India-China Himalayan standoff deadly for cashmere herds

SRINAGAR, India (AP) - Contrasts between Indian and Chinese troops high in the Himalayas are taking a heavy toll on traditional herds of goats that deliver the best and most expensive cashmere in the world.
This week, a fatal brawl between Indian and Chinese soldiers caused the deaths of at least 20 Indian soldiers in the Galwan Valley, a beautiful landscape that is part of a border region that has been controversial for decades because of its strategic importance as the world's highest landing site.
The months-long military stalemate between the Asian giants is damaging to local communities, as tens of thousands of Himalayan goat children are lost because they have not been able to reach traditional pastures in winter, officials and residents said.
For centuries, nomads roamed these rooftop areas around the unlimited borders with China and Tibet, and herding the famous and robust goats that produce the ultra-weak pashmina wool the finest cashmeres.
Cashmere takes its name from the controversial Kashmir Valley, where artisans weave the wool into fine yarn and exquisite shawls that cost up to $ 1,000 each in a major craft capex in a major craft export industry that employs thousands .
This recent friction between the rival nuclear powers increases the pressure from climate change and the longer-term losses of pasture land for the Changpa, the nomadic shepherds who raise the pashmina goats.
With access to the usual breeding and birth areas, which are blocked by military personnel on both sides, newborn goats die in the extreme cold of higher altitudes, shepherds say.
“The refusal of pasture land has resulted in high goat baby mortality. It's so scary that it has never been, ”said Sonam Tsering, secretary general of the All Changtang Pashmina Growers Cooperative Marketing Society.
He said thousands of newborns died this year because most of the 300,000 flocks of goats, which produce around 45 tons of fine feather-like wool each year, were trapped in the extreme cold.
The authorities in Leh, the capital of Ladakh-controlled Ladakh, gave no information and said they were still collecting data.
However, two officials from the Ladakh animal husbandry department said that, according to sales representatives, the deaths in around 60,000 to 80,000 children per year were much higher than the usual 5 to 10% mortality rate. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they said the Ladakh government prevented them from speaking to reporters.
The demand for cashmere, which is carefully combed, sorted, cleaned and hand-woven from the goats, has always exceeded the supply, so bottlenecks are a certainty, said several traders.
"It will be catastrophic for wool production," said Namgyal Durbuk, a village official in the region.
India and China waged a border war in 1962, which also led to Ladakh. The two countries have been trying unsuccessfully to settle their border dispute since the early 1990s, as their soldiers line up along a thousand-mile, unbounded border that stretches from Ladakh in the north to the Indian state of Sikkim in the north-east.
For most of the year, the Changpa raise their herds in the vast cold desert of Ladakh's Changtang Plateau, which spans Tibet at over 5,000 meters above sea level.
The harsh, windy climate allows the goats to grow their super-soft wool. But the region becomes inhospitable from December to February when the temperatures can drop to minus 50 degrees Celsius.
At this point, the Changpas are moving their cattle to somewhat lower locations and to warmer pastures in the Demchok, Hanle, Korzok, Chumar and Chushul areas near the controversial border with China.
This year, the Indian authorities blocked their transit for months, several people involved in herding said.
The two sides blame each other for the Monday evening clash, the deadliest conflict in 45 years.
Tensions have increased since August when India unilaterally declared the region federal territory and at the same time separated it from the controversial Kashmir. China is among a handful of countries that have strongly condemned this move and raised it in international fora, including the United States Security Council.
Indian officials have been almost silent on issues related to the confrontation with China. However, a security official in Ladakh, who spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with state regulations, said the pastures are close to the controversial border and the region's restrictions are aimed at protecting shepherds from Chinese soldiers.
Around 1,200 Changpa families have lost access to pasture land due to the confrontation, even in areas controlled by the Indian military, Tsering said.
But the Chinese side is also getting involved, he and other shepherds said.
“Our nomads have had increasing difficulties in gaining access to pastures in these places in recent years. Chinese soldiers blocked her while bringing shepherds from Tibet to our country, ”said Tsering.
Phuntsog, a local farmer using only one name, said local elders have complained to the Indian government about Chinese raids for years.
"You ignored it every time. Now you see where the Chinese are. The worst thing is that these unfortunate, beautiful creatures that secure our livelihood fall victim to this political and military game, ”he said.
China's foreign ministry said on Thursday that such allegations were "pure fiction." "Chinese border troops have only patrolled Chinese areas," the ministry said.
Tsering said shepherds started losing ground years ago when the Chinese began to "snatch up our pastures in a concerted manner over the years, like inch by inch." He cited an example of a huge winter pasture called Kakjung near the Indus.
"It has been a restricted area for us in the past four years. You (Chinese) have taken full control of it," he said.
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Associated press reporters in Beijing contributed to this report.
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Follow Aijaz Hussain on Twitter at twitter.com/hussain_aijaz

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