ISEC: A Path Breaking Ecologist.

This is an interview I had taken during my sojourn at Ladakh. The edited version of this interview was published in the departmental newsletter, Resonance. It can be accessed at www.resonancethenewsletter.blogspot.com

Rahul and Alex are the coordinators of International Society for Ecology and Culture’s (ISEC) Ladakh Project. Since its inception in 1975, ISEC has been providing Ladakhi leaders with information about the impact of conventional development in other parts of the world while exploring more sustainable patterns of development in Ladakh itself, based on the use of local resources and indigenous knowledge.

Can you tell me about ISEC and the basic philosophy behind it?

Rahul: ISEC is a non-profit organization founded by Helena Norberg-Hodge, a Swedish and head quartered at Berkeley USA. We are concerned with promoting locally based alternatives to the global consumer culture. We are working towards strengthening local markets, cultures, technology and communities.

So, ISEC’s activities includes…

Alex: Our activities include ‘Hands-on’ community initiatives, publishing books, reports and conducting conferences. We are also into making and screening films. We are effectively doing local, national and international networking and campaigning too.

Rahul: We also have ‘Local Food Programme’ through which we have helped to set up farmers’ markets in Europe, North America and Australia and established the very successful ‘Food Links’ programme at the Soil Association in the UK. One of the by-products of the social and ecological crises we face is a sense of personal powerlessness. The problems seem too vast, the individual’s ability to influence things too small. So, ISEC came forward to re-empower people by a programme called ‘Roots of Change’.

Can you elaborate ‘Roots of Change’?

Alex: ‘Roots of Change’ links participants up with other like-minded individuals in their own communities and provides a ‘root cause’ analysis of today’s problems, so as to promote strategic and effective local action. The programme is based on a curriculum of guided study, and shows the way towards action that can solve a whole range of problems simultaneously rather than treating individual symptoms in isolation.

Can you brief the mission of ‘Ladakh Project’?

Alex: For centuries, the Himalayan region of Ladakh remained almost untouched by western consumer culture. However, recent exposure to the global economy has threatened to undermine its ecological and social well being. Our programme in Ladakh dates back to 1975. Working with thousands of local people in more than a hundred villages, we have helped to strengthen and rebuild both self reliance and self respect.

What all are the activities comes under the ‘Ladakh Project’?

Rahul: It is an ambitious project and one of the largest appropriate technology programmes in the world. We had set up the Women’s Alliance of Ladakh (WAL) in 1994 and Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG) in 1978. The latter is now an entirely independent organization. There are also Handicrafts cooperatives and seed-saving programmes. We also conduct Reality tours which bring community leaders to the West in order to balance the over-glamorized image of modern life. We had set up an educational and training centre for Ladakhi amchis or traditional doctors. We are publishing schoolbooks, plays and cultural works in the Ladakhi language.

Alex: We also run programmes for foreign visitors, aimed at challenging conventional thinking about development. Our Farm Project gives people from other parts of the world the opportunity to live and work with a Ladakhi family.

So, is WAL a part of ISEC? I thought it is a different entity.

Alex: No. In 1994, ISEC helped to establish the WAL, with the twin goals of raising the status of rural women and strengthening local culture and agriculture. Since then, its membership has swelled to over 6,000 women from almost 100 different villages.

What all are the WAL’s works?

Rahul: We conduct annual festivals celebrating local knowledge and skills, including traditional spinning, weaving and dyeing, and the preparation of indigenous food. We have regular ‘clean-up’ campaigns aimed at encouraging community responsibility for the environment. You know in 1998, WAL succeeded in banning the use of plastic bags in Ladakh. We also organize programmes like ‘No TV’ weeks aimed at resisting the worst elements of non-Ladakhi culture.

Alex: We also helped WAL to set up the Local Food Café in 2006 at the Women’s Alliance Centre, Leh with the idea of promoting local agriculture and the culinary culture of Ladakh. In 2001 a Handicrafts shop was set with twin objectives: to empower women by providing them with an opportunity to earn a cash income through the sale of handicrafts thereby boosting the rural economy and arresting the migration to towns. The second objective is to preserve traditional handicraft skills which will otherwise be lost in the face of imported substitutes.

That’s great. So, how far you have achieved your objectives?

Rahul: Since its inception, ISEC has successfully made partnership with more than 12 countries both developed and developing. Its directors constitute the Editorial Board of The Ecologist magazine, the UK’s most respected environmental journal. We have published many groundbreaking books and made informative films and screened it worldwide. Its director Helena Norberg-Hodge shared the 1986 Right Livelihood Award, otherwise known as the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’. These all are the clear signs that our efforts are bearing fruit.

Thank you. You have given me such invaluable information and moreover, we really had a nice discussion.

Rahul: Thank you, Justin

Alex: Justin, you are welcome.

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