Learning from Ladakh

Lessons on sustainability, food sovereignty, and maintaining a healthy and entwined relationship with the land and nature.

In a time of industrial agriculture, Ladakh is still a land of smallholdings. These relatively tiny plots – on average just over an acre – have been crafted by communities over centuries to thrive in the high desert. Ladakh’s traditional agricultural practices are not a far cry from those historically found elsewhere around the globe; but what makes Ladakh unique is how long these practices held steadfast. Shielded by the mountains from pervasive industrialisation, it wasn’t until recent decades that modern traits and Western ideals began to infiltrate the Ladakhi way of life. For thousands of years, subsistence farming and community living lay at the fore of their culture, with Ladakhis bearing a deep understanding of the land and local ecology, and an appreciation for the needs of their community.

Prior to human settlement in Ladakh, the dusty high-altitude plains and valleys were all but barren bar scanty, hardy vegetation. The lush flourishes seen today are cultivated oases fashioned through generations of Ladakhis’ hard work. Lying in the rain shadow of the Himalayas, Ladakh receives minimal precipitation, so the people rely on snowmelt from the high mountains, spring water, and the region’s rivers to irrigate the land. The region’s climate means there’s only a short growing season, lasting three, sometimes four, months of summer. From spring through till harvest, families and communities traditionally have pulled together to work the land collectively, growing mostly barley, with a greater variety of vegetables introduced progressively over time by traders and missionaries.

"It is increasingly evident that this homogenised model doesn’t fit all, and through it we are losing the intricacies of individual cultures and specific knowledge adapted to the vastly different environments our societies occupy."

Life started to alter in the mid twentieth century when disputes over territory began. Before then, to most outsiders, Ladakh was merely a name on a map. That changed when Indian troops arrived in the region to protect the borders, paving roads and bringing with them aspects of modernity largely unfamiliar to Ladakhis at the time. The territorial tensions in the north drew the Indian government’s attention to Ladakh who successively felt inclined to zealously modernise and “develop” the region. The inroads for change were laid, and it wasn’t long until tourists arrived and the region was officially opened up to the outside world. It was at this time that synthetic fertilisers and pesticides were also introduced, thanks to promotion and subsidies from the government. Within a few short years, Ladakh’s self-sufficiency was undermined, and consumerism and modernisation had begun to set in.

However, the changes seen in Ladakh were, and still are, a reflection of a global trend, relative especially to the “developing world”. The aspiration to adopt a Western model not just for agriculture but pretty much all aspects of modern life, including education, industry and even architecture, continues to be advocated by the political elite and corporate sector the world over. However, it is increasingly evident that this homogenised model doesn’t fit all, and through it we are losing the intricacies of individual cultures and specific knowledge adapted to the vastly different environments our societies occupy.

Across the planet, traditional livelihoods and farming practices are being swept aside by the dominant force of industrial agriculture. Coupled with the global market, industrial agriculture has created an aggressively environmentally-destructive food system on which millions now rely. In addition, the glamorisation of consumer culture, perpetuated through the media, has resulted in people turning away from traditional and local foods in exchange for the products of large multinational corporations. From field to fork – or in many cases, lab or factory to fork – food may travel hundreds, even thousands, of miles, bounced between countries for different stages of processing. In the field, the nurturing hand of the farmer has been replaced with mechanised systems, large monocultures, and invasive chemicals deeply harmful to local biota as well as the watercourse and downstream ecosystems – as attested by the huge dead zones found in our oceans due in the most part to agricultural run-off of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. As damaging as they already are, these modernised systems rely on fossil fuels, as well as the energy and dirty processes of production, needed to create the chemical supplements required by the industrial agriculture sector.

As a result of this aggressive approach, we are losing biodiversity, both in local wildlife and our food crops and seed stocks. Traditionally, generations of farmers would save seeds from one season to the next, with crops adapting over time to the specific climatic conditions, ecological systems, and soil type of a region or even farm. Wheat traditionally grown in Afghanistan would be different to that grown in Albania, for example. But with the introduction of hybrid seeds and GMO crops, we are losing thousands of unique strains, and many farmers are now reliant on large seed companies – according to seedcontrol.eu, 75% of the seed market is owned by ten large corporations, up over 55% in a decade. Sustainability and self-reliance on the most basic level is being lost, and without the genetic diversity of crops, food security is becoming a major concern.

Worldwide, industrial agriculture and the fierce competition of a global market economy is forcing subsistence and small-scale farmers off the land. In India, it has been said that an estimated one thousand people leave farming every day, and there is a growing international crisis of producers no longer able to make a living from farming. Another fundamental problem is the shift away from agrarian livelihoods with progressive modernisation championing careers like engineering or medicine far above farming. The lack of value placed on traditional livelihoods – which are far from unskilled vocations and rely upon a nuanced and complex knowledge of natural systems – is damaging the psyche of subsistence and small-scale farmers, like those in Ladakh. This is perpetuated by governments and their fixation to measure “progress” with literacy rates and GDP. But “development”, “progress”, consumer culture and harsh competition in a capitalist market are having dramatic impacts on our mental and physical well-being, as seen writ large on a global scale through rampant depression, loneliness, the breakdown in community values, and a loss of connection with our food and nature.

"In recent times, there’s been an uplift in the cultural self-esteem of Ladakhis as they begin to recognise, in a global context, the rarity of their agricultural and social setups. Whilst the (over)developed world rushes around, frantically working longer hours, eating processed foods, Ladakh still possesses a sense of calm invaluable in today’s world."

Thankfully for Ladakh, things haven’t reached such a point. The region has avoided the onslaught of industrial agriculture, and for the most part Ladakhis are shunning chemical inputs and returning to natural farming processes. “Over time, people began to notice that the quality of the soil was degrading, so they returned to natural farming,” tells Wangchuk Kaloon, coordinator for community and cooperative projects in the Nubra and Ladakh Valleys. Retaining their traditional knowledge – something that has been fundamentally lost in many Western societies – Ladakh’s rural communities continue to share resources and follow a needs-based approach to community development opposed to a wholly profit-driven economic model. As Nubra Valley farmer Wangyal Kaloon explains:

“The region was self-sustaining for thousands of years. Until not that long ago, Ladakh was without any market, without any shops, without money; we were sustaining ourselves from what we grew here. Still in Ladakh, I don’t need a wallet, I don’t need money. I can go into the village to any house and eat and drink there. In cities, you can’t rely on your neighbours like this. The community is still here in Ladakh. My four-year-old son walks to school on his own for two kilometres – where else in the world could he do this? Out here, I don’t have to worry. That’s a luxury money cannot buy. Every society used to have that sort of community and trust. Here, people don’t need to worry about many of the things that others worry about; if someone falls on hard times, they will be taken in and loved by the community.”

In recent times, there’s been an uplift in the cultural self-esteem of Ladakhis as they begin to recognise, in a global context, the rarity of their agricultural and social setups. Whilst the (over)developed world rushes around, frantically working longer hours, eating processed foods, Ladakh still possesses a sense of calm invaluable in today’s world. Because of this, many are looking to emulate the practices of Ladakh, and there is a growing movement of people globally who cherish the same values as the Ladakhis uphold. They aspire for healthy, nutritionally-rich produce grown without chemical inputs or fossil fuels, and a life based on community values with nature at its core. This is seen through community and sustainable farms, the rising demand for organic and local produce, and a movement to alternative lifestyles that question conventional systems and the status quo. There’s also a rise in campaigns to promote local economies and for decentralisation so that localities are not held hostage to the global market and may work to satisfy the needs of their communities – like in Ladakh, which today has fifteen farming cooperatives working with a great number of small-scale producers throughout the region.

It is important to recognise though that a shift towards better food and social systems does not have to be at the forfeit of modern life. In Ladakh, one of the cooperatives, Ladakh Farmers and Producers Co-operative, is introducing the use of cold storage systems to lengthen the life of their produce, meaning that fresh fruit and vegetables will be available in the winter season – a modern technology that is being used to augment natural farming practices and Ladakhis’ lives. It is about striking a balance and adopting, once again, sustainable ways of living. This means implementing logical systems that benefit everyone and the planet. Ladakh is a testament: that local economies can bolster self-reliant, thriving communities with a low carbon footprint; that food sovereignty is achievable to ensure our basic needs; that we can have a contented life whilst retaining balance with our environment; and that people and the planet should be at the heart of our vision for the future. •

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This story is from Volume Ten

The Altitudes Volume

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