Strands In The Web

A close look at recent population trends in Ladakh reveals a complex contemporary pattern, and some ancient universal truths

One of the articles in Birth, Sex & Death (IC#31)
Originally published in Spring 1992 on page 36
Copyright (c)1992, 1996 by Context Institute

In science, one method of discovering the effects of a certain kind of change on a living system is to isolate that system, introduce the change, and observe the results very closely. For many years Swedish-born linguist Helena Norberg-Hodge has been observing isolated Ladakh, a Tibetan Buddhist culture which has endured for 2,000 years high in the Western Himalayas. The change she’s been observing – to her dismay – is the result of introducing Western-style development to this frugal and happy people. Increasingly, the delicate web of Ladakhi culture is being frayed by the shift from cultural to monetary wealth, and from resource self-sufficiency to a fossil-fuel based economy.

But Norberg-Hodge is also an activist working to introduce changes of her own. She is the founder of the Ladakh Project, whose goal is to help Ladakhis make informed choices about their own future – including re-embracing many traditional ways. She is also the author of a new book, Ancient Futures (Sierra Club Books, 1991), which chronicles her experiences and perceptions in Ladakh. Recently, IC founder Robert Gilman spoke with her about what the Ladakhi experience can teach the rest of the world about population and family planning.

Robert: During the 17 years you’ve been working in Ladakh, you’ve had a chance to observe first-hand some of the dynamics of population growth, both in Ladakh and in the developing world generally.

Helena: Yes, I’ve spent half of every year in Ladakh, and I’ve witnessed a significant population increase. It’s an explosion really – in Ladakh it’s shooting up higher than the Indian national average.

Robert: What are some of the essential factors contributing to that population explosion?

Helena: First, I’d like to say how important it is to take a systemic approach in trying to understand what is happening. Population growth is part of the complex process of modernization and development. In the case of Ladakh, the whole process of modernization is breaking down the traditional close and intimate relationship with local resources – particularly with food-related resources. More and more people are cut off from their traditional dependence on their immediate surroundings for survival. Before modernization, people were consciously aware of the fact that this piece of land is where our food comes from, these pasturelands are where our animals graze. They could clearly see the limits of that land, and they were conscious of the fact that they needed to adapt their numbers and their practices to that limited resource base.

In Ladakh, adaptation to very scarce resources sometimes involved polyandry, which means several husbands to one wife. A number of Ladakhi brothers would marry the same woman – and that, of course, helped to keep population down, because although the gender ratio was roughly 50/50, many women didn’t marry and bear children.

This practice was supported by the status given to the Buddhist religion and members of the religious community. An unmarried woman had a very comfortable position as a nun, and both the nuns and the celibate monks further helped support the relatively stable population growth rate. Indications are that Ladakh’s population had probably been rising slowly, but it was nothing like the explosion that has now occurred as a consequence of modernization.

Robert: Did the Ladakhis use any means of birth control?

Helena: I’m not sure. I have heard references from the traditional doctors to some herbs that could help prevent birth, and there may even have been some herbs that you could take for abortion, but I think it was very rare.

Robert: Since they could see the limits to their resources, what did they do to keep their families from growing?

Helena: Again, this question is connected to very broad structures that inform and shape the entire society. In Ladakh, as was the case in early Europe and in many agrarian societies, the land was passed on intact, in one piece, from generation to generation. The human populations had to adapt themselves to that land. One’s whole sense of self was connected to it – even your name might be the name of the house and land-holding.

At the same time, there was enormous social flexibility. In the case of Ladakh, this was extreme: one actually had the possibility of polyandry, or polygamy, or in some cases, monogamy. Keeping these social relations so flexible made it possible to optimize the relationship to resources, because from generation to generation, you couldn’t be sure just how many sons and daughters you would have, what demographic situation you might be in, and hence what arrangements would work for the best.

The monastery, meanwhile, served as a sort of social security system, because when you were in the monastery you were provided for by the entire community. If you had too many children, and if for some reason your sons were unable to marry out into another village or another household, there was the option of entering the monastery – which was, of course, providing religious services to the entire community in return. Even fathers who had been the head of the household, and who already had children, might join the monastery at a later age.

Robert: What’s different about Ladakh now, as a result of modernization?

Helena: One thing that has struck me is how in the modern sector, you are cut off from that awareness of where your food is coming from. Suddenly it’s simply a question of money – you know, bits of paper. If you just earn more money you can buy more food, packaged food from far away. It’s been dramatically clear to me that this is a process that makes it very easy to end up in a completely illusory world where you no longer understand that natural resources do have limits.

What’s even more disturbing is that in the modern sector, it’s actually to your advantage to have more children, to increase your political and economic power. I’ve seen this happen not only in Ladakh, but in Bhutan and Kashmir, because the modern sector in these places is highly competitive, and there are different ethnic groups competing for access to resources, jobs, money. Power in these societies now comes in the form of votes, and so different groups are trying to gain access to the power structure by pushing their numbers up. The Muslims in Ladakh; the Buddhists or Christians or other groups in Bhutan; all over the sub-continent there are groups who feel that their identity is threatened, and that’s helping to push up their numbers.

But it is also true, on the other hand, that in the modern sector there are other factors which tend to reduce population growth – reaching a certain comfortable level of material prosperity, for example.

Robert: It’s frequently noted that the educational level of women tracks very closely with a decline in birth numbers.

Helena: Well, this might make some people extremely unhappy, but I think we have to look very carefully at the notion that the answer to the population problem is simply the education of women. We have to rethink what type of education is suitable. If we just take studies of population dynamics in isolation and say "Education is the answer!" – and yes, there is a certain pattern whereby the birth rate goes down as education levels increase – we will overlook some far more subtle issues that are much less easily quantified.

What I’ve seen clearly happening is that now, at these very early stages of development in Ladakh, the women who have power in the modern sector are unmarried, childless women. Ladakh is very small, so I know all these women. In the modern sector, children become a burden – they prevent women from participating actively in political and economic decision-making. In traditional Ladakhi culture there may not have been gender equality in the way we think of that term, but the work that women did in the household – including caring for the young – had a much higher status, and they were able to participate in important decisions about the allocation of resources without foregoing motherhood. In the modern, monetary economy, that’s no longer the case.

Furthermore, the education that we’re talking about is Western-style education – which is everywhere now. It teaches people little or nothing about the land they actually live on, how to manage limited local resources, how to relate to each other and be in community. Instead, it trains people for an urban, industrial lifestyle. That lifestyle is extremely resource- and energy-intensive and quite unsustainable.

And these issues are, of course, at the core of the "population problem" – that is, ensuring that people have a sense of well-being, that they feel connected to other people, that they feel involved in both nurturing and being cared for. This applies equally to people who don’t have children of their own and to people who do. It seems to me that with regard to population, we have missed some of the key strands in the web – and I don’t know if this perspective is being heard, even in the most well-intentioned circles.

Robert: Vandana Shiva, the Indian physicist and founder of the Chipko Movement, says we should understand the third world as having been thrust into the role of the industrialized world’s shadow. She notes that the process of extracting resources out of the South has created much of the displacement and poverty, which has led to the population explosion. So it may well be a fallacy that education will solve the problem when there is not yet another place – the Moon, or Mars, or wherever – to act as yet another shadow into which we can shove the issues that are not being dealt with locally and directly.

Helena: Absolutely. I think another way of saying that is to recognize that what we call "education" is part of an infrastructure which has been introduced everywhere, whether through the communist or capitalist mode, as one of the cornerstones of development. The process of development is precisely that of exploiting more resources and extending those exploitations around the globe. If we look at what happened in our development in Europe, it’s interesting to note that as we started industrializing and urbanizing, our population started going up very dramatically. So we exported people. Not only did we import and extract resources from around the world, we exported our population. How can third world countries follow in our footsteps? They don’t have any colonies.

Robert: In your book, Ancient Futures, you note that in traditional Ladakhi society those who did not directly have children still had lots of time and experience with children. Doesn’t modernization, because it tears those traditional social structures apart, also cut people off from the experience of being with – and caring for – other people’s children?

Helena: Exactly. Because of the close ties between people in Ladakh – community ties and extended family ties – everyone is involved in nurturing children and enjoying close contact with children throughout life, whether they happen to be their own children or not. I’ve experienced that personally: not having children myself, I feel a sense of deprivation much more strongly in the West than I do when I’m in Ladakh.

Robert: It’s heartening to know that you’re continuing to make progress with your work to introduce a development alternative in Ladakh. Do the Ladakhis themselves see what’s happening in the modern sector?

Helena: The older people see the changes. They were conscious of the need to limit numbers and to keep the land undivided, and they now shake their heads and wonder what will happen.

We’re experimenting in Ladakh. We are trying, through The Ladakh Project, to adapt development to the community-based, ecologically-based, extremely decentralized structures that are already there. It has to do with fostering a way of living that is closer to the earth and that takes into account these natural, more systemic controls. It has to do with respecting people’s consciousness. It also has to do with ensuring that people have real power right where they are, and with giving much more real power to women without requiring them to separate from their children. It’s a very complex set of issues, but I believe learning from Ladakh can help to show the way.

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