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Agricultural Traditions

The Himalayas are home to numerous glaciers and fresh water lakes that are the source of various mighty rivers. These rivers play a major role in our national economy as they provide hydro-power on the one hand and water for irrigation on the other. With the world-wide concern over the depletion of these glaciers and drying up of most of the highland (glacial) lakes, it is felt that the first impacts would be felt by the communities residing in their immediate vicinity. Spiti which is one such area located in the Trans-Himalayan belt of Himachal Pradesh, is a cold desert that is heavily dependant on these sources for water, potable as well as for irrigation.

Agriculture in Spiti is the mainstay of the local economy and shares a delicate balance with the geo-climatic conditions of this cold desert region. Agriculture is limited to one crop a year and is solely dependent on the winter snow melt. Hence even slight disturbances in weather patterns severely imbalance the local economy. With such frugal resources on offer, the survival of the human species here contains important lessons of living in harmony with the environment. Traditional water management practices reveal that long distance channels (locally known as Kuhls) were dug up from glaciers and fresh water lakes and used for irrigating fields. However, a close analysis of this irrigation system reveals that there are huge seepage losses in transporting the water for long distances, besides the fact that most of these water sources are now gradually drying out. As a consequence agriculture is facing the pressures of meeting the ever increasing demands of the population on the one hand and the impacts of water shortage and land degradation on the other.

In the year 2003 Spiti had a drought year and most of the highland villages were faced with the threat of evacuation due to complete failure of crops and the threat of agricultural land turning fallow.

Spiti was traditionally a self sufficient economy practicing a form of subsistence agro-pastoralism which prevailed predominantly till about 20 years ago. Even though agricultural land was limited, it sufficed for the needs of this isolated region and even generated enough for trade. Trade which was common in those days was primarily with the neighbouring areas of Ladakh, Kullu, Kinnaur and Tibet, where grains were bartered and exchanged for wool, salt, rugs and other necessities. This
practice has however largely died down in the recent years. The traditional crops grown in Spiti were barley and a local variety
of pea (Black Pea or Kala Mattar). These crops were well suited to
the regions peculiar geo-climatic conditions since they required minimum irrigation and were fairly drought resistant and hardy. These crops also have a high fodder content and were
an important source of fodder for this pastoralist community. Moreover, they are well known for their high nutritional
content and capability to increase soil fertility.

However, over the years with the transition of the Spitian economy from a subsistence based to a cash based one these traditional crops (especially kala matar) have gradually been replaced by market friendly crops. Due to lack of any economic value attached to the black pea it has now been replaced by the more acceptable green pea which also has a ready market. As a result of this the black pea now faces the threat of extinction. However, the green pea is both a water intensive plant and extremely sensitive to geo-climatic variations. The introduction of the green pea has also brought pesticides and fertilizers in the valley which were unheard of till a decade ago, thus drastically altering the traditional agricultural practices. It is rather unfortunate that a fully organic region is gradually transforming itself into an inorganic one in a world where people are paying hefty sums to convert to organic. This change in agricultural practices has also triggered off a number of subtle ramifications such as fodder shortages, change in dietary habits, reduction in livestock especially horses. With fewer locals now inspired to continue with their traditional organic practices there is a grave threat to the very existence of the local species of crops. Our attempt is to revive these practices and crops and find a ready market for these exotic and natural foods. You can join us in this process by contributing through technical, professional and other forms of support.