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Mustang’s Apples on the Move

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Surrounded by some of the highest peaks in the world, the Kali Gandaki river originates from Himalayan glaciers in the desert-dry region of Mustang, at the border with Tibet. Despite the arid landscape, apples have for decades been a key source of livelihood for communities in the southern part of the district, relying on snow levels to irrigate the soils during the dry season. But today, warming temperatures and melting snows are threatening apples, and the communities relying on them. Their production is moving further north, seeking for higher altitudes. This prompts the question: who wins and who loses as the climate changes, altering livelihoods in the shadow of these towering giants?

 
 
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The landscape in Mustang, along the Gandaki River is both stark and stunning; harsh ridge lines  jutting into the sky, softened by sweeping contours and Dali-esque formations--swirls and whorls of red and yellow, brown and gold. Mountains plunge to meet the arid ground, rocky and drained of water and of lushness. Towering peaks loom from above; white and snow-capped and soaring into the heavens. The dust is whipped by winds, swirling in eddies that seek out faces and veil perspectives.

 
 
 

Life here is influenced by this landscape, by the unrelenting winds and the solid presence of mountain giants. In this arid environment, communities and villages cluster along glacier-streams that flow from plateaus above.  People lean into challenge, hunker together in small villages, raise herds of hairy, hardened animals. Goats and yaks with stocky legs, low centers of gravity to keep them tethered against the onslaught of winds. Locals are similarly grounded, rooted in a sense of place borne of centuries of tradition. Life moves slowly, mimics the enormous and unshakeable strength of the mountains and the Gandaki River that carves its way through. Ancient Buddhist temples dot the landscape, filled with monks who meditate under the same peaks that they have for centuries. Villagers wash along the shores of the same river that their ancestors did. Wool is woven into warm clothing, tradition knit into the fabric of society. The clatter of daily life emerges from medieval architecture, foot traffic still flows clockwise around stupas, days still unfold in much the same way as they have for hundreds of years.

Here, the Gandaki spills out of the higher Tibetan plateaus and is joined by other water sources. This confluence forms sacred waters in the Hindu religion, a site for reverence and equalization as diverse castes are purified by the same waters. Pilgrims make the treacherous journey over cliff and landslide-filled roads from across India and Nepal to come here. They travel for the temples, for the opportunity to touch sacred waters, for the chance to celebrate renewal and the coming of spring as Himalayan snow melt swells the banks of the Gandaki. Orphans make the voyage here, as do the devoted who come to cremate their dead in these hallowed waters.

 
 
 

Yet even here, at the confluence of sacred waters and sacrosanct traditions, change is afoot--and not all of it is welcomed.

Tshering Yuten Gurung is a widow with three children, a hard-working woman with calloused hands and a warm smile. She used to be a farmer, she said, cultivating millet, potatoes, corn, garlic, beans, and sampa. But farming is becoming increasingly untenable.

There used to be massive snowfall, hard enough to walk on, that would provide a source of water in this arid region. It’s not like that anymore; it’s warmer now, with less rain and snow.

Instead, she and many others have turned to tourism for their livelihoods, dependent on both religious pilgrims and adventure trekkers as a source of income. She runs a small restaurant in the heart of Kagbeni that is sparse on furnishings but full of stories and of hearty cooking. She even has two rooms to rent, although she laments that she can't afford wifi - people don't want to stay without it.

For Tshering and her fellow villagers, these changing climatic conditions are not abstract; they are circumstances that they must confront and adapt to in their daily lives. Nor are their impacts uniform, or uniformly opposed. Though there is nostalgia for livelihoods that are less and less viable, so too is there the recognition that more money and education is flowing into their community. Tshering recounts that the wealthiest residents can afford to spend winter in Kathmandu or abroad, and even poor folks have the chance to earn some income. Old houses are used to house cattle now; new houses have been built for people.

 
 
 

Her story of adaptation and resilience in the face of changing climatic and socio-economic conditions is one that emerges again in the village of Marpha. Replete with green orchards and white-washed houses nestled between river and mountain, it is incongruous with the rest of the arid, rocky landscape, Fields full of vegetables slope down towards the river, flanked by fruit trees bearing peach, apricot, and many types of apple. Signature prayer flags flutter across rooftops, and a deep red monastery with peace eyes stands guard over the town.

Here in the Mustang region, the story of change is mapped through apples, through shifting latitudes of production that weave together climate, access, and livelihoods.

This story emerges through the testimony of Kamala, a woman as gracious as she is generous, a community matriarch who conducts her daily work with poise and a calm air of competence. Kamala is owner of Neeru Guest House, head of the Women's Apple co-op, caretaker of her family's longstanding apple orchard--and outspoken in her testimony of change living along the banks of the river.  

Kamila’s family is deeply rooted in Marpha. Yet these roots are fragmenting, slowly eroding livelihood and tradition in a changing climate. The changing climate means that she can no longer rely on the quality of her apples, or on the homeland of her family to produce these apples -- many of her fellow villagers are moving their orchards to hills high above Marpha, in search for a cooler climate. Her experience is echoed further downriver to the village of Kunjo.

Kunjo is a small village nestled in a valley between some of the highest peaks in the world. It is corn harvesting time, and people gather in the fields and climb carved log ladders to lay out the bright yellow cobs on the rooftops to dry, tin and kernels gleaming in the sunlight. There are no busses that reach here, and no cars. Life seems close to nature, and closer still to the cycles of life; villagers make their way into nearby forests to forage for edible mushrooms, horns from recent slaughters lay scattered for the dogs, blood sausages are hung to dry in the sun. Glacier streams wind their way below the village, gathering in large floodplains that gesture to times of higher water flow. The slow pace of life and gentle tinkling of bells from across meadows bely harsher realities; bells are placed on dogs to scare off the bears and leopards in the surrounding forests.

Pointing at the nearby mountain, he tells of how it used to be covered in snow. Now the snow peeled away to reveal layers of exposed rock, the black betraying the warming that has been occurring.

It is here that Tham Bahadhur Sherchan, an 84 year old farmer, shares his story.  From a stool in his kitchen he gestures out the doorway, points to fields of corn, and tells of how it used to be apples. He planted 1500 trees he says, of which 500 survived. Thirty years ago almost every field here was an apple orchard, with most of the villagers depending on apples for their livelihoods. People were wealthier, had spare income to build houses in Jomsom even. He says they were happy because they could earn a reliable income if they worked hard. His face lights up as he tells of a favourite memory, speaking of the beauty of walking through fields of apple blossoms.

 
 
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That all began to change ten years ago. The trees started to wither and dry out. The pests came, and destroyed the fruits. The fog came, and destroyed saplings.

In the whole area, just one lonely, dead apple tree remains standing as a testament to a crop that the entire village used to thrive on.

Now, villagers must diversify their crops to survive. Apple production has moved upstream, to Marpha and other areas with cooler and more predictable climates. Communities along the river bank can no longer depend on their livelihoods or their traditions as constants. Villagers instead plant potatoes, corn, and millet, alternatives that offer a means to survival but have never replaced or replicated the success that everyone experienced with apple trees.

These anecdotes prompt the question, how do you measure a changing climate? How do you trace the divides, the plateaus, the places where change peaks, the contours of change? How do you gauge temporal effects in a landscape that feels timeless? Some point to climate science, and to changing temperatures and escalating ice melt; In a recent paper published in Nature, the authors find that in a world where efforts are being made to cap temperature rise to 1.5 °C, the high mountains of Asia, including the Himalayas, will see an increase of more than 2°C.  Over one third of Himalayan glaciers are projected to disappear by the end of this century. 

 
 
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Yet here along the Gandaki change is already measurable - not just in abstract, future climate projections, but in the visceral, in the here, in the now. Change is revealed through and by those who live in the shadow of these icy giants and along the banks of the Gandaki River. It is apparent in a changing sociocultural landscape, it is evident in a loss of livelihoods, it is illuminated in the flow of upstream issues as they carry their turbulent impacts downstream.

And it is found in the lived experiences and stories of those who bear the brunt of these changes, their story of apples that have migrated upstream and left communities bereft of livelihood and a staple crop.
 
 
 
 

Thanks for reading

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This story was a collaborative work from the H2O team, including Sushma Bhatta, Alice Chautard, Yolanda Clatworthy, Justin Falcone, Ross Harrison and Nicholas O’Brien.

A special thanks to the teams at the Oxford Environmental Change Institute and at ICIMOD for their crucial guidance and wisdom, in particular to Dr. Tom Thornton (now Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Alaska Southeast), Dr. Anjal Prakash (now Associate Professor and Associate Dean at TERI-School of Advanced Studies, India) and Dr. Pranita Bhushan Udas. Thanks to BubbleBee Industries and DPA sounds for sponsoring audio equipment. Our gratitude goes to Narayan Bhandari Srijan for the subtitle translation. Last but not least, thanks to Kamala and Hrikesh for their warmth, helpfulness and hospitality at Neru guesthouse, and to all others along the way who were willing to share their stories with us.

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