Himalayan Handicrafts – A Snapshot of Livelihoods Development in Ladakh

Himalayan Handicrafts – A Snapshot of Livelihoods Development in Ladakh

Timothy Hefflinger is a William J. Clinton Fellow for Service with the American India Foundation (AIF). He has been working with the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLC-IT) since September 2016. The following thoughts are his alone and do not necessarily represent the positions of SLC-IT or AIF.

A few months ago, I began looking into the history of SLC-IT’s involvement in the promotion of handicrafts in Ladakh. What I discovered was an interesting progression that sheds some light on a small segment of Development in the region. Throughout my research, the questions I had were “Who was involved?”, “What were they hoping to achieve?”, and “How exactly are these activities going to help Ladakhis?”

The earliest mention of handicrafts promotion that I could find came from 2003, from the Report on Community Based Eco-Tourism Planning in Ladakh. However, a SLC-IT newsletter also mentioned early involvement in handicrafts. It seems likely that the organization has had an interest in promoting handicrafts since the inception of the organization in the year 2000.

What strikes me about reading those early materials is that most villagers were interested in receiving training, but they expressed little or no interest in marketing or sales. I get the sense that many people from the villages that initially implemented the program (Rumbak, Skyu/Kaya, Yangthang, Ulley, Hemis Shukpachen, Ang, and Chilling) intended to sell their handicraft products locally. Some even mentioned building village shops from which to sell the handcrafted products. Also, the relative importance of handicraft products seemed to vary widely among the villages. It was simply not a priority for everyone. Critically, these early years included partnerships between SLC-IT and the Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG), highlighting the importance of cooperation in getting such projects off the ground.

parachute cafe kesar 2014 (14)
A group of villagers from Kesar stand in front of their Himalayan Eco-Cafe (or Parachute Cafe) in 2014.

Another fact that stood out was that there was an early emphasis on women. In the early days, handicrafts sales became linked with the Himalayan Eco-Cafés, which were operated mainly by women. In that way, handicrafts became a venue for women’s empowerment and the diversification of livelihoods in Ladakhi families. It wasn’t until around 2011 and 2012 that men’s involvement in crafts was explicitly mentioned in SLC-IT publications, and I believe this echoes the greater development trends of those years. It is during that time period (2000 to 2011) that farming perhaps became devalued in the regional economy in favor of tourism. As men’s traditional occupations shifted, it became clear that handicrafts was a viable income supplement for both men and women. SLC-IT has attempted to make their training inclusive of both sexes in the intervening years. I believe this is a positive development, as there are extraordinarily rich heritages of both men’s and women’s crafts in Ladakh.

Aside from local production and local sales (through the SLC-IT-supported Himalayan Eco-Cafés), there was not much formal programmatic work related to handicrafts until the year 2010. In that year, SLC-IT’s own Jigmet Dadul won a Rufford Small Grant for his proposed project: “Conservation of the Snow Leopard through Predator-Friendly Wool.” This small infusion of capital allowed training programs to begin in earnest. In November of 2010, Jigmet and the other SLC-IT staff launched the first of these training programs, titled “Using Natural Dyes for Handicrafts,” in the Nubra valley. As the SLC-IT newsletter from the time reports,

“The objective of this training program was to give the women’s group practical knowledge on the different natural dye processes and using natural and local raw materials.”

These themes (using local materials to produce and finish goods) have lived on in all SLC-IT programming.

SLC-IT’s own Jigmet Dadul demonstrates one of the finer techniques of dry-needle-felting. Mr. Dadul is by now quite an accomplished felter, with particular skill in creating beautiful facial details on felted snow leopards and other animals.

The second official training held under the Predator-Friendly Wool program was focused mainly on knitting – the primary handicraft produced during this period. In fact, knitted items continue to sell well in the region, for obvious reasons. High-quality knitted items are simply a godsend in the frigid winter months, and SLC-IT’s emphasis on maintaining quality has been a hallmark of the group since the beginning.

Interestingly, I have noted an attitudinal shift regarding sales and marketing during this time period. In May 2011, I find the first written evidence that SLC-IT began committing to marketing and selling handicrafts products on behalf of villagers. The SLC-IT newsletter from the time period claims that

 “The products will be sold in SLC-IT’s office for the initial year, since the number of products is still limited.”

I suspect that many villagers were finding it difficult to sell their products from their Homestays or in their Eco-Cafés, and SLC-IT’s involvement in sales was a pragmatic effort. The exposure that SLC-IT could offer was much higher than what villagers could expect on their own. This had some side-effects, as well: I see comparisons being made between the quality of goods between villages during this time. Perhaps this is a good thing. A little competition between villages encourages creating high-quality goods, and doing so consistently.

Two villagers demonstrate their willingness and interest in learning new skills in Yangthang village in 2016.


At the conclusion of the Predator-Friendly Wool project in July 2011, participants were asked to sign basic memoranda indicating their intent to produce certain amounts of goods within set periods of time. This represents perhaps one of the first concrete steps SLC-IT took to truly professionalize their handicrafts work. As the Rufford Small Grant Program was winding down, SLC-IT reported that

“Since it was the last phase in the project, the SLC-IT team emphasized continued support to the group, provided product orders and numbers were met with. …SLC-IT will be directly in contact with the community for procurement of their products and link them with marketing channels.”

Shortly after this time, around October 2011, a new trend emerged in handicrafts, and I find it interesting. This trend is the “dry-needle-felting” style of creating small woolen figurines. As far as I know, this is not a local technique, and the needles necessary to produce the goods must be imported from Europe. In the dry-needling (or dry-felting) technique, those specialized needles are repeatedly punched into a woolen figurine to give it shape and definition. This process allows the creation of sometimes very striking figures, usually of local fauna. (As you might imagine, Snow Leopards are quite popular, and I’ve seen some amazing Ibexes as well. Though, now that I think about it, I’ve never once seen a wolf.)

This technique was introduced in an attempt to tap into those segments of the tourist markets that were flourishing on the sale of souvenirs. Unfortunately, I suspect this meant less energy and resources were invested in more-traditional crafts like knitting during this time, though knitted products continued to be important in sales.

Some finished products for sale in the SLC-IT office in Changspa, Leh in 2016.


This emphasis on production of dry-felted crafts was strong for many years thereafter. One newsletter from 2014 reported that

“the women of Karsha Village in Zanskar have continued the legacy of their ancestors by manufacturing and selling large numbers of woolen caps, socks, gloves, shawls, and carpets. In order to help these women diversify and further perfect their craft, SLC-IT conducted a two-day handicraft training that focused on the new technique of dry needle-felting. The women were very excited at the prospect of learning to make animal figurines using the new technique.”

In any case, dry-felted items will likely continue to be produced and sold for external markets. As long as it continues to add income to Ladakhi families, this is a good thing.

Some women learn dry-needle-felting in Yangthang village in 2016.

However, in late 2014, the Director of SLC-IT, Dr. Tsewang Namgail, began calling for greater diversity in the types of handicrafts produced, and villagers seemed to agree with him. The newsletter from the time reports that

“Dr. Namgail suggested diversifying the handicraft products. Possibilities of making woolen rugs, socks, caps, gloves, and sweaters for tourists were discussed. He emphasized on the quality rather than the quantity of products.”

Further, the newsletter reported that “villagers from Tukla, Liktse, Hemya, Khatpu and Tarchit requested training in other handicrafts.”

In the years between then and now, SLC-IT has been working to expand their influence in handicrafts throughout the region. Earlier years had seen the expansion of training programs throughout first the Sham valley, then the Nubra valley, then to Zanskar, and finally to the Rong valley. SLC-IT has also introduce standard sizes for their handicrafts, which enables standard pricing and honest quality comparisons among craftspeople. All of these efforts have paid off as the program gains eminence. Additionally, in late 2015 and 2016, the introduction of wood-carving and stone-etching in SLC-IT training has greatly expanded the reach of the program. I find these latter developments to be particularly encouraging.

Handicraft training at Rong Tukla 2013 (30)
SLC-IT’s own Tsering Lazes (left) learns the fine art of dry-needle-felting in Tukla village in 2013.

In late 2016 I had the opportunity to attend a handicrafts training conducted by SLC-IT in Yangthang village. The participants divided themselves into three groups by which craft they hoped to practice. There was a sizable group of men and women who dedicated themselves to improving their dry-felting techniques over the course of the three-day workshop, but there were also two smaller groups of (mostly men) who worked on wood-carving and stone-etching. These latter two crafts have very deep histories here in Ladakh, especially the stone-etching. I was thrilled to see the inter-generational nature of these crafts, with many young people learning from their elders. This is the true essence of crafts-work, and I was happy to see that SLC-IT was encouraging the transmission of knowledge and skill to the younger generation.

Men display the results of their crafts work after the 3-day training workshop held in Yangthang village in late 2016.

In conclusion, I have found that the SLC-IT Handicrafts Program has taken many turns over the years. I also believe that it is continually improving, and becoming more adept at increasing livelihoods for rural villagers every year. I believe that as long as SLC-IT maintains its current emphasis on quality, using local materials, and investing time and energy in skills training, the program will be a success. I also believe that there may be sufficient interest among participants to create a producer co-operative to further their goals of marketing and sales. Only time will tell if that idea has any merit, but in any case, I’m grateful to have witnessed Himalayan Handicrafts in action.

– By Timothy Hefflinger

Garbage Management in Ladakh – From Supply to Demand

Garbage Management in Ladakh – From Supply to Demand

Timothy Hefflinger is a William J. Clinton Fellow for Service with the American India Foundation (AIF). He has been working with the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLC-IT) since September 2016. The following thoughts are his alone and do not necessarily represent the positions of SLC-IT or AIF.

Garbage is a problem here in Ladakh.

And SLC-IT has been working to solve the problem, from the Rong valley in the east to Zanskar in the West.

If you look at an issue as big as solid waste management, it’s clear that you can define the problem in a number of ways. This is important, because how you define the problem will determine what kinds of solutions you create.

School children gather bags of waste after a litter cleanup day in Ladakh.

For example, you can see the problem as a supply-side issue. (When dealing with wastes, the “product” is the wastes themselves – all those millions of biscuit wrappers and plastic water bottles that find their way to the region through both local and tourist consumption.) In the case of Ladakh, the problem, if seen from a supply perspective, is that there is far too much supply.

My analysis of the history of SLC-IT’s involvement in waste management over the years is that the initial perception (which may have been true a few years ago) was that it was mostly tourists causing waste problems. Early waste projects were centered around “garbage clean-up” days in rural villages, particularly those along trekking routes. It is important to understand that the problem was being defined by the influence of outsiders – tourists littering their plastic water bottles was a clear and obvious problem. Wastes collected in streams and meadows, and organizing their clean-up was not a terribly difficult way to remedy the problem of litter. These projects will likely continue to be needed for a long time, though hopefully as the cultural acceptability of litter decreases in Ladakh (and in India generally), their need will decrease.

Ladakh villagers refurbish steel drums for use as garbage cans.

Confronting this problem from the supply-side perspective, SLC-IT and some partners realized that if tourists could be encouraged to use re-usable water bottles and eat food that did not come wrapped in plastics, the problem of “too much supply” would be lessened. SLC-IT and its partners instituted the Himalayan Eco-Café program in 2002. The idea behind this program was that tourists would produce less wastes on an average trekking trip.

There has since been a reckoning in Ladakh that tourists were no longer the only ones producing (and polluting) solid wastes. As more and more goods and foods that enter Ladakh are wrapped in disposable packaging, locals themselves are generating a lot of solid wastes, many of which are not recyclable at all. This points to the greater problem of over-supply, from both tourists and locals. It’s not a problem unique to Ladakh, but the geographical scope of waste production is staggering in an area as huge and rugged as Ladakh.

A Ladakhi woman refurbishes a steel drum for use as a garbage can.

The other way to think of the problem, however, is that of demand. It’s often convenient to think of solid wastes as just that – waste. But if you are forced to confront the problem on a large enough scale, it enters the realm of governance, public health, and economics. In order to effectively deal with solid wastes, society must place some “value” on their disposal. We must come together and realize that individuals cannot solve the problem of solid wastes, but that it’s a project for a collective. We must therefore create “demand” for wastes, in order for them to be valued, in order for them to be appropriately dealt with.

Now, it’s far beyond the capacity of SLC-IT to begin municipal waste collection in a place like Leh, for example. At least in some places like Leh city, the municipality is gathering wastes in an organized fashion. Once a week, a dump truck rumbles through the streets, its loud-speaker on top announcing its presence. People deliver their wastes to the workers on the truck, who usually return the waste bins and bags on-the-spot. It’s not a glamorous system, but it works.

It’s trickier in the rural villages, but SLC-IT has been working on waste collection there too. For now, SLC-IT has decided to keep its involvement to those areas most likely to be frequented by tourists, not all of whom are yet keen on minimizing their waste outputs. SLC-IT has built masonry waste-collection areas in four villages and locations throughout the region, with plans for more in the future.

Each waste collection area (whether or not a masonry shed has yet been built) features two or three heavy steel drums in which wastes can be deposited. The drums themselves were re-purposed from work sites along new roadways in Ladakh. As the Border Roads Organization makes new roads, they use thousands of these drums filled with tar, and after the tar is melted out of them and mixed into new asphalt road surfaces, most of the drums are purposeless. Through a partnership with the Border Roads Organization, SLC-IT takes as many barrels as they can, cleans them up with the help of villagers, and paints them. This gives them a “second life.”

The barrels themselves are divided into two categories. The first is labeled “Plastics, Tin, Glass” and can be thought of broadly as recyclable materials. The second is labeled “Other Wastes” and usually end up filled with organic wastes or those wastes that are not recyclable. The masonry sheds separate wastes by “Paper,” “Plastic,” and “Metal.”

This puts us face-to-face with the issue of demand. First, I’d like to point out that there was once very high demand for compostable materials in Ladakh, but this demand is waning. The first reason for this is that people are raising less livestock than they used to. Goats, sheep, and cows were once prime disposers of compostable wastes – people would feed all their kitchen scraps to their livestock. You can still see this today, even in Leh city, but in general, as people care for less livestock, organic wastes are being treated more and more like “a problem” instead of “something to feed to the cow.” The second reason is that artificial fertilizers have supplanted a lot of compost use in the region. There isn’t as much composting going on as there used to be, so organic wastes are problematic.

The other lack of “demand” is for recyclable materials, but this problem is not unique to Ladakh or India. Market demand for recycled materials almost everywhere in the world is usually lower than is optimal because recycled materials are usually lower quality (and sometimes more expensive) than virgin materials. Recycling is also energy, labor, and carbon intensive, so it’s not always easy to justify recycling something if it’s dirtier for the environment than producing something anew. These conversations are beginning to become more common here in Ladakh, but for the time being, I do not know of any recycling capacity here whatsoever. As I understand it, those bins for “recyclable” materials don’t yet connect to recycling factories on the far end. Not yet, anyway.


For now, wastes are deposited where most other collected wastes in Ladakh are destined: landfills. This is far from an “ideal” solution, as it does nothing to confront the fundamental problem of over-supply. It also does not create “demand” for recyclable materials. But in the absence of municipal capacity to deal with recyclable wastes, it’s the best that can be done. And it’s certainly better than incinerating wastes, which is the only option left for villagers when wastes mount up. The landfills (near the village of Sabu to the east of Leh) themselves need to be regulated and held to higher environmental standards than they currently are. For example, I have been told that they are not “sanitary” landfills (with thick clay bottom layers to prevent leakage, etc.), but are open-air waste pits. This is problematic, so I suspect that will be the next barrier to cross.

For SLC-IT, the plans are to link these “Plastic, Tin, Glass” rubbish bins with real recyclers in the future. SLC-IT is looking into the possibility of collecting these materials and trucking them to Jammu (the nearest recycling facilities) aboard trucks that would otherwise be making that drive empty. (I have been told that many trucks delivering goods and supplies to Leh from Jammu return empty after dropping their cargoes.) SLC-IT will need to fully develop those partnerships to make that a reality. I also hope there is more research done to understand the life-cycle of recyclable materials in Ladakh, and what can be done to not only make them less carbon intensive, but to create real markets for them.

So, in conclusion, SLC-IT is attempting to tackle the problem of solid wastes from multiple angles. I should also mention that the group works to educate Ladakhis (and foreigners, when possible) about sustainable waste solutions. Most education programs sponsored or hosted by SLC-IT include a component on managing wastes, especially those for school children. For now, SLC-IT is attempting to solve these problems while advocating for bigger changes – changes at the local, state, and national levels. I applaud SLC-IT in their efforts, and hope to see their vision of a clean, safe Ladakh fully realized.


By Timothy Hefflinger