely populated regions of that country: there are no roads, literacy is low, family planning is absent, and life expectancy reaches a mere 50 years (Bajimaya 1990; Sherpa 1992).

The Dolpo region falls within the rainshadow of Mt Dhaulagiri, the sixth highest mountain in the world (8172 m or 26,790 ft). As a result, climatically speaking, Dolpo experiences sharp seasonal differences in temperature and rainfall, has a short growing season, recurring droughts, high winds, and heavy snow falls, all creating rigid constraints on plant growth. Rangelands are the dominant ecosystem type in the Trans-Himalayan. Dolpo's rangelands are typified by high seasonal variation in forage quantity and quality. The period of plant growth is quite short-between May–October–so the movements of people and animals are closely synchronised with these brief windows of ecological opportunity.

Transhumance has been practised continuously in Dolpo for more than 1000 years (Miller 1993). Transhumance in Dolpo is characterised by movements from permanent villages to rangelands at different altitudes, a pattern more regional than the wide-ranging pastoral nomadism of central Asia (von Furer-Haimendorf 1975). There is only one agricultural harvest per year and consumption exceeds production (Jest 1975; Bajimaya 1990; Sherpa 1992; Valli and Sommers 1994), so the people of Dolpo must supplement their household production, using livestock to synergise trade, commodity production and agriculture.

For centuries, the people of Dolpo profited from their strategic position in the transition zone between the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalaya by being middlemen—climatic and cultural straddlers—in a commodities trade between farmers from the hill regions of Nepal and nomads on the arid plains of south-western Tibet. The villagers of the more mesic environment south of Dolpo produce annual surpluses of crops like corn and millet. However, they need salt. Likewise, the rangelands of the Tibetan Plateau sustain pastoral production, but its extreme climate precludes crop cultivation. This surfeit and shortage of grain and salt begot the commodities exchange in which Dolpo's pastoralists have been the lynchpin for hundreds of years.

The grain–salt exchange cycle of Dolpo involves more than just the shuttling of goods (Fisher 1987). Important social and economic relationships—especially that of the netsang—sustain these exchanges and are integral to Dolpo's cultural landscape. Literally translated as 'nesting place', netsang are business partners and fictitious family with whom one exchanges goods on favourable terms (Ramble 1997, personal communication). Most pastoralists in Dolpo have a netsang partner in each village their trade takes them to, a hearth and home for travellers in this exacting land. However, the bonds of these economic relationships were severely disrupted throughout the Himalaya by the closing of the Tibetan border in the early 1960's.

In the 1960's, communities throughout the Nepal Himalaya were barred entry into Tibet with their animals. During this period, the people of Dolpo simultaneously lost their traditional pasturage rights and access to their trade partners. Instead of being the geographical locus of the salt–grain trade, the people of Dolpo were forced to become its medium, travelling to Tibet with their animals for salt and returning south to the hill regions of Nepal to barter for grains.

Before this period, the pastoralists of Dolpo had Tibetan trading partners with whom they could negotiate for salt; these traditional commercial ties were severed. The Chinese government monopolised salt prices, taxed this commodity, and curtailed the dates that trade was allowed. The traditional autonomy of the Trans-Himalayan traders was thus usurped, jeopardising a local economy and culture. This story has been played out, in ongoing modulations and iterations, throughout the high Himalaya.

Since the advent of Chinese rule in Tibet, the nature of commerce across the Himalaya has radically changed. As China continues its rapid economic growth and minority regions like the Tibetan Autonomous Region are integrated into the national economy, the availability of industrially produced and commercially marketed wares is dramatically increasing. Today, goods produced in China's factories and urban centres routinely change hands in even the most remote outposts and nomad tents. Though western Tibet remains desolate, barren, and expansive as ever, China's material culture is reaching even these remote corners. Networks once local are now regional and, increasingly, cash is substituted for traditional barter.

In some areas of Nepal, especially the Mt Everest area, the closing of Tibet's border coincided with the first ascent of the world's highest mountain and the beginnings of significant tourism in the Himalayan kingdom. A host of associated economic, social and educational opportunities arose and ethnic groups like the Sherpa used these to good advantage (Brower 1990). Areas like Dolpo, though, did not see such good times. Isolated and with few resources, these remote regions languished.

Even more than its reworking of trade patterns, the Chinese absorption of Tibet has had shattering and far-reaching impacts on seasonal pastoral movements in Dolpo. While trade deals in mobile assets, pastoralism relies on driving animals over fixed land-based resources—movements that have been worked out over many centuries. When the Chinese curtailed free movement across their political boundary, they shrunk the rangeland area available to Dolpo's herders and compromised the ecological underpinnings of a culture.

While the summer and autumnal movements of Dolpo's pastoralists have remained largely unchanged, present day winter migrations represent a radical shift in the patterns of an ancient culture. Before the 1960's, livestock from the four valleys of Dolpo were moved to the Tsangpo region of south-west Tibet for the duration of winter. The animals of Dolpo's pastoralists were given over to Tibetan nomads, who incorporated them into their herds. The nomads were paid in grain for the livestock they maintained, as well as the milk produced by these animals (Jest 1975). Both sides benefited from this arrangement: the nomads supplemented their food stores while Dolpo pastoralists were able to maintain larger herds year-round.

The people of Dolpo recall the 1960's bitterly. Their herds were decimated as the lack of winter pastures led to overstocking and massive starvation (Joshi 1982). The closing of the border eroded both the stability and profitability of Dolpo's pastoral economy. Faced with the inevitable starvation of their animals on a reduced resource base, the people of Dolpo sold hundreds of animals at crippling prices and permanently downgraded their production potential.

Knowing that they were constrained by climate, rangeland growth patterns, and available forage, as well as the continuing need for a salt market, the people of Dolpo negotiated a new arrangement with their Nepali netsang. Today, at the outset of winter, yak and dzo are moved to south-west Dolpa District and the people of Dolpo spend 6 months of winter in the homes of their Hindu business partners, who are from ethnic/caste groups like the Magar, Chhetri and Brahmin.

Herders from Dolpo consistently observed that range conditions in Kag-Rimi have declined since they first started coming to the area more than 30 years ago. A decisive factor in declining winter range conditions is the use of fire by the Hindus to promote fast and nutritive grass growth for their animals in spring. The Hindus' gain is logically the people of Dolpo's loss, as grasses charred in wintertime reduce the amount of forage available to the northerners' animals. The implication here is that different management techniques of cultural groups using the same resource may result in conflicts and declining resource quality.

The Hindu villagers also collect livestock fees per head from the people of Dolpo. While nominal, these grazing fees stack onto the expenses borne by the caravanners who transport salt. The yearly toll on their animals' health and productivity is high. Yet, the people of Dolpo are resigned to today's winter grazing constraints and must adopt a co-operative tone to maintain good relations with their hosts. They must simultaneously secure access to desperately needed winter range resources and still negotiate favourable terms of trade for their salt. Dependent as they are on the Hindus' range resources, the caravanners' sole bargaining chip and source of income—salt—is discounted.

As if China's absorption of Tibet were not enough, the increasing availability of alternative supplies of salt has also significantly disrupted the salt–grain trade. The slow but steady incursion of iodised Indian salt as a result of improved roads and other infrastructure have made this salt available to Nepal rural hill communities, with concomitant declines in the profits and demand for Tibetan salt. Traders from Dolpo unanimously noted an overall decline in the salt–grain exchange rate since the 1960's.

As roads and other means of modernity creep closer, economic loci shift, with inevitable dislocation for the people of Dolpo who previously thrived in the spaces between the worlds of Nepal and Tibet. Decentralised local networks of villages are being replaced by regional distribution and production centres. Anonymous bazaars and rural airstrips replaced traditional trade partnerships. For Dolpo's caravanners, a point of diminishing returns is being reached. How long will peddling salt be a viable economic activity? The present cultural and economic ordering, whereby Buddhist pastoralists from the northern mountains live for months in the villages of their Hindu netsang, is a resource use arrangement that is arguably unstable and bound to change. The once extensive trade network that the people of Dolpo relied on to barter their salt has evaporated and the changing terms of trade is undermining the long-term viability of these relationships. While the people of Dolpo continue to have an abiding interest in maintaining these economic relationships, that impetus is changing for the hill farmers.

Why, then, are there still good relations between the trading partners of Dolpo and Kag-Rimi, even though they are so different in ethnicity, values and economic gravitation? While salt from India is indeed cheaper than Tibetan salt, there are other hidden costs (Bauer 1997, unpublished notes). Supplies of government-subsidised commodities are finicky, usually delayed, and often expropriated by merchants better connected with government ration officers. A mere two kilos of salt is the maximum quantity available from the government at one time to households in Dolpa District. Tibetan salt, delivered in large quantities at one time, begins to compare favourably. Moreover, as one Hindu farmer insisted, 'The salt from the north tastes better and is good for our body, even if it is more expensive.'

Clearly, strict economic rationales do not wholly explain the persistence of the salt–grain exchange between the people of Dolpo and their netsang. Economic action is socially situated and cannot be explained by profit motives alone. Individuals act not only on behalf of their material interests but also to safeguard their social standing-that is, Dolpo's economy is embedded in a cultural system (Polanyi 1944; Granovetter and Swedberg 1992). Even in an increasingly capitalised system, economics are not the sole motivation for good relations between the netsang of Dolpo and Kag-Rimi. Generations of netsang are joined by their common dependence on natural resources, and lives are shared between fragile surpluses and bartered goods. Observed closely, netsang partners also clearly like each other. One hill farmer explained:

We are friends, not just business partners. Benefit isn't always in terms of profits. After years of trading, our hearts agree. Though our religions, languages and customs are different, this is a long relationship.

Thus, the salt–grain trade, and the relationships upon which it is built, should not be prematurely declared dead: There is still a demand for Tibetan salt in the rural communities of western Nepal. Yet the likelihood that the economics of netsang relationships will continue to be rationalised on the basis of social or cultural traditions is questionable. While regional politics caused the attenuation of the trade, the Chinese and Nepali governments may still have a role to play in keeping these local distribution networks—these lifelines of rural subsistence—alive.

Instead, the resilience of Dolpo's pastoral system has been further undermined by government policies regarding resource management. In many parts of Nepal, with the encouragement of the government, community forest user groups have asserted control over their local resources-a process that is generally considered an unalloyed good. There can be unintended consequences of these rules, though.

In Nepal's middle hills, livestock find nutrition in and around forests; edge areas have experienced a mix of uses for centuries-from fuel harvesting, herb collecting, to timber felling and livestock grazing. When community forestry user groups assume exclusive power over these resources—backed by the state's forestry department—a traditional seasonal use may be jeopardised. Many communities' livestock herds depend on winter grazing pastures that lie outside the bounds of traditional clan or caste boundaries.

In western Nepal's Humla District, 80% of traders sold their animals when they were barred entry into winter pastures by local community forest user groups. Consequently, famine claimed almost 200 human lives in Humla in 1998 because the animals that had traditionally conveyed grains to the region were no longer arriving (Wagle and Pathak 1998).

The strength of transhumance—mobility—is here a weakness. Because range productivity is often low in the Himalaya, successful exploitation of these resources relies on being able to move between pastures. Without extensive rangeland resources, herding becomes uneconomical.

In 1984, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation created Nepal's largest national park, Shey Phoksundo, in the Dolpo region. Since then, the department has suggested that local livestock numbers should be reduced to a prescribed carrying capacity (Sherpa 1992). These management policies are flawed and will place crippling restrictions on a pastoral production system that is already severely constrained. Applied as a rangeland management tool, carrying capacity would be inappropriate since Dolpo's is a non-equilibrium ecosystem in which climate, not grazing intensity, determine primary productivity. Moreover, department of National Park Planners have assumed a tragedy of the commons scenario for Dolpo when in fact social institutions exist that regulate resource exploitation within and between communities. For example, communal lotteries are held for the fair distribution of pastures and fines are levied for livestock encroachment on agricultural land, to cite just a few examples. Finally, other government agencies have failed to support the pastoralists of Dolpo. The Department of Livestock Services has posted too few staff to the Dolpa District, and none of these personnel have experience with highland animals like yak. Thus, pastoral traditions that have already been subverted by radical geopolitical changes may be equally undermined by well-intentioned, but non-integrated, land use policies.

Closing remarks

Economic change has always been the cutting edge of cultural change (Fisher 1987). Today the people of Dolpo are subsumed in a regional economy that may soon have little place for them. The self-determination of a people who move with the seasons is no longer the exclusive domain of headmen and village councils as today's government bureaucracies and geopolitical claims also regulate it. The introduction of industrial goods has shifted both the tenor and terms of trade in Dolpo. Some traders have adapted and now peddle Chinese goods like clothes, thermoses, thread, watches, liquor, and other items in demand in the middle hills. Yet these trading patterns entail not only new goods but also a particular set of social relationships, with linguistic, religious, sartorial, culinary, and hierarchical symbols that are vastly different than the ones to which the people of Dolpo are accustomed (Fisher 1987). The two worlds may be too distinct to mesh-economics and identity may clash as the people of Dolpo struggle to redefine themselves. While adaptability is a hallmark of pastoralists, these changes are compounded in the span of a generation. The conjunction of geopolitical, cultural, and economic happenstance has placed epochal pressure on the culture and economy of Dolpo.

Dolpo's economy and culture are undergoing millennial transformations and the continuing viability of its pastoral way of life is in doubt. Prospects for increases in range productivity are limited, as are new areas for expansion. 'Today large numbers of pastoralists and livestock in Nepal must subsist on an ever-contracting land base, reduced by the closure of traditional rangelands in Tibet and restrictions on grazing in national parks' (Miller 1993). While the Trans-Himalayan pastoral system was always fraught with risks, it is increasingly difficult for the people of Dolpo to trade profitably in grain and salt, and they cling tenuously to a much diminished winter range. 'Even if Tibet were opened again, the system will not recover,' predicted one official at the Department of Livestock Services.

Some observers have wondered if, in the future, agropastoralists in Nepal's northern districts should choose to concentrate their economic activities solely on animal husbandry.1 Since yields from agricultural fields are low, some advocate the production of hay on irrigated agricultural fields to improve animal nutrition and increase animal productivity. Yet in a pastoral system so tightly integrated with agriculture and trade, the plausibility of a full conversion seems low. Since winter fodder is the biggest constraint in Dolpo's pastoral production system, DROKPA—a US-based non-profit organisation—is working with local resource user groups to increase fodder production by using solar pumps to irrigate fields of hay.2

Recounting his sojourn in Dolpo during the early 1960's, Snellgrove (1989) wrote, 'Except for a few adventurous spirits ... very few of them had been to the Nepal (Kathmandu) Valley'. That Dolpo is history. The few souls who stay in Dolpo for the winter may be called the adventurous spirits of today. Like so many other ethnic groups in Nepal, the people of Dolpo are increasingly migrating to urban centres amidst economic privation and declining yearly returns. Now, hundreds make the yearly exodus to Kathmandu during the cold season; some are even raising families there. Still, relative to other ethnic groups, few of the people from Dolpo have settled permanently in Nepal's capital.

Resettlement takes people from a setting in which they have the skills and resources to produce their own basic needs and transfers them to where these skills are of less avail (Gupta 1998). This may nullify a legacy of local pastoral knowledge and with it scores of functioning communities in a region that had been self-sufficient for centuries. Such knowledge is place-specific and relies on the collective memory of a locality, the archives of community intelligence. Wilson (1992) wrote, 'Extinction is the most obscure and local of all biological processes ... a fading echo in a far corner of the world ... genius unused'.

Optimistically, some Dolpo-pa will persevere by farming land and keeping animals, but others will divest their herds. 'In 20 years, people will live here only during the growing season. The wintertime's singing, drinking, weaving ... these will be gone', an old village lama predicted. Already there is a deep lacuna between those who once travelled with the herds to Tibet for the winter and a younger generation that aspires to different opportunities and lifestyles. Most shepherds now come from the ranks of the poorest households-hardly a group with the wherewithal to grow, if even maintain, Dolpo's pastoral economy.

The day-to-day, season-to-season harvesting of natural resources fuels pastoral societies like Dolpo's. It is these patterns that have radically changed for a people that bear a distinctive history, cultural sensibility, and way of life. The people of Dolpo face a watershed moment-a broaching of their ancient pastoral traditions, evolved over one thousand years. The future of a pastoral people remains in the balance.


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