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Subsistence Strategies and

Environmental Management


The Unesco programme on Man and the Biosphere (MAB) brought together an expert panel in Salzburg, Austria, in 1973 to discuss the impact of human activities on mountain ecosystems. As a part of the final report of the discussions the panel characterised mountain regions as those in which there exists an altitudinal gradient of barometric pressure, radiation, temperature and precipitation. This gradient results in vertical zonation of soils, flora, fauna and ecosystem types. Accordingly, man’s way of life, his habitat and land ways and exploitation patterns, are differentiated vertically (Unesco 1973).

The Unesco project and many other initiatives such as the symposium on Himalayan, Andean and Alpine mountain ecosystems organised by the American Anthropological Association in 1973 and published in Human Ecology, the Munich Conference on Development Problems in Mountain Environments, 1974, IUCN’S Conference on the Management of High Mountain Resources, held in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1976, the International Symposium on the Earth Sciences, Ecology, and Ethnology of the Himalayas at Paris (CNRS, 1977), the United Nations University Project on Highland-Lowland Interaction Systems in 1978, the inauguration of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu in 1983 under the aegis of Unesco, and so on, were a response to the expression of great concern in the late 1950s and 1960s about progressive environmental degradation and the realisation that ‘all is not well in the mountain regions of the world’ (Ives 1985).

There was a spate of studies of Alpine, circum-Alpine, Andean and Himalayan mountain ecosystems during the past three decades, with growing interest in mountain environments and the human populations inhabiting them. Most of these studies were focused on the subsistence strategies employed by mountain inhabitants for survival in rugged and inhospitable regions.

Despite the strenuous and hazardous conditions, the mountains have a mystical attraction for humankind, so much so that a sizeable number, adding up to a tenth of the world’s population, lives in the mountain regions. The Himalaya are the most popular and are inhabited by nearly 120 million people over a 2,500 km stretch from Afghanistan to Myanmar. Because of this demographic reality and because of the distinctive subsistence strategies of mountain populations, their comparative and analytical study became a major focus of attention (Brush et al. 1974; Rhoades et al. 1975; Hoffpauir 1978; Goldstein and Messerschmidt 1980; Guillet 1983). Most of these studies were in agreement with the vertical zonation of life support resources in mountain ecosystems as underlined by the Unesco project. However, since most studies were undertaken in the Nepal Himalaya, so far as the Himalayan ecosystem is concerned mention must be made of the pioneering study of Pant (1935) and recently that of Nitya Nand and Kumar (1989) in the Uttarakhand region of the Indian Himalaya. S.D. Pant’s Social Economy of the Himalayans is, as a matter of fact, a path-breaking endeavour employing the ecosystem approach in analysing the subsistence strategies of the people inhabiting the Kumaon region.

It has generally been recognised that the basic characteristic of mountain life is the vertical stratification of life support resources with immense altitudinal and seasonal variations. Life sustenance therefore is totally dependent on successful adaptation to the mountain environment. Mountain populations have apparently responded with efficient utilisation of resources in conformity with altitudinal variations and the annual cycle of seasonality. The main feature of mountain life thus emerges as adaptation to the constraints of the environment, through time and space, with the application of indigenous ecological knowledge.

However, increasing awareness of the fragility of mountain ecosystems highlighted by a series of ecological disasters the world over, in which human intervention may create serious resource degeneration, have raised apprehensions about the well-being and survival of mountain populations and their immediate neighbours. In recent years serious environmental degradation of the Himalayan ecosystem and fears of impending disaster have drawn worldwide attention. In this connection two publications, Eric Eckholm’s Losing Ground (1976) and John Lall’s The Himalaya: Aspects of Change (1981), specially the former, have had a popular impact the world over. Eckholm, with the support of Dr Maurice Strong and World Watch, made a challenging and emotional appeal to the effect that the world’s mountains, and especially the Himalaya, were facing imminent catastrophe. This, recently reinforced by Sandra Nichols’ spectacular film The Fragile Mountain, has become standard news media fare, to such an extent that we have almost come to expect the collapse of Nepal and of much of the Himalayan system by AD 2000, with devastating consequences for the teeming millions of the Indo-Gangetic plain (Ives 1985 in Tejvir Singh and Jagdish, eds.).

There is no doubt that human intervention resulting in large-scale deforestation, leading in turn to depletion and degeneration of life support resources, is the main cause, but what is ironical is that the mountain inhabitants are the prime suspects in bringing it about. A set of pet assumptions, the chief being that uncontrolled population growth in the Himalaya induces deforestation for the procurement of fuelwood and the expansion of subsistence agricultural land, point an accusing finger towards the mountain inhabitants, completely disregarding the fact that commercial exploitation in the wake of the industrial revolution in the West is the major culprit in deforestation all over the world, including mountain ecosystems. The ‘fact’ that the ‘growing demand for fuelwood induced by population growth’ in the Himalaya ‘is the cause of deforestation’ is rather astonishing in view of a small observation made by Nitya Nand and Kumar (1989) that in 1976-78 timber production in Garhwal was 3.05 million cubic metres whereas fuelwood collection during the same period was 0.8 lakh cubic metres. It is to be noted that timber production (commercial activity) is from cutting fully grown trees whereas fuelwood collection (subsistence activity) is only from dead wood, branches and twigs. No tree is ever cut down just for the procurement of fuelwood.

Now the question arises, how are the altitudinally differentiated vertical life zones in mountain ecosystems integrated by mountain populations in the adaptation of alternative subsistence strategies for resource utilisation? Is there any built-in mechanism, developed over generations of living in the mountains, directed towards the regeneration and conservation of resources? An attempt is made here to address these questions by examining the subsistence strategies in a micro situation in the Garhwal Himalaya.

Garhwal: a sub-ecosystem

Garhwal signifies a land of forts. According to tradition Garhwal was under the domination of fifty-two chiefs, each with his own garh (fort). At present Garhwal is an administrative division of the Uttar Pradesh hills and consists of five districts, namely Dehradun, Tehri, Uttarkashi, Pauri and Chamoli, encompassing an area of 29,090 sq km and lying between 77°35.5' E to 80°60’ E longitude and 29°31.9' N to 31°26.5' N latitude. According to the 1991 census of India, the total population of Garhwal was 29,82,927, of which 15,21,846 were males and 14,61,101, females. 80 per cent of the population of Garhwal resides in rural areas. There are only 35 medium and small urban centres in Garhwal and only one amongst them has a population exceeding one lakh.

The division of Garhwal into three different ecological zones from south to north is well recognised by the local population in their own classificatory terminology as talla (lower) Garhwal, bichla (middle) Garhwal and malla (upper) Garhwal in the context of altitudes as well as latitudes. These divisions correspond to the well recognised physiographic divisions, which are:

A. Outer Himalaya, comprising the Siwaliks and the Tarai Bhabar, ranging between 300 m and 1100 m.

B. Lesser or middle Himalaya, also known as Himachal, comprising the low and middle altitude mountain ranges and valleys between them, between 1100 m and 3300 m.

C. Great or Inner Himalaya, also known as Himadri and comprising high altitude mountain ranges, rainshed valleys and the alpine pastures locally known as bugyals, lying between the tree line and the perpetual snowline, ranging between 3300 m and 4200 m.

All over the Himalaya subsistence agriculture is the mainstay of life support. In Garhwal, however, there being very little level land and other conditions suitable for intensive agriculture, the people, through the experience of generations, have developed a complicated but suitable agricultural regime in adaptive response to the constraints of the mountain ecosystem. In the mountain environment altitude determines climatic conditions and temperature, which in turn influence the agricultural regime, specially the cropping pattern. Corresponding with the three broad ecological zones or sub-ecosystems mainly based on altitudinal variations, south to north, there are three clearly distinguishable production zones in Garhwal (Table 1).

Ecological zones of agriculture

A. Intensive agricultural zone in the outer Himalaya or Talla Garhwal.

B. Mixed mountain agriculture or agro-pastoral zone in the middle Himalaya or Bichla Garhwal.

C. Pastoral zone in the Inner Himalaya or Malla Garhwal.

These are not exclusively production zones but denote primacy, complemented and supplemented by other subsistence activities in varying degrees. Mountain cultivation is conditioned by environmental constraints such as nature of land, sun-facing or shady slope, temperature, rainfall, river/rivulet basin, and above all by the quantum available for

Table 1

Altitudinally determined ecological zones

agriculture in Garhwal

Ecological zone Altitude in metres Cropping pattern
A. Outer Himalaya

(i) Lower Doon and Tarai




Wheat, Rice, Sugarcane

(ii) Upper Doon and Lower Garhwal 600-900  Wheat, Rice, Maize, Pulses
B. Middle Garhwal 0900-1800 Wheat, Rice, Madua, Jhangora, Barley, Chua Kauri, Pulses
C. Inner Himalaya Upper Garhwal    
(i)Cool-temperate sub-zone 1800-2400 Wheat, Barley, Madua Jhangora, Cheemi, Potato
(ii)Cold/sub-alpine 2400-3600 Cropping in summer only on the sunny aspects, (the winter crops of the lower zones become summer crops). Wheat, Barley, Phaphra, Kauni (grown up to 3000 m) potato 

Adapted from Nitya Nand and Kumar (1989).

cultivation in different ecological zones. Not all zones permit intensive cultivation nor a similar cropping pattern. The outer Himalayan zone alone permits intensive cultivation throughout, dominated by wheat, rice, specially wet rice crops, and sugarcane, which is gaining importance in the Doon and Tarai. The produce can sustain the population throughout the year and give a marketable surplus.

In the middle Himalayan zone, agro-pastoralism or the mixed mountain agriculture is the pattern of subsistence. It involves diversification and farming has to be supplemented by herding and horticultural operations. The dominant crops are wheat and madua, but rice also has an importance place specially in the river/rivulet basins where irrigation facilities are available. Maize is also grown in this zone.

The inner Himalayan zone does not permit intensive agriculture, and crops are restricted to barley and some mountain varieties of millets and wheat restricted to some areas. In areas such as the Dhauli valley where flat land is available and the inhabitants have constructed irrigation channels, it has been possible to grow rice during the short summer period. The main subsistence strategy in this zone is pastoralism, which takes the advantage of presence of bugyals (Alpine pastures). The inhabitants of this zone, the Bhotia, in the past combined trade with their transhumant pastoralism. They used to carry out trading operations in the Tibetan region during the summer months, but with the closure of the border in 1962 their trading has been disrupted. There are thus three identifiable subsistence strategies adopted by the people of Garhwal.

Land use

Garhwal has a total land area of 29,090 sq km). Of this, nearly 23,000 sq km that is, 77 per

Table 2

Land use in Garhwal

(in hectares), 1991-92



S.No. Description Uttarkashi Pauri Chamoli Tehri Dehradun Total
1 Total area for land use 801619 759562 840704 574544 315503 3291932
2 Forest 710278 451175 520361 397201 219812 2298827
3 Cultivable barren land 8812 45056 33734 72972 10326 170900
4 Fallow land 3793 18258 1724 8466 6037 39278
5 Uncultivable wasteland 19516 34756 166842 12249 1563 234926
6 Land under other uses than agriculture 6683 17760 18305 11036 16614 70398
7 Pasture 13495 43953 22081 2857 81 82467
8 Orchards, gardens, other trees 7395 62501 35773 22 4296 109987
9 Cultivated land 31647 86103 41884 69741 55774 285149

Adapted from Yug Samvad, January 1996.

cent, is classified as forest land, which includes the 16.5 per cent high mountainous area that lies under permanent snow cover. The forest cover as indicated by landsat imageries is only about 24.9 per cent, out of which (a) actual forest (having above 60 per cent crown cover) is only 4.1 per cent; (b) moderate forest is 11 per cent; and (c) poor forest is 4 per cent (Singh 1993). Bugyals and grazing lands cover about 3.7 per cent of the total land area. Besides these are areas covered by orchards and gardens and under other uses.


In the fragile ecosystem in which they live, the people of Garhwal over the centuries have devised a complicated but suitable agricultural regime which is acknowledged as ‘unique in itself, for it is complete, self-dependent, self-contained and sustainable’. The Garhwal agro-ecosystem has also been described as a ‘natural subsidized solar-powered agro-ecosystem . . .’ which does not demand energy from outside as natural nutrients help to maintain the fertility of the cropland (Singh 1993). The salient features of the agricultural regime developed by the Garhwali people are:

(a) Construction of field terraces.

(b) Construction of irrigation channels known as gul along contours so that water flow is maintained through gravity.

(c) Manuring system with the help of natural nutrients.

(d) Mixed cropping pattern.

(e) Rotation of crops in harmony with varying environmental conditions.

(f) Diversification of produce such as cash crops, horticultural produce and fruits, etc.

However, the main characteristic of the Garhwal agricultural regime is mixed mountain agriculture or agro-pastoralism within which the above features are integrated. Mixed mountain agriculture includes cultivation and herding, one being dominant over the other depending on altitude or latitude or both. Consequently transhumance and nomadism, in varying degrees, become concomitant activities. For each ecological zone there is a well-defined and well-established mode of agricultural and pastoral activity.

Agro-pastoralism practised all over the middle altitudinal region in Garhwal is in essence diversification of resource utilisation. It is a mixed farming and herding strategy which is both supplementary and complementary: supplementary in that it makes good the shortage in the cereal produce which is not adequate to sustain the population through the year, and complementary in that the livestock level is increased, which enhances food supply for the human population and the quantum of manure for cropland. Diversification also promotes transhumance and seasonal cyclic mobility, which is one of the means of preventing exhaustion of the fertility potential of cropland and promoting regeneration.

Village as an organic unit

The subsistence strategies of a population are functions of their habitat and settlement pattern. Therefore it is important to understand the traditional Garhwal village as an organic as well as economic unit. Traditional boundaries of a village encompassed a large area including cultivated, waste and forest lands and were recognised by the rulers as well as the people. The British after their conquest of Garhwal in 1815 conducted the first land survey in 1823, that is, Vikram Samvat 1880, and entered the village boundaries in the government records without any change. These boundaries are locally known as assi sal (eighty years) boundaries. ‘Almost the whole country, cultivated and waste, exclusive of the largest forests, came to be regarded as within the boundary of one village or another village’ (Pauw 1896:36, quoted in Somanathan 1991). Earlier than Pauw, J.H. Batten, Settlement Officer for Garhwal in 1842, recorded that the areas within village boundaries were ‘large portions of wasteland, including whole ranges and their vast forests. . . .’ Batten further remarks that ‘such a division has been found useful in giving separate tracts for pasture for the cattle of different villages . . . (Batten 1851:124, quoted in Somanathan 1991). This is indicative of the fact that in Garhwal there were vast tracts of forest, wasteland and pastures and very little cultivated land. It is therefore natural to assume that the availability of land determined the subsistence strategy of the inhabitants in the past which continues into the present with variation in degree, as indicated by the detailed study of Nitya Nand and Kumar (1989).

Traditional villages, probably the earliest settlements in Garhwal, specially in middle and upper Garhwal, still retain their characteristic feature of forest and pastures as integral components of a village economy’s resource base, besides cultivated land, as their traditional boundaries remain unaltered. The forest and pasture within the village boundaries are considered the common property of the inhabitants. A Garhwal village thus is not just a human settlement but a micro-ecosystem encompassing humans, animals, physical and organic resources. Usually a village boundary rises from a river/rivulet/stream or valley bottom to hill-top spreading between two ridges which are the water divides. Human settlements as a rule are situated in the middle of hill slopes on spurs running from the middle/lower levels of the ridges, with cultivated land below and above. Above the upper cultivated land lies the grazing land and the pasture and on top the forest. With the water divide ridges on both sides, the catchment area in the shape of the forest and grazing land, and a river/rivulet flowing in the valley bottom, a village can also be considered a micro-watershed. The peculiarities of the habitat and settlement pattern in Garhwal were conducive to the agro-pastoral mode of subsistence, which may have evolved under the following circumstances:

(a) The earliest immigrants were mainly herders/pastoral nomads, who followed cyclic mobility limiting their movement, in the context of spatial realities mainly in resource (pasture/grazing land and water) availability.

(b) Population pressure, both human and animal, on resources in the middle altitudinal belt led to bringing more land in the mountain slopes under cultivation by the construction of terraces, a characteristic feature of mountain cultivation.

(c) Fresh waves of immigrating nomadic pastoralists in search of resources to maintain their herds such as the Gujar in the Siwalik and the Gaddi in the middle and high altitudinal belts.

(d) In the later period the need for generation of cash leading to diversification in raising cash crops and horticultural activities including of orchards and fruit plantations.

The complexity of the agro-pastoral economy of Garhwal can be well understood within the ecosystem framework, that is, the symbiotic relationship between the different components of the system, which are people, livestock, uncultivated land and cropland.

These components are closely integrated and interdependent. The symbiotic relationship is clear. Human beings for their subsistence depend on the produce from the cropland as well as on livestock, which in turn depend on forest and pasture. The livestock also convert leaves lopped from the forest into manure for cropland, on the one hand, and supply draught power from stored energy obtained from forest produce for ploughing and transport. Cropland continuously receives a ‘subsidy’ from the forest in terms of energy and nutrients through the agency of livestock, which acts as a link between uncultivated and cultivated land, building a forest-fodder-livestock-manure-cropland chain. Humans, major consumers of the produce of farmland as well as livestock, release the energy thus obtained in agricultural operations and other supporting activities such as improvement of cropland by repairing the terraces, constructing irrigation channels, etc., and raising and caring for the livestock (Singh 1993).

Land classification and cropping pattern

The mountain agricultural regime generally suffers from limitations of varying soil conditions, poor irrigation facilities and position of fields and manuring dependent on natural nutrients alone, and so on. In Garhwal, where cultivated land is only about 9 per cent of the total land area and irrigated land only about 11 per cent of the cultivated land, the Garhwali recognises a threefold classification of cultivated land from the standpoint of irrigation:

(a) Talaon or sera. Land situated near the river banks where irrigation is available is known as talaon and irrigated land is sera or kyari.

(b) Panchar. Intermittently irrigated land.

(c) Upraon or ukhad. Permanently terraced unirrigated land situated above the village settlement, on the hill slope (Pauw 1896, in Walton 1910).

(d) There is yet another type of land known as katil or kheel, situated on the highest part of the mountain slope above the upraon land and below the forest and grazing land. Katil land is unterraced and is brought under cultivation intermittently by clearing the shrubs and bushes and burning them, i.e., slash and burn, locally known as kath kurali.

The position of fields in terms of height and sun-facing or shady slopes is another important factor in mountain agriculture. Altitude is a determinant in the cropping pattern as it controls temperature, which places limitations on different crops in different altitudinal zones. Within the boundary of a village itself there is considerable variation in altitude, and as such a village grows different corps in different fields.

Irrigation facilities in Garhwal are meagre. It is ironical that the Garhwal Himalaya, being the richest watershed in Asia, from where originate all the major rivers of the upper Ganga system has no rivers of use as their course is through deep gorges. The Garhwali take recourse to traditional technology to construct gravitational channels along the contours of the hills to divert water from small streams and rivulets to their fields.

The Garhwal agro-ecosystem, specially in the middle and upper altitudinal belts, is ‘self-supporting’ and ‘does not demand energy from outside’ as natural nutrients maintain the fertility of the cropland. Manuring of the cropland is done in traditional manner using the indigenous ecological knowledge:

A. Recycling of natural nutrients

(a) Gathering of leaf mould from the forest floor.

(b) Gathering of cattle bedding made of dry leaves and pine needles, soaked in cattle urine and dung.

B. These gatherings are mixed with dung in compost pits locally known as mol khud for decomposition.

C. For outlying fields far from the homestead, manure is prepared in the fields themselves. Cattle are penned in the fields during summer under temporary sheds known as goth. The animal droppings and urine accumulated in the goths is spread over the fields. The goths are shifted from terrace to terrace in order to manure all.

D. Ash manuring. While harvesting the stems of crops are left uncut. Later these stems and dry grasses are burnt and the resultant ashes spread over the field as manure.

E. Green manure. Green weeds which grow in the harvested fields are ploughed back and buried in the process.

Rotation of crops

In order to maintain the fertility of cropland the Garhwali have devised a skilful rotation of crops with the application of indigenous ecological knowledge. The rotation of crops is a combination of exploitation of resource, i.e., raising of diverse crops in cultivated land and regeneration, i.e., revitalisation of cropland in order to regain fertility. There are three types, each adapted to a different type of land:

1. Two-year rotation of four crops: This type is prevalent in Doon and Tarai and is not very different from the usual for any land from which two harvests are gathered in the year.

Year Kharif Rabi

First Rice Wheat

Second Maize Mustard or Potato

In those areas where sugarcane is grown the rotation varies in that for three years continuously sugarcane is cultivated to be followed by wheat or mustard in the fourth year and again to be followed by sugarcane in the fifth year (Nitya Nand and Kumar 1989). In the talon land of lower and middle Garhwal also, wherever irrigation facilities are adequate this type of rotation is practised.

In the talon land yet another type of rotation is practised which aims at the maintenance of biodiversity in order to safeguard the yield. Different species of rice are sown by rotation every year in order to detect and eliminate the counterfeit or self-grown rice plants which could decrease productivity (Pant 1935).

2. Two-year rotation of three crops: This is the most typical rotation practised in the permanently terraced and unirrigated upraon lands of lower and middle Garhwal. The first requisite of this type of rotation is to divide the village lands into two contiguous blocks known as sar. In this the village headman has a pivotal role as he indicates the division of land. In one of the sars rice is grown and is known as satyara (sati meaning rice), and in the other madua kodo is grown and is known as kodara. In the winter when madua is reaped the kodara sar is left fallow, while in the satyara after the harvest wheat is sown and the sar takes the name gyunwara; subsequently when madua follows wheat the sar is known as kodara while the kodara of the previous year is sown with rice and is known as satyara. This goes on in a cyclic manner. ‘The system of leaving fallow a whole block of land instead of scattered fields here and there has its advantages when the cattle are turned loose to graze on the remnants of the straw and grass that can be found on the terrace walls. For this reason half or nearly half the village will be found apparently lying waste in winter. In the land which is too stony to grow rice or wheat, Jhangora is substituted for the one or Barley for the other or both; but this does not affect the system of rotation, nor the method of carrying it out’ (from Pauw’s 1896 report in Walton 1910).

Sar System Crop Rotation


Year Season Crop in Sar No. 1 Crop in Sar No. 2
First Kharif Rice or Jhangora Madua
First  Rabi Wheat or Barley Fallow
Second Kharif Madua Rice or Jhangora
Second Rabi Fallow Wheat or Barley


In upper Garhwal, the cool temperate zone, lower temperatures and shorter growing periods necessitate a change in the patterns of crop rotation. ‘Another two-crop rotation is that of chuwa and barley. This is much practised in northern villages, in fields near the homestead which are regularly enriched with manure. In the south there is similar rotation with ugal or buckwheat (Tagophrum esculentum) substituted for chuwa; but confined to outlying land. In the higher villages of the north where barley does not ripen till May or June the double crop becomes impossible and the rotation then practised is chuwa (April-September) followed by barley (October-June), followed by mustard (August-December). The land then remains fallow till April, when chuwa is again sown. But the people of these villages are shepherds rather than agriculturists by profession, and the rotation is not always practised’ (from Pauw’s report of 1896, in Walton 1910).


Year Summer Months Crops Winter Months Crops
First April to September Marsal(Chuwa) or Ogal or Phaphra or Kauni October to June Wheat or Barley
Second August to December Potato, Mustard or Chheemi (Beans) December to April Fallow

3. Six- to nine-year rotation on katil land: This type of rotation is practically confined to unterraced katil land above the terraced upraon lands and below the forest. The land is outlying and far away from human settlements, at a higher altitude.

Year Summer Winter
First Madua or Phaphura Wheat or Barley
Second Madua or Phaphura Fallow
Third Gahat or Ogal or Phaphura Fallow continuously for three to six years.


The whole rotation occupies five years and is known as tisali, since the land is left fallow for three years. However, sometimes the fallow period is prolonged to six years, thus extending the rotation to nine years.

The rotation of crops practised in Garhwal seems to have been developed by experience gained through generations of living in the particular ecosystem. It was already well developed when the British conquered Garhwal (Traill 1828; Pauw 1896; Walton 1910) and continues to be practised almost unchanged to the present (Nitya Nand and Kumar 1989).

Rotation of different species of grains in different years aims at the preservation of biodiversity in environmental conditions where one single species may fail. S.D. Pant (1935) has aptly highlighted this type of rotation in the case of rice cultivation. But unfortunately with the propagation of so-called modern scientific agriculture, promoting high-yielding species, in the wake of the green revolution, without taking into consideration the environmental conditions and without regard to indigenous ecological knowledge, that valuable genetic diversity has been allowed to disappear. The sturdier species of rice that used to be cultivated in the Himalaya some 50 years ago no longer exist. Perhaps the germ- plasm of those species are preserved in the laboratories of the International Rice Research Centre, but they are no longer available to the Himalayan farmer.

Agro-pastoralism, which is practised all over the middle and higher altitudinal regions, is in essence diversification of resource utilisation. It is mixed farming in the sense that the farmer is also a herder as almost each family raises cattle, sheep and goats depending upon the existence of grazing ground and forest within the village boundary.


Diversification and seasonal cyclic mobility are interrelated and effectively utilise the village resources. During the summer months and the rainy season the farmer takes up the role of herder and drives his livestock to the uncultivated land on the fringe of the forest, often known as danda. Danda is under the ownership of the entire village where almost every family is allocated a plot which is used to raise millet crops and horticultural produce, specially potato. In recent years the process of diversification has resulted in farmers taking to raising sweet peas and tomatoes and planting orchards of apple and plum as a supplementary mode for the generation of cash.

In the danda region, which is actually forest land, sheep, goats and cattle get ample and nutritious grass which is rather scarce in the lower regions, specially in the summer months. This way there is an augmentation of productivity. Towards the end of September the farmers and their herds trek back to the village settlement in the lower region. The cyclic mobility thus far has proved to be a successful adaptive strategy for food production and generation of cash on the one hand and regeneration of resources on the other.

Pastoralism and transhumance

Diversification in the mode of food production also promotes transhumance on a large scale. While intra-village cyclic mobility is limited to the spatial limits of a village, transhumance involves mobility, also cyclic, in a larger circuit. Transhumance encompasses (a) winter migration to lower regions in Tarai and Bhabar and (b) summer migration to high-altitude bugyals.

It is observed that several types of pastoral practices are followed in Garhwal. On the one hand there are agro-pastoral communities practising transhumance, both vertical and horizontal, limited to small distances, and on the other there are communities like the Bhotia and the Gujar, who are transhumant in the classical sense, where long journeys and vertical traverses are involved. Transhumance is a highly developed form of pastoralism and has varying forms in different parts of the world. In the Himalaya transhumance is almost universal in the form of seasonal movement of people and livestock between previously earmarked sites, which become permanent seasonal encampments or bases. These cyclic movements allow time for the regeneration of resources, which alone can sustain this kind of lifestyle. The seasonal cyclic movements and the utilisation of resources in a rotational manner has placed the transhumant people in a situation where they are nomadic on the one hand, and transitionally or marginally sedentary on the other.

The Garhwal Himalaya supports a number of such transhumant populations. Chief among whom are the Bhotia, the Khadwal, the Kharkiya, the Jaunpuri and the new immigrant Gujar, who unlike others, base their transhumant pastoralism on buffalo herding. These communities move along the availability of vegetative growth at various altitudes, though this adaptive measure is gradually losing sustainability with the growth of population, both human and animal, and the degradation of the resource base.

Forest and resource and management

The forest is the most important renewable resource in the Garhwal Himalaya. It plays a vital role in the lives of the people as there is near total dependence on the forest for life support in the forms of ‘food, fuel, fodder, fibre and fertiliser’. Degradation of their forest wealth is detrimental to their survival as their agro-pastoral production system is totally dependent on the forest.

However, in the present century and in the post-Independence era specially, the forests have undergone severe degeneration due to variety of reasons, but chiefly due to commercial exploitation, illicit felling and mismanagement in which the people have almost no role. On the other hand, their subsistence strategy is oriented towards efficient resource utilisation concomitant with environmental management. Since the forest and pasture/grazing land have been within the traditional village boundaries, under community ownership and control, their efficient management was always a sensitive issue. The village communities did manage their forests and pastures in a way in which conservation and regeneration was built into the system while the forests were under their control. The Van Panchayat and Joint Forest Management in actuality draw heavily on the tradition of community forest management operating in Garhwal and Kumaon (Somanathan 1991). The Chipko movement which today is acknowledged all over the world as an environmental movement is not the product of modern ecological awareness but that of the traditional and indigenous ecological knowledge of the Garhwali farmer, especially women, who are most affected by environmental degradation.

Char system: management of grazing land

Management of pasture and grazing land is undertaken under the char system. The grazing land commonly owned by the village is divided into blocks which are alternately closed for grazing or sharing under the common authority of the village community, for designated periods. The practice prevents overgrazing and allows regeneration and conservation of resources, both the grazing land and the produce, that is, the grass. The char system as a matter of fact is a traditional roster system, where periodic grazing and sharing is allowed in the interest of protection and management.

Concluding remarks

The foregoing account of the subsistence strategies of the people of Garhwal underlines a series of operations which have been developed through the experience of generations and undertaken as the application of indigenous ecological knowledge to sustain the population in the mountain ecosystem through the efficient utilisation of resources simultaneously with action taken for regeneration and conservation. There are, of course, limiting factors such as the growth of population and the general depletion of resources. Whether optimality has been reached or not will need further probing.


Brush, S.B., 1976, ‘Introduction to cultural adaptations to mountain ecosystems’. Human Ecology, 4, 2, pp.125-33.

———, R.McC. Netting and D.A. Messerschmidt, 1974, ‘Cultural adaptations to mountain ecosystems’. Human Ecology, 4, 2, pp.123-85.

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