Yaks can survive up to minus 40 degrees, but find it difficult when the mercury crosses 13 degrees. Photo by Sumit Das.

A way of life under threat

In the face of these difficulties, the number of Brokpa families practicing transhumant yak rearing system has drastically plummeted, falling from 800 to around 200 families in Arunachal Pradesh.

Scientists at NRCY and some Brokpa yak pastoralists say that opting for yak-cattle hybridisation has proven an effective adaptive strategy to cope with climate change. Indeed, over the years many pastoralists have shifted to keeping hybrids as they are more heat-resistant and can better adapt to lower altitudes and rising temperatures. The most outstanding advantage of the hybrids is the fact that they thrive at the altitude interval where neither cattle nor purebred yaks do, i.e. between 3,000 and 4,000 meters. “That’s why many Brokpa herders now prefer these yak-cattle hybrids to purebred yaks,” Tsering says.

Tsering, however, says that overemphasis on hybridisation could, in fact, result in negative consequences. “For keeping dzomos (yak-cattle hybrids) you need not follow a transhumant system as you can keep it in lower altitudes. But, then, if you stop the annual migration the Brokpa has been known to practice since ages, you lose the essence of your identity. If you opt for a settled, sedentary life, you are no longer a Brokpa.” He further says he is ready to migrate to higher altitudes for his yaks’ comfort rather than opting for hybridisation.

“The biggest threat we are facing is the defection of the younger generation. They don’t want to continue the harsh traditional life of a transhumant Brokpa herder that requires one to move with yaks in higher altitudes in minus temperatures,” rues Norbu, a septuagenarian Brokpa herder from Chandar village in West Kameng who owns about 300 yaks, but has no one to look after the animals after he’s gone as all four of his sons have moved away for other occupations.

Yak not only provides milk and meat to the Brokpa, but these reclusive herders make various items such as ropes and baskets and warm clothes from yak skin and fur.
Yak not only provides milk and meat to the Brokpa, but these reclusive herders make various items such as ropes and baskets and warm clothes from yak skin and fur. Photo by Sumit Das.

Women are particularly hit

While the threat of losing their traditional way of life remains the biggest fear for Brokpa herders like Tsering, the women herders run the risk of being particularly vulnerable — in terms of losing their livelihoods and access to resources as these reclusive herders face the brunt of climate change. Traditionally there is no gendered division of labour in the Brokpa society — but the gender dynamics are changing with climate change.

As yak-rearing becomes more difficult, families are settling down as farmers, traders, and daily wage labourers, and as part of the formal monetised economy. In Lubrang, Tashi Lhamo and her husband Tashi Phuntsu used to lead the life of semi-nomadic yak herders up until the early 2000s. But as it grew difficult for them to keep following the traditional transhumant system, they decided to settle down to a sedentary life in Dirang.

When they were practicing transhumant yak pastoralism, Tashi Lhamo had equal access to resources as her husband as is the custom among the Brokpa herders. But once they settled down and integrated into the mainstream monetised economy, only Tashi Phuntsu managed to find a source of income by running some small businesses. “Now I’m a housewife devoting myself to the household chores. It’s very different from the life I used to lead as a Brokpa herder,” Tashi Lhamo says.

Even women who have taken up other work like that of construction workers, find that the pay for women and men labourers is different, a shift from their semi-nomadic pastoral life where both women and men had equal access to economic resources. And for women in Brokpa families that still continue to practice yak rearing, new challenges arise as they now need to spend more time on the high altitude pastures with yaks, where access to healthcare (maternal/reproductive) and menstrual hygiene is limited.

From a person with equal access to economic resources when following a Brokpa transhumant lifestyle, Tashi Lhamo is now a housewife.

Banner image: A totemic yak of the Himalya. Photo by Sumit Das.

Article published by Aditi Tandon
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