The Borderlands of Garhwal Himalayas: Social-Ecological Impact
of Keeda Jadi on the Bhotiya Community of Niti Valley
By Dr Laura Caplins
* The names of all persons quoted, villages, and meadows are not specified to preserve their identity.
" The forest guards come asking, ‘Why are your children going up to get Keeda Jadi?’ Had we had good jobs, if we were wealthy, then we wouldn't go up there into that difficult terrain to get Keeda Jadi. But we're doing it because we have no other alternatives. We have spent our lives, and we are fine with it, but there is nothing for our new generation. They have no jobs, they have no access to the forests – something which belongs to us – and there is no source of income. So how are they going to survive? Do you know?"
Bhotiya woman in her village, Garhwal Himalaya, India (2010)
Bhotiya woman in her village, Garhwal Himalaya, India (2010)
Abode of the Gods: Locating Garhwal
The Garhwal is one of two regions in the Uttarakhand state of India. In the southeast of Uttarakhand is Kumaon and in the northwest is Garhwal. In Uttarakhand, 0.3% of the population is recognized as members of what is designated by the Indian government as a “scheduled tribe.” The Bhotiya represent one of five recognized scheduled tribes in Uttarakhand and are reported to have a population of 36,438 (Bhatt 2012). The geography of the Garhwal includes terai, foothills, high mountains, and the edge of the Tibetan plateau. The landscape is dominated by steep mountains and raging rivers, which are part of the upper watershed of the Ganges. The Bhotiyas primarily reside in eight of these high mountain valleys in the Garhwal and Kumaon (Bergmann et al. 2008). The Garhwal region is known as the “abode of the gods’ for its beauty and the presence of several different religious pilgrimage sites such as Panch Kedar. Roads into and out of the region are overwhelmed by pilgrims during the summer months, however, the Niti Valley, where this study is carried out, is just beyond the pilgrimage routes. In this rural mountain geography, it is hard to make a living, and access to mountain resources play an important part in creating a diverse portfolio of livelihood activities for any one household.
Bhotiyas of Niti Valley
In Garhwal, Bhotiya, an ethnically and culturally distinct tribal group, have historically engaged in a livelihood system of agro-pastoral transhumance which entailed seasonal migration with sheep and goats to take advantage of scarce mountain resources at varying elevations. This transhumance system was expansive and included significant trade and commercial relations with Tibetan communities to the north and down-country villages to the south (Negi 2007). Today, transhumance as a central livelihood practice in the Indian Himalaya has all but disappeared largely owing to the 1962 closure of the Indo-Tibetan border as well as other nation-state policies that restrict the mobility of the Bhotiya (Dangwal 2009). The result of border closures and other spatial constraints on mobility and access to alpine resources has drastically altered the way of life of the Bhotiya (Negi 2007). Today, one way the Bhotiya are adapting to these changing circumstances is by engaging in the collection and sale of a valuable alpine medicinal fungus commonly called cordyceps (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) and locally known in the region as Keeda Jadi.
As evident from the Bhotiya woman’s words at beginning of the article, the collection and sale of Keeda Jadi is emerging as an important livelihood strategy in the Garhwal Himalaya; given the lack of alternatives for sustaining families and communities.
Though the Bhotiyas’ livelihoods have been drastically altered, their historic relationship with alpine meadows where Keeda Jadi are found uniquely positions them to access “the world’s most expensive biological resource” (Shrestha and Bawa 2013). Some rural households in the Himalaya earn as much as two-thirds of their household income via Keeda Jadi collection and trade, and in other parts of the Himalaya, there are concerns regarding the sustainability of Keeda Jadi due to its over-exploitation (Cannon et al. 2009).
The Keeda Jadi: Ophiocordyceps sinensis
Keeda Jadi is the local name for Ophiocordyceps sinensis, or what is commonly referred to as simply cordyceps. It is found only in the high elevation areas of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau. Keeda Jadi is a local word concoction that translates to insect root. The term cordyceps is derived from the Latin word ‘cord’ which means club, the Latin word ‘ceps’ which means head, and ‘sinensis’ which means from China (Xu et al. 2016).
It is a rare medicinal and parasitic fungus growing in the body of a caterpillar in the Tibetan Plateau of China and the Himalaya Mountains of Nepal, Bhutan, and India (Winkler 2009). It is because of this combination of two separate organisms; the unique joining of the caterpillar and fungi that it is popularly referred to as the caterpillar fungus. It has been used for medicinal purposes within traditional Chinese medicine for an estimated 2000 years.
The Buried Treasure
Keeda Jadi was discovered in the Garhwal region in 2001 (Negi et al. 2006). There has been an explosion in its collection and sale by the locals since that time, representing rapid social-ecological change for these people. Many rural mountain communities now receive the majority of their income from the collection and sale of Keeda Jadi. The benefits of this livelihood activity flow relatively equally to all segments of the village population with village Gram Pradhan claiming it’s the “great equalizer”. Girls are receiving education, the poor are able to reduce their food insecurities, access to medical care is increased for women, homes are being retrofitted with indoor plumbing and families can save for the future. These are only a handful of the benefits seen from the collection and sale of Keeda Jadi. The increases in the quality of life of many rural villagers have been profound. As the households also reported that the collection of cordyceps has allowed them to “Go from BPL to APL” (below poverty line to above poverty line). Keeda Jadi has proven highly effective at the alleviation of poverty and its associated outcomes, it has also reintroduced the alpine meadows into the household’s regular livelihood activities.
Governance by Locals for Locals
The case of Keeda Jadi in the Garhwal speaks to the importance of allowing mountain peoples the power to manage their local resources. Mountain livelihoods are widely accepted as being complex assemblages of many different livelihood activities. In these regions, taking advantage of several different niche environments and products is one of the main strategies for survival. Though the collection and sale of Keeda Jadi might seem insignificant, the ability of a community to be able to exploit a particular environment or its product quickly and with confidence is one strategy for people who live in mountain environments. The livelihoods in mountains are dynamic and ever-changing, and so are global markets. For rural mountain communities to be able to take advantage of their geographically and politically marginal positions, positions which uniquely places them to utilize Keeda Jadi in global trade, they must not be hindered in an already difficult task. Policies must enable them to use their resources for their survival on their terms.
Illegal to Illicit Rights
Unfortunately, the policies regarding Keeda Jadi are vague and confusing, contradictory, and very limiting. They place local collectors in a position where they are not able to fully take advantage of the opportunity for collection, and in some cases frame collection activities as illegal. The sale of Keeda Jadi is only allowable to the Forest Department at a very low rate, resulting in a very powerful black market that takes advantage of local collectors. With policies regarding Keeda Jadi limiting local control, they also limit the local's ability to regulate its harvest and environment for themselves. Local resource management regimes are still in place, and if empowered would be able to better protect not only Keeda Jadi for its long-term harvest but also the environments from which it is harvested. By removing the power of village-level control over resource extraction, the power to protect the resource is also removed. Furthermore, by removing local control over the resource locals are less able to profit from the trade. A shift towards more local control over the alpine resource is desperately needed for the betterment of the resource, environment, and community.
During the interviews, several people mentioned the need to legalize the Keeda Jadi as they consider it as their Illicit Right of the local community, which they narrate as follows, “[It] should be legalized, so can go looking for more buyers;” “in the future, need government permission for buyers to come;” “police problem with the buyer not coming, if in the future market is open then this is good;” “permit system needed for buyers to come;” “government needs to give the permit for selling;” “direct sale/contact [would be good, so] not having to use a middle man (open market);” “needs to be opened for sale;” and “need to have an open market because there are lots of problems with buyers coming or not.”
In other words, locals would prefer if the market for cordyceps is legalized providing them the right to use the resources in their meadows.
Acknowledgment: I am in the deepest gratitude to the people of the Niti Valley, the Mountain Shephards Community, and Dr. Sunil Kanthola all of who made this research and a decade and a half of previous engagement possible. I am always touched by the welcome extended to me by the mountain people of the Garhwal. Most deeply I want to thank my ‘little brother’ and ‘big brother’. I shall not post your names, but you helped me earn my Ph.D., showed me what family truly means, and made my time in the Garhwal fantastically fun! Thank you doesn't cover the level of gratitude I feel for everyone who helped me on my way. This study was carried out as fieldwork for the Ph.D. Thesis “Political Ecology of Cordyceps in the Garhwal Himalaya of Northern India”
Dr Laura Caplins | ED
She is a co-founder and the Executive Director of Nature-Link Institute, a 501c3 non-profit founded in 2005 with a mission of “reconnecting people to the environment through research, education, and advocacy.” She is also currently working for the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana as a Conservation Coordinator and with the Culture and Hope program for the Tribe, and for Piikani Lodge Health Institute a Blackfeet owned and led non-profit focused on indigenous well-being. She believes that human and landscape health are inextricably connected, and has committed herself to work at this sometimes-messy juncture for the betterment of all living beings. She has a PhD in Forestry and Conservation Sciences, an MS in Recreation Administration, and a BS in Geography. When she is not working she enjoys spending time with her husband, and two incredible daughters, and a plethora of four-legged friends hiking, running, skiing, horseback riding or just being present in the mountains.