Melting Peaks, Shrinking Cultures, and the Narrowing of Human Possibility

Vitor da Silva

My host mother Dolma sits in front of her  raybo  tent shearing wool from a goat to be traded at a nearby village.

My host mother Dolma sits in front of her raybo tent shearing wool from a goat to be traded at a nearby village.

“So… how do you see the future of the Changpa? – I asked Phuntsok.

“Future? This is the last generation. In ten years, there will be no  herders, no raybo, and no Changpa”.

After driving 18 hours through narrow slushy roads and surviving two landslides, one avalanche, and a broken bridge, I finally arrived in Korzok – the highest town in India and one of the regions where the nomadic Changpa people can be found. At an elevation of 15,000 ft above sea level, this small village in Ladakh is known to be one of the highest towns accessible by car on Earth – a windswept desert plateau surrounded by steep mountains where no tree grows, a place where life seems unbearable, but where a group of people have managed to survive and thrive. Once a fully nomadic people, the Changpa now migrate with their herds in predictable patterns throughout the year, carrying their raybo tents made of yak wool wherever they go as they adapt to the limitations of their environment. My decision to live among the Changpa transcended any fascination for the ethnographic enquiry of a different way of life. Rather, this Himalayan expedition was motivated by an increased concern for the contrasting forces that swayed the region – the euro-centric model of 'development', and climate change – threatening not only their traditional way of being, but also their very human right to life.

For my work as an anthropologist, the recent year's change in weather patterns meant that my attempt to locate the semi-nomadic Changpa had become a lengthy and daunting quest, since the scarce data I found in the literature could no longer be relied upon. For the Changpa, however, the unpredictability of weather patterns meant that their ancestral knowledge – which has been developed and refined over millennia – is becoming less and less reliable, and their means of subsistence more and more uncertain: the melting of the glaciers is eroding the already scarce grasslands which are vital to the animals they depend on for survival; and the violent winds and tempestuous storms are now more frequent and less predictable – making their seasonal grazing trips to elevations of 18,000 feet altitude significantly more dangerous.

Dolma looks in the horizon and notices the changes in the Himalayan peaks.

Dolma looks in the horizon and notices the changes in the Himalayan peaks.

Dolma – a Changpa elder – tells me about how much the landscape has changed over the years, as she scanned the Himalayan peaks. Dolma nostalgically recounted a time when the ice covered the ground beneath her feet. Today, the receding of the glaciers poses a serious threat to half a billion people living in the Himalayan region. As the Himalayan ice caps continue to melt and give way into one big river, so too are the 5,000 indigenous voices being silenced and dissolved into a larger, but lonelier, whisper. As the glaciers continue to shrink, so too are our cultural, social and spiritual possibilities being narrowed into a monochromatic way of being.

Despite the changes brought by climate change, the nomadic-Changpa still operate under a mode of reality that is bound by a healthy interdependence with their environment: taking just what one needs – no more, no less. The Tibetan Buddhist teachings played a fundamental role in shaping Changpa's attitude towards adversity, life, and death. Their prayers served as an anchor to the present moment, and their offerings a reminder about the importance of reciprocity. The Buddhist foundations not only filled their lives with meaning, but also made the difficulties that come with living in such a desolated geography a bit more bearable. As opposed to the illusory sense of insufficiency and increased competitiveness common among those who migrated to the capital, the Changpa's awareness about the limitation of their resources did not encourage feelings of scarcity or rivalry, but of harmony and cooperation.

As their environment deteriorate and their ancient knowledge fades into obsolescence, so too is the continued affirmation of their spiritual and cultural identity being denied. Indeed, the significance of their physical environment can be said to "extend beyond the resources' function as food for the body, to include their value as nourishment for the soul" (Sproat, 2016). For the Changpa, disconnecting from the land where they have lived, thrived, and celebrated their cultural for hundreds of years, represents not only a violation of their right to practice and enjoy their culture, but is putting at risk the very continuation of their people.

Changpa woman wearing traditional Ladakhi attire assists elder during local Buddhist festival.

Changpa woman wearing traditional Ladakhi attire assists elder during local Buddhist festival.

The silent, and often neglected impacts of climate change are not only threatening Himalayan peoples like the Changpa, but many other indigenous groups around the world. Ironically, indigenous peoples – besides being the most vulnerable to climate change (Magrath, 2006) – have contributed the least to it, and are the ones doing more to pull us out the anthropogenic quagmire. For decades, we have dismissed their warnings about the destructive relationship that we have with our environment. Today, despite the many studies that show indigenous peoples to be the best environmentalists, we still continue to disregard their unique ecological knowledge and reject their alliance in what has become the most important battle for the survival of our species. Indigenous Peoples – who only account for 5% of the world's population – are the guardians of 80% of the planet’s total biodiversity, (Sobrevila, 2008) making them the best environmental protectors and our best hope against climate change. As we confront the 'demons of our own making' (Hornborg, 2011) it is time to step down our pedestal and join forces with the peoples of the world under a shared commitment to the health of our planet: one that promotes cooperation, understanding, and respect to one another.


The original and extended version of this article is published in the online version of the JFA.

Works Cited

Hornborg, A. (2011). Global Ecology and Unequal Exchange: Fetishism in a Zero-Sum World (1st ed., p. 36). Routledge.

Magrath, J., Simms, A., and Working Group on Climate Change (2006). Africa: Up in Smoke 2, London, UK: Oxfam.

Sobrevila, C. (2008) The Role of Indigenous Peoples in Biodiversity Conservation: The Natural but Often Forgotten Partners. The World Bank, Washington DC.

Sproat, K. (2016) An Indigenous People’s Right to Environmental Self-Determination: Native Hawaiians and the Struggle Against Climate Change Devastation, 35 Stan. Envtl. L.J. 157, 183