Anyone passing through Leh will notice that businesses have figured out how to appeal to the environmentally minded tourist. Most people come to Ladakh to go trekking, and since trekkers are into nature, they’re also usually pretty into protecting it. So, as a response, businesses loosely toss around the phrases “eco”, “organic”, “natural”, and “sustainable”. Just like in the US, there is an associated value to using such vocabulary in your business model: People buy it. Even if they don’t deeply believe that the business they’re using is “eco-friendly”, tourists will often choose a product from the “Ecological Organic Store” over the “Potala General Store”. When every store sells pretty much the same thing, what else do you have on which to base your consumer decision?
In the US, we call this phenomenon “greenwashing”. It happens when so many places generically claim to be “green” that it no longer is clear what is good or bad for the environment. Greenwashing envelops businesses, organizations, and universities in a murky shroud of positivity that confuses even the most devoted environmentalists. It begs the question, “How can an innocent tourist see through this imaginary green cloud?”
The best and most frustrating answer to this question is “think about it, hard”. Is the eco-tour company really so eco-friendly if its primary service is trips to Pangong Lake? You get to see a lake, which is, of course, natural; but the trip involves a six-hour ride in a diesel-powered bus that has no emission controls (air pollution from diesel emissions is a huge issue throughout all of India). Is a trekking company “sustainable” if it provides you with packaged snacks everyday whose wrappers are going to end up in a burning trash pile due to lack of waste-management services? Maybe not. Thinking about “green” claims critically and asking the right questions are the best ways to uncover the truth behind greenwashing. It is essential to realize that, as a tourist, you inherently exert some negative environmental impacts on Ladakh. It’s even more essential to move forward and try to limit other, avoidable impacts.
Outside of Leh, limited resources necessitate sustainability. In the villages of Ladakh, no water is wasted, no food goes uneaten, and minimal waste is produced. In such a barren, remote landscape, there isn’t any alternative to this way of life. Old clothing is used to block channels so that water can be guided into the correct section of farm field. Empty cans are used as “tree armor” so that grazing cows don’t scratch the bark off of young trees. Villagers remove long, thin willow branches to use for building materials, while leaving enough of the tree alive that it can produce more branches during the years to come. Any materials that are not locally available have to be brought in by foot or on horseback, so little excess consumption is found in village-life. No one is advertising this.
It is problematic to raise Ladakhi villages to a pedestal of perfection. In the same sense, Ladakhi city life should not be portrayed as the root of all evil—there are a lot of people and organizations that are making a concerted effort to improve environmental stewardship in Ladakh. Ladakh Ecological Development Group, for example, has a multitude of water, energy, and economic initiatives that aim to improve the quality of life of Ladakhi communities. Local Futures is another important organization that serves Ladakh with workshops, mindful travel/tourist education programs, and courses on globalization and localization. Ladakh Fine Foods serves only locally grown, canned, bottled, and pickled foods. If you hang around any of these places, you’ll find a wonderful collection of tourists and locals who care a lot and are trying to impact positive change.