In Conversation with Chamba Tsetan, Founder ASFL & Project Head Centre for Pastoralism

By Nenzes Chodon Leh, Jan 16, 2024
Leh :

Q. Brief us about yourself. 

My name is Chamba Tsetan, and I hail from the village of Kargyam in eastern Ladakh. My educational journey took me through my village school, college in Leh, and a master's degree in Liberal Arts from Delhi. Presently, I am devoted to working within the realm of Pastoralism. In Ladakh, Pastoralists and Nomads predominantly reside in Changthang, where the practice has long revolved around self-sustainability.

With the advent of tourism in Ladakh, there came a shift towards a more capitalist and free-market economy. The influence of modernity is evident, particularly in agriculture, where machinery and tractors have replaced traditional methods involving horses. This shift has prompted a significant migration from villages to urban areas. For instance, in Kharnakling, the population has relocated from Kharnak to Leh. This pattern signifies a broader trend in the region.

Despite its historical significance, pastoralism—a traditional livelihood practice—has struggled to adapt to modern methods. Unlike agriculture, machinery hasn't seamlessly integrated into this ancient practice.

Q. Since you work with pastoralism, how do you perceive the value of Ladakh’s indigenous wool beyond the region?

The story of wool in India is rather disheartening. The market is predominantly dominated by Merino wool, leaving little to no value for wool from other regions within the country, ultimately leading to its disposal. Comparatively, Ladakh's wool stands as one of the finest available, yet it lacks competitiveness with Merino. Within Ladakh, wool finds its use in clothing and carpet making, holding immense potential in terms of achieving sustainability. It's important to note that shearing sheep isn't harmful; in fact, it's necessary for their well-being. Ladakh's wool has the potential to be both sustainable and indigenous, offering opportunities beyond the region.

Q. In your observation, how has the emphasis on ice hockey evolved over the years since your involvement in the game for almost 9 years?

It's incredible how much changed— access to equipment has, coaching, and substantial government funding dedicated to improving the game. Previously, ice hockey was predominantly played on natural rinks or frozen ponds in villages. Now, multiple rinks dot various villages, and whenever a politician visits, discussions about Changthang often include demands for ice hockey rinks alongside other necessities.

Ice hockey has nestled its way into the hearts of Ladakhis. In our region, it's the only sport that draws such large, enthusiastic crowds. It's come a long way but still has a journey ahead with much hard work required. The evolution isn't solely due to the government or players; it's also about the fervor shown by the people. Parents, passionate about the game, encourage their children to participate and even take them for ice skating—an integral part of the experience.

It's a game that's not only enjoyable to play but also captivating to watch, almost akin to cricket in other parts of India. The public's love for the sport has led to the development of infrastructure. Being the only region in India with natural ice, we have a unique advantage. It's a combination of people's affection, the game's intrinsic appeal, government support, contributions from NGOs, and volunteer coaches from around the globe coming to Ladakh—it's truly a collective effort.

Q. What drove your founding of the Adventure Sports Foundation of Ladakh (ASFL)? Has it achieved the envisioned success, particularly with the Frozen Lake Marathon?

This story intertwines with ice hockey itself. As a coach for children, I led a program called "Learn to Play" for beginners in Maan, a village near Pangong Lake. In winter, Pangong becomes almost deserted with few tourists, yet in the summer, it transforms into a bustling area filled with camps and resorts. This stark contrast fascinated me. The residents along the Pangong belt are primarily pastoralists or nomads, and seasonal tourism has significantly impacted their livelihoods, leaving them with limited sources of income. Witnessing Pangong's beauty in winter sparked an idea—to promote winter tourism in the region, showcasing the authentic lake experience and local culture.
During one December evening in 2021, while watching news coverage of an Ice Marathon in Antarctica, the idea struck—to organise a similar marathon in Pangong. However, I understood the importance of ensuring it wouldn't overcrowd or harm the area. Limiting the participants to 200 ensured the event's safety and sustainability. The marathon aimed to be unique, setting records as Asia's first frozen Lake Marathon, making a statement about Ladakh to the world.

The marathon's tagline, "The Last Run," was a poignant reminder of the alarming rate at which glaciers are melting due to global warming. This issue isn't just about the marathon or the game of ice hockey; it directly affects Ladakh's glaciers, contributing to water crises. For me, this holds a profound connection to the impact on the game I love.

The possibility looms that in a few years, the lake might not freeze again, making every run potentially the final one.
Beyond athletes, non-athletes also joined the run, altering their perceptions of Ladakh. This marathon wasn't solely about reaching the finish line; it was about raising awareness. Participants became ambassadors, spreading the crucial message about climate change and the impending threats to the region's frozen lakes.

Q. Are there more impactful sports and activities that could be introduced in the Changthang region to raise awareness about the growing environmental concerns?

Certainly, Ladakh is a haven for sports, and we've been brainstorming ideas, particularly those linked to ice-related activities. One exciting concept is Ice Sailing—it involves a skate-like structure that harnesses the wind to propel across the ice. However, while such activities can be engaging, it's essential to recognize that they alone aren't the solution. They serve primarily to spread awareness. To truly combat environmental issues, people must actively engage and participate on the ground.

Q. Once, you were found riding a horse around Leh, was it intentional to highlight another environment-related issue?

While riding a horse nearby, multiple thoughts were triggered on how we could enhance pastoralism practices. Nomads typically traverse with their animals, so why not consider using horses for this purpose? It's disheartening to witness the plight of horses, abandoned and left to fend for themselves. In the past, they were instrumental in transporting army loads, but now they face threats from wild animals. There's a pressing need to utilize them as a mode of transportation as they don't contribute to pollution. Horses offer a sustainable means of travel, particularly in shepherding and pastoralism, reaching areas inaccessible to vehicles.

Q. Any plans for a sustainable future without compromising the sensitive ecosystem?

We are closely collaborating with the Center of Pastoralism, focusing on Changthang and developing a vision document outlining the region's objectives for the next 20-30 years. The mountains harbor numerous resources like herbs and shrubs, often inaccessible to direct human consumption. However, goats and sheep play a vital role in converting these resources into essential products such as milk, meat, and wool. Previously, when yaks, goats, and sheep were more abundant, grassland was more prevalent. However, their declining numbers have led to a reduction in available grass. Their grazing activities contribute to soil fertilization and carbon enrichment in the grass. Grazed grass maximizes its potential and regrows upon multiple consumptions, prolonging its lifespan. This illustrates how pastoralism plays a role in sustainable farming practices.
I've proposed an experiment to the Lieutenant Governor regarding drone shepherding, exploring the integration of drone technology into traditional shepherding methods. The repetitive nature of shepherding, although an age-old tradition can be tedious. We aim to infuse innovation into this sector by introducing technical solutions. Instead of mundane manual tasks, there's potential to create inventive products like Pashmina, wool, and local cheese for the market. Despite being educated, many youths are unemployed and overlook pastoralism due to its perceived backwardness. By revitalizing traditional techniques and presenting pastoralism as a luxury through creative avenues, we hope to attract more young individuals to this field, albeit gradually, thereby fostering its improvement.

Message to the readers

"Ladakh is an incredibly delicate ecosystem, and we must handle its ecology and natural resources with utmost care. The glaciers are melting, and they represent our primary water source. This isn't just a concern for one particular community—whether you identify as Changpa or Shamma or belong elsewhere in Ladakh, it affects us all. It's a collective issue that demands our unified action. Unity is what we need to combat environmental crisis because its impact spares no one.”