Mountain Minorities and Ecological Change in the Himalayas

In temperate-zone mountain systems throughout the world, the migratory life of shepherd communities is threatened. The pastoral life is marginal to dominant cultures and economies around it, and vulnerable to processes of ecological deterioration. Throughout most of the arc of the Himalayan mountain region, subsistence is rooted in the limited, fragile resources of the mountain's alluvial valleys, forests and high pastures. Herdsmen, reliant on the transhumant grazing of sheep and goats or yaks, exploit the alpine zone, linking it with the agricultural and trade systems of the middle and lower hills. These pastoral people are ethnically distinct from others around them, but they function within multiethnic statewide and national systems. Unlike tribal groups in most tropical hill regions of the world, or the aboriginals of the northeastern Himalayas or central India, who are culturally set apart, these pastoral communities have long been integrated into broader commercial and food-producing networks.

Under rapidly changing political, economic and ecological conditions of recent years, they have been able to adapt - though not without pain and cultural cost - to new pressures and opportunities, and have not faced the extreme dangers of a traditional isolation recently shattered. In fact, the challenge to the traditional systems of resource management in the alpine pastoral zone of northern Pakistan, northwestern India and northern Nepal is rooted in the long-term interaction and competition between pastoralists and others for the use of forest and pasture.

The extension of agriculture at the expense of forest cover, first in the Gangetic plains below the Himalayas, and then in the mountains themselves, and the complex cycle of forest depletion and overgrazing, as they have constricted pastoral cultures, are the primary focus of this article.

A Complex of Local and Distant Demands on Forest Resources

In both India and Nepal, a history of competition for use of the forest land has placed increasing pressure on pastoral peoples and given rise to controversy over who is responsible for overgrazing in the mountain forests. The difficulty in resolving these issues lies first in the intricacy of the annual grazing cycle, and second in the complexity of government's role as both exploiter and conservor of the mountain resources.

In India prior to British rule, the hill rajas had made no significant attempt to regulate access to forest and grazing lands, and since the commons were vast in relation to the limited rural populations of people and livestock, it seems that villagers themselves had little need for collective regulation of these multi - use lands.

In the early colonial period, however, these lands held in common, forest areas in particular, began to be depleted as a result of increased demands.

Agriculture for both subsistence and market-oriented cropping expanded into the Himalayan river valleys, and in some locations natural forest was replaced by plantation crops - notably tea for world markets. Simultaneously, the expansion of urban north India contributed to the modern deforestation of the outer Himalayas, drawing heavily on timber from the foothill jungles. Entire tarai forests as far west as Gorakhpur and lower Nepal were cut and floated down the tributaries of the Ganges. Deforestation was accelerated in the 1850s and 1860s with the establishment of British control in the upper Ganges plains and the penetration into that region by the railways.

Almost overnight, the hardwood forests of the mountains were transformed into highly valuable commodities, and for nearly two decades these stands were cut with total lack of regulation.

By the late nineteenth century, the British perceived that a critical shift had evolved: the natural resource base was no longer adequate to sustain both local and distant demands for forest use. As a result, the Indian Forest Service was established in the 1860s with a three-fold mandate: to organize sustained-yield timber production for the future, to preserve the forest cover on remote and unstable watersheds, and to ensure that the people of mountain villages had adequate supplies of wood and fodder for their subsistence needs. A century later, it would be evident that they had achieved the first goal most effectively and the third with the most conflict and least success.

The Forest Law of 1878 provided the mechanism for official forest management by establishing the government as the ultimate owner of all lands not held individually. In order to implement its self-proclaimed role, the British Raj established an elaborate administration of restrictions on villagers' collection of fuelwood, building timber and livestock fodder. Villagers, unused to such constraints, experienced the Forest Department as the police wing of an alien authority, and where competing pressures on the forest were greatest, political conflict was severe. Despite much local resistance, the Forest Department spent the next half century demarcating Reserved Forests in which they worked with private contractors to harvest timber for distant markets, in what they asserted were sustained-yield rotations.

A somewhat different story with a similar result can be told of the forest areas farther eastward into Nepal. Without any form of regulation between the years 1770 and 1950, the cutting of the great hardwood forests of the tarai border zone was haphazard and extreme. Landed elites were able to use taxation powers and access to trade networks to harvest commercially valuable timber, while illegal timber operators moved freely along the unguarded India/Nepal border.

In both India and Nepal, damage to forests and watersheds devastated not only the border jungles, but the middle hills where population had long been concentrated and villagers' grazing lands overlap with pastoralists' winter pasture. The story of the Gaddi shepherds, which follows, can be viewed as an example of the complex of conflicts which arise as part of the cycle of deforestation, agriculture and grazing.

The Pastoral Cycle in Himachal Pradesh

Himachal Pradesh extends from the borders of Kashmir southeastward to the Siwalik foothills which border the fertile plains of Punjab. In addition to the non-migratory domestic animals kept by farmers in the permanent villages of the lower hills, there is the yearly cycle of crop and livestock management of the Gaddis sheep and goat herders, whose survival depends largely on transhumant herding. Their grazing territory covers most of present-day Himachal, spreading gradually farther northward into summer alpine pasture, and eastward into winter grazing grounds as the flocks increase and fodder resources deteriorate.

Most Gaddis practice mixed farming and shepherding, but hold insufficient arable land to provide a full year's food. In the high villages, the short growing season and poor soil have compounded the problem, forcing the gradual migration of families down into the low Kangra valley. Yet even there, the tiny farmsteads are often less than three acres, and the Gaddis maintain flocks of sheep and goats as major cash crops.

For Gaddi families resettled in the Kangra valley, elaborate migratory strategies have developed, linked to both market and ecological conditions. They graze in the fragile northern alpine region in summer and the most inadequate foothill areas in the winter. In order to produce wool and meat for lowland markets, these professional year-round shepherds leave their families and guide their flocks northward into the high valleys of the Chenab River watershed.

In the summer, flocks graze as high as 16,000 feet on pastures susceptible to dessication. Then, after as little as two to four weeks time, they must retreat southward to avoid the first winter snows. They travel hundreds of miles southeastward into shrinking, overgrazed lands among the settled agricultural villages and government forests.

There was no clear evidence of overgrazing in these mountains until after the British occupation began in the early 1850s, when land-use disputes centered on the Siwalik hills and the Kangra valley, where the settled farming population was most dense and the competition for winter pasture most severe. There, in the autumn, Gaddi flocks passed through villages to glean stubble from the newly-harvested fields, and the peasant owners provided the shepherds with food. In return, fields were fertilized for the following year's crops, a crucial step in the agricultural cycle. For many years this cycle of migration and exchange of services had been loosely regulated by a local Raja. However, major changes were initiated shortly after the British Empire took control of the Punjab hills in 1850.

With the long-range goals of stabilizing and extending agriculture while controlling exploitation of the forest, British surveyors codified land tenure systems, assigning rights to tilled, grazed and forested land as a basis for revenue collection. Initially, Gaddi shepherds retained their grazing rights without fees, but two simultaneous developments led to increased stress and attempts at control.

Rapid expansion of trade between the hills and the Punjab plains, and rising prices for market goods, including wool and mutton, gave the Gaddis a strengthened position. Herds were increased, and more prominent Gaddis began to charge others increased rates for use of winter pasture. At the same time, commercial timber cutting put intense new pressure on the forest lands in the high mountains, and the Forest Department began regulating access to timber cutting and grazing on government lands. Empowered by the forest law of 1878, the Punjab government compiled a list of grazing rights delineating each shepherd's pasture area and the maximum permissible size for each flock. Every migratory Gaddi was to pay three fees annually: one for his winter pasture, a second on migration and a third for alpine summer grazing rights. The specific migration route for each Hock was stipulated, and flocks were required to move five miles per day, stopping only one night at any location. By giving the entire social and ecological cycle formal status, this system began a new era in the management of the commons.

The Gaddis, faced with a new set of fee-collecting agents and restrictions, responded with evasive strategies. Shepherds began to avoid checkpoints entirely, and the increasingly regulated pastoral cycle became laced with conflict between shepherds and the government. Management difficulties were greatest where flocks mixed with intensively tilled lands in the lower hills and where fragile terrain made erosion severe. The destructive interaction between timber cutting and migratory Gaddi grazing was significant, and as coniferous forests were cut, Gaddi flocks grazed the stump land, effectively preventing new forest growth. Rising pressures on the land and a decline in available pasture nutrition were heightened by an increase in the percentage of goats in the flocks. Goats, adaptable to more varied and inhospitable conditions than sheep, browse high and intensively on tree seedlings, causing further damage.

When the government responded with further restrictions and separate and higher taxation for goats, increased controversy challenged government's taxation powers. By 1918, when Mahatma Gandhi had assumed control of the Indian National Congress, protests against taxes and administrative restrictions were widespread.

By the 1920s, the irrigation systems of the plains districts, crucial to the Indus basin (the breadbasket of India) became increasingly threatened by soil erosion in the Siwaliks. Yet throughout India's struggle for independence, especially the war years 1939-1945, administrative services were strained to the limit and unable to address this serious problem. Ironically, the Gaddi herds continued to grow in response to the wartime economy which produced steep rises in the price of both wool and mutton.

Since independence, the dilemmas of the grazing economy have remained unresolved, and conflicting charges about the pattern and extent of overgrazing have persisted as before. Several government commissions have attempted but failed to resolve the competing claims of foresters and shepherds.

Pressures on the land slowly intensify in the densely populated foothills. Settled agriculture there continues to expand, and hydroelectric dams such as the great Bhakra-Nangal complex have flooded rich bottomlands.

The delicate alpine pastures are another matter: no one yet has reliable information on the pace or pattern of long-term deterioration there. In the semi-arid upland climate, a winter with inadequate snowfall or a summer when the light monsoon showers fail entirely can cause severe dislocation of that year's migratory cycle. In dry 1985 the scarcity of alpine grasses forced shepherds to turn southward almost a month early. As they arrived at the farms below the passes, crops were still standing and the fields were not yet ready to glean. Flocks had to be dispersed in small segments onto marginal lands until the harvest was completed. But does one such season have long-range consequences? No one knows with certainty.

The Gaddis themselves disagree over their long-range prospects. The sons of some migratory shepherds prefer school and then a wage-paying job to the rigors of the high passes. But other families continue as in previous generations. Collectively the profits of pastoralism provide them with one of the most lucrative segments of the entire Himachal economy. Environmental pressures may be slowly undermining the basis of their culture, but the future is very unclear.

Border Closings Disrupt Herding Patterns

For several highland pastoral communities, the pattern of migrant grazing has been further complicated by national border closings. The Bhotia yak and sheep herders and Sherpas of Nepal traditionally moved their herds over the border passes onto the windswept high plateau of Tibet. However, this system was radically disrupted in 1959, when the Chinese army occupied Lhasa, forced the Dalai Lama and many of his people into exile in India and Nepal, and closed the Nepal-Tibet border. Similarly, until the India-Tibet border was closed, Indian Bhotia herders had for centuries moved their sheep into Tibet for the summer.

While the situation for herders in Nepal is still unresolved - a subject of continuing negotiations with the Chinese - the Indian Bhotias' response to the total disruption of their traditional livelihood has been a remarkable degree of assimilation into new economic opportunities. In the 1960s, while keeping their permanent high-country homesteads, the Bhotia quickly moved into trading. Sons entered public schools and found white-collar jobs in state and district administration. The traditional culture has been severely attenuated, but new economic openings have at least presented a viable alternative.


More than a century in the making, today's ecological pressures on the indigenous pastoral cultures of the Himalayas reflect an intricate relationship between forest depletion and overgrazing. Most government efforts to regulate demands on pasture resources have foundered on the complexity of their links with sedentary villagers and inter-regional trade networks.

The worsening trend in both pasture and forest quality is sobering; it underscores the point that traditional forms of transhumance will not survive unchanged in an era of economic expansion, population growth and political disruption. Yet as the traditional life of shepherding becomes more vexed, alternative sources of income have become available to the younger men of some shepherd communities. Their departure from pastoral life seems to be a choice for a more settled and salaried existence.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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