Dolpo rightly has a reputation as a remote, wild and beautiful place, where nature rules through an extreme climate and steep landscape. Local people and visitors are all playing by her sometimes capricious rules, as the recent unprecedented and unseasonal snowfall demonstrated.
Nature limits the potential for livelihoods here. Traditionally pastoralists and traders, the Dolpopa have had to adapt not only to the severe natural conditions, but to ever changing and usually unforgiving political and economic changes, none of which have been of their making. The fact that these communities still exist is testament to their adaptiveness and flexibility and indeed their entrepreneurship. However, the changes being wrought, while impacting on traditional ways of life, are now also impacting on the environment itself.
Animals still form an important part of Dolpopa livelihoods. Although herds are smaller today than in the past, the delicate mountain ecosystems are in danger of being overgrazed and are subject to extreme erosion events. Despite the smaller herds, the land management system, once in a delicate balance with the environment and managed though nomadic movement and crafted over the decades to preserve healthy high altitude grazing land, has been curtailed by political boundary changes that removed vast areas of traditional winter grazing grounds in Tibet. The result is that the Dolpopa and their animals have smaller ranges and those that remain are at severe risk of overgrazing.
While this is probably the key environmental issue in Dolpo, a much more visible one, and as, if not more, disturbing to tourists, is the issue of litter. Litter is already scarring the Dolpo landscape. In rivers, streams and along paths, plastic, aluminium and glass mark campsites and villages. Unless waste management systems are urgently instituted, not only will this issue limit the tourism trade, it will continue to build plastic mountains, present for decades to come. Litter, of course, is only one result of the influx of materials and ideas from the outside world.
Medicine is another double edged sword. Dolpo’s people rely on traditional health care, provided at village level by traditional healers, amchis. Traditional amchi medicine is the product of decades of sustainable local resource use and is not hugely dependent on the import of skills or materials. By contrast, in this remote area, western, alleopathic medicine, is rarely available. This makes the continuation of traditional healthcare crucial for the Dolpopa. And that healthcare is fundamentally dependent on the continued availability of local medicinal plants.
But local medicinal plants are not only collected by the amchis. Underpinned by generations of training, amchis have a well developed and sustainable approach to medicinal plant conservation. This is in sharp contrast to others, who collect medicinal plants for sale and who often practice unsustainable collection practices. This is sharply focussed in the case of yartsa gumbu, Cordyceps sinensis, a rare fungus / caterpillar, that commands a very high market price. Collection of yartsa gumbu for export is having significant repercussions in Dolpo, economically significant for some but not necessarily environmentally sustainable.
More on amchis medicine and medical plant conservation in future blogs.
Education is the final area of change. In one village we visited, a teacher estimated that 60% of the village children attend school. Families are choosing which children they send to school and which they retain at home to complete everyday farming and household tasks. It is the lucky ones who get to school. With an education, this generation stand a chance of making the adaptations they will need to make to be able to continue to sustain a livelihood in Dolpo, whether that is through farming, trading, tourism or entrpreneurship. They will have to forge their own future. At least with an education, they stand a better chance of successfully negotiating their necessary interaction with the outside world.