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Military tensions between India and China in the Himalayas trap cashmere wool trade

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PHOBRANG, India – As a young Indian shepherd growing up in the Himalayas, Tsering Angchok let his precious goats graze in a meadow north of the crystal clear waters of Lake Pangong – until China and India indulged in it a battle in 1962. Today, the shore of the lake is home to a Chinese military base and, according to American experts, new radar installations and a base housing artillery emplacement for the People’s Army of release.

Angchok, now 70, lives about 80 km north of the lake. Here too, the pastures where the villagers take their goats in winter have recently been closed off. Since this summer, the area has been part of a two-mile-wide buffer zone between Indian and Chinese troops.

Two years after India and China clashed in a series of border skirmishes, the recent creation of buffer zones in the Himalayan region of Ladakh has been hailed as an important step towards containing tensions between the two neighboring giants . But India’s steady withdrawal from its historically claimed areas has taken valuable grazing land away from the Changpas, a semi-nomadic Tibetan people famous for producing Pashmina cashmere wool – the “sweet gold” once favored by Mughal royalty and Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon.

Sitting in the last house of Phobrang, the last Indian village before the gravel road turned into desolate plains, Angchok was seething. “We are ceding more and more land to the Chinese,” he said.

On September 9, almost exactly two years after opposing soldiers fired on each other in an alarming spike in tension, India and China announced a withdrawal from Gogra-Hot Springs, a campsite used generations ago by traders on the Himalayan route between Kashmir and Xinjiang in western China. The development was welcomed in New Delhi and Beijing – less in Ladakh.

“Almost all of our winter grazing areas now fall under newly agreed buffer zones,” said Konchok Stanzin, a local government official in Ladakh. “The buffer zones were created solely from our land. China has lost nothing at all.

For centuries, the Changpas have raised their Pashmina goats in these mountains, at elevations exceeding 17,000 feet. Hardy goats grow soft undercoats renowned for their extreme warmth and lightness, and the Changpas shear the wool and transport it to the nearby valley of Kashmir, where families of skilled artisans weave the raw fibers onto wooden looms to make shimmering shawls, garments and blankets. .

Since the 1800s, these coveted exports have been shipped from Kashmir to eager buyers as far away as Paris and London. Today, cashmere – the English word derived from the region’s name – remains synonymous with the finest wool, even though most cashmere actually comes from producers in China, Mongolia and Afghanistan.

In India’s Ladakh and Kashmir regions, herders and weavers at both ends of the wool trade say their difficulties are growing.

Before June 2020, when a deadly clash between Indian and Chinese troops killed dozens of soldiers and shut down areas that once housed Changpas herds, a kilogram of raw cashmere cost $120. Today it’s nearly $220, according to Showkat Ahmad Mir, 41, a third-generation Kashmiri who is part of a weaving cooperative in Srinagar.

“The supply of raw cashmere wool has been disrupted,” he said. “If the conflict continues, there will be a huge decline in Pashmina goats. »

The lack of pasture forced the Indian authorities to intervene. Ravinder Kumar, the local government secretary for animal and sheep husbandry in Ladakh, said his office had provided around half a million kilograms of cattle feed this year to the Changthang region, which is home to the Changpa.

“Before June 2020, there was hardly anything provided on a regular basis,” Kumar said in an interview. “Vast pastures were available to the Changpas.”

Tsering Sonam, 61, a Phobrang resident who owned more than 500 goats and 50 yaks, was one of the herders who felt caught out.

In the summer, Sonam took his goats to the plains near Phobrang, where they ate grass on the banks of small glacier-fed streams, he recalls. In mid-November, when temperatures in Phobrang dipped to minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 30 degrees Celsius), Sonam and other herders walked with their goats and yaks for three days east, high in the mountains, towards China.

Eventually, herders would congregate in Hot Springs and the Kugrang River Valley, where fresh water and grass can be found even in winter, the key breeding season for Pashmina goats. These days, these two areas are off-limits and are part of new buffer zones.

Earlier this year, Sonam said he had had enough. He sold most of his Pashmina goats, keeping only five.

Stanzin, the government official, and other local leaders say the herders have recently been denied access to another area, leading them to believe that the Indian army is preparing to withdraw from a vast area known as the name of Patrolling Point 16, transforming an area of ​​150 square miles. swath in the valley of the Kugrang River into an area prohibited to inhabitants. If the valley were evacuated, herders would be cut off from an even larger area of ​​nearly 400 square miles, according to local leaders, who expressed their fears to Indian newspapers and on social media without prompting a response from officials in New Delhi. .

The Indian Ministry of Defense declined to comment for this article.

While the desolate mountains contested by India and China hold few natural resources underground, they do have tributaries of major rivers, including the Indus, and strategic heights that lead to Kashmir and Tibet – two politically turbulent regions and vulnerable in the eyes of New Delhi and Beijing, respectively.

Military officials and analysts in China, India and the United States – which have supported India with intelligence sharing and supplies in its high-altitude confrontation – have warned that the border remains tense, despite buffer zones . Last month, Manoj Pande, the Indian army chief, told a conference in New Delhi that he had not seen a “significant reduction” in the number of Chinese troops near Ladakh. And on December 9, Indian and Chinese soldiers fought with clubs and fists in Arunachal Pradesh, an Indian state further south and east along the 2,100-mile border.

In August, India announced it was deploying amphibious assault boats to Lake Pangong. Meanwhile, on the northern side of the lake, where Angchok used to take his goats, China has built radar installations and a military base, surrounded by trenches, which could serve as a command center for a 10,000-man division, according to a report. November from satellite imagery experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

Today in Phobrang, life has been turned upside down by the frequent roar of army trucks carrying supplies for the border troops. At the home of the village chief, Konchak Stobgais also complained about the changes.

As he spoke, a low-flying Indian fighter jet broke the silence, leaving a white vapor trail that stretched across the cloudless blue sky before disappearing behind a barren mountain peak.

The Indian army “sees these areas as mere wastelands”, Stobgais said. “But for us, these mountains are our lifeline.”

Shih reported from New Delhi.

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