Picking berries, protecting mountains

A seabuckthorn plant with its fruit. Photo: UNDP India

“This plant has a lot of medicinal significance. Traditional healers have been using it for centuries to treat ailments such as diabetes and blood pressure,” says 50 year old Rigzin, from the remote valley of Miyar in the state of Himachal Pradesh, carefully plucking some berries. The shrub in question is seabuckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides), a high-altitude species found in the Himalayan and Trans-Himalayan regions.

Locally known as ‘Charma’, seabuckthorn is abundant in the wild and is a medicinal plant with high nutritional value. The bushes can withstand cold weather and develop extensive root systems that can hold the soil together, preventing soil erosion. They are also capable of fixing nitrogen, which makes them an excellent conservation tool for areas with depleted soils, helping improve the soil quality to support the growth of other vegetation.

Seabuckthorn is also an important food. The berries are used to make jams, juices and pickles. The dried leaves of the plant can be brewed for tea.

The Miyar Valley in India. Photo: UNDP India

Farming and livestock rearing are the main sources of livelihood in high-altitude Himalayan regions. Due to climate change and global warming, both are declining, making it necessary to develop alternate livelihoods. Seabuckthorn-based food processing offers a sustainable source of income, while also contributing to ecosystem restoration.

Rigzin hails from Tingret village in Miyar valley, and is fondly known as ‘Charma Auntie’ among the villagers. Along with other women in her community, she has been engaged in the traditional practice of collecting and processing Seabuckthorn for many decades.

Until recently, they used to do it on a small scale for domestic use. In 2019, the SECURE Himalaya initiative by UNDP, in partnership with the Government of India and the Global Environment Facility, reached out to the Rigzin and community members to support them in developing a business model around seabuckthorn-based products.

Rigzin (centre) with her colleagues and some seabuckthorn products. Photo: UNDP India

The initiative is working in high-altitude Himalayan regions to conserve its rich biodiversity with active participation from the local community. An intervention was piloted where 15 women from the region created a Self-Help Group named ‘Khandoma’. They were provided technological support for the processing of the raw materials and training in sustainable harvesting techniques, primary and secondary processing, packaging, and market linkage.

“Processing the berries after plucking them is a very laborious process. But, with this new equipment we are now able to make better products that fetch us more money,” says Rigzin as she puts the berries in a solar drier.

This activity also contributes towards climate action. The National Initiative on Seabuckthorn, under the Green India Mission, a part of India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change, seeks to promote seabuckthorn as a priority species for afforestation of degraded lands as well as ensuring good health and poverty alleviation in the Indian Himalayan region. Seabuckthorn nurseries are being developed to restore fragile and degraded areas of Miyar Valley in collaboration with government line departments, local communities, and academic and research institutions.

Seabuckthorn processing machines help reduce the laborious practice of processing the berries. Photo: UNDP India

“There are so many stakeholders working in silos. Through this intervention, we connected technical institutions such as the CSK Agriculture University, Palampur, with these women who were traditionally engaged in the practice of seabuckthorn processing. The Khandoma SHG, which is now also registered under the National Rural Livelihood Mission, was provided harvesting tools for the berries and technical support for product development through this intervention,” says Abhishek Kumar, Project Consultant, SECURE Himalaya, who has been working closely with the community to develop a seabuckthorn value chain.

Market linkages have been established by the Khandoma SHG through a brand called ‘Kang La Basket’, under which various products such as jams, teas, juice and pulp concentrate are packaged and sold.

Demonstrating an effective partnership between the government and community, Kang La Basket initiative has been nominated by the district administration for recognition through the PM Award for Excellence in Public Administration under the One District One Product Category.

Currently, the women of Khandoma SHG are looking to expand the range of products under Kang La Basket. UNDP is working with government partners to building capacities to create revolving funds and credit linkages for the SHG through the National Rural Livelihood Mission.

‘Kang La’ (‘La’ meaning pass) is a 5,500-metre high-altitude mountain pass connecting Miyar valley in Himachal Pradesh with Zanskar valley in Ladakh. “We worship the pass as a source of life since it gives us water and food. This is just another way how the mountains keep blessing us,” says Rigzin, looking at the vast green meadows stretched out in front of her.

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