My dear friend Joe recently shared an article with regarding how the Pashmina goat herders’ were being affected by climate change. And it sparked a series of thoughts about what economic independence looks like? What are it’s reaches? Limitations? How is paying someone a fair wage, when they have been marginalized by colonization, oppression, militarization or capitalism going to aid in creating resilient communities in the future?
And while, I believe in its ability to build intergenerational economic stability, provide more opportunities for women to become empowered and make present day artisans’ lives easier… do those added benefits provide enough relief so that a community with few ways to financially survive, has the breathing room to adapt to climate change? I’d love to have more discussions around the matter. But until then, you can support them and their threatened artform here. (yes, shameless plug, I know)
Kudos to this author, Andrew Newey, for an interesting story and some amazing photographs from his time with the shepherds of Ladakh.
“At an altitude of more than 14,000 feet, where winter temperatures can fall to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit, it is hard to believe anyone, or anything, can survive in the vast ice desert that is Changthang, on the Tibetan Plateau between India and China. Situated between the Himalayan and Karakorum mountain ranges, it is the highest permanently inhabited plateau in the world, and home to an extremely hardy and rare breed of goat — the Changra, or Pashmina goat.
The region’s high altitudes, freezing temperatures and harsh winds are essential in stimulating the growth of the goats’ super-soft undercoat. The fibers can measure a mere 12 microns in width, making them around eight times finer than human hair and up to eight times warmer than sheep wool. This luxurious fiber is known as Pashmina, the softest and most expensive type of cashmere wool in the world.
Rearing these valuable animals in such inhospitable conditions are the Changpa people. For centuries these nomadic shepherds, who are as hardy as their animals, have roamed “the roof of the world,” moving their herds of yak, sheep and goats along traditional migratory routes every few months in search of fresh grazing pastures.
But their ancient way of life is now under threat from climate change, fake Pashmina imports from China and the lure of an easier and more comfortable life.
I have known of the Changpa people for some time, but it was only recently that I learned of their struggles. I visited them in the Ladakh region, on the Indian side of the plateau, to photograph their winter migration in early December.
Changthang rarely gets much snowfall, and when it does, it usually begins in January or February. For the last few years, however, it has been increasingly heavy, starting as early as December, even November.
The unexpected snowfall was great for my pictures, but it was a major inconvenience for the herders. The high pass they travel through is untraversable once covered in snow, and food supplements have to be brought in to prevent the animals dying from starvation.
The nomads and scientists alike are adamant that climate change is the biggest threat to Pashmina production in the region. And despite the snowfall, the winters are in fact getting warmer, which reduces the quality and quantity of the valuable Pashmina wool. Warmer temperatures mean that the goats don’t grow such thick undercoats, reducing the yield of this soft fur and making it harder to separate from the coarse outer fur.
Despite the herders’ brutal living conditions, they are some of the friendliest and most generous people one could ever wish to meet. They let me live with them and capture moments of their life on the understanding that I would spread awareness of their struggles. The region is desperately hoping that revenue from international tourism can help fill the economic hole left by the struggling Pashmina industry.
Pashmina is expensive — and rightly so. The Changpa carefully comb the goats’ hair during the spring molting season to harvest the downy undercoat, and then the good fiber is laboriously separated from the bad by hand. Once cleaned and processed, the usable wool from a cashmere goat amounts to just four ounces.
The fibers are then hand spun, after which the equally painstaking weaving process can begin. A Pashmina shawl can take around 180 hours to produce, and larger items can take several months or even a year for highly skilled artisans to weave on wooden looms. They are then exported around the world, where luxury retailers sell them for hundreds or thousands of dollars.