A fully organic Ladakh? Towards food sovereignty on the roof of the world

By Ashish KotharionOct. 17, 2021in Perspectives
Agricultural land is very sparse in Ladakh, as seen here at Yangthang © Ashish Kothari

In March 2020 I wrote about how Ladakh, India’s northernmost region bordering Tibet, faces a stark choice between succumbing to the dominant logic of ‘development’ that would erase its ecological and cultural uniqueness, and forging its own path of well-being building on this uniqueness. The context was that in August 2019, Ladakh went from being a region within the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), to a union territory (UT), administered directly by the central government in New Delhi. This was part of a decision by Delhi to make a dramatic change in the status of Jammu and Kashmir as a whole, from being a state with relative independence guaranteed under special provisions in the Indian constitution, to being two union territories under central government control (J&K as one, Ladakh as the other). The consequences of this action for J&K have been serious, but here I focus on Ladakh.

I wrote then about Ladakh’s ecological fragility as a cold mountainous desert with sparse agricultural land and water resources, its importance as habitat for many endemic or threatened wildlife species, and the cultural and economic fragility of its predominantly agricultural, pastoral, and traditional trade-based livelihoods. In this context, the introduction of a Delhi-centred vision of ‘development’, with mass tourism, mega-energy plants, highways criss-crossing the mountainous terrain, commercialization of production systems, and so on, has to be viewed with concern. So too the attempts to impose a right-wing religious (Hindu) agenda in a predominantly Buddhist and Muslim population. As I said then: “Ladakh is already groaning under infrastructural development, intense armed forces presence (with China and Pakistan bordering Ladakh), and excessive tourism. An exploitative, ‘developmentalist’ mindset has entered many Ladakhis themselves, transforming notions of what it is to be happy and contented. A once-harmonious co-existence between different faiths has been disrupted by tensions.”

The challenge of agriculture and food

A crucial element of the crossroads Ladakh is at, is the future of its agriculture and food systems. These systems, internally very diverse across forms of cultivation and pastoralism, have evolved in sync with the region’s ecological conditions over centuries. They represent some amazing adaptations to sparse water availability, shallow soils, desert conditions, and harsh winters. Barley, buckwheat, wheat, millets, potatoes, peas, apricots, apples, a variety of wild foods, and both nomadic and sedentary livestock herding with goats, sheep, yak, dzo, horses, are scattered in various combinations across Ladakh. In recent times these have been added to by a variety of vegetables (earlier scarce) in greenhouses or home gardens.

However, in the current context of large-scale development and modernity, many of the traditional practices, knowledge, livelihoods and food habits are witnessing a rapid decline. Commercial pulls and the integration into a more monetized economy are making farmers turn to cash crops, and fast food has spread through the region, with the sight of Maggi noodle and Lays chips packets strewn in stream beds being a sore reminder. Many elders fear the addictive qualities of such junk food, and the turning away of youth from the nutritious foods that many earlier generations have grown up with.

Can this kind of decline be reversed, in relation to a quest for Ladakh’s own identity and sense of self-reliance and well-being, while absorbing what is appropriate and sustainable from outside and modern systems? What kind of policies and strategies would be needed to promote local livelihoods that are grounded in community practices and wisdom, are ecologically sustainable, and can provide diverse livelihood options to communities, especially youth and women? What can attract youth back to their cultural and ecological roots even as they, quite understandably, explore the outside? How can such processes also deal with caste-class-gender inequities that have been present in traditional systems?

A ready opportunity for such a pathway is the Mission Organic Development Initiative of Ladakh, which aims to convert the region completely to organic farming by 2025. Launched by Ladakh’s Lt. Governor in July 2020, this contains many good objectives and actions, and several specific (proposed) budgetary allocations. A phased conversion of chemical-based agriculture to organic, incentives for entrepreneurship and innovation, the integration and encouragement of animal husbandry with cultivation so that organic manure is more easily accessible, continuation or revival of traditional water practices and governance systems, and other such elements provide a solid base.

As explained by one of Ladakh’s most experienced officials in agriculture, Thinley Dawa, the 2025 target should be feasible because a substantial part of Ladakh’s farmers have never switched to chemical-intensive methods. Already the Agriculture Department has identified 40 villages that have no chemical use; much of the use of fertilisers and pesticides seems to be around the district headquarter Leh, so the Mission will need to give special attention here.

One weakness in the Mission is the absence of a statement of principles, which would be essential to determine if the actions are leading to the desired outcomes (other than the simple one of eliminating chemicals). Such outcomes could be self-reliance, ecological sustainability (not only with respect to chemicals, but also biodiversity, etc), equality/equity (especially ensuring the smallest farmer/pastoralist is benefited), food sovereignty/security (especially domestic food security prioritised over market/commercialisation).

Without such a statement of principles and ways by which to evaluate if they are being followed, some of the Mission Organic’s actions could be contradictory. For instance, one of the actions is to replace subsistence farming with ‘high-value commercial’ farming. This unjustifiably assumes that farmers feeding themselves is less important than them feeding others by putting their products into the market, and could lead to greater vulnerability if dependence on food and livelihoods switches completely to external markets. This risk is high because the Mission document also talks about surveys of national and global markets for Ladakhi produce, which may contradict local food security and exchange, and undermine the objective of minimising import of toxic food products into Ladakh if the typical forces of globalisation take over. There is mention of promoting cross-breeds of livestock, which could displace local breeds, and also create long-term problems that cross-breeds have caused in other parts of India (e.g. expensive fodder, frequently falling ill, etc).

Ladakh Vikalp Sangam on food and agriculture

It is with this backdrop that a Ladakh Vikalp Sangam (Alternatives Confluence) on Food and Agriculture was organized by the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council and Agriculture Department, Local Futures, Snow Leopard Conservancy – India Trust, Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation, and Kalpavriksh on 19-20 September, at Saboo village near Leh. This was proposed by the enthusiastic Executive Councillor (Agriculture), Stan Chosphel, after we gave him a presentation on food sovereignty and the national Vikalp Sangam (Alternatives Confluence) process.

The objective of the Ladakh Vikalp Sangam was to create a dialogue among community members, civil society, government and other relevant groups, to evolve a holistic vision for Ladakh on food, agriculture and other related livelihoods. The Sangam participants deliberated on key issues being faced in Ladakh, shared examples of inspiring work from Ladakh, examined relevant government programmes, and came up with an action plan. It also discussed possibilities for agro-tourism activities that could provide sustainable livelihoods to communities, and a draft Well-being Index that could be used to evaluate progress towards the key objectives.

Amongst the important actions proposed by the Sangam are:

  • establishing Organic Farmers’ Markets, in various regional centres of Ladakh, and supporting Farmer Producer Companies or cooperatives to enable greater collective strength;
  • mapping Ladakh’s agriculture (including pastoral) and seed/animal/food diversity, and documenting innovative techniques of production, storage, processing;
  • encouraging animal husbandry, and exchange between areas with predominantly cultivation practices and those with predominantly pastoral practices (such as in the vast Changthang plateau adjoining Tibet) to reduce shortage of organic manure, a constraint pointed out by Kunzang Lamo of the government Krishi Vigyan Kendra (Agriculture Science Centre);
  • exploring year long production of vegetables and other foods in greenhouses, to reduce import of such foods from outside Ladakh (participant Tsering Stobdan of the Defence Institute of High Altitude Research, one of the leads in framing Mission Organic, has tried this out successfully himself);
  • supporting community grain and seed banks for easy local access, and to help revive crops that are dying out;
  • conducting periodic food festivals in various parts of the region (of late the government has supported some like a Buckwheat festival);
  • prioritising local crops and foods in all official programmes, such as the Public Distribution System (India’s long-standing scheme to provide cheap food to the poor, which unfortunately focuses only on rice and wheat), free meals given in schools, and meetings/festivals/events that the government supports;
  • encouraging hotels and restaurants, guest houses, religious institutions (which have a significant hold on the population), and other non-governmental agencies to also prioritise local crops and foods in their programmes (with examples like De Khambir to learn from);
  • convincing the army, which has a very large presence here due to the India-China-Pakistan border tensions, to procure local foods (a challenge because it has rather uniform rules issued from New Delhi on the kinds of foods to be bought; in Saboo village near the Vikalp Sangam venue we visited innovative farmer Zenab Parveen, who said that many of the tomatoes she produces, perfectly healthy, are rejected by the army because they don’t meet its standard size requirements);
  • integrating agricultural and food traditions and learning in school curricula;
  • supporting food processing and value addition of surplus production in clusters of villages, to enhance local earnings (for instance of dried fruits, juices, etc), and linking these to sensitive enterprises like Ladakh Basket;
  • exploring community-led, ecologically sensitive agro-tourism, e.g. for visitors to understand and enjoy the region’s diversity, volunteer in farming operations, etc.;
  • prioritising research on organic agriculture, adaptation to climate change, and other such high priority aspects in official agricultural research institutions;
  • initiating public campaigns on the dangers of pesticides and junk food, and the superior nutritional value of many traditional foods;
  • carrying out ecological assessments of new (especially large-scale) agriculture and food interventions, such as the plantation of seabuckthorn (growing widely in the region, and with great potential for products like juices with high Vitamin C content);
  • core participation of farmers, civil society organisations, and others in the implementation and monitoring of the Mission Organic, and in further relevant research.

The Sangam also noted that a number of government schemes, including the central government’s Parampagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (Traditional Farming Development Scheme), the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, and others could be used to support many of the above actions.

One of the most critical aspects discussed was the need for a land policy, including reserving agricultural lands (Ladakh has less than 1% of its territory under agriculture!) which are facing encroachment by house construction, roads, etc. This also needs to have a strong water conservation management component, given the region’s dryness.

Another aspect that participants like innovative farmer Zubair Ahmed and researcher-write Padma Rigzin cautioned about is the danger of capture of many of the above actions by big corporates, and their orientation towards elite consumption. A strong focus has to be on local farmers, small businesses, and ordinary people benefiting from such actions. Lobzang Tsiring mentioned that the all Ladakh Hotel and Guest House Association would also be willing to support this. The Sangam also emphasised that organic certification should happen through the Participatory Guarantee Scheme rather than third-party (often expensive) certification, since farmers can control and participate in this. One complication here is that the official PGS programme controlled by the government has reportedly become top-down and bureaucratic; civil society and farmer groups have a parallel PGS Organic Council process. Farmer and former member of Ladakh Ecological Development Group Tashi Namgyal noted that LEDEG had already initiated a PGS process 6-7 years back, but in a limited way due to lack of support.

The need for a well-being index

A potentially exciting part of the process initiated through the Vikalp Sangam is the evolution of a ‘well-being index’ for Ladakh, initially focused on agriculture and food. This was considered important for the reasons mentioned above: how does one know if the actions taken above or those being undertaken under the Mission Organic, are actually leading to well-being of Ladakh’s residents, and the safeguarding of its ecological health? Are they leading to greater satisfaction and happiness?

A beginning has been made with a draft Index based on a foundation of principles like self-reliance, ecological sustainability, equality, social justice, non-violence, diversity, solidarity and compassion. It identifies 9 dimensions, and indicators for these, with which actions can be assessed:

  1. food security and sovereignty;
  2. livelihood security;
  3. basic needs security;
  4. satisfaction;
  5. community integrity and vitality;
  6. equality of opportunity;
  7. democratic governance;
  8. cultural resilience and integrity;
  9. ecological sustainability and resilience.

This initial draft was also discussed at the Ladakh Vikalp Sangam, and a decision taken to develop it further through consultations with local communities, and then advocate for its adoption by the Hill Council. If such adoption does not happen, or even if does, such an index could be useful for civil society monitoring of actions taken to achieve the Mission Organic and beyond, and as a tool for advocacy as also self-assessment.

What are the prospects?

The official target of a fully organic Ladakh certainly provides a good base for the above vision and action plan to be implemented. However, there is no cause for being starry-eyed about it. The commercial and corporate interests that want to take the region in a different direction, a continued mindset of conventional agriculture in decision-makers in New Delhi, difficulties in trying to change the mindset of institutions like the army and hotels, the demand of mass tourism which is often insensitive to local culture and environment, and the enormous attraction of ‘exotic’ trends streaming into Ladakh on ‘social’ media and via tourists, and the lack of an organised voice of farmers, are some of the key hurdles. It will take a heroic combined effort by sensitive farmers, Councillors, officials in agriculture and other departments, civil society groups, and local businesses/enterprises to take Ladakh where it needs to go – towards ecologically resilient and socially just food security and sovereignty.

First published by Wall Street International Magazine on 13 Oct. 2021

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