Climate change forces Himalayan herders to search for pasture

The Himalayan Gaddi community of pastoralists has long lived from the land. But with rising temperatures pushing them higher up into mountains in search of grazing pastures, their way of life is under threat.

It is fall in the Dhaulagiri range in the far north of India. Pine tree forests abound in this remote stretch of the Himalayas , where serpentine roads cling to steep mountainsides.

Nature and Environment | 16.01.2018

But something isn't right in the picturesque hamlet of Kandral, inhabited by the semi-nomadic Gaddi community. The air should be filled with bleating and the sound of bells. Instead, there is silence.

Ranjit Singh and four other shepherds have left their flocks with relatives high up in the mountains so they can come down to celebrate the annual festival of Dham.

In the past, they would have brought their animals with them and stayed for longer before descending to the foothills in the winter. 

"This used to be a time when our livestock would stay with us and eat the grass we've collected for them while we shear wool and sell it," says Singh. But the  changing climate  in this part of the mid-Himalayas has undone the pattern of his existence.

Read moreUS climate report warns of worsening disasters

Indien Weidewirtschaft im Himalaya

Grazers spend months at a time in the mountains. Each one generally has two horses laden with provisions.

The stout 58-year-old sits in front of a two-story concrete house nestled into a mountain slope. The dwelling has seen better days. The floor is cracked in many places as a result of past landslides, which local shepherds attribute to deforestation and overgrazing. Singh is concerned that the whole building could collapse. He has the same fears for his way of life — he spends much of his time outside, sleeping in makeshift shelters, drinking stream water and eating the rations of flour, sweets, dried fruit and rice strapped to his horses' backs.

Read more: Drought drives Kenyan pastoralists into Uganda

The way things were

Traditionally, Singh and his fellow pastoralists moved from lowlands to highlands to take advantage of seasonally available pastures at different elevations.

He used to start his annual journey in April, when he traveled to Langa-Kinnaur mountain point, 5,000 meters (16,000 feet) above sea level. In September, he would descend to around 2,500 meters, before heading for the foothill forests in December, where he would stay until the cycle started anew in the spring.

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That was back in the days when rainfall was more reliable. According to the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), the month of November saw virtually no winter precipitation in 2014, 2016 and 2017.

Ranbir Singh Rana, Principal Scientist at the Department of Agronomy and Grassland Management at Himachal Pradesh Agriculture University (HPKV), says the shift, which he attributes to climate change, has far-reaching effects.

"Lesser snow precipitation in the middle range puts pressure on the pasture lands these shepherds have been managing for centuries," he says.

Indien Weidewirtschaft im Himalaya

Pastures are becoming overrun by weeds, agriculture and pine forests between which the grass does not grow

Climbing to new heights

In an effort to ensure their animals have enough to eat, grazers have taken to overlooking what farmer Akshay Jasrotia from Himachal Pradesh Ghumantu Mahasabha, an association that fights for pastoralists' rights, says is a "fixed schedule" determining how long each shepherd gets to stay in a certain place.

"As they stay longer, there is a real risk of overgrazing, which can lead to further environmental distress," he tells DW. 

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The search for pasture is also sending shepherds higher up the mountains along unfamiliar routes. This has led to reports of increased sheep deaths — likely as a result of poor quality grass. Reduced flock sizes means there is less wool, meat and milk to sell, which has an impact on the overall economic viability of this way of life.

Read moreGanges under threat from climate change

Indien Weidewirtschaft im Himalaya

Goats have proved better able to survive conditions at higher altitudes than sheep

Less snow isn't bad for everyone

The fragility of the ancient pastoralist existence is compounded by the arrival on traditional grazing land of crop farmers  looking to take advantage of the longer potential growing periods brought about by rising temperatures.

In some northern districts, the area of land used for agriculture has doubled in the past 10 years — a development not welcomed by pastoralists.

"We've had reports from different parts of Himachal Pradesh about sometimes violent conflicts between villagers who grow crops and grazers whose animals graze on their crop fields," says Prakash Bhandari, a forest rights activist with the non-profit Himdhara, based in the city of Kangra.

The pastures are also under threat from invasive shrub species like Lantana (Ornamental grass), Parthenium or Ageratina adenophora (crofton weed) not native to India or even Asia, that are using the favorably warm conditions to creep higher up the mountains every year.

Indien Weidewirtschaft im Himalaya

Villages started to change as people moved away, leaving a way of life in question

A dying culture?

Ranjit Singh has never heard of the concept of anthropogenic climate change, but he knows what he sees, and is worried about the future of his pasture lands.

"We're struggling to carry on this age-old profession," he says with resignation. "There are now only seven families left in this village who work as pastoralists."

There used to be 25. The other Gaddi herders who once followed in their ancestors' footsteps up and down the Himalayas, have either migrated to the city or taken work elsewhere, often as farm laborers.

Read moreIndia's 'water man' keeping liquids flowing despite crisis

And it's the same story in many other villages. Singh says he's been thinking about about giving it up too. But it's what he knows. It's his culture. For now, he immerses himself in it, making the most of Dham.

"This is the only period during the year where we meet our people, relish varieties of dishes, fix wedding or future congregation dates, meetings and other social functions," says Singh.

Once the festivities are over, he will lead his laden horse back up to higher altitudes to find his flock at one of the remaining spots with good grass. It might be out of keeping with a long Himalayan tradition, but he sees it as his only real option.

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A sea of red flags

The farmers, wearing red caps and carrying red flags, arrived in the city following a six-day trek from Nashik, situated 165 kilometers (103 miles) north of Mumbai. The farmers, the bulk of them impoverished, plan to surround the state legislature of the western state of Maharashtra in Mumbai. Many had walked barefoot in the already soaring March temperatures.

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Demanding government support

The farmers want the government to ensure they earn at least one-and-a-half times the cost they incur in producing their crops. They are also demanding that the government waives all farm loans. Many of the protesters are tribespeople who have farmed for generations on land they don't own but are demanding recognition of ownership.

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Working out a solution

The Maharashtra government has said it is willing to consider the demands and is working to find a solution. Last year, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said his government would write off loans to farmers estimated to be worth around 305 billion rupees ($4.75 billion, €3.86 billion).

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Agriculture in crisis

Maharashtra is one of India's most important agricultural states. In recent years, it has suffered disappointing rains and severe drought which led to crop failures. More than 2,500 farmers killed themselves in the state in 2017, according to official figures. But the problems are not limited to Maharashtra.

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Rising discontent

It has been a season of agrarian discontent in India and farmers across various states have regularly been holding demonstrations over the past several months pressing the government to offer them more help. The situation exposes the precarious state in which the country's struggling farmers and impoverished landless agricultural laborers find themselves in.

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Poor earnings

Many farmers are struggling with high debts and poor earnings from lower produce prices. Experts say many farm commodities are trading below support prices set by the authorities, because the government only commits serious sums to buying wheat and rice, but not other crops. 

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A quick fix?

Analysts say loan waivers amount to quick fixes and they cannot tackle the structural flaws in farm policies, which have encouraged higher production of crops previously in short supply but offered scant protection on prices.

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A major challenge

The outburst of discontent poses a challenge for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has promised to double farmers' incomes over the next five years. There is a risk that the protests could spread and intensify if no effective measures were put in place to resolve the issues.

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Dependent on agriculture

Two-thirds of India's population of 1.3 billion depends on farming for their livelihood, but agriculture makes up just around 14 percent of the nation's total economic output. Despite growing migration to cities in the past two decades, over half of the population still lives in rural areas.