The Mountain Shepherds Initiative

A community-owned and operated ecotourism company that grew out of the famous Nanda Devi Campaign for cultural survival and sustainable livelihoods. Their guides hail from communities all over the upper reaches of the Himalayas and have been trained at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering through the generous support of countless friends, scholars, and like-minded organizations.

The Mountain Shepherds Initiative represents a grassroots effort to evolve a new model of tourism in the High Himalayas. Beginning with the Nanda Devi Campaign for cultural survival and sustainable livelihoods in 2003, communities with the assistance of seasoned activists have prepared and actively promoted their own community-owned ecotourism plan and outreach campaign to develop interest in both the biosphere reserve and their unique trans-Himalayan culture. Mountain Shepherds is an attempt to bring these plans to fruition by throwing open the doors of Nanda Devi to the world.

In addition to the goals of Mountain Shepherds, this web site aims to acquaint you with the Bhotiya people of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve and their epic struggle for cultural and ecological survival in the lap of the High Himalayas. It represents one of many efforts by the inhabitants to reclaim their land rights and preserve their cultural heritage. As an initiative that spans the globe, community leaders, social activists, western scholars, and well wishers are using internet communication technologies to communicate and coordinate their campaign across vast distances.

The Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve is significant in many ways. The sacred mountain at the core of the park is the highest in the Uttarakhand sector of the Himalayas at 25,645 ft and is protected by a spectacular ring of more than a dozen peaks over 21,000 ft. As a biodiversity hotspot, its incredible scenic beauty has inspired mountaineers and explorers for nearly a century. However, owing to building ecological pressures, its gates were closed when the whole region was declared a national park and biosphere reserve in 1982.

The local people, an Indo-Tibetan ethnic group referred to as the Bhotiya, lost their prime alpine pastures, source of medicinal herbs, and the tourist trade in one fell swoop. The conservation authorities of the day failed to recognize that the Bhotiya had been an inseparable part of the landscape, and rather than recognizing them as Nanda Devi’s guardians, instituted a draconian ban on access to the park’s core zone. More than simply an economic catastrophe, the foundations of their culture were threatened by these restrictions. Ironically, it was the very same communities that gave birth to the renowned Chipko movement, when women of Reni village saved their forests in a much celebrated action that spread far and wide to other parts of the Uttarakhand Himalayas.

Recent moves by the state government of Uttarakhand to open the park to limited ecotourism has prompted the Bhotiya to initiate a campaign to safeguard their future. Their struggle has thus moved from protests over access rights to evolving a sustainable, community-based tourism policy for Nanda Devi, one that takes into account the rights of local people and is free of human exploitation. These efforts culminated with the founding of the Mountain Shepherds initiative in 2006.

The buffer zone, constituting the area immediately surrounding the core zone of Nanda Devi, is home to 19 communities, 10 of which were surveyed to consist of over 2,250 residents in 1996 and 1997. While five of the communities reside in permanent year-round settlements, 14 have traditionally moved residences in the summer and winter months with one even shifting location three times a year. Lata and Reni situated near the West entrance of the reserve and the confluence of the Rishi and Dhauli Ganga, are the most prominent villages in the buffer zone. Other large settlements include Malari, Jelum, Jumma, Dronagiri, Gamshali, and Tolma. Furthest north along the Dhauli lies the village of Niti at the Indo-Tibetan frontier, from which the entire valley has traditionally drawn its name.

Ethnically, 17 of the communities are of Bhotiya extraction, an Indo-Tibetan people that have made their homes in the High Himalayas for centuries. The word “Bhotiya” itself comes from “Bo” which is the native Tibetan word for Tibet. The Bhotiyas of Uttarakhand are further subdivided into three main categories: TheJadhs of Uttarkashi, the Marchas (mainly traders) andTolchas (farmers) of Chamoli, and the Shaukas of Pithoragarh (near Dharchula). While, the Jadhs are followers of Buddhism and the Shaukas hold to their own Hindu-Buddhist syncretic faith, the central Marcha/Tolcha group of the Niti Valley are Hindu, observing the caste system and sharing Rajputsepts (family names) with their Garhwali neighbours. In addition, the festivals of Basant Panchami, Baisakhi (Bikhoti), Nag Panchami (Fela Panchnag), Nanda Astami, Dussehra (Durga Astami) are celebrated through the Niti Valley. Apart from these cultural differences, the three Bhotiya groups resemble one another in their distinct physical appearance.

In the villages, homespun wool and woolen items have long been produced and knit by women to supplement family income. In addition, staple crops such as wheat, barley, millet, and local pulses and grains, and some cash crops such as kidney beans and potatoes have been grown in the terraced hills overlooking the many river valleys. Unfortunately, due to the core zone’s closure, access to many medicinal plants traditionally used by indigenous healers was lost.

Having long straddled the border between India, Nepal, and Tibet, the migratory lifestyles of Marchas in particular involved plying the trade routes through the Himalayas as well as the practice of transhumance. Transhumance describes the seasonal migration of shepherds with their herds from high altitude alpine pastures (locally known asbugyals) in summer to grazing lands in the Terai in winter. As a livelihood strategy also followed by the Van Gujjars of Uttarakhand and tribal groups in other parts of the Himalayas, this form of migratory pastoralism has deeply impacted the local culture of most communities in the Niti Valley. Furthermore, the cyclic movement of herds across the Himalayas prevented over-grazing, thus sustaining the age-old tradition as part of a dynamic landscape.

With the closure of Nanda Devi, in addition to increasing conflicts with established settlements to the south, the Marchas’ traditional transhumance has been threatened with extinction. Flock sizes have dwindled while many herders have left the business owing to increasing costs and difficulties. This social and economic catastrophe has contributed to a further loss of cultural heritage through the erosion of animal husbandry skills and intimate knowledge of the land.

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