Saving the highlanders

Photo courtesy: Lhendup

In a few years’ time Yeedpa (fermented cheese) and yak meat might just make it to your last supper and chugo (hard cheese) maybe a story of a rock-hard milk candy that you tell your children about if yak herders opt off their nomadic life.

This is indeed a possibility if there are no developmental activities to enhance the yak herders’ socio-economic conditions “Policy makers are increasingly realizing the need to support the highlanders. It is time for various stakeholders to act before it is too late, and before the yaks and herders start to disappear from our alpine landscape,” said  Chief of the Department of Livestock (DoL), Ministry of Agriculture and Forest, Dr (Phd) Tashi Dorji.

Last year, the department had initiated a pilot Brokpa project to integrate yak herders into the mainstream at Haa.

This is a Sustainable Land Management Project (SLMP), which will look into the improvement of production practices, value addition, product processing, and enhanced marketing of yak dairy products, especially targeting the high end markets.

The project will also contribute towards preventing land degradation and conserving the country’s alpine ecosystem and biodiversity through sustainable rangeland management practices. Dr Tashi Dorji said due to remoteness, inaccessibility and lack of infrastructure development, yak herders had received less development support till now adding that the hardships associated with yak farming made it unattractive for the young generation herders to continue the yak farming tradition.

“In recent times, the emphasis in dairy farming development at the lower valleys provides direct competition to the sale of yak dairy products. As such, there is need to diversify the yak dairy products and increase their value so that yak farming remains as an attractive enterprise for the herders,” said Dr Tashi Dorji.

Further, he said yak herders complemented border security personnel as their presence in the bordering alpine area served to safeguard the land.

On the environmental front, he said the alpine rangelands were a source of water for many river systems in Bhutan which are the main source of hydropower so proper management of rangeland was critical to preserve these water sources as well as act as reservoir of carbon stocks.

Come spring and the DoL will be initiating the yak herder’s initiative in three places, namely Talung at Haa, Soey Yaktsa at Paro and proper Merak in Trashigang.

Last year the department in consultation with the yak herders of Haatoe, constructed two cheese cellars each at Leyna and Chuzomsa, (about 3 and 2 walking days from proper Haa).

The soft, hard and Gouda cheese processed at the individual herding camps are collected in these cheese cellars for curing, a process that takes about four to six months.

Now, the DoL will soon be checking on the 160 kgs exotic cheese, currently being cured at the yogurt plant in Thimphu. This cheese was collectively brought in from Haa, Paro and Merak last year.

If the cheese products pass the quality test, the department will improve the technology covering larger number of herders by 2012. The department also promoted the use of cream separators to the herders which apparently has proven to be of great help.

According to the DoL, the cream separators have reduced labor intensive work; minimized fuel wood consumption and dairy product hygiene has improved.

Such technologies according to an official will be further promoted including improved butter packaging.

However, the DoL faces fund constraints in supporting the yak farming communities. Multi-sectoral contributions from the health, education and the tourism sectors are required to upscale the support in the alpine areas.

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