A highlander may live his entire life on the mountain, yet cannot guess the vastness of the Dagala (mountain) in Thimphu. So goes a Bhutanese adage Jhob Geydi Shi Rung, Dagalami Pho Methong.

The mountain that is believed to have about a thousand lakes, however, is inadequate for highlanders to graze their livestock, as the mountain remains covered in snow for half the year.  This makes highlanders to migrate to neighbouring dzongkhags of Wangdue, Chukha, and Phuentsholing.

Of the 36 households in Dagala, Phub Gyem, 44, has the most number of yaks. Her family migrates with almost 200 yaks between Basochu in Wangdue and Chapcha in Chukha, and Dagala in Thimphu.

Her neighbour in Labatama, situated more than 4,000m above sea level, Pem Tshering moves to Nahi in Wangdue during winter and close to Chudzom in Paro.

“If we don’t move around like our parents used to, then our livestock won’t survive,” Pem Tshering, who owns about 90 yaks, said.

In Dagala, each household has demarcated areas to graze their livestock. If by any chance her yaks cross over to other areas, she has to aplogise to the person with the grazing rights and compensate with dairy products.

Should the government endorse the rules for tsamdro or pastureland, it could stop their traditional practice of migrating to lower valleys in other dzongkhags altogether.

The Land Act enacted on June 27, 2007 will complete 10 years in a fortnight.

The Act states: “After 10 years from the date of enactment of this Act, Tsamdro shall be leased only to a lessee who is a resident of the dzongkhag where the Tsamdro is situated.”

This could mean that highlanders of Dagala like Phub Gyem and Pem Tshering cannot lease pastureland in other dzongkhags where they have been migrating for years.

The Cabinet has not yet endorsed the rules on the lease of pastureland.

The agriculture ministry was working on the guideline to lease pastureland until last year. It was then handed over to the National Land Commission, as the rule was more relevant to the commission.

During a session at the National Assembly recently, South Thimphu Member of Parliament Yeshey Zimba urged the agriculture ministry to reconsider the rule that would need the highlanders to graze only within their dzongkhag.

“The highlanders say that this will cause a lot of inconveniences to them even threatening their traditions and culture,” he said.

Seasonal migration of yaks facilitates effective management and use of rangeland forages, protection of watersheds, preservation of spiritual abodes and religious sites, among others.

Besides, they have also been instrumental in preserving unique culture and tradition that evolved through their existence, livestock officials said.

Considering the contributions of highlanders and increasing access of highlanders to markets, it is crucial to integrate highlanders to the mainstream development.

Sporadic attempts have been made in the past through projects but it lacked continuity after the projects complete their terms. Highland development was identified as one of the priorities in the 11th Plan.

The highlanders are bogged down with other pressing issues for now.

“We’ll wait until the government enforces the rule and then see our alternatives,” Phub Gyem said.  “For now there are other urgent matters to resolve.”

While sheep rearing has gone extinct, most nomadic herders are facing acute shortage of helping hands.

Except for a few, all children of the herders are attending school in boarding schools in nearby gewogs.

“These days they don’t have an idea of a sheep and they are least interested,” Phub Gyem said.

It has been six years since her eldest child, who is a class 12 student, returned home.

“They’ve adapted to the lives in the town and are not keen to work with animals,” she said.

Being the eldest in the family, Phub Gyem could not attend school because there was no one to help her parents tend to their livestock of more than 400 yaks, horses, and sheep.

“We’ve worked so hard our entire lives to keep this tradition and our ancestral assets thriving but for what purpose if our children don’t continue to live here?” she said.

While the yak population has remained almost constant since 2012, yak-herding households have declined annually by 1.4 percent between 2012 and 2015.

Transhumant yak herding exists in 11 dzongkhags with 993 yak herding households and 38,222 yaks as of 2015. There were 39,543 yaks in 2013.

This problem is not only limited to Dagala. During the Royal Highlander Festival in Laya, Gasa a nomad, Om said she sold about 30 yaks to herders from Lunana. More than half the gewog has sold their yaks and depend on cordyceps and horses today.

“We can’t look after them any more,” said Phub Gyem.

Tshering Palden | Dagala