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The Native Perspective, Episode 9: Sherpa

The Native Perspective is a Food Circle project that discusses taking urgent climate change action in order to protect indigenous peoples who depend on their natural environments for survival, food, shelter, and to maintain their cultural identity. Because climate change affects those who rely on nature the most, it is crucial to support indigenous communities worldwide which in turn ensures the preservation of ecosystems, as indigenous peoples have developed a balanced rapport with their natural surroundings and there is much knowledge to be gained from their lifestyles for more sustainable living. The dialogue also draws talking points from ecocriticism; it examines people’s attitudes towards nature, and indigenous studies; centering and elevating the voices of different indigenous cultures and promoting their experiences. This is made possible thanks to Sapient, the mother company of Food Circle, which every year offers internships to students from all around the world, creating a uniquely multicultural environment.

The Mountaineers in Extreme Conditions

Nestled amid the mountain ranges of Nepal, Tingri County, Tibet Autonomous Region and the Himalayas, Sherpa people are a Tibetan ethnic group of mountain pioneers.

The name "sherpa" means "those from the east," alluding to their origins in Khams, Eastern Tibet [1]. Sherpas, who were formerly nomads, moved to Nepal in the 15th century and have since made a livelihood as farmers, herders of yaks and cows, and dealers of salt, wool, and rice (potatoes, barley, and buckwheat). It is believed through oral tradition that four people came from Kham in Tibet to Solu-Khumbu at various points, eventually leading to the four distinct Sherpa clans known as Minyagpa, Thimmi, Sertawa, and Chawa.

Some 150,000 people define themselves as Sherpa, some small groups of which also reside in North America, Australia and Europe [2]. Their language of the same name, Sherpa, is mainly spoken, though there exists some literature in Sherpa. Both Nepal and Sikkim, India, have sherpa as an official language [3]. Most often it is used by older people in communities. Unfortunately, there are cases where children are ridiculed at school for speaking Sherpa, because Nepali language is the preferred way of communication in towns. Younger people are also more likely to speak Nepali or other languages. Sherpa literature is taught in various schools and has been featured in publications including newspapers and radio shows.

The Solu-Khumbu area, which lies near the Himalayas, is home to the Sherpas of Nepal. Up high in the mountains the high altitude might be extremely challenging to navigate through for the rest of us, but it is no obstacle for the Sherpa people. Sherpa communities are located at the highest altitudes of any human habitation, no matter where they are situated. Their settlements are located between 10,000 and 14,000 feet in Khumbu (approximately 3,000 and 4,300 meters) [4]. At this altitude, winters are harsh, with snow covering the ground from November to February. Nothing can be accomplished outside. Only the old Sherpas remain in the villages while the majority of physically fit Sherpas travel to lower heights for the winter. In recent years, what is considered Sherpa has loosened in meaning. In more recent practices, the name "Sherpa" refers to a number of ethnic groups in the area that have demonstrated great climbing and trekking abilities.

Rich with Culture

Agriculture and trade were the two main economic pursuits of the Sherpa people in the past. Sherpas cultivate corn, barley, buckwheat, and vegetables at lower heights, such as in Solu-Khumbu, where the climate is suitable for farming. It was only eighty years ago that potatoes were introduced to the Sherpas, and today they are a staple of their diet. With its higher altitudes, Khumbu is where pastoralism replaces agriculture. Cattle and the yak, an animal similar to cattle that thrives at greater altitudes, are raised by Khumbu Sherpas. Yaks produce butter and wool, which are milk byproducts that are traded or sold for food. Yak and domestic cow hybrids are utilised as plow and transport animals.

The Sherpas are Buddhists of the Nyingmapa sect. This religious belief stresses mysticism and integrates local deities taken from the pre-Buddhist Bon religion, as well as shamanic activities, making it the oldest branch of Buddhism in Tibet. Because of this, the Sherpa also believe in many gods and demons who are thought to live in every mountain, cave, and forest, additional to Buddha and the main Buddhist divinities. These need to be worshiped or appeased using ancient processes that are intertwined with Buddhist ritual life. The vast Himalayan mountains are revered as gods. Mount Everest is referred to by the Sherpas as Chomolungma and therefore is honoured as the "Mother of the World."

Tibetan clothing is comparable to that worn by sherpas as well. Men and women both wear a wool pant-like garment over a long inner shirt. They cover this with a thick, rough, wraparound robe (bakhu), which fastens at the side and falls just beyond the knees. The waist is cinched with a sash. Both men and women dress in tall, woolen boots with soles made of leather.

Climate that Endangers

On April 18, 2014 a tragedy struck in the Himalayas. An avalanche on Mount Everest took the lives of 16 Sherpas that were working as guides on the infamous mountain [5]. While the cause of each avalanche can’t exactly be pinned to global warming, the fact remains that warmer temperatures equal melting glaciers. What was hoped to be a one-time indecent is becoming a constant threat for Sherpas.

In the Himalayas, changing weather patterns are nothing new. However, the melting has simply increased far more during the past several decades than before [6]. It has gotten quicker. And as a result, the glacial lakes are forming even more quickly, and the area is melting so fast that the scientists and researchers aren't even sure how to navigate it. A problem like outburst floods is therefore more likely to occur now. The results can be disastrous for the Sherpas’ livelihoods and their lives, whether it’s glacier lake outbursts, landslides, avalanches, flood events or droughts.

What is more, the Sherpas struggle to maintain their yaks at warmer temperatures. Yaks are suitable for colder climate, and thus are prone to get sick and restless in the warmth. When the weather is too warm for yaks, they trek upwards to higher altitudes, which means there is an animal shortage around the Sherpa villages [7].

A significant impact of climate change on Sherpas' financial situation is also to be recognised. Many work in the mountains carrying gear or in the tourist and hiking businesses, and with climate change harming the region and making it extremely dangerous, there is a chance that climbing and tourism rates may drop. These risks to the livelihood and economy of Sherpas put their culture in danger as well. Their communities are under threat from climate-related disasters and might be destroyed or relocated, and their ability to enjoy their jobs and religious rituals is being restricted. They are also being evicted from traditional jobs. Together, these factors pose a threat to Sherpas as a whole since they are often less wealthy, less well-represented, and directly dependent on their local ecosystems.

This case study among Sherpas in Lukla is a typical illustration of how slow-onset events in the mountains may be very difficult for people to notice, rendering them of little concern until they have an adverse effect on them [8]. The majority of respondents in this study, as revealed by conversations with them, have not heard of climate change and do not believe it will pose a significant concern in the future. This is in stark contrast to the experts' perspectives from key informant interviews and scientific findings.

It is not just the culture of Sherpas that is at risk due to climate change, rather the changes are putting the whole future of Sherpas in danger. The community cannot persist, neither their livelihood nor their future, if their natural habitat becomes unliveable. This unfortunate forecast threatens the very identity of these indigenous peoples. If Sherpas are forced to leave their settlements in the mountains and acclimate to lower altitudes, this does not just mean loss of their home, this means loss of their livelihood and culture that is built around it. And with the absence of awareness about climate change and its possible negative outcomes, the Sherpas are extremely vulnerable and in need of more attention from governments and organisations.

Author: Liva Puka

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  1. Who Are The Sherpa People of Nepal? | Sherpa Adventure Gear

  2. Sherpa | Britannica

  3. Sherpa | Omniglot

  4. Sherpas | Every Culture

  5. Five Ways Climate Change Harms Indigenous People | Climate Home News

  6. The Himalayan Climate Change: Global Warming in the Globe's Highest Region, with Dr. Pasang Sherpa | Harvard International Review

  7. Summer Foods and Restless Yaks: Nina Doma Sherpa on Himalayan Village Life | Landscape News

  8. Climate Change Adaptation and Sustainable Livelihood: Perception from the Indigenous Sherpa Community from the Mountains of Nepal | Journal of Earth Science & Climate Change