Saturday, September 28, 2013

Leaving Ladakh: Final Reflections

September 28, 2013 – Final Ladakh Reflections

I write from the oppressive heat and humidity of Delhi, after having been in Ladakh for about five weeks.  The overcast and drizzling weather in Leh on my last day (probably only the second time it’s rained here in 35 days) remind me that all good things must come to an end.  As I walked into town from my house in Upper Sankar, Ladakhis were quickly trying to cover the barley piles that were drying so leisurely in the fields.  I am really happy I took the time to walk up to the Palace and Castle Tsermo yesterday when it was clear, blue skies and sunshine.  I was definitely not ready to leave though.  This is without a doubt one of the most magical places on the planet.  As I’ve described in previous posts, the landscape is breathtakingly stunning and the people are so friendly.  Things come (relatively) easy here: I can walk around alone at night without feeling threatened; I feel a degree of independence and autonomy that I didn’t feel in Tanzania; one doesn’t have to constantly worry about being scammed or harassed by touts; I’ve managed without a mobile phone because people gladly lend me theirs; I didn’t have to empty my water bottle or take off my belt/shoes at the Leh airport (this may sound simple and silly, but it just attests to the relative effortlessness of things in Ladakh).  Among many aspects, I am going to miss the Ladakhi toilets (seriously!  composting, just a hole in the ground with no water), the labyrinth of footpaths weaving through town, the donkeys and cows that parade through the streets, and the crisp and cool air that lends itself well to running, sleeping, and just generally existing.  Although my various visits and interviews have required a fair amount of tenacity and persistence, they were relatively easy to arrange.  Leh is a small community and everyone seems to know everyone else here, which helps. 

For instance, I was trying to track down a man named Abdul Mateen who I read about in an article where he was referred to as “the man who brought the agricultural machine to Ladakh.”  The author wrote, “Abdul Mateen is a pioneer who has introduced modern methods in agriculture since 1992, thereby bringing a revolution in agricultural practices in Ladakh. Through his work he has improved the lives of thousands of people living in Ladakh.”  Naturally, I was determined to find him.  I emailed the website that posted the article and got in touch with the author, but he had since lost touch with Mr. Mateen.  I began showing random people his photo, asking if they recognized him.  No one seemed to know and one person even said, “oh he’s not even from Ladakh.  Definitely from Kashmir.”  I was ready to give up hope when I was volunteering to help build an NGO’s website (Leh Nutrition Project) and I showed his photo to one of the administrators.  He piped up that he went to school with Mr. Mateen and rushed off to get his contact information.  I was given the phone number of his brother, who I called and finally got a hold of Mr. Mateen himself.  It was a struggle, but I can’t think of a better way to have spent my last day in Leh.  I met Mr. Mateen for breakfast, we had an interview translated by his niece, and then he drove me back to his village (Choglamsar) to show me the tractor, grass cutter, disc plough and other machines he has acquired over the years. 

Some highlights from our interview include:

  • After first introducing the tractor and mechanized thresher to Ladakh in 1992, it took 3-4 years for people to really accept the technologies.  He first disseminated them to his family and friends, who promoted them to their own circles.
  • In 1993, he went to a training in Haryana, Punjab at a government institute where he learned how to use and drive the tractor, as well as attaching equipment.  When the machines he first brought to Ladakh failed, he didn’t give up hope and instead brought them back to Punjab to modify the parts and size to be more appropriate for Ladakh’s small fields.
  • Today, he is a dealer for the BCS company in Ludhiana, Punjab for which he sells grass cutters to the government, which then sells them to Ladakhis at a subsidized rate.  The grass cutters are very multipurpose and can be modified to harvest alfalfa, wheat, and barley.  He brings parts back with him, ensuring that the machines can be repaired locally in Leh.  BCS recently paid for his visit to Italy where he had the opportunity to observe European agriculture at the company’s headquarters.
  • He stands by his motivation to help fellow Ladakhi farmers by making agriculture less burdensome and time intensive and hopes to attract youth back to the land by introducing mechanization to the fields and reducing drudgery.



With Abdul Mateen, the "man who brought the agricultural machine to Ladakh"
Reading the article here


During my time in Ladakh, I was able to accomplish many things including:

·         2 week homestay/farm volunteering in the village of Likir with the Tongol family (harvesting and threshing barley, harvesting and shelling peas)
·         Visited and worked with the NGO “Leh Nutrition Project”
o   Visited village of Egu and attended a community meeting on the artificial glacier project (20 leaders from each of the six hamlets discussed implantation cost, dates of construction etc.) and visited the proposed site
o   Helped compile and edit text for the new LNP website
o   Interviewed the project coordinator for the Improved Farm-based Livelihood Project
·         Interviewed Mr. Chewang Norphel Mahey (retired Civil Engineer and designer of the Artificial Glacier)
·         Interviewed the Secretary of the Association of Farmers’ Cooperative Societies of Ladakh
·         Interviewed a representative of the Ladakh Development Foundation, which implemented the “Thresher Project” (small gas/kerosene powered portable machines) and visited the nearby village of Matho to see the thresher.
·         Visited the Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG) and spoke briefly with the man who works on the Watershed Development Project (planning to survey water use in Leh, document and register the number of borehole wells being drilled etc. for sustainable aquifer management)
·         Visited the local government (Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC)) and interviewed the Chief Executive Councilor for Agriculture
·         Visited the Ladakh Organic Farmers Foundation in the nearby village of Chuchot, interviewed the founder, and toured/saw an excellent demonstration of technologies such as solar powered water pump, trench, compost pits, three types of greenhouses, agricultural laboratory, passive solar etc.
·         Visited Gopuk Government Demonstration Farm
·         Visited the Women’s Alliance of Ladakh and spoke briefly with the President and Vice President (they do training on organic and cooperative farming; seed saving activities)
·         Visited the Ladakh Environment and Health Organisation and interviewed the founder/director (currently collaborating with the Hill Council and Vandana Shiva’s Navdanya on “Organic Ladakh” strategic plan and continuing work on passive solar greenhouses)
·         Interviewed Tsewang Rigzin Lagrook (the famous 87 year old Ladakhi horticulturalist)
·         Visited the French NGO “GERES” (Groupe Energies Renouvelables Environement et Solidarites), which is doing work on passive solar greenhouses
·         And visited/spoke with the owner of a local tour agency, Demazong Travels, which runs agricultural tours of Ladakh

Based on my interview questions, there were general themes that came out.  After a combination of countless phone calls, bus rides/hitch hiking, kilometers walked, and language struggles, the following highlighted responses and poignant quotations paint a rather vivid and comprehensive picture of the past, present, and future of Ladakh’ agriculture:

·         Seeds including GMOs in feeding the world’s growing population
·         According to the 29 year old founder of the Ladakh Organic Farmers Foundation, Zubair Ahmad, “hybrid seed is not good for the future.  Now the agriculture department subsidizes hybrid, but this is not sustainable in long term” (assuming that the subsidies aren’t permanent).  Moreover, I would say that if farmers become dependent on hybrids, this is quite negative because they are unable to save and reproduce them each year.  Thus, if local seeds are surrendered, then farmers could ultimately be left seedless.  Zubair also noted that “GMOs in Punjab are a problem.  Climate, raining problem etc. and my suggestion is that the government should help farmers with crop insurance [not seed subsidies].  Insect, pest, and climate insurance is most important, and government and private companies should provide, depending on good service, though insurance is only one concept.”
·         Agricultural mechanization and technology
·         Dr. Deen on the notion of appropriate technology: “My understanding is that if you go to an area, based on the village potential and resources, we have technology to use these resources in the best way.  Those technologies, I feel, are appropriate.  For example, in Ladakh, the old system of sowing or using the bull ox for plowing, and our water mills, these were good in the old days.  Today, they’re not applicable because more efficient things have come.  So appropriate technology, whatever technology you take to the village should be 1) suitable to the village and fit into the system.  For example, the greenhouses are an appropriate technology because they can be used in every village and they can produce what they like…Something that suits the area and fits into the existing system.  This is good, we should focus on bringing in more appropriate technology.”
·         Maintenance and upkeep of agricultural technology is key.  Mr. Kalon from the Farmers’ Cooperative Society, however, astutely noted that “When the government comes, it comes in a big way.  I would call what they do ‘dumping’ technology with no care.  And people say, why should we care?  The government will give us new systems when these break down [which doesn’t actually happen].  So later on, the villagers cease to pay.  Maintenance and support is the problem.”  In contrast, the Ladakh Development Group (based in North Carolina) has come back every year since 2006 to check up with the local farmers to whom they’ve distributed small threshers.  These threshers are advantageous in that they are built locally in Ladakh and can also be repaired in Leh.  The foundation teaches local people about repair and maintenance.  In contrast, Mr. Mateen’s grass cutter, disc plough, etc. originate in Punjab, though they can indeed be repaired in Ladakh.  There are tradeoffs to this but it seems that as long as repair can be done locally and parts can successfully be shipped, then it’s okay.
·         In conjunction with the theories of appropriate technology, agricultural machines should be suited to the local environment.  Zubair Ahmad said, “if you include modern [machines], it’s successful.  No chemicals but include modern technology.  It’s good to modify Punjab technology to be appropriate for Ladakh environment (e.g. spade).”  And this is exactly what Abdul Mateen did by bringing in machinery from Punjab and modifying it (essentially making it smaller) to fit with Ladakh’s tiny land holdings and terraced fields.
·         Organic versus conventional/synthetic inputs
·         Fortunately, the use of chemical inputs is relatively limited in Ladakh.  This is because of the naturally pest-free environment (dry and cool).  Thus, synthetic pesticides are almost non-existent.  Weeding is done by hand and the few inputs that are used come in the form of DAP and Urea fertilizers, mainly due to manure shortages and government subsidies.
·         Regardless, strategic planning should still be conducted on the future of agriculture at the regional level.  For instance, Dr. Deen explained the “Organic Ladakh Project” (LEHO in collaboration with Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council and Navdanya).  They are planning to collect data on land and water availability, topography of villages etc. and through consultancy with experts (“not government people”), they will then determine how to use the land most effectively.  He explained, “The whole idea is that right now the Ladakh economy is based on tourism, easy money, and the army…But then, if you look from this angle – tourism, army, government money etc. it is not sustainable.  We cannot think this far into the future – the food security act [for heavily subsidized grains etc.] can only last for so long before the government has to change.  Tourism, we don’t know how it is going to be in the future.  If there is peace in the country or on the border, the army will be reduced.  The future is uncertain.  At least we should have a clear future plan of how Ladakh’s economy can be land-based for the future for which we have great potential.  And we have already started data collection and analysis and second is raising awareness among the whole population on organic farming.  This transfer of barren land to cultivated should be organic for long term sustainability.” 
·         The Secretary of the Farmers’ Cooperative Society had a somewhat more pessimistic view on the future of organic in Ladakh, noting how, “Everybody is watching for organic, but it’s very difficult because goat and sheep manure is best for the farm.  But children are becoming educated and getting government jobs.  Like everyone in the world, they want to come settle in town.  So animals can’t be taken for grazing.  And the government says they support organic, but it’s difficult.  We need chemical fertilizers because there’s not enough manure.  Some people have taken to composting, but it hasn’t become very popular; it’s confined to very few people (socially hasn’t caught on).  And man power is very scarce here.”  And regarding traditional Ladakhi-style composting toilets, he claimed that “it’s not fully composted.  It doesn’t rot very well or become a full compost because not given enough time.  In fact, if you discuss with a doctor, it’s half composted – one of the main reasons for the spread of disease in Ladakh.  This is the most convenient way to dispose of waste in Ladakh – flush toilets are only for tourists.  Compost from human waste is not high enough quality and is a problem of quantity as well.”
·         Role of the government
·         In preparation for my brief interview with the Hill Council’s Sonam Dorjay, I looked over the basics of LAHDC’s “Vision 2025” document.  This development plan hopes to: “integrate old with new and cope with resource decline; promote traditional Ladakhi agriculture; food processing for value addition; capitalize on organic potential by looking into certification and external markets; and explore more profitable activities such as horticulture (but not ignore local food security).”  Sonam explained how the government is planning for the “Ladakh economy is to be based on agriculture, a priority of the Hill Council would be promoting agriculture because of the view that all other sources of income for people of Ladakh are temporary (tourism, army, other sectors).  Tourism may not be here tomorrow, and if the relationship with Ladakh’s neighbors improves, then the army may not be here tomorrow.  So sources of income are temporary and we need to search for a permanent income in agriculture.  Wheat and barley are not fetching good prices, so we are going toward cash crops (vegetables and fruits), and we are focusing our attention on organic farming so that we have the best health and handsome prices for organic products.”  (Side note: he used the phrases “fetch handsome prices” and “find markets” about 60 times in our 20 minute interview)
·         Before hearing this somewhat contrived spiel from the Hill Council, my interview with the Farmers’ Cooperative Society revealed a somewhat contradictory message: the role of the government is small.  Compared to the U.S. and the EU, the agricultural subsidies are negligible and most government funding goes into infrastructure such as building roads.  Vegetable seeds are subsidized in very small quantities, but the government contribution won’t be much.  Hybrid seeds, yes.  The government does provide to a small number of people, selectively and gradually, the introduction of technology such as brush cutters, harvesters, which has happened recently and the threshing machine, they subsidize.  But only 2-3 members per village on the recommendation of the village head.”
·         Role of cooperatives and cooperation
·         At the village level, farmers could come together to qualify for organic certification
·         In my interview with Phuntsog Wangchuk Kalon, the current Secretary of the Association of Farmers’ Cooperative Societies of Ladakh, whose father was the founder, Mr. Kalon explained the role of the society: The cooperative society is totally independent from the government and the main objective is to market produce to the military directly, eliminating middle men.  It provides vegetables, fodder, and milk to the army.  It was founded in 1964 by 3-4 members (including his father).  “In our case, we get a special sanction from the government of India that only the farmers’ cooperative society will deal with the army” (instead of in a bidding/contract system).  According to Mr. Kalon, in India, producer only gets 25% of what the consumer pays (maximum), but “In our case, farmers get 100% of what the consumer (military) pays.”  Different villages have their own cooperatives and this is the main cooperative, the blanket organization that deals with all central government issues.  The association consists of six vegetable cooperatives and 9-10 for milk and fodder, though it’s apparently hard to say how many farmers are members because only some register.  He estimated that about 30% of Ladakh farmers are involved in the cooperative.  I asked him about the major obstacles for the cooperative society and he said, “India is corrupt.  They (the government?) don’t want cooperatives because it means they won’t get money.  Cooperatives aren’t run for money but for the welfare of the common farmer, but authorities want to make contracts to get money.  Contracting agencies are not interested because they can’t get their cut from our business…We have to fight at the social level with public pressure and the government can’t do much.  A column in the government sanction says, with the bidding system, there should be competition among the cooperative societies.  So all the societies have bid the same price.  With the support of the farmers, we said that everyone is going to bid only one rate.  Competition leads to farmers suffering.  So contracting agencies can’t do much about what we’re doing.  Rules are very stringent and dogmatic.  They say we should be bidding but we only bid one rate.  We’ve figured out how to get out of the system by playing by the rules.  There’s nothing they can do about it.  But because money is not involved, people don’t want to do it [cooperative work].  The taste money has come very recently to Ladakh.  But there are so many committed people who live simple lives and cannot be tempted by money.  But its’ a country of paradoxes.  Our society is a marketing cooperative only [[i.e. the farmers aren’t working together in the fields or buying shared implements]].”  He went onto explain a recent interaction with Pepsi, which wanted his farmers to grow potatoes for their chips.  He agreed, but only under the condition that Pepsi works with the society as a whole, not individual farmers.  Unsurprisingly, Pepsi did business with them for only one year, then left.  Mr. Kalon claimed that they probably felt uncomfortable and pressure dealing with a group.
·         Post-harvest processing, cold storage, and value added products; marketing and transportation
·         Post-harvest processing, storage, and value addition are crucial to developing agricultural markets.  For instance, Ladakh has started drying and making jams and juices out of apricots, as well as seabuckthorn juice and medicinal plants, all of which are niche products that can command a high profit.  However, as Dr. Deen again so eloquently put, “it has to be international standard value addition – cleanliness, presentation, etc.  There is a lot of potential to bring money.  But there has to be market linkage.”
·         Nutrition, food security and population growth (e.g. yield increase versus waste management)
·         The PDS system of subsidized grain and food rations is good and helpful in the short term, especially because Ladakh does not produce enough to feed its entire population at this point.  However, it is discouraging farmers from growing their own food and encouraging dependence on the rations.  Because the government may not subsidize grains forever, this creates a precarious situation in which people are moving away from the land.  This was summed up nicely by Mr. Kalon: “Population growth is the trend everywhere, including Leh.  Right now, if we were supposed to feed our people from our grains for one year, we just have enough to feed 30-40% of the population from our own resources.  People are leaving agriculture.  PDS and rations are necessary but it’s a vicious cycle.  People prefer rations and because this, they are leaving agriculture and our own profession is dying out, so they’ll need more rations.  It’s a contradiction.”
·         Increasing yields: extensive or intensive farming?  The potential for converting barren land into agriculturally productive land is enormous.  But should we focus on this aspect of agriculture?  It’s a complicated debate in that some people say we need to improve yields on existing farmland and not focus on turning every free piece of Earth into cultivatable land (land use changes, deforestation, and agriculture all contribute hugely to climate change).  While others say that in order to improve yield, we need to make agriculture more extensive.  A third camp might argue that we don’t need to increase agricultural yield/production at all because we currently produce enough food to feed something like 12 billion people (30-50% gets wasted from field to fork and the current storage and distribution systems are totally inept and unjust).  Again in my interview with Dr. Deen, he claimed that in Ladakh, “we are only using 10,000 hectares of land in the whole of Leh region (112 villages) and total cultivable land is 45,000 hectares (with less than 20% being cultivated).  The main limitation is water – the Indus River runs for about 500 km where it starts in Tibet and goes out to Pakistan, through Ladakh but only about 4 villages within 20 km use the water.  The river is practically useless to us because it cuts deep down below [running through valleys] and the villages are located high up.  It is difficult to transport the water to higher elevations, so all the other villages depend on the snow glaciers.  This is why there is a lot of barren land – 25,000 hectares (62,500 acres), especially in Changtang, Nubra etc.  Water wise, we have potential for future that all 45,000 hectares can be used [if we can develop the technology and tap into the existing hydropower to lift the water].”
·         Changing demographics and urbanization (i.e. how to make farming appealing to younger generations)
·         Sonam Anchuk (SECMOL): “Agriculture is dying because young people are leaving the villages to the cities – they want a white collar life.  Agriculture is left in the hands of older generations and it is social and cultural inertia that maintain the green fields (there is a stigma attached to barren fields), but this isn’t enough to keep farming going.  Today, labor is imported from Nepal and Bihar (paid migrant workers); this is not how agriculture is going to survive.  If nothing changes in the next 10-20 years, then there will be a critical mass/shift away from farming and a cascading/domino effect of people in villages giving up farming.  [Agriculture] doesn’t make any economic sense: they invest and lose money in agriculture; they make money from tourism and army and then pay this money into labor and farming – it’s not sustainable.  And with the public distribution system (of subsidized grains), it also doesn’t make economic sense because you can get cheap food…And now parents are discouraging children to stay on the farm.  There are people in the younger generation who have been educated and do want to come back, but previous development agencies and experts did their jobs so well that previous generations were made to hate farming, soil, dirt etc. – now they are discouraging their children – parents were brainwashed and are now blocking the future of farming.”  Many of my interviewees echoed this sentiment by saying that it is the responsibility of the parents to instill in their children a sense of value around agriculture (and potentially promoting it as a livelihood).  This creates a difficult situation, however, since many parents want what’s “better” for their children.
·         Zubair Ahmad (LOFF) is collaborating with the Lamdon School and teaching students about his work.  He facilitates student to his organization, as one of his main objectives is to teach youth about organic and traditional farming (including medicinal plants).  In the future, Zubair believes that the unemployment problem will worsen, so he hopes that he can teach students how to go back to the land make a living out of farming, with an emphasis on practical rather than theoretical teaching.  He also noted that “In Ladakh region, farming is not encouraged or respected, but in my experience outside, farming is respected.  This will encourage young people to get involved.  Instead people want to go into government.  In the future, we have to teach young people and encourage children to farm – respect and encouragement is most important.” 
·         The Executive Councilor for Agriculture realistically (and somewhat cynically) noted, “Once we are able to provide marketing facilities to the people and people get handsome prices for agriculture and horticulture products, then certainly people will come to work for farming; people do everything for money.”  Similarly, Mr. Kalon said, “If farming becomes paying, then people will come back to the land.  It depends on how remunerative it is.  By choice, no one comes back.  If someone is very committed, he’ll do it.  But those people are rare.  Children don’t want to come to the land.  What future will you find?  The perception is that if you don’t have a government job, you have no economic stability.  Farming is tough; children don’t want to work.  In the past, we were content with whatever we had.  But now we know.  People from Leh want to go to Delhi and then to USA.”
·         Scale of agriculture in the future – local versus global; commercial versus subsistence:
·         Commercial export could be ideal for small farmers but right now the post-harvest processing/storage and transportation-distribution systems are so poor that it is not economically viable. 
·         The future of agriculture and the potential to scale up and institutionalize organic farming depends heavily on the availability (and distribution) of organic manure in large quantities.  For instance, the Ladakh government currently subsidizes chemical fertilizers (though in rather miniscule amounts), but has recently begun a plan to subsidize organic manure/compost creation and distribution (mainly from the nomadic Changtang region near China where people are still herding animals) and hopes to slowly phase out agrochemicals and synthetic fertilizers.  Ultimately, there may be a law that bans them entirely.  In addition, LEHO has designed and implemented compost pits in many villages, encouraging farmers to supplement natural fertilizers from food scraps and field waste.  The main issue is that with changing lifestyles and urbanization, there is less livestock (fewer goats and sheep) and the adoption of western-style toilets (in lieu of traditional composting toilets, which fertilized the fields.  And with regard to scale of organic fertilizer production, Dr. Deen noted, “To me, the future won’t be like everyone will rear sheep and goats.  It will be big farms; there’s potential.  We can have a farm of 10,000-15,000 animals.  If you go to Australia, you see farms with 30,000-40,000 sheep and goats.  This concept has to be brought in because we have a lot of land; it’s possible and it will be easy.  The future will be on that.  And the manure is produced in one place, it needs to be distributed and transported. ..Right now, the situation is that the government needs to make policy.  We made this Egu-Fey irrigation canal; a lot of land there and when they distribute the land, they do it only 1-2 hectares per family.  Instead of giving it to every family, they should make a policy that gives larger land tracts to families that want to start a project.  Alternatively, the government could lease land for 50-60 years, subject to conditions that it would be used for agriculture or animal production.  Large scale with mechanization.  Another problem in Ladakh is we are short of human labor.  So we have to look for a solution – there won’t be a way out for us unless we bring mechanized agriculture.  For example, irrigation should be totally sprinkler.  Drip is very small scale, but sprinkler – you don’t need to treat the land – better than flood irrigation.  And machines have to be there to use.  If you have mechanized agriculture, animal husbandry, along with large-scale size of land – it’s going to be more economical.”
·         The Cooperative Society’s Mr. Kalon astutely noted how, “Our big scale is your small scale.  Ladakhi farming is mainly subsistence: maximum land holding is about 1 hectare (2.5 acres), though the average is about 1.5 acres.  Farmers who are growing commercially sell their products in the market in Leh: 1200-1500 rupees ($20-25 USD) annually in a short 5 month season.  In our country, that’s a lot by the national standard, we are quite prosperous.  But first feeding the family, then selling surplus for cash, has made women much more independent monetarily.  Women are empowered because they are the ones growing the vegetables and don’t have to depend on the male head of the family if they can generate their own income.  The first preference of men is to go for the government.  The perception is that if you’re not working for the government, then you’re not looking out for your family.  The government, then the army, then agriculture.” 
·         Sense of Place and Comparative Advantage:
·         Ladakh is home to a very unique agro-climatic system.  For instance, Dr. Deen said to me, “In Ladakh, the most difficult part [of farming] is that it is very dry with little moisture (rain or snow) and second it is very cold.  Soil fertility depends on the humus formation (organic matter) in the soil and for decomposition, you need moisture and heat, both of which are lacking here.  Thus, our soil has a very different situation compared to the rest of the country, so using chemicals here would damage it terribly, killing off beneficial organisms.”  Similarly, being a rain shadow desert, Ladakh’s dependence on glacial melt water for irrigation creates a precarious situation with global climate change.  This demands meticulous strategic planning and can only partially be addressed with temporary solutions such as artificial glaciers.
·         In many cases, it seems that the economic concept of comparative advantage should be applied to agriculture and of course by nature, is very place-based.  For instance, several of my interviews and readings revealed that Ladakh should tap into the certified seed production market.  Because the climate is dry and naturally pest-free, it’s ideal for the reproduction and storage of seeds, which they could then commercially export to other parts of India and abroad.  Other aspects of Ladakh’s comparative advantage include that the growing season is the opposite of the rest of India, since Ladakh doesn’t experience the monsoon, creating markets.  Organic agriculture is the longstanding tradition here, so farmers can avoid the transition period from conventional farming, which is often time consuming and expensive.  In essence, the agricultural system here involves a high yield relative to low input.  And of course, there are niche products such as apricot, seabuckthorn juice, and pashmina (cashmere) wool, which are produced  ideally here and could have national and international markets.
·         Development in general (e.g. localization versus globalization; western-style growth)  
·         According to Dr. Deen, “In every part of the world, you can’t really completely remain aloof.  You have to be part of the world because of the technologies.  The internet has revolutionized everything.  Today, whatever you are doing, the information can be spread to the whole world.  Good things have to be taken wherever they are.  The agriculture system, the social system in the villages are very good, but some bad system as well.  What we need is to look for those values that have wisdom and those should be kept and continued in the village.  Maybe it’s dress, food system, hygiene.  But if that system is not good and we are still doing it because ‘it’s traditional,’ we shouldn’t keep doing it.  And you cannot have the same approach to every place – you have to demarcate between them.  Every place needs its own planning.  That’s why most government plans fail because they universalize.”
·         And an interesting and congruous perspective on development from the 87 year old horticulturalist who was my neighbor while living in Leh (one of the few truly elderly people I could communicate with in Ladakh): “Before the 1960s and 1970s – people were happy in all of Ladakh: no famine, no road, we were growing all of our own food, we were sending crops (wheat and barley) to Tibet (now the road is closed and trading with central Asia is restricted as well).  After the road and tourism, people are still happy but there is no limit for wealth (people want to make money more and more and inside they aren’t happy).  At that time, only a few people were wealthy and most people were ‘poor’ but there was a system – people would give them grains (rich people would give to others in villages) – 25% interest for seeds and grains (before independence).”
·         Mr. Kalon from the Cooperative Society said “I feel that I am a farmer not because it’s profitable but because someday I’ll come back to this.  [Agriculture] is not compatible with the currency of the time.  But when your children work on the farm, they become much more hard working.  And in Leh, you’ll see people who are pampering and spoiling their children.”  On the verge of 60 years old, Mr. Kalon also offered his opinion on globalization and development in general: “Localization is very difficult.  Globalization is such a strong force.  Just look at Leh.  People can’t use the stoves in their ceremonial stoves because they don’t have fuel to burn in it.  [Development] has to be a judicious mix.  We cannot ignore western development because it’s the seed of science.  You can’t ignore mechanization.  But if you make a judicious mix, then it would be wonderful.  It needs to be pursued cautiously, regulated, and everywhere, a wise choice.  There is no avoiding it.  Even in our own traditions, many things that aren’t good.  You need to take the best from the two [traditional Ladakhi and global, western development].  For example, western education that is rooted here.  Our education system is very outmoded because it was introduced by the British at that time to produce clerks.  Not like the American system [with assessments and critical thinking], ours is about rote memorization and exams once a year.  Indian system used to be like learning holy scriptures and spitting them back out.”  When I asked him what life was like before the road in the 1960s and foreign tourism in the 1970s, he observed, “change has been very drastic and us Ladakhis, we are going through cultural shock.”  He used the colorful analogy of going from a cow pulled cart, to a bicycle, to a bus, to a train, to a car and how “We couldn’t have conceived of an airplane.”  Furthermore, “It’s like putting boiling water in a cold glass, sometimes it breaks.  We are very confused.  Ladakh has seen a very temporary and transient prosperity.  But prosperity is not development.  We’ve lost our capacities, the rural survival skills.  And young people don’t have them…It’s very precarious.  Ladakh is a frontier area.  Precarious with Chinese and Pakistani.  Very suspicious, they suspect the foreigners.  Our development is infrastructure, buildings, buying cars, but what about the effort to increase food production and bringing barren land under cultivation?  Every one of us is responsible.  What we normally call education is getting literate in science and computers, but education is overall development that is lacking.  Traditional Ladakh is a joint family system, an emotional support system.  Today the old man is discard, not looked up to for wisdom.”  He went onto explain his views on the future of farming in the context of development: “Because once you’re in the farm, you don’t lose the virtue of hard work.  Staying on the farm is very healthy.  You have to look at it holistically.  You don’t have to go to maintain your health – work becomes exercise.  You know what you’re eating.  Money-wise, it may not pay well but holistically, you’re better off.  If I earn 1 LAC (100,000 R) in Delhi but 20,000 here, I’m, better off here.  Quality of time.  I’ve been to Europe and found the life very hellish.  I visited a farm in the Alps and we were all bureaucrats from the developing country.  And we were all like, ‘so this is called development?’  And I was skeptical because the owner of the farm didn’t look very happy.  He had about 300 cows.  He looked stressed and then he has so many cows and pastureland stretching for miles and I said, ‘how is it?’  And he said ‘it’s very difficult.’  Every year he has to upgrade, change machinery, take out loans.  And diagrams with nutrient content for milk (e.g. calcium this much, sodium, fat etc.).  He said it’s difficult to sustain it.  And he pointed out a farmer that couldn’t pay the bank loan, so his land was forfeited to the bank.  In Ladakh, the maximum I would have is 6-7 dzos, which are good for grazing and milk fat.  And I would be playing my flute.  I don’t worry about the bank.  If my one cow doesn’t give a calf this year, I’m not worried, it’ll come next year.  This farmer’s economic condition is very good but his worry and stress is high.  What is this man looking for?  Contentedness and happiness?  After seeing both, I think I would choose my life.  I went in 2000 and went twice.  Everybody is running around and no one is cooking, people go to metros and get munching fast food.  To me, it doesn’t appeal.  It depends upon mindset.  This is the plight that I’ve seen.  Even in Delhi, I couldn’t have this kind of leisure.  If I had a job in the private company, I would be returning by 9 o’clock.  No time for the family.  You shouldn’t have a family if you can’t devote your time to children.  What are you working for?  With very few belongings, I would be happy here.  You can talk to people.  Do you think you would have this much time in your country?  Time is a luxury.  I used to think it’s a common thing, but when I look at the west, I realize it’s a luxury and other people are missing it.  I know a lot of Ladakhi people that think I am a foolish person.  I have the scope to build a hotel, but I wouldn’t go for that profession.  It’s my choice that I’ve become a farmer.  I couldn’t be better off anywhere.  My children, I taught them to work very hard in the field, and this work ethic will transfer to their studies also.  Keep them frugal, don’t spoil them, and teach them about managing money.  People in Ladakh spoil their children, especially in Leh town, villages are better off.  If you don’t have a hard time, you can’t prepare your children.” 


So to reflect on my time in Ladakh, I can say with great certainty that this place will not leave me.  I intend to come back in the future, hopefully with family and friends to share in the beauty and magic.  Unlike Tanzania, I feel a deep “sense of place” with Ladakh – the idea that I have become an inhabitant, not just a resident.  Because it is only one small portion of India, an enormous country, I have gotten to know it intimately: it’s history, climate, geography, agriculture system, religion, culture, etc.  Although I did not grasp the language, I was able to communicate satisfactorily with most people and if I return, I want to work hard to learn the language more.  And this may be very superficial, but on some level, I felt like I fit in because I look slightly Ladakhi or at least Tibetan.  Unlike in Tanzania where I most definitely stood out, here I feel like I can blend in a bit.  I know people are even more confused about my identity, questioning if I am Ladakhi, Tibetan, Japanese etc. and when I reveal that I am from the United States, it elicits quizzical looks and questions.  I then go on to explain my background (born in China, adopted, my parents are American, blah blah blah).  People react differently but I’ve gotten used to explaining myself.  In some ways, it makes me more cognizant of my own identity on a daily basis.  Though now that I am back to the rest of India, I no longer enjoy the privilege of fitting in.  Try as I might (I bought a sari and traditional looking pant/shirt combination), I do not look Indian.  Alas, the comfort of Ladakh was short lived but not easily forgotten.  


View of Leh from the Palace




Quite a climb


Overlooking Leh


Buddhist prayer flags and houses in the mountains






Sunset


Walking home...


The balangs (cows) got into the garden...not a good thing, but I couldn't resist the opportunity to photograph them!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Celebratory Photos: International Buddhist and Ladakh Festivals

And for your viewing pleasure, some more photos.  These are from the Buddhist Monastery tour I went on as part of the Mahabodhi International Buddhist Festival.


Hemis Gonpa



Ladakhi homes built into the cliffside


Beautiful stupas/chortens


Room dedicated to the protector deities


Vision of progress: painting stupas


Thiksay Monastery


It is modeled after Lhasa in Tibet


Polo as a part of the annual Ladakh Festival




A Ladakhi man teaching me how to shoot an arrow - yes I failed the first time, but the second and third shots almost hit the bullseye; I was putting Ladakhi men to shame :)


Leh Palace at night during an evening concert


Traditional chaams dancing (monks dressed up) as part of the Ladakh Festival

Friday, September 20, 2013

Some Food for Thought on Development

September 20, 2013 

The International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC) Volunteer Coordinator, Richard, is also working on updating the film Ancient Futures by re-interviewing individuals who appeared in the original film 20 years ago.  I’ve been able to accompany him on few of these interviews, which has been extremely interesting in terms of learning more about perspectives on development and globalization.  I will share with you one interview, which was extremely poignant.  It was with Sonam Anchuk, founder and director of SECMOL (Student Ecological and Cultural Movement of Ladakh) and an incredibly intelligent and eloquent individual.  He first heard about Helena Norberg-Hodge in the late 1980s when he was schooling in mechanical engineering and his peers were interning with LEDeG.  As an engineer, he first became interested in technical gains and machines such as ram pumps and passive solar technologies and only later was influenced by the cultural and social ramifications of Helena’s work.  But he acknowledged that he holds a different view of how Ladakh has passed through history, one that directly goes against Helena’s views (Helena argues that tourism was the cultural downfall of Ladakh).  According to Anchuk, Ladakh lost its independence to Jammu and then to India, but these very large events had little impact on the local village level.  Instead the opening of the road in the early 1960s had the biggest influence, as it brought goods, officers, schools, teachers, etc., who all held the view that traditional is primitive and modern is what we should strive for.  He phrased it that “people had a huge colonial hang over” and thought that anything that resembled their master (England) was modern and good to strive for, which rendered Ladakhis backwards, poor, and uncivilized.  What was perhaps most damaging, however, is the fact that this new view of development came without any questioning and these ideas came indirectly/third hand to boot (from England to Delhi and Delhi to Srinagar and Srinagar to Leh).  This led to “Ladakh taking a nose dive in self-esteem and cultural strength” – people didn’t want to speak the language, wear the clothes, eat the food etc. and they felt proud of anything that made them look not Ladakhi.  “The early 1960s to mid 1970s was a dark era,” Anchuk noted.  But shortly thereafter, another huge change took place, a “happy change” in his opinion: in 1974, Ladakh was opened to the entire world (not just India as it had been in the 1960s).  This time, Ladakhis could meet the “masters” [of development] themselves, which “short-circuited the distance” and now Ladakhis could see that not everything was right.  With the arrival of westerners, they saw that farming was becoming disastrous (e.g. green revolution), that mechanization and modern lifestyles were breaking down families, stressing people out, and polluting cities.  Tourists brought first-hand stories of the negatives of development in the West, which was positive because it questioned the previous model that was so celebrated and told them “not everything modern is gold.”  And more importantly, tourists brought the idea that Ladakhi culture should be valued, which was a huge relief after a decade of shame (Ladakhis were told that their farming system was a miracle – growing something in such difficult conditions, irrigation and water sharing system as a social miracle etc.).  “This opening to tourism was a saving grace for Ladakh” as otherwise, “we would have continued downwards on a one lane road to hating and changing ourselves – becoming another village with no identity and just part of the mass.”  And he had quite thoughtful opinions on localization: “It will happen one way or another but it’s a matter if we actively choose it or if we wait until fossil fuels run out and we have no choice but to localize production.”  He made the analogy between a beggar and a monk.  While superficially, the monk and beggar may seem similar in their behavior, in reality, they are very different: one is begging out of helplessness and the other begging for a cause, a deep philosophy, which is highly respectable because the monk has chosen to beg to extricate himself of a worldly life.  According to Anchuk, it would be better if we respectfully choose to localize (e.g. food production) now and save the good things for the future rather than condemn ourselves after we exhaust all energy sources like coal and oil.  And lastly, his thoughts on agriculture resonated the most with me.  He explained how today, it is a positive thing that the government is supporting organic, which is in stark contrast to previous decades.  For instance, during the Green Revolution in the 1960s to late 1990s, there was a massive government push for chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers (side note: all govt. provided, very different from Tanzania) – “the government passed out and subsidized these ‘glittering chemicals’” and farmers were curious and eager to try them.  Today, however, most people have realized this isn’t good, which is an immensely positive trend for farming.  And what’s more interesting is that agricultural extension officers are now proponents of organic but they no longer have an audience.  According to Anchuk, “agriculture [in Ladakh] is dying” because young people are leaving the villages to flee to the cities for a white-collar life.  This shit leaves agriculture in the hands of older generations, which continue their livelihoods purely out of “social and cultural inertia to maintain the green fields” (there is a stigma attached to barren fields), “but this isn’t enough to keep farming going.”  Today, paid migrant labor is imported from Nepal and Bihar, which is not how agriculture is going to survive, and “if nothing changes in the next 10-20 years, then there will be a critical mass/shift away from farming, a cascading/domino effect of people in villages giving up farming.”  This is largely because it doesn’t make any economic sense to continue cultivating the land: farmers invest and lose money in agriculture, whereas they make money from tourism and the army and then put this money into labor and farming – it’s not a sustainable model.  And with the public distribution system, it also doesn’t make economic sense because people can get cheap food.  According to Anchuk, “mechanization is wonderful because it relieves people of drudgery and animals of cruelty,” but the situation demands “the right kind of mechanization.”  He said that people are happy about tractors, mechanized threshing, plowing etc. because it saves time, but this kind of technology is so overly dependent on oil that it is not sustainable.  “If there is a border conflict, land slide or natural catastrophe, or economic problems, and if you move totally to oil-based technologies, everything will collapse” (especially if you’ve given up animals in favor of tractors).  In this way, he believes that mechanization needs to be sustainable and make us independent more than dependent.  He uses solar power as an example, which is becoming more affordable, and could theoretically power the same farm implements currently being powered by diesel.  They may not be as a fast or as good, but they are much more sustainable in the long term.  And farmers here should make use of “simple machines – wheels and inclined planes.  We haven’t gone to wheels, we’ve gone directly to oil-based engines,” which I found extremely interesting.  And now that I think about it, I didn’t see a single wheel barrel in the village of Likir (just those horrendously uncomfortable backpacks).  Anchuk said, “We need more innovation for simple technologies” and used hydro-power as another example: “Ladakh now has surplus energy because of environmentally friendly dams” and could use this electricity to mechanize farming.  So he is clearly not in favor of diesel tractor-style mechanization as they “make things easy for the moment but could be the last strike that completely makes things collapse.”  He finished by explaining how one of the largest threats to the future of farming in Ladakh is actually parents who are discouraging children from staying on the farm.  As a director of a school, he has seen people in the younger generation who have been educated and do want to come back to the land, “but development agencies and experts did their jobs so well that previous generations were made to hate farming, soil, and dirt.”  So brainwashed parents are now blocking the future of farming – who’d have thought?


Monday, September 16, 2013

1st Quarterly Report to the Watson Foundation

Lauren Howe – 1st Quarterly Report – September 16, 2013

Dear Watson Foundation Family,

It is hard to believe that three months have come and gone since I left home.  First off, I would like to thank you for giving me this incredible opportunity to spread my wings and explore far corners of the globe with my project as my North Star.  During the last twelve weeks, I resided with a Tanzanian family outside the city of Arusha, lived in a Maasai boma for a permaculture agriculture training (where I also learned how to milk goats and cows!), went on safari through UNESCO World Heritage Sites, attended Tanzania’s largest agricultural trade show as part of Nane Nane (Farmers’ Day), helped facilitate a 1,000 Gardens partnership between the Watoto Foundation for street children and my Slow Food chapter back home, learned how to prepare botanical and biopesticides, picked up several phrases in Swahili and Ladakhi, lived with and worked on a small Ladakhi farm helping to harvest and thresh barley, and hiked and camped in the Himalayas (among many, many adventures). 

When I try to reflect on everything I saw and learned in Tanzania (my first 9 weeks), I become overwhelmed.  I have found it difficult to balance my time, as I want to read relevant literature, meet farmers, talk to agricultural researchers, explore NGO and government efforts, and participate in farming activities myself.  I recently listened to a podcast and something the woman said that resonated strongly with me was about avoiding being the “armchair type” that preaches sustainable food systems but hasn’t ever gotten dirt under their fingernails.  I fear being that person. 

While in Tanzania, I felt like I was able to see the spectrum, though not as equally as I would have liked – with many more visits to small farms and not as many commercial operations.  But perhaps that is reflective of farming here: many more small farmers using hand tools and maybe animal power if they’re lucky.  However, large-scale operations do exist, though they are much more capital intensive.  On the high end of the technological gamut, I saw pivot sprinklers at Hortanzia Ltd. (an export-oriented farming operation that looks like it came straight from the American Plains), the BioAGtive Emissions System (“the most cutting edge in the industry” that uses exhaust from tractors and puts nutrients back into the soil, rendering fertilizer unnecessary) and Quality Food Product’s usage of high tech no till seeders and glyphosate for conservation agriculture.  These are definitely not the Tanzanian norm though, and it was interesting to compare the models of a foreign-owned company coming in and farming large tracts of land (with the help of machines and local labor) versus a foreigner coming in and integrating their technology and business models with local farmers.

All in all, I was able to make 25 productive visits while in Tanzania: 9 NGOs, 3 farmer groups/community gardening projects; 3 cooperatives, 4 research institutions, 4 large-scale/commercial operations; 1 individual doing post harvest processing and consulting; and the agricultural trade show (Nane Nane).  Each person I spoke with naturally had different opinions and approaches to farming, and I felt like I came away from Tanzania better understanding the plight of small impoverished farmers, though I didn’t experience them first hand.  I felt like I learned more about the power of cooperatives in farming: that they can help individual farms by pooling resources and using collective bargaining power to achieve many of their goals.  I found myself startled by the apparent lack of education in the farming population (e.g. about pesticide safety).  Obviously, I’ve always known that slash and burn agriculture exists, but seeing the burning and charred fields firsthand made it much more real.  Moreover, it definitely seems like farmers here are receiving conflicting information: e.g. that chemical inputs are an absolute necessity, that tilling is paramount, or that high quality seeds are the be all, end all.  I come away with the understanding that we still need to take great measures to reduce food waste – I hadn’t really considered post-harvest processing technologies when I first conceived of my project, but it’s actually come up so often in Tanzania that it seems foolish that it didn’t make it on my radar initially.  I was also surprised by how little official support agriculture seems to receive when it makes up such an enormous portion of the GDP and employment.  Despite Kilimo Kwanza (Tanzania’s national agriculture policy of “farming first”), it seems like the government is all talk (i.e. outdated research stations and poor farmers with unfair subsidy systems).  I also wonder and ask who should be “teaching” or “helping” who (e.g. Australian permaculture training and Dutch-owned dairy cooperative versus Tanzanian-led NGOs).  It seems like in some cases, foreigners can come in and train Africans, who then train each other but the issue of long term financial stability of donor dependent NGOs is crucial.  Though fortunately, through value added products, groups can generate additional income for themselves.  It seemed like the most damaging and least positively contributing operation was a foreign owned one that doesn’t disseminate knowledge or technology to farmers but rather uses local labor to mass produce crops for export. 

A number of questions, largely related to “development,” continue to swirl through my head including: is food self-sufficiency and localization the answer or will commercialization and export lift farmers out of poverty?  Which models are truly sustainable?  How to we define growth, efficiency, and progress? And are cutting edge technologies appropriate?  They aren’t locally produced, are usually expensive, require technical knowhow, and may be large-scale. The idea of appropriate technology versus modern is hugely important and was first mentioned to me by a post-harvest specialist who noted that more often than not, the newest and most advanced technologies are not made available or accessible to farmers, so what we might conventionally conceive of as “technology” is actually irrelevant.  The issue of climate change further exacerbates the problem and may render traditional farming techniques obsolete and new technologies the only way forward (though I’m not convinced).  My gut tells me it’s probably a marrying of the two.  Gender also complicates my research – how many and women are participating in farming activities (usually women are subsistence and men are commercial).

My meeting with Mick Dennis, Australian farmer who moved his business to Tanzania 10+ years ago, perhaps more than any other thus far, has made me ponder the tension inherent in my project.  This Emissions Systems Technology seems to genuinely embody the “modern technology” concept I proposed to research.  As it is a bit abstract and chemically complex, I am having difficulties wrapping my head around the concept.  Mick emphasized evolution/survival of the fittest in agriculture and the importance of a creative entrepreneurial spirit in the younger generation of farmers, those people who are going to come in and replace their parents and grandparents, bringing with them a revolutionary wave of technological acceptance.  These notions are hopeful but also seemed to directly challenge that which I have been encouraged to believe throughout my time as an undergrad at Hamilton.  I.e. Slow Food values of looking to older generations and the importance of safeguarding the wisdom of elders, that traditional knowledge which has been so successful and paramount for centuries.  But has it been successful?  How do we measure success and sustainability?  The farmers I’ve met in Tanzania can barely afford a hand pump to irrigate their two acre fields.  Some want chemical inputs but can’t afford those either.  If this is how their parents “taught” them to farm, can we count their struggles as a success?  Or have we entered a new age where climate change, depleted soil, land and water shortages, and chemicals rule?  Is this new context making old knowledge obsolete?  I don’t know.  I don’t think there is a clear or easy answer.  I don’t think recent trends could possibly negate indigenous wisdom entirely, as there seem to be basic farming practices that are reliable, age-old truisms such as crop rotation and applying animal manure.  But only few farmers I’ve talked to have been trained in intercropping, mulching, the use of homemade biopesticides, etc.  Did their parents know about these “best practices” and simply neglected to share with their children?  Or have open land and the freedom to slash/burn/and move on become so acceptable that actively and consciously restoring the nutrient content of existing soil is seemed unnecessary?  I don’t know.  Similar to the way I’ve been conceiving of a lot of issues recently (e.g. taking both a top down and bottom up approach are necessary), it seems that this may be a similar example, except involving old/new: that in the future, soil, climate, and water conditions are going to undoubtedly change, and new methods of mitigation and adaptation will have to take place, at least to some degree.  These may exhibit the combination of “modern” technology and traditional wisdom – that precarious balance that seems like a contradictory and inaccessible space. 

In sum, I don’t know if I had any burning questions answered while I was in Tanzania, but rather, my brain has become further saturated and muddled with uncertainty.  If anything, I think I saw (or tried to see) a good variety of worldviews and each person I meet challenges me to think more. I saw both the dire reality and also what is possible given a location and resources.  I also hope to skim the surface less and delve more deeply in the future.  Tanzania felt like a whirlwind, though a good introduction to farming issues as a whole (seeds, irrigation, synthetic inputs versus organic, subsistence versus commercial etc.), with one of the main messages being that climate change and water availability are going to continue to be extremely influential in shaping the future of farming, as well as the importance of place-based solutions (i.e. what works in one place may be irrelevant or ineffective in another).

On August 21st, I arrived in India, which left me overwhelmed with a mix of emotions.  For all intents and purposes, I felt that I should hate it here.  New Delhi is crowded, pungent with a mix of aromas (trash, spices, urine, wet dog, and perfume to name a few), hot and humid, and the honking of vehicles is pervasive.  But for some reason, I am happy, and I can’t explain my premature draw to this country, the strange internal pull I feel for it, deep in the fibers of my body and corners of my heart.  Maybe my proclivity for India is explained by the fact that it is not my first country on the Watson.  I have much to thank Tanzania for.  I think the beautiful East African country sensitized me to a lot of things: both vacant and vaguely threatening stares, modestly dressed women, litter and trash scattered everywhere, long drop toilets/latrines, language barriers, and poverty.  And after spending only two days in Delhi, I boarded a plane to Ladakh, also known as “Little Tibet” and translating into “the Land of Mountain Passes,” a trans-Himalayan region of high altitude desert in northern-most India, bordering China.  I have been dreaming about coming to Ladakh since I first saw it in a documentary film almost two years ago, which made it seem close to ideal for carrying out my research.  Because of its remote location and hostile environment, it remained closed off from the West until fairly recently (1974 is when tourism arrived) and the culture really sits at the nexus of tradition and innovation.  Most Ladakhis are Tibetan Buddhist, which also influences their agricultural practices (e.g. no use of pesticides because it kills living things).  Ladakh is the most beautiful place I have seen in my entire life, hands down.  The sky is opulently blue, the sun is intensely strong, the mountains are rugged and snow capped, the inhabited valleys are the color of emeralds, and the dusty and lifeless mountainsides resemble a lunar landscape. 

I spent my first two weeks here living in the tiny village of Likir helping a family on their farm.  We harvested peas and barley using a sickle and stacked the harvested/dried barley into neat teepee shaped piles called chuks, which was actually really hard work.  It felt good to get my hands dirty and we took frequent tea breaks.  And after reflecting a bit more, I don’t know if I could ever be a farmer or at least one that grows grain.  I was only helping to harvest for a few hours and the intense monotony combined with the physically demanding labor was a lot to take in.  I think that the altitude definitely makes is harder because I am out of breath a lot and relatively little physical exertion leaves my heart pounding.  I also think that it would be a lot more tolerable if I could communicate with the family and friends in the field.  Thus, I can see how being here for an extended period of time and not having a grasp on the local language would be extremely isolating and lonely.  I want to be able to communicate with these people and I’m lucky that a few speak limited English, but I’ve felt a bit alone, even when surrounded by people.  Fortunately, with the fieldwork, once they showed me how to do it, we could all just go about our business and language didn’t really matter, even though it would have been nice to partake in their banter.  Quickly, I began to lose track of the days.  I think it has to do with living in the village where the routine of going into the fields is so constant.  I found myself looking up at the sun while in the field to gauge the time and having no Internet or cell phone, I was truly immersed.  Although the monotony is killer, there is something about seeing a tangible result that is so utterly rewarding:  going from a field filled with barley laid out nearly then piles of chuks.  We can see what our hard work has resulted in and then enjoy the feeling of lying down at the end of a long day.  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.  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 feeling like I have a family and friends here. 

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.  Since then, I’ve been able to meet the retired civil engineer who invented artificial glaciers, interview an 87-year-old famous Ladakhi horticulturalist, visit the Leh Nutrition Project and Ladakh Ecological Development Group, and become exposed to new technologies such as passive solar greenhouses, micro-hydro power units, and food processing schemes.  I also learned that it may be the parents and older generations, perhaps more than anyone else, who are inhibiting the future of farming in Ladakh.  As a director of a school, one man commented, “development agencies and experts did their jobs so well that previous generations were made to hate farming, soil, and dirt.”  So “brainwashed” parents are now impeding the future of farming – who’d have thought?   

And lastly, I would like to share with you my experiences of hiking through the Himalayas.  The trek felt to me like a mini Watson lesson: it was difficult to look up while walking, so I had to focus on one step at a time for fear of becoming overwhelmed or exhausted (we reached altitudes of 5200 m and walked 15+ miles in one day), and the hike was simultaneously about the incredible views once reaching vantage points but also about the journey itself.  For the Watson, I am likewise trying to take things a day at a time and relish the expedition more than the destination because in reality, there is no “destination” in the conventional sense, except for the ultimate culmination of knowledge and experience.  I so loved the three days trekking because it was physically demanding, definitely one of the toughest things I’ve ever done, which made it all the more rewarding in the end.  And even though there were many other people walking along the same path, plenty of moments occurred during which you felt like the only person in the world at that place at that time.  It was incredible.  I’ve never felt so much in the moment, wanting desperately for the views and feelings to last forever.

These last three months have brought intense successes and challenges to say the least.  I’ve had my longstanding views both challenged and corroborated.  I’m slow learning to let go and go with the flow more, which is so against my control freak and perfectionist tendencies.  I’ve struggled to balance living in the moment with both staying in touch back home (and assuring my mom that I’m alive and well) and obsessively documenting my experiences.  I’ve found myself sick on several occasions, battling nausea and diarrhea that I thought would never end, and have dealt with extreme bouts of loneliness and homesickness.  But I have also met some unbelievably incredible, hospitable, and inspirational people who remind me why I am passionate about these issues.  As I write this, I am currently based in Leh, Ladakh, Jammu & Kashmir, India and the next few months will bring me South to other parts India, after which I hope to spend about a month in Bhutan, working with the National Organic Program of the Ministry of Agriculture.  Then I anticipate heading to South America, where I will learn from indigenous agriculture projects in the Andean mountains of Peru and Bolivia.  Again, I cannot thank you enough for your continued support as make my way through the next 9 months, navigating and negotiating my travels and project.

Sincerely,


Lauren