Diversity, risk mediation, and change in a Trans-Himalayan agropastoral system

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From: Human Ecology(Vol. 31, Issue 4)
Publisher: Cornell University, Human Ecology
Document Type: Article
Length: 6,241 words

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We describe the diversity and dynamism of social, agricultural, and livestock husbandry practices in a traditional mountain production system in the Indian Trans-Himalaya. These are interpreted in the context of their role in mediating environmental risk. The production system is a little known Buddhist agropastoral system in the high altitude Spiti Valley (agriculture up to 4450 m, livestock grazing 4900m, total area ca. 12,000 k[m.sup.2]) in the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh. The local population (ca. 10,000) belongs to one of the three Buddhist sects Gelukpa, Shakyapa, or Ningmapa, is related by blood, and shares a common Tibetan dialect. Family is the basic unit of production, though families are highly dependent upon the community to meet production goals. A village council appointed on rotation and functioning democratically is responsible for village administration, and is the arbiter of all decision-making pertaining to collective work and settling disputes. The council ensures equal access of families to common resources, as well as equitable distribution of responsibilities among them. Systems of primogeniture, celibacy, and polygamy seem to have prevented the fragmentation of land holdings and limited population growth. The diversity of practices in the agropastoral system seems adapted to the risk-prone mountainous environment, the risks being climatic, geological, and those posed by wildlife. The system seems to aim at maximizing production while mediating environmental risk. The production system comes forth as highly dynamic, characterized by continuous innovation and experimentation. Recent changes in the production system are in response to both changes in local conditions as well as increasing integration of the local economy with regional markets, though many aspects of the traditional lifestyle continue to be maintained.

KEY WORDS: mountain; land use; Buddhism; rangeland; agriculture.

INTRODUCTION

The diversity of practices and dynamism (ease of change) in traditional mountain production systems of south Asia has been the focus of recent studies (Bishop, 1998; MacDonald, 1998). "This (diversity) reduces risk in an environment where there is high dependence on natural forces and maximizes access to the full range of resource available. Flexibility in response to the stresses of mountain habitats is also a key to successful human adaptation to mountains" (Bishop, 1998, p. 22). The emerging consensus seems to be that indigenous production systems are generally efficient and well-adapted to the mountainous environment (e.g., Brower, 1990; Miller and Bedunah, 1993; Bishop, 1998; MacDonald, 1998). As expressed by MacDonald (1998, p. 289) " ... such diversity is a contextually rational response to local environmental conditions as it acts to reduce environmental risk and minimize the vulnerability of local villagers."

In this article, the diversity and dynamism in a little-known Trans-Himalayan production system are described and interpreted in the context of their risk-mediating roles. We define risk as the probability of suffering loss or harm from environmental causes (both natural and human-induced) or social disparity. Risk mediation is the reduction or elimination of this possibility, as well as the minimization of its impacts in case such a loss or harm does occur. The production system in question is...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A112318511