Pastoralism in South Asia: Contemporary stresses and adaptations of Himalayan pastoralists
Pastoralism volume 13, Article number: 21 (2023)
We discuss the main findings in the Special issue on Pastoralism in South Asia from the eight papers based on research conducted in the Himalayan region of South Asia. An overview is presented of pastoralism in the Himalayan region, including India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan. Drawing parallels with the global stresses to pastoralists, papers in this special issue highlighted three sets of contemporary stresses to the pastoralists of the Himalayan region viz. (a) lack of herding labour, associated changing aspirations of youth and decline in traditional knowledge systems; (b) continued stresses from the state and between the formal and informal institutions; and (c) climatic stresses and associated impacts on the rangeland and livestock health. A synthesis of findings from all eight case studies suggests how the issues around pastoral livelihoods and rangeland management in the Himalayan region are entangled across social, political and ecological dimensions. However, instead of only being impacted by the stresses, the pastoral communities are showing adaptations to various kinds of uncertainties and variabilities. Based on these findings from across eight sites in the Himalayan region, we argue that understanding of the problems as well as proposed solutions from the policymakers should be tailored according to the particular social, political and ecological contexts. Other than the issues given prominence in this special issue, the role of markets and social security are some of the other important concerns to be addressed in the region, which can be best addressed by creating an interface between pastoralists and policymakers, practitioners and the government, while making the best use of pastoral knowledge and their way of life.
The countries of South Asia are home to an extremely rich diversity of pastoral communities (Rao and Casimir 2003; Agrawal and Saberwal 2007; Dong et al. 2016a, b; Sharma 2011). Pastoral livelihoods and resource use in the region hinge upon adaptabilities in response to the particular socio-political and ecological variabilities. From the high-altitude Hindu Kush Himalayas to the hot deserts of the plains, often migrating with their livestock between ecological zones, pastoralists of South Asia are users and custodians of vast land areas along with its flora and fauna (Agrawal and Saberwal 2007; Bhasin 2011a; Hashmi et al. 2017; Kreutzmann 2012; Rao and Casimir 2003, Shah et al. 2012). However, there are other claims on this land—by a variety of state and non-state actors including farmers, town-dwellers, mining companies, urban developers, tourism and nature conservationists. The combinations of these claims and land usage have a complex effect on the environment as well as on pastoral livelihoods.
The Himalayan region of South Asia which cuts across the political boundaries of Pakistan, Indian, Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet Autonomous Region of China, is a hot spot of pastoralists’ communities including the nomadic, transhumant and agro-pastoralists across the region (Kreutzmann 2012). The region has been of interest to policymakers for two reasons: first, for biodiversity conservation, and second, for the development in the remote regions through meeting the ambitious green energy development targets through hydropower and solar power plants (Ahlers et al. 2015; Dhakal et al. 2019).
Even though the Himalayan region hosts a great diversity of pastoral communities, the majority of the more recent studies done in the region have been conducted with a focus on wildlife conservation conflicts with the pastoralists' communities of the region. A lack of in-depth understanding of pastoral resource use continues to influence policy spheres, hence adding more stress on the continuation of pastoral lifeways. State-induced interventions and policies resulting in restrictions on pastoral mobilities and conservation policies continue to be one of the biggest stresses to pastoral communities of the Himalayan region (Singh et al. 2020, 2022).
Resource sharing by livestock and wildlife in the region, especially in the Trans-Himalayas, is often seen as conflicting with conservation efforts (Ashraf et al. 2014; Bagchi et al. 2012; Berger et al. 2013; Kala 2005; Namgay et al. 2013; Sangay and Vernes 2008; Shrestha and Wegge 2008; Suryawanshi et al. 2010), with very few exceptions of coexistence (Bhatnagar 2009; Sharma et al. 2015). Only a handful of studies in the region explore the pastoral livelihoods, their knowledge systems and traditional resource use, contemporary pressures and local adaptabilities (Bhasin 2011b, 2012; Gooch 2009; Ingty 2021; Singh et al. 2013, 2015, 2020; Wu et al. 2014).
Pastoralist communities globally have been influenced by changing land tenure, land fragmentation and resultant loss of access to pastures due to state and private interventions, globalisation and its associated socio-economic and demographic changes, and global climate change (Galvin 2009; Reid et al. 2014). Focusing on the Himalayan region of South Asia with eight case studies, the aim of this special issue is to understand how these global concerns are manifesting in the Himalayan region. We highlight the key stresses in the region on pastoral communities and their responses and adaptabilities. The ultimate goal is to identify the policy responses which best address the current needs of pastoralists of the Himalayan region. In the absence of any review so far, the special issue provides an up-to-date status analysis on the state of pastoralism in the region.
The Himalaya and Himalayan pastoralists
According to Chatterjee and Bishop (2023), the Himalayan range stretches 1550 miles (2500 km) from west to east between Nanga Parbat (26,660 ft or 8126 m), in the Pakistani-administered portion of the Kashmir region, and east to Namjagbarwa (Namcha Barwa) Peak (25,445 feet or 7756 m), in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. Though India, Nepal and Bhutan cover most of the Himalayas, Pakistan and China also occupy parts of the Himalayan range. In Bhutan and Nepal, the Himalayan region mostly covers the mountainous region of both countries. In India, the Himalayan region includes the newly constituted union territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh and Indian states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh in the west and Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim in the east. In Pakistan, the Himalayan region is mostly limited to the Gilgit-Baltistan region and for Tibet, a small southern region of Tibet falls under the Himalayan region (Chatterjee and Bishop 2023) (Fig. 1).
A large area of the Himalayan range falls under the political boundary of India. Pastoral communities of western Indian Himalayas include Changpas and Brokpas of Ladakh, who rear herds of sheep, cashmere goats, yaks and horses (Chaudhari 2000; Singh et al. 2013); Gaddis, who raise large flocks of sheep and goats; Bakkarwals, the nomadic goat herders; and Van Gujjars who rear buffaloes (Rao and Casimir 1982). The resource use and seasonal movement of the Gaddis, Bakkarwals and Van Gujjars are pervasive across the Indian states of Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, and Uttarakhand (Bhasin 2011a, b; Kreutzmann 2012; Namgay et al. 2013; Rao and Casimir 1982; Yamaguchi 2011). Some other agro-pastoral communities of the Trans-Himalayan region rear a mix of animals, including sheep, horses, cattle, goats and yaks, e.g. agro-pastoralists of the Lahaul and Spiti region (Mishra 2001; Singh et al. 2020). In the eastern Himalayas, the Bhotias of North Sikkim and Brokpas of Arunachal Pradesh are agro-pastoralists and raise herds of yaks (Verma and Khadka 2016). Other pastoral communities include Gurungs who are sheep herders and Chettris, the cattle herders of Sikkim (Bhasin 2011a) (Table 1).
In Pakistan, the Himalayan region consists of the Gilgit-Baltistan parts of Pakistan. The Balti community in the Baltistan area rear their yak, dzo and dzomo (male and female crossbred of yak), sheep, goat and cattle. The prime distinction between Balti and Wakhi community of yak herders is that Wakhi keep yak besides sheep and goat, and Balti keep crossbred cattle and yak—dzo and dzomo, other than sheep and goat. Both the groups keep cattle at their homes for domestic milk consumption. A few Kirghiz living in Kurumbar area traditionally keep yak. Communities including Gujjar, Bakkarwal, Uigur, Shina and Yashkun rear goats, sheep and cattle in the Gilgit region (Ehlers and Kreutzmann 2000; Kreutzmann 2012) (Table 2, Fig. 1).
In western Nepal, pastoralists including Magar, Tamang, Thakuri and Chettri communities rear yak, sheep, goat and horses. These communities are found across Limi valley, Humla and Dolpo region of western Nepal. Thakali, Sherpa, Tamang and Gurung are pervasive across the Manang, Thakkhola/Mustang and Rusuwa region of central Nepal. Limbu and Rai communities are found in eastern Nepal and rear goats, yak and cattle (Dong et al. 2016a and b; Joshi et al. 2020) (Table 3, Fig. 1).
In Bhutan, the eastern region has two distinct communities of Brokpa, Meral and Saktenpa, who rear yak and sheep. In northern Bhutan, pastoralists are known by the region that they are based in, including Lunap, Layap, Lingzhip, Baylagap, Bumtap, Haap, Nubri, Soeyaksa and Dagalagap, and rear yak, cattle and sheep. In south-west Bhutan, there are mostly Ghalley and Gurung, the sheep herders (Namgay 2014; Namgay et al. 2013) (Table 4, Fig. 1).
Lack of labour, changing aspirations and local knowledge
Lack of herding labour was found to be an important issue across the region. As rightly pointed out by Kreutzmann (2015) and Schmidt (2000), livestock rearing and management practices in the region heavily rely on social and cultural factors such as inter- and intra-household cooperation, as well as communal herding in the villages, and such practices are influenced by the availability of labour at the household, village or community level. The decline in labour availability is connected to the phenomenon of globalisation leading to better connectivity, improved access to education and, thus, the changing aspirations of the new generation across the remote high-altitude pastoral regions (Kreutzmann 2012). Globalisation and the emergence of new kinds of markets are leading to changes in the aspirations of the new generation and outward movement from the system on the one hand (Aryal et al. 2018; Kassam et al. 2016) and the transformation of the livestock species composition and stocking densities on the other (Baird and Gray 2014; Singh et al. 2015).
It has been noted that with better access to education, the new generation spend the majority of their time away from their homes, hence absence from pastoralism. The new generation is thus neither keen nor equipped with the knowledge that has descended through generations in pastoral communities. Several studies across the region, over time, have highlighted this as an important issue to tackle, if pastoralism is to continue (Aryal et al. 2013, 2018; Namgay et al. 2013). For instance, the Dokpa herders of North Sikkim at the Indo-Tibetan border are the last handful of elderly households to continue pastoralism in the region (Luxom et al. 2022, this collection). The case of North Sikkim is indeed on one extreme, but the lack of labour and interest by the new generation to continue pastoralism in extreme climatic conditions and hardships, means shortage of labour surfaces as a prevalent problem in all the case studies.
The shortage of skilled labour was identified as the biggest challenge and problem associated with continuing pastoralism across three mountain valleys of Pakistan (Hameed et al. 2022). The harsh conditions and the time-consuming nature of herding, with a rather difficult lifestyle and the changes in the family organisation around herding responsibilities, were the key factors associated with shortage of labour. The primary reason in the case of Pakistan was reported to be the engagement of the younger generation in education, tourism and other alternative sources of income involving relatively lesser hardships and higher remunerations. In the case study from Bhutan in the special issue, a shortage of labour force was resulting in increased incidents of yak depredation (Dorji and Powrel 2022, this collection). To deal with the decline in manpower and interest of youth in herding, projected to result in a further decline in yak numbers, the authors suggested that appropriate schemes are needed to change the youths’ attitude towards grazing practices as an attractive livelihood option.
As a local response to the shortage of labour, pastoralists in the western Himalayan region of Himachal Pradesh in India have been increasingly hiring herders as an adaptation. A detailed study by Malhotra et al. (2022) in this collection provides significant details on the issue of labour and hired herding in this region and elaborates on the practices and processes of hired labourers, termed puhals, due to the decline of young Gaddi sheep herders in pastoral activities. The practice of hiring puhals is culturally rooted in Gaddi pastoralism and provides a needs-based solution to the continuity of livestock rearing. The paper concludes that the adaptation in response to the labour shortage is not only related to the economic benefits for the Gaddi herders but is also associated with their cultural and occupational identity.
State policies, conservation agenda, local institutions and access
The state has historically played an important role in determining pastoral mobilities and land access across Asia. There have been different motives of the state with regard to pastoral sedentarisation across space and time (Dong et al. 2016a, b; Fratkin 1997). Some policies claim to provide better services and welfare to pastoral societies, but their primary motive is to extend control over the otherwise mobile pastoralists. For example, during the colonial period, policies of sedentarisation and restrictions on movements of pastoral communities in India were enacted with the aim of better controlling pastoral communities, using a narrative of pastoralists being lazy and living in backward ways (Gooch 2009). More recently, sedentarisation in South Asia is the consequence of changing land tenures, developmental schemes and exclusion through conservation initiatives and development projects like mining and energy transition projects (Nori 2022) which use the dominant narratives of degradation and desertification caused by pastoralists. Such narratives by governments globally have become a tool against pastoralists and have been difficult to break even after the emerging realisation of weak scientific backing for these claims (Behnke and Mortimore 2016). The trajectories of state intervention and associated legitimisation in South Asia have been dynamic both through the colonial period and post-colonial period, with a significant overlap.
The scientific understanding of rangeland functions and the narratives around the role of livestock grazing have moved beyond the linear understanding of the equilibrium rangeland ecological model towards the complex and more nuanced understanding of rangelands as social-ecological systems (Bond 2021; Gongbuzeren et al. 2018; Li and Li 2012; Reid et al. 2014; Vetter 2020) having a critical role in biodiversity conservation.Footnote 1 However government policies in the Himalayan region continue to work with the orthodox understanding of fortress conservation and pastoral evictions (Gooch 2009; Singh et al. 2021, 2022).
The case studies in the special issue indicate that rationalisation of state-induced restrictive policies against pastoralists in the Himalayan region continues to occur. Different paradigms of exclusion and their legitimisations are still prevalent, including the perceptions of pastoral societies as backward, the threat of imminent overgrazing and additional claims related to conservation revenue, development and climate change (Luxom et al. 2022; Srivastava 2022 in this collection). State-induced conservation policies and plans having limited consultations with the pastoralists are an additional layer of stress for the pastoral livelihoods, along with the failing compensation mechanisms for livestock losses to wild predators.
Pastoralists of the Himalayan region historically moved across international boundaries and had access to transnational pastures (Bhasin 2011a; Singh et al. 2013). However, with the current geopolitical conditions between India and China, loss of access to transboundary seasonal pastures has been identified as an important concern for pastoralists. Dokpa pastoralists of North Sikkim historically had a cross-boundary seasonal movement between India and Tibet, but after the Indo-China war in 1962, not only did the pastoralists lose access to seasonal pastures on the Tibet side, but also lost the cultural ties with the Dokpa families living in Tibet (Luxom et al. 2022, this collection).
Both state-induced stresses and the pastoral responses through local institutions have been identified as contextually different across the eight case studies. The article by Srivastava (2022, this collection) illustrates how the state has legitimised control over Gaddis through revenue and development, conservation and more recently applying the climate change narrative. Srivastava (2022) further argues that the restrictions put by the state have defined the timelines and routes of migration for Gujjars and Gaddis in Himachal Pradesh in India. However, the legal identities and social identities of Gaddis and Gujjars are variable and translate differently on the ground. These identities have colonial origins, which translate in the form of variable forms of pastoralism and continue to be negotiated and re-negotiated.
The case of puhal labour as discussed by Malhotra et al. (2022 this collection), in the context of Gaddi pastoralists in India, provides further insights into the role that the state plays, as well as multiple adaptation strategies used by pastoralists against the changing socio-economic scenarios. The hiring of puhals is one such tactic through which Gaddi pastoralism has continued, given that newer grazing permits are no longer issued by the state. Hiring of puhals through the local institutions of Gaddi pastoralists thus acts as a solution to the exclusionary mechanism put forward by the state by enabling sharing of permits and grazing grounds (Malhotra et al. 2022).
The absence of links between formal state and informal local institutions in the eastern Indian Himalaya of North Sikkim has resulted in a lack of access to state support by the Dokpa (Luxom et al. 2022 this collection). There is a need for better engagement between local institutions and the state actors for improved access to the state and non-state support for pastoralists. Similarly, Hameed et al. (2022) and Barsila et al. (2022) in this collection emphasise the need for the state to develop markets for livestock products and to implement policies that prevent farmland conversion of pastures near pastoral settlements. Barsila et al. (2022) underlines the role of local pastoral institutions and other formal and informal institutions for improved management of rangelands of Nepal (Barsila et al. 2022).
Climate change and pasture management
Traces of climate change impacts with extreme climatic events have been observed in the small pockets of alpine and high-altitude regions across the globe (Hurbert and Krishnaswamy 2018). The pastoralists of mountainous regions and drylands are particularly prone to climate change with the altered patterns and intensities of precipitation and droughts and the emergence of new kinds of diseases for both livestock and humans (IPCC 2019).
Several case studies underscore the influence of climate change on pastoral communities and their resource use across the Himalayan region (Rautela and Karki 2015; Sharma and Rai 2012; Vedwan 2006). The study conducted by Hameed et al. (2022) in northern Pakistan indicates changes in the timings and duration of annual precipitation which affect fodder availability for the livestock. Extreme precipitation events were leading to loss of access and connectivity to critical seasonal pastures due to the closure of roads and washing away of bridges.
Erratic rainfall patterns in the region are also linked with soil erosion and changes in the productivity of the pastures. Barsila et al. (2022) indicate the loss of grassland recovery due to erratic flood events, with changes in the timing and duration of precipitation, in Nepal. Another study in this issue from the western Indian Himalayan region of Spiti by Khanyari et al. (2022) highlights the decline in above-ground biomass being a result of changes in snowfall patterns. This is further leading to resource competition between wild ungulates and livestock, causing new challenges for wildlife conservation in these Himalayan rangelands (Khanyari et al. 2022). In addition to resource competition, the study points to another important concern, of disease transmission between the livestock and wildlife.
While the majority of case studies mention the impacts of climate change on the rangelands, pasture management and livestock rearing, but with no support from the state, Srivastava (2022) in our collection discusses how instead of helping the pastoralists deal with the impacts of climate change, the government of Himachal Pradesh has instead used a ‘climate change narrative’ against the pastoralists, to legitimise the attempts to settle the Gaddis and Van Gujjars in the western Indian Himalaya.
To deal with the climatic variabilities and the associated extreme events, pastoralists suggested pasture rehabilitation, collective herding, construction of corrals (Hameed et al. 2022) and strategic planning of grassland management—where the natural event of annual flooding governs the above-ground biomass for livestock grazing (Barsila et al. 2022).
Discussion and conclusion
Drawing parallels with the global stress to pastoralists, papers in this special issue highlighted three sets of contemporary stresses to the pastoralists of the Himalayan region viz. (a) lack of labour, changing aspiration of youth and decline in traditional knowledge systems; (b) continued stresses from the state and between the formal and informal institutions; and (c) climatic stresses and associated impacts on the rangeland and livestock health. There is a growing wider recognition of the role of pastoralists and livestock grazing for biodiversity conservation (PASTRES 2023), mitigating climate change (Davies and Nori 2008), helping future food security (Krätli et al. 2013) and their inherent capacity to thrive with various kinds of uncertainties (Scoones 2023). Still, the narratives around pastoralism of being backward, causing rangeland degradation, villains of conservation and now climate change, continue to influence policy spheres in the Himalayan region. It is justly pointed out by Scoones (2023) that it is important to rework these narratives around pastoralism on the larger policy agenda levels—advocating an alternative recent understanding of the role of pastoralists and livestock grazing in biodiversity conservation, supporting diverse ecosystem functions and ensuring future food production under climate variabilities.
It is evident that the pastoral communities in the Himalayan region are dealing with multiple stressors. However, instead of only being impacted by the stresses, all the pastoral communities are showing adaptations to various kinds of uncertainties and variabilities, be it through the locally nested responses to the lack of labour in the case of puhals, or offering suggestions on dealing with climatic variabilities through communal herding and pasture rehabilitation. The absence of formal institutions and policy-based support for pastoralists remains a critical issue in the region as stated by Luxom et al. (2022) and Malhotra et al. (2022, this collection). It is well-established that pastoralist communities are capable of responding well to the socio-political and ecological risks and uncertainties through flexible local institutions. Case studies in this special issue show how the state and state-induced policies and restrictions continue to be the most important stressors on pastoralism, a dominant issue across continents where the state is ‘acting to undermine the pastoral system rather than support them’ (Scoones 2023).
A synthesis of findings from all eight case studies suggests how the issues around pastoral livelihoods and rangeland management in the Himalayan region are entangled across social, political and ecological dimensions. For instance, loss of access to critical pastures due to development interventions or transboundary closures has reduced the original grazing areas and resulted in increased grazing pressures on more limited areas (Luxom et al. 2022; Singh et al. 2013). Similarly, the shortage of labour and the decline in traditional knowledge has increased grazing pressures on the nearby village pastures, thus leading to their degradation (Singh et al. 2015, 2020). Lack of local knowledge among the hired herders has also resulted in increased incidents of predation (Dorji and Powrel 2022). These findings highlight how the problems around the pastoral systems can be better understood by having a multidisciplinary approach of research exploring the links between the social, political and ecological threads at the local to regional scale. The research focus on pastoral studies can thus benefit greatly from an interdisciplinary approach.
The understanding of the problems as well as proposed solutions from the policymakers should be tailored according to the social, political (Luxom et al. 2022; Malhotra et al. 2022; Srivastava 2022) and ecological understanding (Barsila et al. 2022; Dorji and Powrel 2022; Hameed et al. 2022; Khanyari et al. 2022) of the Himalayan pastoral landscape and resource use, which is contextually variable. A particular finding of the study by Luxom et al. (2022) emphasises the importance of stronger linkages between formal and informal institutions in the pastoral landscape for assuring access to state support to the members of pastoral communities.
Apart from these findings, it is critical to recognise pastoral knowledge and representation in the policy sphere. Within these representations in the Himalayan context, it is also important to be aware of the gender, class and caste perspective in terms of pastoralists’ representation. Women hold an important role in livestock rearing and pastoral economies in the region (Verma and Khadka 2016), while caste and class play an important role in defining access to state policies (Srivastava 2022). State interventions, especially conservation policies in the region, have resulted in social inequalities where wealthier herders gain exclusive access to resources at the cost of a complete full stop on pastoral practices by the weaker section of pastoralists (Singh et al. 2022). It is essential to recognise the social, cultural and economic diversity within a pastoral community in any given context, which also varies greatly between the pastoral communities of a given landscape. In addition to understanding social stratification, it is necessary to understand the local ecologies and the dynamics of resource use over space and time while designing policies. The issue of labour and knowledge is further important to ensure continuity of pastoralism in the region. This can be done through capacity building for the new generation.
Other than the issues given prominence in this special issue, the role of markets and social security are some other important concerns to be addressed in the region, which can be best addressed by creating an interface between pastoralists and policymakers, practitioners and the government, while making the best use of pastoral knowledge and their way of life.
Availability of data and materials
The data is available from the lead author upon reasonable request.
See https://pastres.org/biodiversity/ for the six briefings on role of pastoralists in biodiversity conservation and environment protection.
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We thank all the authors who have contributed to this special issue. We are grateful to the Yolda Initiative and Indian Pastoral Network for funding two papers each in this special issue. Engin Yilmaz, Pierre-Alexandre Paquet and Matthieu Salpeteur are thanked for helping us gain this support. This editorial was made possible with the help and efforts of numerous regional experts. A special thanks to Suraj Pratap Singh Bhati for his critical insights and comments on multiple drafts. We thank Aayushi Malhotra, Anita Sharma, Ishak Mohamed and Saloni Bhatia from India, Srijana Joshi and Gauri Dangol from Nepal, Kuenga Namgay and Kinley Gyaltshen from Bhutan and Muhammad Essa from Pakistan for their valuable insights. We thank Herman Kreutzmann for his support and for helping us understand pastoralism in Gilgit-Baltistan in great detail. Samuel Thomas and Saloni Bhatia are thanked for their exceptional support during the discussions. Rishi Kumar Sharma is thanked for his inputs at various stages of the special issue. Ian Scoones and Michele Nori are thanked for their guidance at the early stages of the editorial draft. A special word of thanks to Roy Behnke for his insightful comments and suggestions that improved the editorial substantially.
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Singh, R., Kerven, C. Pastoralism in South Asia: Contemporary stresses and adaptations of Himalayan pastoralists. Pastoralism 13, 21 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13570-023-00283-7
- Traditional knowledge
- State policies
- Local institutions
- Climate Change