Not long ago, when the summer arrived and the earth sprouted vegetation, in the far-off villages of Giglit-Baltistan the native people would set about preparing for a journey up the mountains. They would round up their sheep and cattle, load their belongings on donkeys, perform some needful rituals, offer their scarifies to the Alpine deities and set off on a journey towards the highland shanties built for the summer sojourn. There, they would dwell for the entire summer and while the menfolk would do some farming, bask under the pristine sun and revel in the surrounding wild panorama, the womenfolk would milk the herd and prepare some delicious cheese, cream, butter and other dairy products. With the arrival of winter these folk would descend the mountains along with their livestock and load of butter and cheese for the household. Native people use various local and colloquial names for this yearly movement between low-land dwellings and highland summer pastures; in English this seasonal migration is called Transhumance.
Transhumance refers to the seasonal movement of pastoral people with their livestock from low land habitations to higher pastures. This seasonal migration begins in summer and ends with the arrival of winter. It has been one of the most important subsistence strategies of pastoral societies. Historical records reveal that Transhumance existed in one way or the other in almost every major society of the world. It was practiced in Britain, Balkans, Italy and Spain. Countries like Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland still practice Transhumance to certain extent. In Central Asian Kyrgyzstan Transhumance has become a part of national culture. It has been symbolized on the Kyrgyz national flag. Similarly in Australia it has become a culture heritage of the Australian alps.
While in many European, as well as Asian countries, Transhumance is still practiced in more modernize and systematic manner, in GB mountain societies the custom of seasonal migration form low lands to high pastures is losing its importance. Factors which account for this decline of erstwhile an important custom are; labour shortage, urbanization and involvement of youth and adults in education and alternative livelihood options.
Decline in farming activities in general and Transhumance in particular is mainly owing to shortage of active human labour in villages. In past people used to live as joint families and there were enough people available for domestic labour, outdoor farming and animal husbandry. The availability of human labour for activities like Transhumance was mainly due to the reason that in past very few options of subsistence were available and agriculture was the primary means of livelihood people would indulge in. Today livelihood sources have increased and multiple options of support have engaged bulk of the human labour in alternative professions previously available for farming and animal husbandry.
Another reason which accounts for the decline of Transhumance is the increased trend of urbanization. Thanks to the modern infrastructure, communication and road links the once remote and isolated villages have now been connected with modern urban centers. The easy connectivity between villages and cities has occasioned internal migration of people from villages to cities. In Gilgit-Baltistan, during the last two decades the number of people migrating from adjacent rural areas to urban centers has increased manifolds. The excessive urbanization has disturbed the demographic equilibrium rendering villages devoid of active labour force for agriculture related activities.
Likewise, the participation of younger generation in education has greatly decreased the dependence on traditional professions. Education equips youth with diverse skill sets and professions, enabling them to move up the social and economic ladder quickly than is otherwise possible. Today, people, especially youth, are more interested in choosing those professions which are materially rewarding and accord higher social status. The traditional professions have thus become a relic of past, consequently, land farming, animal husbandry and Transhumance are on the verge of decline especially in GB mountain communities.
Notwithstanding the shift in outlook, increased literacy rate, technological development and availability of multiple alternative professions the practice of Transhumance is still valid and productive for mountain societies of GB. There are social, economic, environmental and culture benefits which necessitate the practice of Transhumance.
Arguing the social benefits of Transhumance Caroline Juler , a Romanian author and researcher says that Transhumance fosters community ties and consolidates kinship. It creates a feeling of camaraderie and promotes the concepts of collectivization, which strengthens the community.
On economic side the benefits of Transhumance are ample. Milk obtained from animals grazing on high pastures is regarded to be superior in quality and taste. The milk in turn can be used in the making of superior quality dairy products i.e. butter, cheese, cream etc. which can not only serve domestic dairy needs , but can also be sold commercially to fetch extra income for the household.
Another argument for promoting Transhumance is that it balances the ecological and environmental equilibrium. Environmental experts believe that traditional methods of raising livestock by seasonal grazing are both energy efficient and conserving of arable land. Grazing animals over extensive areas is good for the land. Grassland ecologists believe that the practice of Transhumance creates a mosaic which allows biodiversity to flourish.
Lastly, Transhumance has been part of the culture of mountain communities of Gilgit-Baltistan for centuries. It makes up local myths, beliefs, rituals, songs and folk tales. Scraping a centuries old practice is tantamount to losing a big chunk of culture, which uniquely shapes the identity of communities.
Considering these benefits the World Initiative for Sustainable Pastoralism (WISP), International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism are promoting Transhumance because of its role in nature conservation, social cohesion, environmental health, food quality and culture traditions. Therefore, the mountain communities of GB, instead of relinquishing a practice which has ample social, economic and cultural benefits, should readopt it on modern lines by employing advanced knowledge and technological means in order to move towards a self-sustainable society.