Sonam Jorgyes is empowering the Ladakh agricultural community to use technological innovations and local resources in a sustainable manner to foster rural economic development and expand the rural farmer’s market reach.
The New Idea
Sonam is developing and introducing technological innovations to the agricultural community in Ladakh by building a sense of community ownership of resources to help rural markets and economic expansion. Sonam works in the Ladakh region in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, a region of high altitude desert that sits in the Himalayan Mountains. Despite the arid climate, survival does not have to be a struggle: The land and resources, if used properly, have the potential to generate economic success for the agricultural community. Sonam works with isolated communities to create vibrant rural trade economies by building trade relationships and interdependent markets between rural agriculturalists. He builds rural agricultural economies by introducing a host of technical innovations to refine rural finished products, making them more marketable to customers in other local communities, regions of India, and around the world. Sonam works with communities to empower rural citizens to take active control of their regional and global economic supply chains by complementing technical training with local capacity-building. He is working to equip rural producers to be competitive with imported goods, turning dependencies on foreign goods into self-sufficiency and abundance.
Sonam builds the community’s productive potential by combining local resources with new technologies, e.g. he has extended the growing seasons with greenhouse technology and taken advantage of the high altitude by using gravity-based irrigation systems to support water intensive agriculture. These technological innovations, along with a new sense of market ownership among community members, gives farmers the incentive to be responsible for the maintenance of their infrastructure, encourages them to develop improvements and experiment with new designs. Fostering a sense of ownership for physical infrastructure gives farmers the ability to make direct decisions about how to improve their existing greenhouses, which crops to plant, and when to bring their produce to market.
Sonam develops agricultural technology in a laboratory in Leh, where he trains students as rural innovation engineers. At the lab he works with young people from all over the world to design the next generation of technological innovations and create supply chains and systems of abundance. Sonam emphasizes the importance of community building for economic success, i.e. the young engineers work directly with villages to address their most pressing livelihood needs, they have started moving to work in other parts of India and even globally, taking both the engineering and community relationship development skills and applying them to the needs of other communities where resource scarcity bears directly on livelihoods.
Sonam works in the Ladakh region, which is located in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir on the steps of the Western Himalayan mountain range. The area is characterized by temperatures that regularly drop below -30° C in winter, a three-month growing season, little natural vegetation, and scant rainfall. Ladakh is one of the most sparsely populated regions in India: Villages can be 20km apart, and accessible only by pack animals. Geographical isolation is compounded by political fragmentation in the region. Competing territorial claims between China, Pakistan, and India have resulted in each country seizing land for military purposes. Some of the most fertile land is now under direct military control, and farming is forbidden. This landscape of isolation and political fragmentation has prevented communities from building a strong local economy. The central government has a long history of subsidizing imports of essential goods such as basic foods and diesel, stifling local production. The continuing import of food and fuel has caused the Ladakhi economy to atrophy and become dependent on central government subsidies and military transportation to provide essential goods. The choices that the central government makes are not often in the long-term interest of the communities, and have simply stunted the growth of the local economy, e.g. in one community that had a working micro-hydro plant producing energy for nighttime lighting, in a misguided display of magnanimity the government built a diesel generator as a political gift. The community stopped maintaining their hydro plant because fuel prices were initially very low and the diesel generator produced a consistent amount of power during the winter when the water that powered the hydro plant would freeze. Not only is the community now dependent on the government to import cheap diesel, but in shifting energy production to fossil fuel, they also now rely on an unsustainable fuel source.
Import subsidy has also driven down the price of potatoes and other food staples that are produced locally in Ladakh. Due to the unfairly subsidized competition from imported potatoes, many farmers choose to switch to products that are consumed exclusively within their own communities, like black peas and leafy greens. While these products are nutritious for the communities, they also fetch a lower price in an open market because they compete against subsidized substitutes that are brought in from outside the region. Communities end up spending money on food staples that are produced outside the region because of the combination of import subsidy and the geographical isolation of farmers from raw goods manufacturing facilities. The wealth of these prospective producers thus escapes the local community.
In the past, the government made attempts to build local infrastructure by investing in micro-hydro facilities, but these plants have suffered mechanical failures due to a lack of stewardship on the part of the community. Micro-hydro plants have existed in the Ladakh region since the early 1980s, and the government has built almost 100 plants to this day. When micro-hydro facilities are first built the communities are promised cheap electricity for their homes at night. After a few years, many of the pumps or drainage systems stop working because the government will not budget a sufficient amount for maintenance, and the community does not have the resources to fix the machines. Of all the plants that have been built in the Ladakh region, only a few are working because the government has not trained communities how to manage their own hydroelectric systems.
People in rural Ladakhi communities have little incentive to capture the surplus value of production and turn it into a lasting investment in the face of misguided government action and geographical isolation from other members of the production value chain. Without markets to sell their goods and with high transportation costs, communities rarely see the value in producing in excess of their survival needs. They do not have the tools to translate any excess production into value, even when they can create a surplus.
After spearheading Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG) for over ten years, Sonam now assists the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) through an alliance he created between Tata Institute of Social Sciences and the LAHDC. Sonam’s model of technological and human capacity-building enables people living in the Ladakh region to turn their raw goods into marketable products for local consumers and for trade outside of local markets. He has pioneered the use of several innovative technologies that have made rural life in Ladakh more efficient. For example, Sonam introduced the use of double walled greenhouses to improve thermal efficiency for indoor agriculture and prolong the growing season by up to two months. This new technology allows farmers to produce a second round of crops of leafy greens, which require a longer growing season. The extra vegetables that are produced by a longer growing season are sold in regional markets in Ladakh. With the extra income generated by selling their surplus in a market, farmers reinvest in their greenhouses to keep them maintained, enabling them to further leverage their ownership of the infrastructure. Sonam also runs a program to insulate homes: Increasing thermal efficiency puts less pressure on local biomass that is used as heating fuel. As a result of this increased insulation, grazing animals can eat the scarce bushes, which is more sustainable than providing feed because they only eat parts of the plant that can re-grow each season.
Sonam has also begun to map groundwater resources in Leh to make city dwellers more aware of their own consumption patterns and help them to establish long-term community stewardship over their groundwater system. He has partnered with an international academic institution to do satellite mapping of the area. By raising awareness and motivating residents to change their consumption patterns, farmers in rural communities outside of the city will have more groundwater resources for outdoor cultivation. One of Sonam’s team members, a structural engineer, underwent training at a premier geo-hydrology institute of India to be able to train “barefoot” hydrologists back in Ladakh. All three of these systems that Sonam has implemented serve to expand the survival window of rural communities in Ladakhis, giving them more leeway to sell goods and generate income. By enabling individuals to use local resources efficiently, he creates ownership routines that will allow Ladakhis to stay in their communities longer and slow down large-scale migration. The additional revenue brought in from crops allows farmers to generate an income, maintain their hydro-power machines as a future investment, and build a solid local, regional, and even international market base.
When communities employ Sonam’s techniques, they usually create a surplus, which is uncommon in a scarcity-based economy. In order to teach communities to capture the value of this surplus, Sonam has developed a human capacity-building program, to trade and sell goods at a competitive price that is set by the participants. To create the original goods surplus, first Sonam retrofits the community micro-hydro electric plants with machines that can mill flour, run saws, and create jam. Most of these micro-hydro plants existed as part of a government scheme to provide electricity at night, or have been created by LEDeG because the community has identified the need for electricity generation and has found an area that meets engineering requirements. In the case of milled flour, the local miller uses the machine that is attached to the micro-hydro plant during the day when electricity would not be used for lighting. The product is sold back to the community at a price that is competitive with imported milled grain. The miller therefore has an ownership stake in both the mill and the hydro plant, and will take care of maintenance with his profits. By connecting the hydro plant to the milling machine, the miller treats what would otherwise be an expense for the local utility as part of his operating costs, while at the same time generating electricity at night as an external benefit for the entire community.
Along with the production of finished goods that create a local surplus for communities, Sonam has introduced a gravity pump that increases the productivity of outdoor cultivation. The gravity pump enables farmers to cultivate land that was formerly impossible to reach, without having to pay for motorized irrigation. Farmers that use the pumps are now able to cultivate more feed-stock in the form of alfalfa, plant more fruit-bearing trees to be turned into jams for export, and plant more potatoes that can be sold to the Indian military in Ladakh. Outdoor cultivation is also a major source of exported sea buckthorn, which is a berry rich in vitamin C and profitable in international markets.
Sonam’s innovations also address the necessary balance between rural economic development and ecological sustainability. He has effectively created a system to respond to the pressures of economic development needs by harnessing local knowledge of available resources. The scarcity of certain resources in the Himalayan environment is threatened by growing commercial exploitation. In order to address sustainability, Sonam first works with communities to fully map potential local resources and gauge the impact that their own enterprise will have on the ecosystem. His strategies of using daytime water flow in micro-hydro plants and increasing the thermal efficiency of existing buildings all make a minimal impact on the surrounding environment while also giving the community the maximum potential for economic change.
To design all these productivity-enhancing technologies and foster community involvement in conservation of common resources, Sonam has developed a laboratory where ideas are tested in the field and a larger population is exposed to community development in the Ladakh region. He gives international engineers, civil servants, and students the opportunity to live with the communities that they will serve in Ladakh and identify their needs based on daily interaction. Sonam is creating a nationwide network of students who have gone back to their communities in other parts of the world to develop other methods for creating sustainable sources of income for people who live in scarcity-based economies. He has also established institutional partnerships with colleges and universities that bring in a steady stream of students to work with him.
Sonam has also made all the work at the lab available to other organizations involved in the fields of hydrology, agriculture, and community development in the hope that they will be able to use his intervention strategy and build on the work that is already being done in Ladakh. He invites organizations from all over India, and around the world, to engage in an interactive learning process and spend time with the communities where he is working to build their own community based interaction strategies and offer suggestions to his own work. The first such workshop was held in September 2009, where Sonam showcased the model he has created over the last few years to 15 social entrepreneurs from India and neighboring countries. He shared his understanding of the importance of the community’s understanding of the potential solutions for their problems and how to achieve collective ownership of the development process. Sonam has fostered institutional partnerships to gain access to other organizations and build funding relations with supporters in India and abroad. Through his work in Ladakh, Sonam is proving that economic and social change can happen on a global scale to reverse the trend of treating scarce resources as a limiting factor in community innovation and growth.
Sonam was born and raised in Ladakh. He always felt a very close connection to the community that he grew up in, and he left the region for a long period of time only once to go to school at one of the premier social science institutes in western India. During university, he returned to Ladakh to work as an intern with LEDeG. While LEDeG was very different at the time, focusing on the technological aspects of rural hydrology, Sonam used this experience to guide him after graduation.
Sonam passed up numerous lucrative offers to work with better financed organizations, only to return and take a greater role at LEDeG. He was confronted with an organization that was in complete disarray. He felt that the employees were highly skilled and had a rich knowledge of the region and its problems, with a strong desire to bring in change. But from Sonam’s point of view, they lacked a clear vision, motivation, and an inspiring leadership.
After spending ten fruitful years with LEDeG, Sonam moved on to head a collaborative initiative that he structured by bringing together Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council for a larger and accelerated impact in the region; it was relatively easier for Sonam to bring TISS as he is an alumni of the premier institution. He continues to seek and deliver new models for the economic emancipation of the local communities in the Ladakh region.
Sonam has brought a new group of young people, fundamentally changing the mission to be more oriented toward community needs, and is beginning experimentation with different community lead systems of economic citizenship. Sonam lives in Leh with his wife and two sons.