Climate change spells cultural extinction for Nepal’s nomadic herders

The nomadic herders of Mustang who’s livestock have grazed the pastures in the Nepalese Himalayas for generations, fear the dramatic change in weather patterns may consign their traditions to the history books forever, Paddy Dowling finds

Monday 02 October 2023 11:30 BST
<p>Chiring Dhaka Gurung, 22, says: ‘Symrik Cashmere is helping women in these remote regions to be able to support themselves through training in faster weaving techniques which increases output’ </p>

Chiring Dhaka Gurung, 22, says: ‘Symrik Cashmere is helping women in these remote regions to be able to support themselves through training in faster weaving techniques which increases output’

The district of Mustang in northern Nepal – which until recently was still ruled by its own monarchy – is regarded as one of the last bastions of undisturbed Tibetan culture.

Kagbeni village, which is located at an altitude of 2,804 metres above sea level, is a religious site for Hindu pilgrims, a hub for discerning trekkers from across the globe and home to the Changra mountain goat, which have grazed on the vast open pastures of wild Jadibuti herbs, for centuries.

For those nomadic communities living at high altitudes in the foothills of the majestic snow-capped Annapurna mountains of the Himalayas, rearing livestock has been a way of life and their primary livelihood for generations.

To a majestic backdrop of the snow-capped Annapurna mountains in the Himalayas, Changra goats graze on the wild Jadibuti herbs at Charan Chetra plateau, 3,000 metres above sea level in Mustang District, Nepal

Aange Gurung, 77, says: ‘We do not understand the terminology “climate change”. Here we observe changes over time. We read the land and the sky’

The very specific flora and fauna found at higher elevations as well as freezing temperatures produce optimal grazing conditions for the Changra and stimulate its soft undercoat to produce the highest quality of cashmere pashmina wool.

However, herders here concede, their ancient way of life is under threat from cheap imitations imported from the far east and stark changes in weather patterns.

As a result, many have turned their backs on nomadic tradition, and either migrated to larger urban sprawls like Nepal’s capital city, Kathmandu, or emigrated overseas to seek employment.

Kagbeni’s population at its peak in the year 2000 stood at 1,256 people. Today only 315 residents remain.

“We have witnessed countless families with deeply rooted ancestry here leave. It’s becoming harder and harder to provide for our families,” explains Aange Gurung, 77, who started life herding livestock with his father aged two years old.

Annapurna Base Camp in the Nepalese Himalayas has for the past 40 years witnessed the mean temperature rise from 0.9C to 2.5C

The Changra Himalayan mountain goat running to pastures above Kagbeni, Mustang, during the cooler hours of the morning sun

Gurung continues: “The science surrounding what people call ‘climate change’ is not something we know or have read about. Here we observe changes over time. We read the land and the sky.

“We keep the goats at low-land pastures for a shorter time due to the increasingly warmer temperatures and more time at cooler up-land pastures, which is depleting the grazing more quickly.”

Each spring the goats endure a delicate combing process, which harvests wool from below the chin and underbelly

Aange Gurung leads his Changra goats out through the narrow streets of Kagbeni to the grazing above the village

Gurung says that they experience more intense rain over short periods, which has washed away homes and agricultural outbuildings, created landslides which has altered grazing access, destroyed staple arable crops – that nomadic people in these regions rely on for food – and claimed the lives of several goats swept away by the floodwaters. One month ago, a flood in the Kagbeni River washed away 29 houses and displaced half of the village’s residents.

Dehairing the cashmere harvest involves removing all the longer coarser guard hairs in the fibre – a process that must be carried out by hand

Changra goats running through the narrow flagstone cobbled streets of Kagbeni village

Historically, Nepalese pastoralist herders had limited knowledge about the superior quality and value of Changra cashmere. “The goats were primarily bread for their organic meat,” explains Aparna Bhattarai founder of Symrik Cashmere and social enterprise project to save the Changra goat.

Bhattarai has worked with herders and local producers in regions such as Mustang, Dolpa and Humla for more than a decade, reinvesting profit to preserve the local breed of mountain goat and pastureland through conservation.

Herders drive their livestock towards Charan Chetra pastures above the village

Changra have grazed on the vast open pastures of wild Jadibuti herbs for centuries

Symrik have developed and implemented best practice techniques for the delicate combing and spring harvest of wool, as well as efficient methods of cashmere collection and sorting and preserving the art of traditional weaving.

“Despite the success of the project, our herders are now facing the enormous challenges climate change is presenting, and in the most unforgiving of landscapes.

The cashmere wool is spun by hand on a spinning wheel, locally known as ‘Charkha’

A cashmere shawl is submerged into a colour dye at the workshop in Kathmandu

“Several households have now become food-insecure and are selling their entire Changra flocks, out of necessity, to feed their families. Unless something changes, there will be nothing left to preserve,” says Bhattarai.

In the absence of any formal support to those living in the most far-flung regions of Nepal, and by the finest of margins, the responsibility rests with social enterprises such as Symrik to implement disaster risk reduction warning systems to keep their producers, families and herds safe from wildfire, landslide and flood.

Cashmere pashmina shawls drying after being dyed at the Symrik Cashmere workshop in Kathmandu

An artisan at Symriks workshop hand-knots the fringe of a shawl, a process that takes an entire day for a single garment

In addition, they plan to deploy drone technology, which will provide real time data and mapping of pastureland health at various altitudes. Information that ought to be of significant value to herders, still grappling with the lack of grazing.

Preserving the livelihoods of nomadic, indigenous or tribal people all over the world who now face the threat of extinction due to climate change is paramount. Embracing the past will not only honour cultural heritage, it will also provide insight to ointo future.

If more corporations and brands think past the bottom line and continue to demonstrate, not just a financial, but a moral obligation to their supply chains, then perhaps there will be hope for preserving people in their places, even when facing something as overwhelming and monumental as climate change.

Symrik Cashmere trades here.

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