Traditional Solutions to Modern Problems - Co-operatives and Sustainable Development

This document has been made available in electronic format
by the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA)
Oct, 1997
(Source: Co-op Dialogue, Vol.7, No.2, May-Aug. 1997, pp.3-7)

Traditional solutions to modern problems - Co-operatives and
sustainable development in Ladakh
by Allie Irvine, Communications & Gender Programme, ICA ROAP

Past the green foothills and snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas, on
the arid brown terrain of the western Tibetan Plateau live a people
whose history of co-operation is as old as the soil they take their living from.

Ladakh is in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, today India's strategic
military zone bordered by Pakistan, Afghanistan and China, and home
to an agrarian society that shares the cultural traditions of Tibet.

Canals direct precious glacial melt waters to thirsty fields of ripening
barley, carved like steppes on the mountain face.  Simple yet majestic
flat-roofed white-washed houses dot the landscape, their beautifully
carved wood frame windows looking out over the spectacular mountains.

With eight months of harsh winter every year, life here is not easy,
explains Kalon Rigzin Namgyal.  Kalon means Prime Minister, and the
elderly Namgyal is descended from Ladakh's royal family.

Secretary of the Co-operative Marketing Society which supplies
vegetables to the army - Namgyal is one of Ladakh's elder statesmen
and most respected citizens.  "We could never survive without
co-operation," translates his grandson.  "Our whole society was based
on it.  Farmers in every village shared their resources."  

"(Traditionally,) families would take turns each day grazing the cows and
sheep.  If a family wanted to build a canal or a house, they would beat a
drum to summon a worker from each family. We didn't have money. We
shared  labour, and accepted payment in tea and chang (beer)," said

Helena Norberg- Hodge, a Swede who has spent more than 20 years
studying Ladakhi language and culture, describes Ladakh's traditional
sustainable agricultural practices in her book and film Ancient Futures.

Weather controls the livelihood of Ladakhis.  The population depends
almost entirely on agriculture, self-supporting farmers living in small
villages scattered across the desert.  In a growing season of four months,
Ladakhis must produced enough barley and other staples to last the other
eight months of the year.

The average family holding is five acres, with some cultivating as many as
ten, depending on the size of the family.  They measure land in how long it
takes to plough it, describing a plot as "one day" or "two days."  One acre
per working member of the household was the rule, writes Norberg-Hodge.

The economy also depended on animals, who provide necessities like dung
for fuel, transportation, labour, wool and milk.

To survive with limited arable land and scarce resources, Ladakhis
developed an effective system of population control through polyandry
or polygamy.  Though no longer practised on a large scale, Norberg-Hodge
argues multiple spouses kept the population of Ladakh stable for
centuries, and contributed to an environmental balance and social harmony.

The system was flexible from generation to generation, depending on the
availability of land, the number of offspring and available partners. A
polygamous marriage might occur when one wife was barren.  A second
wife, usually her sister, married into the family.  If a husband or wife had
an affair, they may have asked to bring the third party into the marriage. 

Although extramarital sex  is discouraged, mothers of illegitimate children
are not outcast.  Losing one's temper is more scorned than infidelity,
writes Norberg-Hodge.

Whatever the system of marriage, the land holdings remain undivided. No
matter how many children, one person - usually the eldest son, or the
daughter with a husband - becomes the guardian of the family land. The
entire family continues to live in two or more households off the same
land, sharing labour and resources.

Unmarried women and men become nuns and monks.  Young children are
sent to the monasteries to be educated, and to reduce pressures on family
resources. As spiritual leaders and educators, lamas are traditionally the
most respected people in Ladakhi society.  Babies of two and three
months are taken to the monastery to be blessed, protected with printed
prayers and to receive a first name from the high lama.  People in Ladakh
do not carry last names, but are known by their house or land holding.

Ladakh's traditional agricultural economy started to change after
independence.  Responsibility for construction of canals and roads was
taken over by the government and the informal co-operative system was
put on paper.

At first, people were optimistic about the government's investment in
the region.  A state government department of co-operative societies was
established to formalise Ladakh's co-operative tradition in 1958.

That optimism turned sour as Ladakhi people began to feel the real impact
of change.  A paycheque and government subsidies decreased reliance on
agriculture, discouraging the former traditional self-sufficiency model.

"People's values changed," said Namgyal regretfully.  Pollution, waste,
mismanagement and cultural degradation are all results of the new money
economy, he said. 

"In the western world we have accepted this idea that economic
development is progress," said Norberg-Hodge.  She speaks with the zeal
of an evangelist about the social, environmental and economic problems of

"At the macro level, a lot of destruction of bio-diversity and culture is
happening," she recently told an audience of tourists at a screening of her
film at the Ladakh Ecological Development Centre in Leh, the small capital
of Ladakh.

"Food from far away has become much cheaper than local products," said
Norberg-Hodge.  Like Namgyal, she criticises government subsidies and
trade agreements that separate local farmers from consumers.

Relying on government trucks to provide water, cheap imported food and
basic necessities has caused Ladakhis to suffer, she points out. Rationing
has become necessary during the long winter months when before the
society was self-sufficient.

Technology and tourists have brought with them pollution - diesel fumes,
plastic, waste.  They stretch the scarce water supply, and create erroneous
impressions among Ladakhis that all westerners are wealthy and never

In 1983, Norberg-Hodge and other concerned Ladakhis in search of a more
sustainable development model formed the Ladakh Ecological Development Group.  Their goal was to encourage alternative technologies,
and to prevent youth from drifting away from the land.

Norberg-Hodge uses the example of the diesel-powered mill in Leh to
show the long-term harmful effects of modernisation.  The mill grinds
wheat faster than the old water mills, but requires people to haul their
grain from a distance and pay for it to be ground.  

The heat from the speed of the mill deteriorates food's nutritional quality,
and spews harmful diesel fumes into the air.  Moreover, people are losing
their traditional knowledge about using local, sustainable resources, and the
personal relationships that come from working co-operatively.

Focused on alternative technologies, LEDeG has advocated new energy
sources using the Trombe wall, solar ovens and heating that make use of
Ladakh's many hours of sunlight.  But environmental problems are only
one aspect of Ladakh's crisis; more insidious and imminent is the negative
cultural impact of modernisation on the society.

The young and inspiring director of LEDeG, Sonam Dorje, says LEDeG
has been successful at promoting more sustainable energy alternatives. He
now wants to shift attention to educating young people who are caught in
a society in flux.   "Schools are educating young people to fail," said Dorje,
who organised a youth lobby to reform the education system before
coming to LEDeG.  Dorje describes how many of Ladakh's young people
are what he calls the "semi-educated" victims of progress  They are neither
educated in their own language, nor are they provided with adequate skills
needed in the modern economy. 

The youth of Ladakh are poorly equipped for the few jobs that only exist
in urban centres and they are letting go of their traditional agricultural
heritage at the same time, said Dorje.

Dorje knows that technology and tourism are here to stay, and that
Ladakhis must take advantage of change.  In his search for solutions to
Ladakh's environmental and social problems, Dorje looked to his culture's
traditional co-operative roots.  And Dzomsa was born.

Dzomsa, "meeting place" in Ladakhi, is a 12-member co-operative group
who provide purified drinking water, fresh organic apricot juice and
environmentally sound laundry services to tourists.

"Many plastic bottles were littering the city," said Sonam Angmo, a young
co-op member and employee at Dzomsa's laundry collection depot.  "And
the soap from the laundry was polluting the local water supply."  

Dorje organised the small informal co-operative to sell boiled water to
tourists, and to take the laundry out of town where the soap can be
disposed of safely.  Twelve young Ladakhi men and women are now
employed and share the profits of Dzomsa. Dzomsa is an example of a
co-operative solution that is all-encompassing - it provides jobs for people, cuts waste by over 200 plastic bottles a day, reduces diesel
pollution and prevents gallons of harmful detergent from flowing into
Ladakh's precious streams.

The co-operative model is especially well-suited to Ladakhi culture,
offering solutions to modern problems while preserving a traditional way
of life. This strategy is being employed by women in Ladakh who have
been marginalised by the newly created job market.

Farm women are left alone while men go off to work and the children
attend school in the towns and cities.  Work that was once shared by
whole communities is now left to wives and mothers.  In industrial
society, economic and social power belongs to men.

Ladakhi women are keenly aware of the loss of their traditional lifestyle
and their economic and political power as a result of this modern trend.
The Women's Alliance of Ladakh was founded in 1990 to help mothers
educate their children about the benefits of the community co-operative

Dolma Tsering is the Women's Alliance secretary.  She emphasises the
importance of teaching children about traditional Ladakhi lifestyle. Tsering
points out that many young people face a future of unemployment in the
modern economy.  She hopes that instilling pride in their culture will
encourage youth to opt for traditional alternatives, preserving Ladakh's
co-operative history.

Traditional organic farming in Ladakh depended on compost, nightsoil and
animal dung.  In recent years, the Indian government has promoted the use
of fertilisers and pesticides never before seen in Ladakh (some that were
banned in the west in the 1970s). At first, chemicals were provided free of
charge to farmers. While some argue yields have more than doubled, others
say bio-diversity is destroyed and farmers become dependent on
expensive, environmentally harmful methods.

Tsering and the Women's Alliance advocate decentralised agricultural
practices that focus on local food production and not crops for export,
and on developing technologies that are suited to local conditions.  They
believe co-operative agricultural methods empower women in their
communities and preserve the environment.  

The efforts of the Women's Alliance have been supported by the Deputy
Registrar of Co-operative Societies, who have helped fund the Women's
Alliance seed program. The women work with farm families to produce
seeds on a rotational basis that are then collected and distributed

The seeds reduce farmers' dependence on subsidies and are better suited
to Ladakh's climate and short growing season than government supplies. 
Slowly, governments are starting to recognise the value of organic farming

Through education in the villages, the Women's Alliance also encourages
people to maintain their own vegetable gardens and sell produce to the
army through the Co-operative Marketing Society, whose efforts have
been enhanced by people like Namgyal. 

Namgyal's commitment to the traditional co-operative model is
unwavering.  His goal is to involve entire villages in co-operatives, and
encourage more ultraistic leadership in the co-operative movement by
making key elected positions voluntary.

Their success depends heavily on infrastructure - roads to transport
vegetables to market and canals to improve irrigation.  Namgyal wants the
government to spend less on subsidies and more on projects that will help
farmers irrigate more land and improve transportation. 

The method Namgyal proposes will take time, he explains, but it is
sustainable.  The current system depends on money to function. A
co-operative model that is based on self-sufficiency, then profit, won't
collapse in hard times. He is optimistic about the future of agricultural
co-operatives in Ladakh to distribute plants and seedlings, and eventually
cultivate pasture to graze dairy cattle.

While the informal sector has avoided what they call "bureaucratic red
tape," co-operatives in Ladakh have received support from the

Deputy Registrar of Co-operative Societies Abdul Majid has 30 years
of experience developing co-operatives. 

He said that over 75 per cent of Ladakh's rural population are involved in
co-operatives, from agriculture, to housing, to handicrafts, to credit, to

Majid agrees that Ladakh's traditional co-operative culture has encouraged
people's willing participation in the formal co-operative sector.

He argues that independence brought some welcome changes for Ladakhi
farmers. "In the past, farmers had to borrow seeds and land from landlords
and money-lenders at very high rates of interest," explained Majid.  "The
government organised grain banks to provide seeds and loans at low rates."

The concept of banking and saving money was also introduced post
independence, said Majid, freeing farmers from a feudal system that
operated on generations of debt to landlords. 

Majid struggles with limited resources to foster new industries in Ladakh,
like the production of pashmina wool - cashmere blended with stronger
imported varieties of wool.  He shares Namgyal's dream of all villages
functioning co-operatively.

Co-operatives - like all aspects of modern life - are profoundly affected
by government policy.  With a small population, Ladakhis wield little
political influence, but their land is geographically vital to India's defence.

In recent years, a political advisory body to the government - the Hill
Council - was formed to advise the state government on Ladakhi policy.
Powerful leaders, like Chief Executive Thupsdon, relative to Ladakh's
King, and Sonam Dawa, former director of LEDeG, give voice to the
concerns of their people.  

Ladakhis have had some political success.  Their commitment to organic
farming has kept imports of large-scale fertiliser companies at bay.

While modernisation has decreased infant mortality and provided the
benefits of modern medicine, it has come at the expense of traditional
Tibetan methods practised by the amchi (doctor), which are gaining
respect in the west.  People's lives have become healthier and easier, but
new problems have arisen as a result of pollution, change in diet, stress and
the loss of cultural identity. Many Ladakhis become frustrated when they
can't obtain western ideals of good jobs, cars, fashionable clothes and

LEDeG educates thousands of tourists every year how to be responsible
by giving an accurate picture to local people of life in the west - complete
with unemployment, poverty, deterioration of family, and a lost sense of

The Ladakh Farm Project, run by Norberg-Hodge's International Society
for Ecology and Culture, offers young people in the west an opportunity
to experience working with a Ladakhi farm family.  Young Ladakhis are
also sent abroad to encounter western culture.  The goal is shared cultural
education from east to west.

The theme of education echoes in a common chorus - educating tourists
and the rest of India about Ladakh's unique situation, helping young
people secure their future, making farm families aware of the value of the
co-operative model, and telling local people the whole story about life in
the west.

Co-operative solutions in Ladakh - formal and informal - meet economic
needs with the happy side effect of weaving producers and communities
closely together.  "Because we are a crowded planet, we need to help our
villages survive," said Norberg-Hodge.

Co-operation means both history and hope for the future of Ladakh.The
right balance of tradition with modernity can make fertile the barren
landscape of the western Tibetan Plateau and restore the spiritual
prosperity of a remarkable people.