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The Ladakh Project

An Example of Appropriate Technology and Cooperative Spirit

Over the years, writers and travelers have been unable to resist employing the term Shangri La to describe the remote land of Ladakh, in northern India. Yet, at a glance, this region of the Tibetan Plateau seems an unlikely paradise. The soaring Himalayas, which define Ladakh on the south, prevent all but about four inches of annual precipitation from reaching the area. The base elevation is around 11,000 feet, with the mountains reaching 20,000 feet and higher. During the seven-month winter, it is not uncommon for temperatures to drop to -40°F. In summer, the high altitude sun beats down mercilessly. Scarcely any vegetation softens the lines of the jagged mountains.

But tucked in the valleys among these barren mountains are villages which testify to a life of abundance rather than scarcity. Startlingly green terraced fields of barley, wheat and vegetables surround large, elegant houses of adobe and hand-carved wood. Like their beautiful communities, the friendly faces and the tolerant, generous manner of the Ladakhi people radiate a sense of plenty and satisfaction.

Through their intimate understanding and ingenious use of scarce natural resources, these people have for centuries succeeded in providing for all their basic needs. And they have done so without undermining the integrity of their natural environment, without treating nature as an adversary to be conquered. Nor do the Ladakhis interact competitively with each other. Their way of life is characterized by cooperation - within the extended family and throughout the village. The young learn from and help the old, and there is little rigidity in the division between the work and privileges of women and men. Life in Ladakh is infused with great stability and peacefulness. Crime and poverty are virtually unknown.

While there is no denying that life in Ladakh involves hard work, the people enjoy a substantial amount of leisure, highlighted by lengthy and elaborate weddings, funerals and religious celebrations. Their culture is rich and colorful, centering around the beliefs and practices of Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, the predominant religion.

Ladakh and the tiny kingdom of Bhutan, east of India, are perhaps the purest remaining examples of traditional Tibetan societies since China's subjugation of Tibet in the 1950s. For centuries, Ladakh's culture was preserved by geographic isolation. But in 1960, the Indian government built a road from the Kashmir valley into Ladakh to defend its borders with China and Pakistan. Since 1974, when foreigners were permitted to begin visiting this strategically sensitive area, there has been an increasing influx of tourists - now some 15,000 annually.

In addition to stimulating an interest in new products and practices, tourism is effecting a profound change in the Ladakhis' self-image. Through contact with tourists, the Ladakhis gain the impression that Westerners lead a life of infinite wealth and leisure. By comparison, their own way of life - a near miracle of social and environmental balance - seems inferior and outmoded.

Helena Norberg-Hodge, a Swedish linguist who has spent half of each year in Ladakh since she first visited in 1974, tells of an experience which sharply illustrates this deterioration in the Ladakhis self-esteem. During one of her earliest visits to Ladakh, a young man gave her a tour of his village. Impressed by the size and beauty of all the houses she saw, she asked him to show her the poorest house. He proudly informed her that there were no poor houses there. Recently, she overheard the same man imploring a tourist, "If only you could do something to help us Ladakhis. We are so poor."

This change in self-image is driving the Ladakhis to relinquish traditional practices and materials in favor of "modern" ways and products, even where the latter are inconsistent with local needs and conditions. The result, too often, is an actual decrease in the standard of living. Young people, hoping to emulate the modern, urban life, are leaving the villages and moving to Leh, the main population center. But because there are few paying jobs offered in this still largely agrarian economy, unemployment and poverty are gaining a toe-hold. Crowding is causing sanitation problems, and an erosion in the once pervasive friendly spirit. Farmers have begun using synthetic fertilizers which threaten the quality of the fragile mountain soil that the Ladakhis have enriched through centuries of careful composting and cultivation. Packaged processed foods are gaining preference over the traditional diet of whole grains and vegetables.

Norberg-Hodge, who first stayed on in Ladakh to learn more of its people and language, saw a sad irony in the Ladakhis' abandonment of their old way of life. She observed that the very things the Ladakhis were renouncing as old fashioned - composting toilets (which provide fertilizer for the fields), organic farming, the use of natural materials for clothing and buildings - were regaining popularity in the West. Realizing that it would be a real tragedy if the Ladakhis abandoned their highly successful traditional practices for a way of life that is being increasingly questioned by Western society, yet recognizing the Ladakhis' legitimate desire for certain improvements in their standard of living, she began seeking positive avenues of change for Ladakh.

Her quest became the Ladakh Project, an organization which enjoys both local and international support. The Ladakh Project is promoting a development path for Ladakh that will build on, rather than destroy, its traditions. This involves the introduction of technologies that can be implemented at a decentralized level using locally available resources, thus preserving the Ladakhis' social structure and self-sufficiency.

A good example of such an appropriate technology is the Trombe wall, a device for passive solar spaceheating. A clean, reliable heating source is one of Ladakh's major needs. Dung, the fuel that is traditionally used, produces smoky fires which cause many health problems and offer poor relief from the bitter winter temperatures. Fossil fuels must be imported to Ladakh, and present a threat to air and water quality. But Ladakh receives about 320 days of sun annually, and the traditional building materials - stone and mud brick - provide the thermal mass needed (or heat collection in a Trombe wall. For these reasons, the Ladakh Project has focused attention on promoting and building Trombe walls on Ladakhi homes and designing them in a manner which complements Ladakh's beautiful traditional architecture.

Solar ovens, food driers, and water heaters; hydraulic pumps for lifting water; and windmills for generating electricity have also been successfully introduced by the Ladakh Project. Other aspects of the organization's work include reinforcing support for the traditional, very productive agricultural methods, providing information on the dangers associated with new materials coming into use (such as pesticides and asbestos) and sponsoring activities which celebrate Ladakhi culture.

The hub of the Project's work is the Center for Ecological Development in Leh, a traditionally-styled building which incorporates the old and new technologies the organization is promoting for Ladakh - from traditional composting toilets to Trombe walls. Besides providing information for the Ladakhis, the Center helps turn tourism into a force for positive change. A large percentage of the tourists who come to Ladakh visit the Center. Their interest in passive solar energy and the other "new" technologies being demonstrated provides tangible proof that these techniques are esteemed in the modern world. At the same time, their interest in the more traditional practices helps to reaffirm the Ladakhis' pride in their own way of life.

In fact, Norberg-Hodge is convinced that Ladakh's way of life is of value beyond its Himalayan boundaries. Ladakhis have proven that a satisfying life can be lived, even with minimal natural resources, through cooperative spirit - an invaluable example for a world suffering from environmental degradation and social and political strife. If an its efforts to modernize, Ladakh can avoid the common pitfalls of development, blending the best of the old and new, it can also demonstrate to the rest of the world the principles for responsible change.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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