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Herders hemmed in by India and China’s Himalayan stand-off: ‘every year our difficulties mount’

Lines on a map once meant little to India’s Tibetan herders of the high Himalayas, expertly guiding their goats through even the harshest winters to pastures on age-old seasonal routes.

Swathes of grazing lands became demilitarised “buffer zones” to keep rival forces apart.

For 57-year-old herder Morup Namgyal, like thousands of other seminomadic goat and yak herders from the Changpa pastoralist people, it meant traditional lands were closed off.

“The Indian army stops us from going there,” Namgyal said, pointing to treeless, ice-streaked peaks. “But this is our land, not China’s.”

Chushul village sits in freezing air at an altitude of some 4,300 metres (14,110 feet), although the herders used to take their flocks even higher.

China and India, the world’s two most populous nations, are intense rivals competing for strategic influence across South Asia.

But the 2020 border skirmish, which killed at least 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers, rang alarm bells.

Both sides pulled back tens of thousands of troops and agreed not to send patrols into a narrow dividing strip.

“The physical separation of the two militaries has greatly reduced the risk of clashes,” the International Crisis Group (ICG) wrote in a report last year.

But the herders say they are the losers, caught in a conflict not of their making.

The Changpa, ethnic Tibetan Buddhists, are expertly adapted to goat farming in the extreme environment, conditions that produce some of the finest cashmere wool, which is prized for its exceptional warmth.

But Namgyal said his flock of fluffy-white goats are suffering. His animals, once combed, yield superfine under-hair that is spun into cashmere yarn used in luxury scarves.

Herders say the lost pastureland was less harsh in winter,