‘When Glaciers Go’ Producer Tashi Bista Speaks with GlacierHub
Tashi Bista, an activist born and raised in Upper Mustang, Nepal, collaborated with a foreign film team to produce When Glaciers Go, a 17-minute-long documentary about climate change in his home region. It premiered at the Mountain Film Festival in Telluride in May, and has been selected for the 2020 Banff Mountain Film Festival.
When Glaciers Go follows the Gurung family’s story in the Upper Mustang region in Nepal, as they transition from their ancestral Dhey village to a newly developed village, Chambaleh, because of acute water shortages which resulted from a lack of glacier melt. Dhey sits at 13,200 feet above sea level, a tiny patch of green irrigated fields and trees which sits on a ridge nestled against a starkly dirt-brown landscape. The terrain is rugged, precipitation is low, and water insecurity makes it difficult to farm. Moreover, the immediate impacts of climate change have made the challenges of development more acute. In Dhey, erratic precipitation and lack of glacial meltwater has decreased irrigated land size and heightened food and water insecurity for the past decade.
While the local government and several non-governmental organizations, including Bessin Nepal and Kam for Sud, have supported the relocation of Dhey villagers to the newly developed homes, apple farms, irrigation channels, and freshly built roads in Chambaleh, many members of older generations find it difficult to uproot their livelihoods from their ancestral homes to a new home.
Traditional inter-generational households are splitting apart. The Gurung family is a three-generation household spanning across three places: their ancestral village, Dhey, where the grandparents lead a traditional, self-subsistent livelihood; the newly developed village, Chambaleh, where the parents are farming apples as a cash crop; and Ghemi, where the children attend school. Grappling with an inter-generational gap, rapid depopulation, earthmoving construction of roads and irrigation channels, and loss of traditional connections, the Gurung family is forging their path ahead, promoting economic activity, and delivering services in light of modernization and climate change.
The film not only covers the adverse impacts of climate change, but it also portrays a hopeful future for Upper Mustang. The viewer cannot escape the constant presence of young children in the film. They are in almost every scene. From the beginning — where a child runs around his village, chirpily speaking in the local Tibetan dialect, pointing out the uninhabited homes of his neighbors — until the end, when a child is sent away to school, children are at the center of the story. Bista says it is not by accident the children are frequently in the background trying to get attention from the adults. The children are witnessing the transformations and coming-of-age amid a rapidly changing landscape and system of social ties. And the viewer is left feeling a strong sense of optimism and excitement for the future of Upper Mustang.
GlacierHub sat down with Bista to talk about the film.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
GlacierHub: Given your background, what drew you to become a storyteller? What stories are you planning to continue to tell in the future?
Tashi Bista: I was born in Upper Mustang and lived there until I was nine. I went to school in Kathmandu from age nine until 20. I returned to my village after college and realized all the unexplored opportunities left behind. I was drawn to filmmaking from a young age because storytelling is easy for me. When you have such a long experience in one place, added to by your ancestors, it becomes easy to tell the land’s story. I want to tell stories of glaciers, rivers, and human rights all over Nepal. Climate change is one of the biggest social injustices we face today, and it needs to be captured for the world to see.
The film tells a family’s story transitioning from the old village of Dhey to a newly developed village due to water insecurity issues. What is the current situation of Dhey village? What are the social ramifications of resettlement?
There used to be 22 households in Dhey. The number has now dropped down to 11 remaining households. There is a generational transition happening there right now; the older generation remains in Dhey, and the younger families move to the newly developed village. The Gurung family, who we center the story around, faces this family separation dilemma; Sangpo, the patriarch, has moved to the new village with his wife and young children while his aging parents continue to live in the old village. Sangpo has to adapt to a new life with new freedom, new privacy, new economic opportunities for his young family in the new village while caring for his aging parents in the old village. The social dynamics are changing. Sangpo is determined to eke out a living for his young family by planting apples as a cash crop and running a land excavator rental. At the same time, his elderly parents still hold on to traditional self-subsistence farming with the community.
How many other villages in Upper Mustang are impacted by receding glaciers? And what have you seen in the broader Himalayan landscape? What are other changes in the ecosystems locals are witnessing?
I have family all over Upper Mustang, and in my lifetime, I have witnessed many changes — social, environmental, and economic. Between the 2001 and 2011 census, the population of Upper Mustang decreased by more than 17%. I can only imagine what the new census in 2021 will look like.
There are fewer and fewer fields farmed in Upper Mustang. We are having warmer days, colder winters, erratic precipitation, and flash floods. Several villages face water insecurity issues. In Samjong, nearby ice is quickly disappearing, and availability every season is uncertain. In Yara, the rate of water loss is increasing rapidly every year due to the shifting landscape. Dhey has seen the highest social disputes and unrest driven by water shortage management among households. Traditionally, we waited for birds (bar headed geese/demoiselle cranes) from the Tibetan Plateau migrating south towards northeast India to signal the harvest; this migration pattern is becoming more irregular. Instead, flash floods, heavy rains, and dry spells are becoming more common.
Across the region, families are taking advantage of the warmer days by planting apple trees as a cash crop, some even forgoing native self-subsistence crops like buckwheat, barley, and mustard. The local diet is changing. We were never a cash-based economy before. We bartered with our neighbors to survive. Now, the whole economy has changed, and the youth are looking for opportunities.
How is the local understanding of what is happening with the landscape, community, and climate with all these changes?
The young families who have received formal education understand the science and process behind the changing climate. The older generation attributes the changes in society and the environment to the man-made forces behind roadbuilding and earthmoving, streams that have never been crossed before that are being crossed, peaks that have never been climbed before that are being climbed; these activities are disturbing the local spirits. The elders hoist windhorses, burn juniper, and pay their offerings to appease the local spirits.
Children are a big part of the film; they are the guide and narrator. The film begins with a child running around showing the empty homes and empty school in his village; what do you think this signifies for the Upper Mustang community’s future? As a father yourself, what do you hope for your children’s connection to their Mustang heritage?
Until I was nine, I lived in Upper Mustang; it was the only world I knew. My landscape and connection to my ancestors made a deep impression on me for the rest of my life. My children and I spend most of our time in Kathmandu, and we visit Upper Mustang every year. We live in a fast-changing world that children are growing up in. The fact that the children of Upper Mustang are witnessing first-hand the adverse impacts of climate change by forces beyond their control will shape the rest of their lives. They will have to forge their paths and connections to the land; as an elder, I can only guide them through what I have learned and witnessed.
What are your upcoming projects and plans?
COVID has put a halt to many things, including activities in Upper Mustang. I have more filmmaking collaborations coming up with foreign partners and community partners in the pipeline. I look forward to developing community-based ecotourism in Upper Mustang. I run a trekking agency that is a specialized Upper-Mustang-only venture. This way, we train local Mustangi guides, and we are very good at what we do in our community. I dream about mobilizing an agricultural cooperative that will export more of our traditional crops to cities and towns while improving local community nutrition and food access.
I am encouraged to expand economic and social value for my community. With all this doom and gloom from climate change, it is also an exciting period in Upper Mustang history.
Tsechu Dolma is a Tibetan-American activist from Queens, New York. She is passionate about telling stories about her community, environment and their connections. She leads the Mountain Resiliency Project, a social enterprise committed to strengthening mountain communities in Nepal. She has a BA/MPA from Columbia University and MBA from Oxford. While she was a student at Columbia, she wrote regularly for GlacierHub.