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Preserving a traditional way of life in the Himalayas. Project promotes innovation compatible with local culture

`IT was fascination and love for Ladakh that more than anything changed my life,'' recalls Helena Norberg-Hodge, founder of the Ladakh Project, an effort to sustain the traditions of this Himalayan region by introducing appropriate technologies. A linguist of Swedish-German descent, Ms. Norberg-Hodge visited the region in l974, when Ladakh -- a mountainous area bordering on Tibet -- first opened its doors to foreign visitors. Living with Ladakhis for the next two years and mastering their language, Norberg-Hodge was in a unique position to experience the traditional culture, and to observe firsthand the rapid changes that resulted from exposure to the outside world. Growing tourism and the importation of modern products had an eroding effect on many aspects of traditional life.

As a result, she founded the Ladakh Project, with headquarters in the capital city of Leh (pop. 10,000), to promote innovation compatible with traditional life and to discourage culturally and ecologically harmful imports. These efforts were the subject of recent lectures she gave at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and to private audiences in New York.

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Perhaps the most serious problem, according to Norberg-Hodge, relates to energy sources. As an alternative to the traditional burning of yak dung and the recently increasing importation of coal, both posing health consequences, the Ladakh Project began installation of passive solar ``trombe'' walls (named for their French inventor).

The trombe uses black paint behind glass to attract sunlight, and then circulates warmed air upward through vents into the attached rooms of a home. At night, the vents are closed to prevent a cooling effect, but heat stored in the stone, brick, or mud continues to radiate.

With 325 days of sun per year, Ladakh has proved an ideal site for solar application. The project has spread from the original two models built at the project center to over 120 Ladakhi homes. Glass is purchased over the mountains in Kashmir; all other materials -- wood, mud, and straw -- are obtained locally. The cost is $350 per trombe. By comparison, it costs $200 a year to heat a Ladakhi home by coal.

Other innovations have spread from working models at the project's Center for Ecological Development in Leh. Built in 1983 on land donated by local government, the center features a rooftop windmill generator, solar-heated bathhouse, and solar ovens used to cook meals for tourist visitors. Ladakhi trainees have since constructed five more solar bathhouses and several ``ram'' water pumps that use gravity hydraulics to draw stream water for village use.

Presently, more than 100 Ladakhi homes employ the solar cookers. Norberg-Hodge hopes this basic technology (cost $40; capability up to 300 degrees F.) will curtail import of asbestos-lined kerosene stoves perceived by many Ladakhis as modern and highly desirable.

``There is an urgent need to export environmental awareness,'' says Norberg-Hodge, who criticizes development thinking for lagging behind the most contemporary concerns of industrial societies.

The traditional Ladakh that Norberg-Hodge experienced when she first arrived was characterized by near-seamless adaptation of man to nature at its most beautiful and difficult. Throughout its history, a population of 100,000 have lived in the high altitude valleys between the great Himalayan and Karakoram ranges. Average rainfall is less than four inches per year -- equivalent to that of the Sahara desert. Winters last seven months, with temperatures as low as minus-40 degrees F.

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Yet, traveling throughout Ladakhi villages in the 1970s, Norberg-Hodge found stable economies yielding sufficient grain in the short summer season to last through the long winter, supplemented by milk and cheese from the indigenous yak. Crops were sown in fields irrigated by glacial runoff. Houses were made almost entirely of plentiful mud and stone, and wood was frugally conserved.

On the cultural level, the Ladakhis seemed imbued with a highly cooperative pragmatism. There was little or no formal schooling, but older children accepted responsibility for younger children. Work was always done in groups. Elder Ladakhis were respected as teachers of the practical arts, such as tool fashioning and house construction.

Another side to the Project involves outreach to discourage the influx of harmful products such as asbestos and DDT. In agriculture, there are potential problems from increased pressure on farmers to use chemical fertilizer, despite soil erosion from similar applications in Nepal. Even the importation of concrete may have long-term side effects -- discontinuation of the traditional house-building trade.

Equally important, but perhaps even more difficult, says Norberg-Hodge, are efforts to encourage respect of traditions among young Ladakhis seduced by glimpses of the modern world.

In her recent lectures, Norberg-Hodge used an analogy of aliens visiting American cities for a few weeks at a time -- paying great sums to local guides, buying fur coats and sports cars on a daily basis (then leaving these items behind), yet seemingly never needing to work themselves -- to describe the unsettling perceptions young Ladakhis have of foreign tourists. Norberg-Hodge notes that Ladakhi dress is already giving way to blue jeans, and there are growing signs of crime, unemployment and civil unrest.

``Ladakhis have the sense that if you want to be modern, you must never lift a finger,'' says Norberg-Hodge.

In an effort to give Ladakhis a more thorough and updated perspective on the modern world, Norberg-Hodge has assembled a library of environmental and health issues, solar technologies, and organic farming practices.

Several well-placed individuals have lent personal support to Project efforts, including Indira Gandhi, Prince Charles of England, and the Dalai Lama. In recent years, two members of the Ladakhi royal family have served as Project directors.

The Project has also commissioned an ongoing report entitled ``Ladakh 2020,'' urging Ladakhis and local government to define long-range development options. Experts on every aspect of Ladakhi life will be consulted. Another contribution will be the essays and artwork of school children projecting the Ladakh of the future.

In these submissions, Norberg-Hodge finds ample evidence of the psychological dilemmas presently felt by Ladakhis. She quotes one 14-year-old as writing: ``Fashionism leads to proudness and less fellow-feeling.'' Another child wrote: ``In the year 2020, the Ladakhis will not know what was Ladakh.''

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