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Working in India on the Front Lines of Climate Change

Tell us about your research?

Baani Behniwal just completed her second semester of the Natural Resources and Sustainable Development dual MA program. She is currently interning in Leh-Ladakh, India, where she is pursuing her interests in sustainable agriculture and food security. Read more to learn about her experience and this amazing internship opportunity!

After a semester at the University for Peace in Costa Rica, I interned for EduCare India, a sustainable development NGO in Leh-Ladakh, India. I worked with rural communities on sustainable agriculture, alternative energy, eco-building, and environmental education while living with a host family. My project dealt specifically with food security, a major issue in the winter when roads close due to weather and accessing fresh foods is extremely difficult. During my time there, I was struck by how drastically climate change affects the Ladakh region, which experiences extreme heat, new agricultural pests, and flooding brought on by melting glaciers.

How was the experience at Ladakh?

After a spring semester at the University for Peace in beautiful Costa Rica through the Natural Resources and Sustainable Development dual MA program, I am spending the summer in Leh-Ladakh, India, interning at a sustainable development NGO called EcoDeva. EcoDeva is a newer branch of EduCare, an organization that focuses on community development. Specifically, EcoDeva works in engaging rural communities in sustainable agriculture, eco-building, alternative energy, waste management and sanitation, women’s empowerment, and environmental education.

Leh-Ladakh is near the border of China and India. The strong military presence in the area is contrasted by the beautiful landscape. The region consists of green valleys surrounded by dry desert mountains in the forefront and the snow-covered Himalayas in the back, with Buddhist monasteries sprinkled throughout – it is stunning. The population is an interesting mix of Ladakhi people (mostly Buddhists of Tibetan descent), Tibetan refugees, seasonal workers from other parts of India, Kashmiri business folk, and tourists – both Indian and foreign.

I have never been in a place that is so blatantly and drastically affected by climate change as Ladakh. In class, I’ve often read that climate change affects most those who have done the least to contribute to it, but now I am actually experiencing this reality. When I first arrived, the weather was quite normal—about 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit, but since then it has fluctuated greatly, hitting record highs of 80-90 degrees. Locals say it has never gotten this hot before. The days following these record temperatures, the river near our home, normally tranquil and clean, was rushing with murky brown water, indicating the speed at which the glaciers are melting. Up until a few years ago, rain almost never fell here but now it is quite a regular occurrence. Unfortunately, with the warmer temperatures, new invasive pests are being introduced to the crops. The most damaging, according to the local agriculture university, is the codling moth in apricot and apple trees, which completely destroy the hoped-for crop, and along with it the farmers’ income. These pests also affect grapes, walnuts, onions, wheat, and barley. Interestingly, the warmer climate is having one positive effect—a longer growing season for a region that is typically only able to produce for approximately four months per year. Still, the effects of climate change are well known here and there is no denying that it is occurring.

How did your research help local farmers?

Inspired by my conversations with the farmers, I designed my personal project to assist the local farmers to meet some of the challenges they have been facing. I have partnered with an architect intern to work together on a micro-greenhouse project to increase food security during the winter. I also assist others in their alternative energy and eco-building projects, as well as helping to run environmental education workshops for the students at the local monastery.

Days here vary quite a bit. I typically wake up around 6:30-7am in a shared room with 2 other girls, use the outdoor facilities, brush my teeth while taking in a view of the surrounding mountains, glistening in the morning sun. I then join my host family for breakfast, which normally consists of either puri (similar to fried bread) with jam and butter (not very healthy, but the local diet is carb-heavy due to the cold weather), or a porridge made of homemade yogurt and barley powder, and a cup of chai. After breakfast, I wash my dishes in the stream behind the house with freezing glacier melt water.

Tell us about the challenges?

On the days I have meetings with local governmental institutions and NGOs, I hitchhike to Leh, the main city, about 45 minutes away by car or truck. To move forward with my greenhouse project, I need to do research, which requires Internet – something that’s not easy to come by. First I have to call the local internet café to see if the internet is working, and if it is, I walk about 20 minutes through the barley and wheat fields, up to the main freeway, and down to the marketplace to the cafe. You can imagine that living at an 11,000 foot altitude makes physical activity, especially walking uphill, quite strenuous. After a day of research and trekking to and from town, I reconvene with my host family and other interns. We help our host Mom to prepare dinner. Dinner is usually Ladakhi, Tibetan, or Indian food (yum!!). After dinner, we watch TV together (cricket or Bollywood movies mostly), play cards or just chat about the day.

I would say my least favorite part of the day is when I need to do something—like online research—but am unable to do so because of the lack of resources. I don’t like the feeling of stagnancy with my project, but the setbacks force me to be creative. When a problem arises and my plans must change, I look for other opportunities to learn, helping farmers in their fields, talking to neighbors about their lives, or even reading articles I have saved on my computer from previous classes.

What did you like about the project?

My favorite part of my time here in Leh-Ladakh has been engaging with the community and learning about traditional practices. The community is extremely gracious and welcoming, always greeting me with a smile and “Julley!” (meaning hello/goodbye/thank you). The local residents often invite me over for chai and biscuits, and I talk with them in a broken mixture of Hindi, Punjabi, Ladakhi, and English. I also love working with the local monastery. We’ve started to do environmental education workshops with the students of the monastery on Saturdays. Last week, the workshop was on plants, nutrition and health so I loved that. The idea is to not only teach them about environmental issues, but also to engage them in English (by request of the teachers). The little lamas get super excited when we come and their energy is utterly contagious—my cheeks hurt for hours afterwards from laughing with them so much.

Though it has been an adjustment, I love my rural village life, working on a project I truly believe in, and reconnecting with India. This has been an amazing experience and I can’t believe I am almost halfway done with this internship. I am excited to apply all that I am learning here in Leh-Ladakh as I continue my studies at UPEACE and the School of International Service and develop my career in sustainable development.