August 31, 2013
I’ve officially hit the one week mark living in Likir. And suddenly I feel a bit stranded. We didn’t have any farm labor today after two long days of threshing, so it left me with a bit of free time to catch up on agriculture-related reading and to formulate interview questions. I haven’t talked to my family in over a week and they really have no idea where I am. I thought it might be good to give them a call but when neither my Iphone got reception nor one of the family member’s mobiles would not dial out of India, I realized I am literally stranded. I’m 2-3 hours outside a proper town (Leh) with Internet and cell service and while this should feel liberating, I suddenly feel many more miles away from civilization. I think it’s just the mental concept that I can’t call home even if I wanted to that makes me feel suffocated. I want desperately to have a conversation in English. I went off to the Gonpa today to look for Lobzang Namgyal, the young monk I met on the bus last week, because I was hoping to say hello and also to inquire if he knew anyone at the monastery who could translate for me. It turns out that Lobzang Namgyal is another ridiculously common name (along with Stanzin/Tenzin, Rinchen, Padma, Rigzin, Tashi, and Tsering). One monk said to me, in broken English, “there are many Lobzang Namgyals.” Grrrr. And even after showing several monks a photo, he wasn’t to be found. Some said he didn’t stay the monastery and others merely pointed me in the direction of the school. It was strange because I literally saw him get off the bus and meet his parents at the Gonpa. Perhaps he only lives in Likir but stays at the monastery in South India. Fortunately, the teacher at the school said he might be able to translate my interview: “I only speak broken English. Come back Monday night and maybe I will be here.” The vagueness is annoying, but alas, what can I do? I just hope that it works out.
Homestay family in the village of Likir
With meme-le (homestay mother)
September 4, 2013 – “Learning from Likir”
Interview was a success! Sort of. The teacher from the gonpa came by the house, which is more than I could have hoped for. After a day out of commission due to some stomach problems, anything was a welcomed improvement. I think the kolok for breakfast did me in: a delicious blend of tsampa (barley flour), butter, cheese and sugar and after mixing it with yogurt, I believe it’s the closest thing to cereal I am going to get here. It was really delicious until I felt sick for the last 48 hours. I managed to pull some peas off the stalk for a few hours in the morning and then proceeded to rest, sleep, and read Wuthering Heights for most of the afternoon. Two days ago, I was much more active as I spent much of the afternoon harvesting peas and in the morning, I went with abi-le to the government school down the road where she teaches/helps out a few hours each week. I decided that I think kids are generally cute (when they’re not wailing), but I’m really not very good with them. I don’t quite know what to do with them and with the language barrier, there wasn’t much I could say. Instead, I was instructed by abi-le to write “A” and draw an apple in several children’s notebooks (they were probably 5-8 years old), followed by the rest of the alphabet A-Z with accompanying pictures. Anyone who knows me is aware that my drawings are heinous but fortunately, b for ball, f for fish etc. was easy enough (though I was hesitant to do g for gun). The funniest moment, however, was when she asked me to draw a cat but I thought she said a cow, so I drew a cartoonish jersey breed cow complete with black and white spots and a big ole’ pink muzzle. She laughed and said, “cat?” Whoops. Looking back on the last twelve days, I actually spent most of my time with abi-le. She is a kind-hearted woman in her 50s, though she looks like she could be in her 70s, her tan face, weather beaten and wrinkled from years working in the fields I imagine. She and her husband were nice enough to let me interview them, which with the help of the monastery teacher was somewhat successful. Here is what I learned:
Agriculture is not their main livelihood. Meme-le works in a bank in the nearby village of Nimmo, abi-le spends time in the local school where her daughter is a teacher, one of their sons is in the army and the other is schooling in Varanasi, and the last daughter is living in Leh studying as well. They grow barley, wheat, peas, some pulses (lentils etc.), and have a field for vegetables (e.g. turnip), with one harvest per year and no mixing of crops. They mostly grow for home consumption and sell some (e.g. barley and tsampa) to the Leh market, which requires them to transport the goods on the service bus. When I tried to ask about land holding and acreage, the monk didn’t understand the meaning, so instead I got the answer that they grow barley on 9 fields and wheat on 3-4 fields, though I have no idea how large a field is. I would guess around an acre. For field preparation, they first clean the field, then use fertilizer (human waste, animal manure, and some chemicals) before plowing with animals (though they said some families are using a machine to turn the soil). They simultaneously plow and plant (hand scattering seeds) around the end of May in Likir, which is apparently a little bit late, compared to other villages in Ladakh because of the higher altitude; for instance, in Leh and Saspol, farmers can plant earlier. They aren’t buying seeds but instead save them each year and even exchange wheat and barley seeds with another village. In terms of tools and machinery in the fields, they are using mainly hand tools (e.g. shol, which is a wooden instrument with some metal) and animal power. Some use tractors, but it is rare and they mill the barley and wheat using the local water mill. It seems that the main form of agricultural technology is the power thresher, which came 3-4 years ago. They really like it because with less people in the house, what used to take them 15 days (animal threshing and relying on the wind for winnowing) now takes only 2 hours. They said that in Likir, there are two tractors with power threshers that run on diesel: one owned by a family and rented out to other villagers and the other by the monastery. When I asked about pests and diseases, they said they have no problems with wheat and barley but for the vegetables, this year has been especially difficult with insects and disease. Abi-le noted that people use the chemicals but she refuses because chemicals kill insects, which is a sin in Buddhism. In short, they aren’t using any chemical inputs. In terms of other management methods, they have been told that if they change the vegetable field each year, then it is good for growth but they grow barley and wheat on the same fields each year. One person told them, however, that if they grow peas one year and grow barley the following year, this is good for growth. Yay nitrogen-fixing legumes and crop rotation – this is something they may consider in the future. As suspected, the villagers take turns diverting glacial melt water from the channels and flood irrigate the fields. They seemed to have no interest in adopting drip irrigation or another scheme but said, “Maybe piped water would be possible in some villages if they are having water problems.” Apparently they have a greenhouse (which I didn’t see), which they like because they can “grow the vegetables early.” In addition, they have 8 animals: 1 yak and 7 cows (a number that keeps changing depending on the day I ask, ha), a mix of local breeds and jersey, which they acknowledge “give more milk.” When I asked if people take turns taking the livestock to graze in the phu (high pasture), they said, “A few years ago, 2-3 families would stay at the top of the mountain with the animals to collect milk, curd, cheese, butter from the animals for 3 months. Now there are no families to go to the phu, so they send them in the morning and in the evening if they don’t come back, they have to go searching. And ten years ago, each family had goats, sheep, cows etc. and every day one family would send people to feed the animals. Now very difficult because not enough people…children went into military or are studying.” This is definitely a trend in Ladakhi agriculture (and around the world): young people and families are moving away from rural villages, which creates labor shortages. So they’ve had to pay people (e.g. men from Jammu) to help them during harvest time. Fortunately, they are also able to join with other families to work together to finish harvesting and other labor intensive tasks. When I asked about the gender roles, I was told that men and women primarily work together to do the same tasks, except “if digging the field, the men will do this. Women spill the seeds.” In terms of gender and land inheritance, the Tongol family has four children (2 daughters, 2 sons) and because the two daughters were married into other families, the two boys will likely share/divide the land. I also asked about the role of the government in agriculture and was told, “the government does not have an [agricultural extension] officer in Likir but they give subsidized seeds (apple, apricot, peas) and sometimes chemicals.” I tried to ask their opinion about organic and the role of certification and export, but that question was a bit too complicated and neither the monk translator nor the family understood. Moving on, I also inquired about their opinion on climate change and its impact on farming: “If the climate changes, we will not be able to grow wheat and barley. Climate is a problem for animals because we have to collect grass for the winter. But if it’ a problem, the government will help farmers.” I tried to insinuate that warming will melt the glaciers and affect their water supply, but this also seemed to get lost in translation. Instead, they seem to put a lot of faith in the government. In fact, they like the Public Distribution System (of subsidized grains such as rice and flour from Punjab) “because it’s cheap” (so it provides ‘cheap’ food, but requires importing). The PDS is another aspect of development and globalization, so I asked them to describe what life was like before the tourists came in the 1970s: “We benefitted a lot after the tourists came here – the road has helped life a lot. We [Ladakhis] get more money because we can be drivers and run hotels. We have been a guesthouse for 5-6 years. We like being a guesthouse, but sometimes have problems with fewer tourists coming, this year especially because the Chinese invaded Ladakh and the protests in Kashmir. But hotel owners and jeep drivers have more problems because they depend on tourists more than we do. Tourism is only a short time: June to August.” It seems that they are enjoying the benefits of having additional income and don’t mind the forces of globalization and westernization influencing their lives and who can blame them? I also asked: how do you imagine the future of agriculture in Ladakh? They responded, “Some families give up their fields and stop being farmers even though the government requests villagers to use their fields well (gives subsidized crops and fertilizers) but there is still a problem with not enough people. People do a little bit work in the field to grow food for the family but not more. Also the government gives rations per month (subsidized sugar, rice, wheat, kerosene oil) and if they majorly cut the subsidized food, then the villagers will have a big problem, especially people in Leh.” After being probed, they also acknowledged that there may be more mechanization in the future if current population trends and labor shortages continue. To finalize the interview, I asked: Do you think it’s important for Ladakhi farmers to join the formal economy and to commercialize agriculture so they can export to other parts of India or abroad? Or do you think that subsistence farming for household consumption is better? This question was too complex, clearly, and as a result, I got a somewhat imprecise answer: “If there is good business, then it’s good to export. Now Ladakh grows crops so it’s not expensive, but if we do business with another country, it will be expensive. If we sell barley and wheat in the local market, no one buys because people already have it; they grow themselves. But 3-4 years ago, we sent crops to Chang tang (near Chinese border) where the government buys from us and sells.” Whatever this relationship is with Chang tang seems like it’s benefitting Ladakhi farmers, but it wasn’t exactly clear to me. In essence, the interview revealed some interesting facets such as the seed saving and exchange between villages, their opinions on the role of the government and subsidies especially, and also the problem with dwindling rural populations. But I am certain that many of my questions did not fully translate, which I suppose is inevitable using a translator who is not fluent in English. After taking more than an hour of his time, though, I was at least able to return the favor by helping him write a short “Happy New Year” note to the Gonpa school sponsors in Switzerland.
Upon further reflection, I am finding it difficult to separate the lessons I learned in Likir from what I’ve read about Ladakh, globalization, changing agriculture etc. For instance, Ancient Futures frames western development as culturally destructive, which it very well may be, but the Tongol family has seemed to really benefit from the coming of tourism. In their minds, I am willing to bet they feel like they have a higher quality of life. Though notions of cooperation and intergenerational equity were congruous based on what I read and what I saw: extended family members of all ages would come together to help each other in the fields. Buddhism also seemed to inform their farming practices to some extent (i.e. refusing to apply chemicals, which kill other living beings). Technology is not very pervasive in their farming, with the exception of the power thresher, which seems to have helped reduce time and labor in a significant way. Otherwise, this family seemed rather indifferent, if not adverse, to further mechanization, improved seed varieties, synthetic inputs etc. Overall, it was extremely useful spending nearly two weeks living with a Ladakhi family and accompanying them to the fields to work. I haven’t had much farming experience and the manual labor felt good, albeit exhausting. It gave me a minute and brief taste of the hardships and rewards of agriculture. Something about harvesting and seeing an (almost) finished product is gratifying, especially when backbreaking labor is involved. My fingernails seem to be permanently crusted with dirt, my shoulders bruised from carrying barley on my back in their makeshift packs, and my arms scorched from the strong Ladakhi sun. And perhaps more importantly, I think I will come away from Ladakh feeling like I have a family and friends here. I rode the bus part of the way back to Leh with meme-le who was going to work at the bank and I met their son at the bus station in Leh to give him a package. He invited me back to his two-room flat near the station, where his wife prepared fried eggs and tea. The son even sent me away with a package of cashews and paid by taxi fare to upper Leh. They all keep telling me that I must come back to Likir again soon, and Abi-le even gave me gifts of apricots and a scarf, insisting that I was a hard worker. “Dik-le, dik-le,” I responded (no, no, it’s okay), but she was adamant. Heck, I should have been the one bestowing gifts on them. Fortunately, I was able to give them a postcard with a picture of my hometown on the front and their son helped me write a nice thank you message in Ladakhi on the back. But this small gesture pales in comparison to their generosity. Now, with a somewhat more thorough understanding of agriculture in Ladakh, I feel more prepared to speak with NGOs, government officials, businesses etc. during the remainder of my time in Leh.
Barley and Monasteries
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