What might this common platform achieve?
In a historic development, yak herder associations from 11 mountain districts across Nepal – from Darchula in the West to Taplejung in the East – came together to formally announce the formation of the Yak Chauri Farmers’ Federation Nepal. It is historic for several reasons. Yak herders are on the margins, with mobility central to their livelihoods and identity. Even organising them at the district level is a challenge, as several speakers noted at the meeting. While there has been some success with district-level organisation and networking (such as in districts like Panchthar, Ilam and Taplejung), this is the first time that they have come together from across the country to form a national-level federation. Their local issues may differ, but at the national level they now have a common platform and voice.
Historical and emerging challenges
There were extremely rich discussions at the two-day workshop held on 2–3 October 2023 at ICIMOD in Kathmandu, Nepal, where the formation of the Federation was announced. Several key issues came up time and again: climate uncertainty and change, inbreeding depression because of limited genetic exchange, livestock depredation by wild carnivores, and rangeland degradation, including the spread of invasive and unpalatable species. In his address, Rewati Raman Poudel, Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development (MoALD) noted that instead of tackling these problems in isolation, we should adopt an integrated approach and promote good rangeland practices through the yak herding communities.
In previous years, the exchange of breeding bulls across borders maintained the health and vigour of yak herds. Unfortunately, closed borders and restrictions on grazing and movement have isolated yak populations for nearly six decades now. As a result, yak populations have suffered from inbreeding depression and reduced productivity. This leads to low quality of offspring, reproductive problems, and reduction in growth rate and body size, making yak populations less adaptive to the changing environment and more prone to disease and climate shocks, especially at a young age. Livestock depredation by wild carnivores, mainly snow leopard, is increasing, they say. Herders expressed concern about the lack of compensation and investment in livestock insurance to address this problem. Domestic livestock make up some 40% of the snow leopard’s diet, and the decreasing population of yak and chauris could have implications for conservation of snow leopards. This critical challenge requires innovative solutions. Rajesh Kumar Rai of Tribhuvan University said: “Instead of seeking state assistance, yak herders should seek compensation under the payment for ecosystem services (PES) model for conserving upland ecosystems.”
Similarly, herders spoke about the impacts of climate change on their herds. Unseasonal rain and snowfall are complicating mobility decisions, affecting livestock health, and causing mortality. They reiterated that the spread of unpalatable and invasive plant species such as Bidens pilosa, Erigeron karvinskianus, Galinsoga quadriradiata into rangelands has replaced the local species, gradually resulting in the degradation of rangeland health. Other issues related to access to markets, access to health and education services, lack of facilities and services for herder communities, and a younger generation unwilling to take up traditional yak herding. “Of all the major challenges, the discontinuation of yak herding by the younger generation has emerged as the most critical challenge,” says Dawa Sangbu Sherpa, Chairperson of the Yak Chauri Farmers’ Federation Nepal.
What might a federation achieve?
The yak federation gives herders a voice at the national level. It also brings together disparate groups who have little bargaining power on their own, given that their numbers are small, and their concerns peripheral to the dominant development and conservation discourse. At national level, federations wield the heft that local associations do not have, to influence policy and amplify diverse local concerns from across the country.
Community based institutions such as Yak Chauri Farmers’ Federation Nepal provide a platform for sustainable partnerships to engage directly with the communities on the ground. This national level institution is envisioned to be federated at regional level (such as a Hindu Kush Himalaya Pastoral Network), and ultimately progress towards global pastoral/yak network, similar to the World Reindeer Herders’ Association.
In Nepal, we have the example of the Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal (FECOFUN), with its base of more than 22,500 Community Forestry User Groups (CFUGs), a multi-tiered federation that is organised at community, district, province, and national level. As Parbata Gautam, General Secretary, FECOFUN, advised the newly formed federation: “This federation is meant to advocate for securing the rights of yak herders. For a start, please fight to reform unjust policies, and initiate dialogue with the local governments to resolve issues pertaining to resource allocation between yak herders and protected areas.”