Pastoral Highland Communities

Dolpo Landscape

Transhumant pastoralism, the movement of people and their animals with the seasons, has been practiced throughout the Himalaya, the Tibetan Plateau and Central Asia for centuries. Though regional and trans-national differences abound, all of these areas share a common connection to Buddhism and the pre-Buddhist Bonpo traditions.

Likewise, variations on the complex practice of Tibetan medicine are present throughout the communities in which DROKPA works. They inhabit areas in which rangelands are a dominant natural resource comprising over fifty percent of the earth's land surface.

Rangelands are not suitable for cultivation because of low and erratic precipitation, rough topography, poor drainage or cold temperatures. As one of the most prevalent land systems on the planet, rangelands are critical habitats for myriad plant and animal species and form many of the world's watersheds. Central Asia, the Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau comprise the most extensive rangelands in the world. These areas are also home to millions of people who depend on these vast grasslands for their livelihood.

From the impacts of tourism and development on Nepal's high mountain landscapes to the creation of new protected areas on Tibet's northern plains, from increased urban to rural migration in present-day Mongolia to the long-term effects of China's annexation of Tibet, many of Asia's highlands are undergoing intense transitions. Indigenous knowledge systems, such as traditional medicine and local rangeland management strategies, are under cultural, economic and political pressure. These transitions impact grassland productivity and challenge conservation management.

Our efforts begin with a recognition of the complex natural and human ecology of the main areas in which we work, and a desire to help local communities sustain and transform themselves as they deem appropriate.

Dolpo, Nepal, the site of DROKPA's pilot alternative energy project, has been home to pastoralists and traders for at least a thousand years. Dolpo is a vast and rugged landscape inhabited by a hardy, enterprising folk who live in some of the highest villages in the world. At altitudes greater than 4,000 meters, where temperatures are perennially cold, growing seasons short and annual precipitation scant, the people of Dolpo have wrested survival. They are adept land managers and exploit an incredibly limited environment, a mountain steppe shot through with colossal valleys. The herding of animals over broad geographical areas makes life possible in Dolpo by synergizing trade (Tibetan salt for lowland grains), commodity production (dairy, meat, wool products) and agriculture (barley, wheat, potatoes). The greater Dolpo District encompasses Nepal's largest national park, Shey Phoksundo.

Tangbe Chorten

Mustang, Nepal, the site of DROKPA's first indigenous medicine project, is a landscape of cliffs and caves, irrigated oases of barley, mustard and buckwheat. In the rain shadow of the Himalaya, Mustang has long been a pilgrimage site and hub of trans-Himalayan trade. Its people are agro-pastoralists and traders who run their businesses along the Kali Gandaki river, Mustang's central artery. Salt and grain have been exchanged along this Himalayan highway for hundreds of years. Today, thousands of tourists hike through the southern regions of this district, part of the Annapurna trekking circuit. The northern reaches of Mustang, called Lo in Tibetan, are home to Jigme Palbar Bista, the 25th king in a lineage of rulers that dates to the 14th century. From 1960 until 1974, Mustang was home to groups of Tibetan resistance fighters who, with CIA assistance, waged guerrilla attacks across the border. Lo was closed to foreigners until 1992 and is now open to trekking groups on a restricted basis. Tourism and development are overseen locally by the Annapurna Conservation Area Program.

Ladakh is located within the Indian state of Jammu-Kashmir, on the far western flank of the Indian Himalaya, and is defined by the rugged, stark beauty of the Zanskar and Ladakh mountain ranges which parallel each other. Ladakh covers nearly 4,000 square miles and is separated from the Changtang wilderness region of Tibet to the east by a disputed line on the maps of India and China. Ladakh is truly at the crossroads of the Himalaya and Central Asia. Here, the Indus and Zanskar rivers meet, above which rise perpetually snow-capped peaks. When walking through Leh, the capital city of Ladakh, one feels the presence of many religious, cultural and political influences. This town of approximately 10,000 people is home to Buddhists and Muslims, as well as migrant populations of other Indians, Kashmiris and Nepalis, who come to Ladakh for seasonal work. Like Mustang, Ladakh was also part of a vast network of vassal states and autonomous kingdoms that, at one point, defined the greater Tibetan cultural world. Today, Ladakh still harbors some of the most impressive Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the world and is home to communities of pastoralists, traders and farmers.

Damshung in Central Tibet - the name means 'chosen valley' in Tibetan - is approximately 90 percent nomadic and has long been associated with the image of high-altitude pastoralism: Green pastures in which yak, sheep and goat roam. Damshung town is a hub of pastoral production and commerce. The county has been a site in which new rangeland policies - such as fencing and livestock development - are being put into action on the Tibetan Plateau. Such government policies are designed to improve nomads' livelihoods and protect grasslands from overgrazing and other problems. However, the government initiatives have had a mixed impact among Damshung's communities, given the distinct environmental and cultural elements of Tibetan nomadic pastoralism. Damshung County lies at a midpoint between Nagchu Prefecture and Lhasa, along the route of the new Qinghai-Tibet railway, which connects Lhasa to Golmud and beyond. Damshung is also the gateway to the Nam Tsho region, an important site for tourism and pilgrimage.

Known as Kham to Tibetans, the region of southwestern Sichuan Province is an area of lush grasslands and large, historically important monasteries - many of which are still vital centers of Tibetan culture, commerce and civilization. People from Kham are known particularly for their trading and equestrian abilities, and the region boasts a number of famous annual horse festivals. The town of Dartsendo (Kangding) in the Kandze (Garzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (TAP) is located in a narrow gorge along the Cheto Chu (Zhenduo River) and is a hub between Tibet and Sichuan.