Although life is in constant flux everywhere on the planet, change really is the one constant of life in Nepal’s remote landscapes like Dolpo. Two days flight from Kathmandu and with no road access, this area is both remote and self contained. But unchanging it is not.
Located on the border with Tibet, Dolpo has had its share of political change as borders open and close. The closing of the Tibetan border in the 1950s shut off access to traditional grazing lands to the north, to family and community ties built up over decades and to trading routes that were a tightly enmeshed system of year round survival. These have largely gone. The Dolpopa have moved on and changed.
Their ability to change is remarkable. With the economics of market veering sharply from north to south, the Dolpopa haven’t given up but instead have fallen back on their entrepreneurial reserves and created new niches for themselves. Once salt traders and middle men between the Tibetan salt traders from the north and the commodity traders from the south, the Dolpopa still play an intermediary role but now for Chinese foodstuffs and drink and luxury goods. Ever flexible, the Dolpopa retain their Buddhist religion but adopt Hindu names too. Anthropologists have a field day in Nepal: fascinating accounts of the social and cultural flexibility of the Dolpopa in the face of the massive political, economic and social changes wrought in Nepal from the 1950s right up until today illustrate just how flexible the Dolpopa are and how much they need to be. Kenneth Bauer’s 2004 High Frontiers illustrates this well as does James Fischer’s 1989 Trans Himalayan traders.
Although remote, Dolpo is doing OK today. There are estimated to be any number between 1,000 – 2,000 trekkers a year. This is not a substantial tourism trade. Yet businesses are doing well. Explore Dolpo, staffed largely by Dolpopa is the leading trekking agency in Dolpo and as well as organising its own treks, it supplies equipment to every other trekking company who fly in from Kathmandu. Hotels and tea houses are springing up along the main routes. There aren’t many – usually only one per settlement so relying on them as accommodation would not be feasible but they do supplement the camping grounds.
Some villages have been adopted by NGOs, although interest in the area appears to be waning. It was initially high following the release of the Hollywood feted film, Caravan, filmed on part of the main trekking route. Although not uniformly welcomed, the film shines a light on Dolpo and does bring trekkers to the area. Still, Action Dolpo supports development in Dho Tarap and Himalaya project is raising money for an amchi school also in Dho Tarap. Elsewhere in Dolpo, other villages have less attention focussed on them: earlier projects in Shey Phoksundo by WWF Nepal and in Bhijer now have lower levels of support, despite being brilliant ideas worth supporting. The Dolpopas are being left to their own resources again.
Yet these are significant. The current major source of cash income is the trade in yartsa gumba (Cordyceps sinensis), also known as caterpillar fungus or Himalayan gold or Himalayan Viagra, depending on which newspaper you read. It is not gold. It is in fact a fungus infected caterpillar that has great medicinal value and is currently trading at just over £9,000 a kilo. It does generate gold however and this is clear on the ground. Every year in the middle of August, Dolpopa traders cross the Tibetan border with caravans of yaks and horses to trade yartsa gumba for cash and basic goods. This trading window is open for 2 weeks a year. Dho Tarap was the most obviously affluent village we visited. There are lots of new buildings and smart wooden windows. All brought in by yak. And in the local shops, you find Chinese products including coca cola, beer, whisky, biscuits, noodles, chocolates, rice, wheat flour and much more. The Dolpopa are fast becoming consumers, thanks to the exploitation of yartsa gumba.
Yet this gold is not likely to last. As a fungus there is no reason that a sustainable harvest could not be gleaned. As long as there are sufficient mature fungi to produce spores and enough caterpillars for them to infect, yartsa gumba should keep growing. The fact however is that there is very little control on harvesting. Collection is not restricted to local people as it is elsewhere in the Nepal Himalaya. Habitat destruction during the harvesting season is anecdotally reducing the harvest gained every year. With too few fungi being left to produce spores, the future for this fungus looks pretty short. The question then will be, what’s next for the Dolpopa? With the spirit of entrepreneurism and the flexibility these communities have repeatedly shown over time, the Dolpopa will find something. I hope that they find it quickly enough to avert emigration and starvation, both of which happened last time the cash income supply dried up, when the Chinese shut the access to Tibet and subsidised salt arrived from India arrived.
Part of the answer could be sustainable tourism. The area is remote enough to continue to appeal to people who want to get away from it all. This really is ‘niche tourism’. There are a number of provisos to this however. The current lack of roads is actually an appeal to trekkers. Look at what is happening in Annapurna now the roads have been built. While roads may keep trekkers away, they make life more comfortable for local communities. And the amount of litter in Dolpo is serious. The plastic mountains there are going to keep growing and putting tourists off unless effective waste management strategies are quickly put in place.
Another part of the answer could be sustainable collection of medical plants, including yartsa gumba. There are no hospitals in Dolpa and only a few health posts. None with a doctor. Dolpopa rely on amchis, providing traditional health care, and are entirely dependent on medicinal plants. They need these plants to continue to be available because this is their access to a health care system. Sustainable collection practices, particularly for yartsa gumba, need to be put in place quickly however. Wild collection will always be limited and is not a complete answer. However, unlike other areas of Nepal, the cultivation of medicinal plants may not be an answer either in upper Dolpo. The area is too high and the climate too extreme. Other sources of cash income need to be found too.
Entrepreneurs from Dolpoa are already proving what can be achieved in the fields of art, Tenzin Norbu for example, and business, Expore Dolpo. The ethnic diversity of Dolpo is very high. The cultural cohesion at village level results in strong communities. The extreme climate and landscape appeal to trekkers and film makers. The area is extremely rich in biodiversity and natural resources.
The difficulty is achieving local community wellbeing and healthy ecosystems in a dynamic landscape. The Dolpopa need to get it right and so far they have. Living change is what they do well. But it’s a tricky balance for today’s generations to maintain for the future.