Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Himalayan Herding Is Alive and Well: The Economics of Pastoralism in the Langtang Valley

Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Himalayan Herding Is Alive and Well: The Economics of Pastoralism in the Langtang Valley

Article excerpt

Livestock herders have historically played a key role in developing and sustaining the rangeland regions of the Greater Himalayas. Rangelands, which cover approximately one-third of the Himalayan land area, are concentrated in the higher elevation regions above 3000 m where grasses and alpine shrubs are the dominant vegetation types. (1) Through the pursuit of various forms of nomadic and transhumant pastoralism, including agro-pastoralism, Himalayan herders have transformed these extensive but physically marginal environments into economically productive areas where human populations have lived and even prospered for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years (see Miller and Bedunah 1993). Though exact figures are unavailable, Miller (1995: 2) estimates that as many as ten million people currently reside in and depend on mountain rangelands in the Greater Himalayas.

Yet the value of mountain pastoralism, including the ability of animal herders to sustain the natural environment, is under scrutiny by scientists, natural resource managers and policy makers who neither depend on nor engage in pastoral pursuits, and who do not themselves reside in areas where natural grasslands dominate the physical landscape. Agrawal and Saberwal rightly point out in the introduction to this volume that pastoralism is often portrayed as a thing of the past. The pastoral production system is seen as somehow out of step with the social and economic realities of modern life and pastoralists themselves are depicted as lacking the necessary resources--whether social, economic, or political--to continue their specialised way of life.

In keeping with other scholarly accounts that challenge this description, anthropological research conducted in the Langtang Valley in 1997-1998 showed that the herding system in north-central Nepal is very much alive and well. Rather than being some archaic remnant of the 'traditional' (read outdated) economy, pastoral production in Langtang remains critical to the functioning of the contemporary farming system and is considered one of the most important economic activities by Langtang residents themselves. Moreover, Langtang pastoralism is very much engaged with the modern market economy and as such it is a key element that allows Langtang residents to remain in the valley and earn a viable living. This fact alone is remarkable and distinguishes Langtang villagers from some other mountain dwellers, who are often forced to pursue external migration in order to survive. (2) The research also showed that Langtang pastoralism plays a vital role in the regional farming system of highland-central Nepal, serving as one of the few yak breeding centres on the southern slopes of the Nepal Himalaya. This fact alone has serious implications for policy makers, particularly those who may seek to limit pastoralism in the area.


Located some 60 km north of Kathmandu at longitude 85[degrees]34' and latitude 28[degrees]12', Langtang is an east-west running valley that nestles between two alpine ranges in the Nepal Himalaya. Elevations range widely from 1,300 m at the valley's mouth to over 7,200 m at its highest point, Mt. Langtang-Lirung. The high peaks and ridges of the Langtang Himai, which rise above 6,000 m, constitute the northern divide of the valley and act as a natural border between Nepal and the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China. The southern divide is lower and provides the only way into the valley other than at the western end. At an altitude of 5,122 m, the Gangja La pass serves as a gateway to the Helambu region to the south.

Dubbed the 'Valley of Glaciers' by the Durham University Himalayan Expedition (DUHE) (3), Langtang's upper reaches are littered with debris-covered ice tongues, frost-shattered rocks and large, overwhelming moraines, making it a beautiful if somewhat daunting place. The valley's climate is driven by the summer monsoon, which brings 80 percent of the year's moisture in the form of rain on the valley's terraces and plains and snow in the high mountains (4). …

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