Uncertainty in the Hidden Valley of Happiness

October 19th – October 22nd

Hidden in the snow-covered mountain range of the Himalayas lies Tsum Valley, where a small settlement of villages are established, and home to thousands of Tsumbas (the indigenous people to the valley). The name “Hidden Valley of Happiness” was given to Tsum Valley for its concealed beauty and its quiet nature. With geography playing a pivotal factor in the mobility of transportation methods to the valley, beyond walking and flying on a helicopter there is an absence of highways, railroads, and cement paths. Many outsiders and trekkers look to Tsum Valley as a place of solace and peace-a location free from the man-made creations of highways, trains, cars, and buses. It is also a place conceived to be truly immersed in nature–thus being the Hidden Valley of Happiness. In the past weeks, I too witnessed the beauty and uniqueness of Tsum Valley. However, I would be lying if I think the name, “Hidden Valley of Happiness” is appropriate for this place, for the word happiness only captures a small portion of what I felt when I was there. In my short time there, I learned that for many of the locals, the future of Tsum seems to be standing on fragile foundations.

Global warming in the Upper Tsum Valley

Many climate activists present global warming as a catastrophe waiting to happen but for mountain indigenous communities like the Tsumbas this dystopian future we are so desperately trying to avoid has already become a reality. And like other historically underrepresented communities of color worldwide, their voices and faces have been left out in the mainstream climate activist movement. Scientists from outside this region have linked environmental changes to the increasing temperature (global warming). In particular, some changes in the last two decades include the melting of glaciers, unpredictable weather patterns, a decrease in snow coverage, wildlife and plant migration, and seasonal timing patterns. In alignment with the environmental changes occurring in the Himalayas, economic insecurity is quickly becoming an urgent concern–in particular, when looking at yartsa gunbu, a Himalayan caterpillar fungus. Yartsa gunbu is one of the most expensive traditional medicine ingredients in the world, with an economy generating over seven billion dollars worldwide, and provides a critical source of income for Himalayan communities – Upper Tsum Valley included. About a decade ago, collectors began noticing a decline in the population of this species. Initially, it was believed that the decline was due to overharvesting. However, recent research suggests that the decline is very likely due to global warming. That said, in the Himalayan region, global warming is not changing just the geography as we know it but also the economic futures of the people. At its core, the well-being of these people is at risk as we speak.  This existing knowledge inspired me to use my 10-day in Upper Tsum Valley to deepen my understanding of the people’s perceptions of these changes, I aimed to have conversations with Tsumbas with three questions in mind, is the theory of global warming shared amongst Tsumbas? what are the theories that Tsumbas hold in regards to the decline of the yartsa gunbu population? And what are the theories that Tsumbas hold in regard to the changing environment? Alongside co-researchers, I had the privilege of having guided conversations (interviews) with households from across Upper Tsum Valley, which included the elected leader of Chhekampard Ward 07, Sonam Wangmo, and an architect who specializes in emergency housing and has worked with climate scientists in the past, Sonam Lama. My findings were startling. 

My classmate and I holding yartsa gunbu.

In short, those who I talked to shared with me that there have been significant environmental changes in the last 10 years. The villagers confirmed the melting of glaciers, unpredictable weather patterns, a decrease in snow coverage, wildlife and plant migration, and seasonal timing patterns. In addition, many of them strongly expressed their concern about the changes in water supply and unpredictable precipitation patterns-they feared that these changes will make it more difficult to survive. When it came to yartsa gunbu, everyone shared with me that the population of yartsa gunbu has decreased drastically in the past 10 years. Collectively, everyone understood that the yartsa gunbu economy can collapse at any second whether it be because of the decline in demand or the extinction of the species. All and all, there were many theories that were shared with me, but not one person connected these changes to global warming. And when I brought up the theory of global warming, only two individuals have heard about it, Sonam Lama and one of our co-researchers (a student local to Upper Tsum). To be clear, I am not interpreting that the villagers’ are uneducated about global warming or the climate crisis, I stand by the belief that they are the most educated about the climate crisis. These people are the live witnesses and the first to be affected by these changes and without the contribution of their observations and knowledge, our understanding of the changing climate would have never advanced this far. With that being said, these findings not only shocked me but also left me in a state of confusion and disappointment. In more detail, I was confused as to why the conversation about global warming-an anthropogenic phenomenon hasn’t been sparked in Upper Tsum Valley. This confusion ultimately led me to feel disappointed in myself for blindly believing that there is an equal distribution of knowledge on global warming.

Coupled with the great experiences I had in Upper Tsum Valley, I was reminded during my time there that we cannot solve the climate crisis without allowing historically underrepresented communities to see themselves in climate activism – and in that, the mainstream climate justice movement has failed us. To face the challenges of the climate crisis in unity, we must not only take steps that bring attention to the ways in which global warming is affecting the livelihoods of those most vulnerable to these changes, but also ensure that existing knowledge on this issue is transparently shared these communities so that they can implement environmental practices based on their own interest. The path ahead may look intimidating but without these steps, the ability for humanity to launch toward a future that is inclusive to all life on earth will be undermined.

Thank you for reading,

Quincy


Published by quincyyangh

Junior at Gustavus Adolphus College, Fund for Education Abroad (FEA) Scholar, and Benjamin A. Gilman Scholar.

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