Shifting September: Lessons in Leh on Ecology

“Julley” printed on a wall that I pass daily on my walk.

The word just sounds welcoming, like a soft, verbal hug.  Oftentimes, the second syllable lasts longer than the moment shared between passersby, as if to not only offer an approaching embrace, but to also lend a departing pat on the back.  This is to say, as so many travel writers and advocates before have said, this is a special place.

Leh is situated at about 11,500ft as the capital city of Ladakh region in Jammu and Kashmir state.  Ladakh, the Land of High Passes, gifts an air that is thin and crisp.  The views of the mountainous desert are striking and harshly gorgeous.  The vegetables and fruits — that for now are readily available right outside my front door — make me wonder if I’ve ever had fresh food before.  Laughter is freely flowing and gurgur cha plentifully boiling.  But these joys and the romantically received moments from this special place are rapidly changing, both within the current moment of winter transition and the longer history of ‘progress’ and the Development sphere that’ve so hungrily feasted on this land since the 1980s.

Sharing the exact sentiments as Helena Norberg-Hodge after her long tenure living in Ladakh, Janet Rizvi comments on the changes in the region, 1983: 

The Ladakhis’ methods of meeting the challenges posed by their inhospitable environment — methods evolved by painful trial and error over centuries if not millennia — have stood the test of time.  It is the developer’s job to understand these and, and build upon them … Any other kind of ‘development’ can only be counter-productive, and can only end by destroying the society it sets out to improve.  [1]

This holds true anywhere in the world.  However, with the advent of ‘progress’ and material growth, increasing population sizes, new influences and directions away from locally-sourced life, and extensively tapped tourism, how do we maintain our tried and true means of traditional living?  It can become a vicious cycle of homogenization, dissolved self-reliance, and unsustainable schemes.  Most commentators speculate this is where Ladakh, particularly Leh district, is at.     


To understand myself as an American India Foundation William J. Clinton Service Fellow in India, I didn’t need to do much reflection on ‘service,’ ‘fellow,’ ‘India,’ or really even the orbits of Development work in which my batch has been spread across the country to engage.  These are pieces already part of what I live for and I expect they’ll indefinitely orient my professional and personal life.  Not cynically, I recognize the Development game globally as one of playing catch-up and clean-up.  Swacch Bharat Abhiyan is a mission for eliminating open defecation and rampant littering in India.  Demonetization was to stop black money, or illegally printed money, or foreign, terrorist-backed fake money.  Governmental and NGO education initiatives across the country seek to alleviate the massive pressures on the under-resourced and over-attended schools and universities.  Mental health efforts struggle to redirect and untangle behaviors and taboos around productive and available treatment.  We’re thinking forward while necessarily working backward.  There’re some encouraging successes happening this way, and there are immense alternative models and programs out there — many of which AIF works with in shared dedication “to catalyzing social and economic change in India.” [2]

What I wasn’t ready for, however, was to land in a place where we are at the time and ability to be ahead of the need for complete developmental reaction.  Many commentators on Ladakh may well challenge this claim, but on the environmental front I truly believe right now it’s possible to set in motion initiatives and interventions to not only mitigate degradation but also invigorate this region’s ecological conscience.  This isn’t to ignore the trash I walk past through the market, the chronic-cough-causing dust the covers everything within the town as countless new guest houses go up, or the loss of what minimal green is here.  I have faith because there are organizations like my host, Snow Leopard Conservancy – India Trust (SLC – IT), that operate here.  As a recent Ulley homestay promotional video invitingly tells, “To us, they are just the guys who will always be around to show us how to make the most of what we have:  A better way to live.” 

Prayer flags line the path to the stupa above the gates into town, spreading their message in the wind to the town below.

SLC – IT is indeed primarily focused on its namesake, the snow leopard.  However, this takes many forms through their education programs, research on the whole of Ladakhi ecosystem, livestock corral protection, camera trapping, promotion of ecotourism with homestays, handicraft development, trainings, and just overall presence as accountability to the conservation community.  In one of our channels within the training and education programs, we concentrate on the monastic leaders of Ladakh.  Within Leh district, but particularly throughout the rural reaches of the mountains and valleys, (Tibetan) Buddhism plays a major role in daily life, so working with those leaders is an essential step to helping stimulate awareness and cultivate good practices for interacting with the natural surroundings.  Importantly, this effort is a mutual learning endeavor.  We try to learn as much as we can from the monks and nuns about the inherent principles of Buddhism that teach conservationist views of our immediate world. 

Interpreting these teachings from Buddhist and local knowledge into workshops and training modules is my task.  My days are spent reading into and discussing the environmental efforts and conditions throughout Ladakh and subsequently strategizing how we can blend the ideas of science and religion into a robust model of conservation.  Mostly I’ve been researching on the growth of ‘ecological Buddhism,’ ‘engaged Buddhism,’ ‘environmental / green Buddhism’ that has swept initiatives and ideas about faith communities’ (necessary) involvement in conservation and environmental protection across the globe. For our next months in the education wing of SLC – IT, I’ve locked onto a model that’s rooted in the Mongolian Buddhist monasteries. With this we should have some good resources and orientation to clearly engage monks and scholars in order to build out a workshop framework and protocol for SLC – IT moving forward. Essentially, I’ll need to adapt best practices and questions into a Tibetan Buddhist perspective generally, design flexible, regionally-centered curricula particularly, and make it all user-friendly enough to be easily picked up by anyone organizationally. So far, my leaning is towards utilizing the ever fun and prescient Jataka Tales for keeping these modules engaging and story based.  Earnest to begin exploring this inclination mid-October while traveling between monasteries in the Nubra Valley.


Looking to the year ahead, it seems appropriate to internalize, or rather set free for myself and others, an intention rooted in the very precepts with which I seek to teach:

Even as a mother protects with her life

Her child, her only child,

So with a boundless heart

Should one cherish all living beings,

Radiating kindness over the entire world,

Spreading upward to the skies,

And downward to the depths,

Outward and unbounded.

Freed from the hatred and ill-will,

Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down,

Free from drowsiness,

One should sustain this recollection.

This is said to be the sublime abiding.

By not holding to fixed views,

The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,

Being freed from all sense desires,

Is not born again into this world.  [3]


Julley ~ drew


[1]  Rizvi, Janet.  Ladakh:  Crossroads of High Asia, 2 ed., Oxford University Press: New Delhi, 1996.  173-174.

[2]  Mission of the American India Foundation.  <>.  Accessed 2 October 2017.

[3]  “Loving Kindness:  Metta Sutta.”  Kaza, Stephanie and Kenneth Kraft, eds.  Dharma Rain:  Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism.  Shambhala Publications:  Boston, 2000.  29-30.

Andrew is excited to join the Snow Leopard Conservancy - India Trust to work with the education program for monks and nuns as an AIF Clinton Fellow. He is a firm believer in the human ability and duty to serve our neighbors far and near. What is important to him is to always be engaged with people and collaboratively work for cooperation, empowerment, and sustainability. He has helped build houses in Trinidad and Tobago as well as Sri Lanka; researched nonlinear optics in France; taught tennis, 5th grade, and high school programs in the U.S.; and analyzed sanitation projects in India. He aspires to motivate these experiences into an informed and adaptive life mission of service. After spending ten months studying Urdu in Lucknow, he is grateful to continue living in India, engaging this perplexing place he calls home-away-from-home. Andrew holds a B.Sc. in Physics from Austin Peay State University, an M.A. in Religious Studies from the University of Chicago, and is always seeking to learn more.

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