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Up in the highlands

It is the time of the year when the mountain passes are treaded the most. Tourists, government officials and our people in the mountains are making the most of the season. Soon it will be closed by snow and the highlanders will move down to warmer places.

It has been unusually busy this year in the mountains. From Sakteng in the east to Soe in the west, the highlanders of Bhutan are seeing a lot of activities. In the last few days, highlanders in the west celebrated the Jomolhari festival. Yesterday, about 900 highlanders celebrated the World Food Day in Sakteng. Above Sakteng, remote Merak will host officials from the agriculture ministry today. In Laya, the Layaps are busy preparing for the Highland Festival next week.

The highlanders are getting a lot of attention. They should.

Always brushed aside as simple yak herders living among the mountains, the highlanders were never given importance, except using them as bait for attracting dollar-paying tourists.  They were popular only on tourism brochures or websites.

Our highlands are the bastion of our rich and unique culture. The yak-based livelihood, their unique culture and simple lives are few things that are left intact when the wind of change is getting swifter.

With development, even our highlanders are not spared. Any given time, they are ready to follow the rest of the Bhutanese, to come to the towns in search of better lives and opportunities. The settlements, once isolated, are now open to an influx of visitors. Roads have cut distance. We can drive into the heart of Sakteng today, can be so is Laya. The World Food Day celebrated with the people of Sakteng focused on healthy diets and non- communicable diseases, not highland products or yak rearing.

The traditional attire like the Chupa or the conical hat is becoming occasional wear among the young. Internet and mobile technology have brought them close to the outside world and their temptations.

The highlanders play an important role besides preserving a unique culture and traditions. The highland communities are critical in our territorial integrity. Their dependence on the cattle and tsamdro, which they had claimed for generations, play a critical role in securing our territorial integrity.

Unfortunately, not many will understand this. We always look at them as unique mountain people. In a way, the livelihood of those in the lowlands depends on their livelihood in the mountains. Such is their importance.

The challenge today is keeping our highlanders up there. They are no more isolated. Roads have cut distance, electricity has improved their conditions and mobile connections have brought them closer. Yet, there is a change. The young have ambitions like any other young Bhutanese. They don’t want to go after yaks in the mountains. Like any other youth, they want a government job, live in the towns and live comfortable lives. How do we balance this is a challenge?

We have special highland programmes, but like an elderly Sakteng man who has his three children studying outside Sakteng said, the wind of change is getting stronger. How we deal with it should be a priority.

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