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Haa district, Bhutan

Updated: Jun 29, 2023

Haa district in western Bhutan is a large and diverse region, bordering its giant neighbours India and China, and sharing a trade history with Tibet. Its varied topography, ranging from arid highlands to subtropical forests, makes up a setting for regionally distinct and interesting food systems. Exploring the different local food worlds, myself and Tenzin Wangmo, one of the research assistants in the project, spent one month in two different places of Haa from February to April 2023; February-March in a small village in the Southwest and March-April in the North. Aiming to explore the food system in these two localities, we used ethnographic methods, living with families and sharing everyday life with them, learning about the myriad of ways that they engage with food. We followed food from production to consumption, mapping how food come into the households and the community, how foods circulate between people, is used in ritual life, how food is prepared, shared and eaten. As the more-than-human-health framework is central to the project, we paid particular attention to human-animal, human-plant, human-spirits relations in these places, learning about grains, vegetables, dairy and meat production. Here, we introduce the two field sites and present some of the main observations, focusing on production and consumption and the distinct differences of the two places.

The first gewog, located in the southwest of Haa district, is a fertile subtropical place at 1900 meters above sea level, with a recent history of remoteness, having received road accessibility only in 2018 and electricity a few years earlier. It consists of several villages, with significant differences between them, both in size, in topography and altitude, as well as in history of establishment and hence population composition. The village where we stayed for the month has a long history of settlement and consists of about 20 active households. In addition, some ten houses are empty of residents, but comes to life during the yearly ritual celebration of Lochoe, marking the New Year of the local calendar. The people in most households are related to each other. The villagers engage in a farming practice that is close to a subsistence economy, with cardamom (which they do not eat themselves) as their only cash crop. They produce a range of grains: red rice, bitter and sweet buckwheat, millet, as well as some maize and barley. They cultivate vegetables in small gardens and recently also in greenhouses. In addition, they actively engage in foraging from the surrounding forests (mushrooms and wild ferns primarily during the season we were there, but also medicinal plants, cow feed, and leaves for wrapping the betel nuts). Moreover, they buy additional food items from the abundant markets in the district, especially white rice from India, red and green chillies, and meat. While there are many cattle and some occasional chicken roaming in and around the villages, they are only used for their produce: getting milk and manure from cows and eggs from hens. There is a history of hunting and cattle pastoralism in all the villages in this gewog, but these practices have been stopped over the last two decades and the meat production is now non-existent and meat consumption is low. Food production is close to organic with little additives (‘medicine’) in the fields. Also, the last few years, many have abandoned commercial feed and returned to producing natural feed to the cattle. However, this practice of limited use of ‘medicines’ (men), as these additives are often referred to, is much due to (lack of) accessibility; when available, an insecticide is used on crops vulnerable to pest, particularly the chillies, and an herbicide is used in the paddy fields, in the beginning of the growing season, to reduce weed. The food sources into these villages are many, and the people in the region eat varied, characterized by seasonality, short food chains and little meat. All households serve three meals per day, all rice-based and including a (vegetable) curry, often with homemade cheese (datsi) and mostly a chilli salat (ezzey). The food is shared equally across the generations. In the winter months the most commonly eaten vegetables are green leafy vegetables (saag), as well as radish and turnips, cabbage, cauliflower, and sweet peas, in addition to the ever present dried red chilies, either kept from the summer harvest or bought from the markets. In the summer, vegetables are plentiful, and also include pumpkins, chillis, onions and potatoes.

After one month in this first gewog, we came back to Thimphu for a few days break, before heading north to the area that is more typically associated with Haa disctrict; high altitude, less fertile land and hence more animal husbandry. This second gewog is larger than the first one, with more and larger villages. The village where we stayed hosts more 80 households, and the community is less tightly knitted. It is also closer to Haa town, with all its food markets and shops, and the villagers are much more integrated in a cash economy, and have been so for a long time. Located at 3000 meters above sea level, the soil and water resources limit the rice production, and for generations, many families in the area have been engaged in pastoral economy with yak herding as the central activity. Moreover, located close to the border, the area also has a strong trade history with Tibet. Although yak ownership has been unequally distributed in the history of the villages, these animals have been closely integrated in the local communities, entangled in social and ritual as well as food worlds. This remains the case today, despite the ongoing decline in numbers of both yaks and people who live as herders. The villages are known for the production of excellent wheat, which is roasted and made into what is called kapshi. Moreover, villagers used to have vegetable gardens for winter crops, such as radish and turnip, saag and other robust plants. However, these days fewer and fewer are engaging in farming of any substantial size, choosing to leave the fields fallow and rather spend their time on income generating activities and buy food from the markets. The reasons for this are complex, but core to the issue is a strong human-wildlife conflicts, i.e. increasing problem of wild boars entering the fields and destroying the crops. Wheat is still produced, but less and less in quantity, and is primarily used for ritual purposes and for barter and gifts. Other grains, such as barley, buckwheat, maize and millet are hardly cultivated, or consumed, at all. Central characteristics of the food system here are the long food chain, the acquisition of food from markets, much variation between and within the households in which especially the younger villagers prefer what is seen to be non-traditional food, such as chicken, fine wheat flour (maida) and prepacked food from India. Despite these changes, yak meat remains an important ingredient in many households. Numerous families still have large herds of yaks as part of their households, some clusters of related households share 300 animals. They engage herders to care for the yaks, to milk them and make butter and hard cheese, and dairy delicacies used in rituals and festivals, which the owners also access in the summer. Yak meat is essential for the everyday food in many household in these northern villages; often in dried form used as an ingredient in curries, and is in many households served at least once a day. Yak meat also serves as a barter object, especially to exchange for red rice from neighbouring Paro valley, and is a crucial ingredient in the local food system, both materially and symbolically.

Two issues that stand out and cut across the two field sites, albeit in different ways, is wildlife conflicts and religious guidelines. In the first site, traditional cattle pastoralism, in which cattle is taken to the forest to roam for half of the year, being milked there by herders, is exposed to attacks from bear and packs of wild dogs (pow), leading to both concerns and changes in that practice. In the second site, the conflicts are more intense, and the attacks of wild boars has stopped large parts of agriculture, left many fields fallow, and been part of the drive towards cash economy. None of these animals are known to attach people (with the occasional exception), yet the effects on food production is significant, both for crops and animal husbandry. Moreover, recent Buddhist guidelines, starting in 2000 and recently re-emphasized, encourage people in Bhutan to eat less meat, and to slaughter fewer animals. In the first fieldsite in the southwest, the villagers have stopped hunting, stopped rearing pigs, and lately, with conviction and enthusiasm, stopped offering meat during rituals. This has led to a clear decrease in meat production and consumption, something that is talked about as good, both morally and health wise. In the other fieldsite in the north, on the other hand, these guidelines have been interpreted, or are rather enacted, differently, and with less transformative effect. As yak pastoralism is been an integrated part of life, yaks are more than meat providers. Given names by their owners, yaks are considered as part of the family, with long shared histories. Often they are descendants of yaks that belonged to the previous generations of people as well, forming inter-generational bonds of affection and care. Yak meat, especially ribs, are also an essential object for offering to the local protector deity of Haa valley, Ap Chundu, which contributes to the upholding of yaks and yak meat as a central food item in upper Haa


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