When Northern New Mexico-based journalist Michael Benanav first read about a tribe of nomads migrating between the hill country in northern India and the Himalayas, he knew he had to go tell their story. He was drawn partly by the geography through which they travel—"which, no-brainer, would be beautiful," he says—but also because they're a rare example of nomads without any sort of village. When snow covers the high Himalayan meadows, the Van Gujjar tribe lives in open-air huts in the forest among their water buffalo as they graze on forage chopped from trees. Then, they migrate into the mountains for summer months.
In 2009, Benanav shouldered his backpack and joined a family of Van Gujjars on that annual migration. For six weeks, he walked alongside this family, slept under the plastic sheets they erected each night for shelter, fetched water, and nudged buffalo up mountain passes, capturing the tribe right at the cusp of transition. His book, Himalaya Bound: One Family's Quest to Save Their Animals and an Ancient Way of Life, which was released on Jan. 2 and which he'll discuss this weekend at Travel Bug, retells that story.
The Van Gujjar's lifestyle faces existential threats, perhaps the most pressing of which is an idea exported from America: the creation of national parks on their tribal lands.
"As Americans, we don't really think that much about people living in national parks because here, we kicked those people out over a century ago," Benanav says. "So the fact that national parks, which are really supposed to protect things that are special and endangered, in this case was also possibly destroying something that was special and endangered struck me as this ironic twist."
India's Forest Rights Act allows historic forest-dwellers to continue living and grazing livestock there; but, Benanav says, "its implementation has been terrible, and in places it's blatantly or tacitly ignored."
Forest Department rangers have begun turning Van Gujjars back from those mountain meadows where they have grazed their buffalo for centuries in the name of defending national parks created in recent decades. Spending warmer months at lower elevations would require Van Gujjars to pay for forage, the summer sun having baked the trees to brown, and run the risk of buffalo overheating. The year he joined a Van Gujjar family, whether they could hike to the meadow they'd long used or would need to detour to an alternative was determined during their journey.
The lack of security could shake the tribe's commitment to their lifestyle.
"By basically traumatizing them, [the Forest Department rangers] will more or less convince them that it's in their own interest to begin to think of other ways of living," Benanav says.
While it's not always the case that people and animals can live off the land without damaging the environment, ecologists haven't correlated issues with the Van Gujjars.
"Either they're saying we just don't know because they don't have the data, or they're saying the Van Gujjars are not the problem here," Benanav says.
Intensifying pressures like climate change, logging, mining and population growth could change those equations, as could an increase in size of the herds and families.
Still, Forest Department officials insist grazing water buffalo is damaging the alpine ecosystem.
The tribe faces other pressures to change. Publicity of their plight brought pressure from Muslim leaders to adjust their generally liberal Islamic practices to more conservative ones. The number of motorbikes and electronics, including cell phones, has also picked up, even though those phones can rarely be charged or reach a signal. On a return visit, Benanav saw several of the tribal members huddled around a Nokia phone watching a video on its 1-by-2-inch screen.
"I was like, 'It's all over. That little screen just punched a hole into this world,'" he says.
The kids in the family have spoken about wanting to attend school. An education, too, would "open the doors of their community to a whole different kind of change," Benanav says. "We can't tell people to continue living a certain way just because we want to, but every time the world loses a culture, there's something tragic about that, and the world just frankly becomes a more boring place."
Michael Benanav: Himalaya Bound slide show and book signing
5 pm Saturday Jan. 6. Free.
839 Paseo de Peralta,