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Year : 2020  |  Volume : 18  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 315-326

Socio-economic and Environmental Implications of the Decline of Chilgoza Pine Nuts of Kinnaur, Western Himalaya

Research undertaken under: Fulbright Nehru Academic & Professional Excellence Award, and affiliated with the Institute of Economic Growth at Delhi University, New Delhi, India, India

Correspondence Address:
Aghaghia Rahimzadeh
Research undertaken under: Fulbright Nehru Academic & Professional Excellence Award, and affiliated with the Institute of Economic Growth at Delhi University, New Delhi
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/cs.cs_19_17

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Date of Submission04-Feb-2019
Date of Acceptance08-Apr-2020
Date of Web Publication31-Jul-2020


Pinus gerardiana, or chilgoza pine nut, has played a significant socioeconomic role for the Kinnauri Tribal Peoples of Western Himalaya. This native species is declining, however, and as a result, so too is its role in the local culture, landscape, and economy. This paper is based on longitudinal ethnographic research conducted between 2010-2018. I discuss socio-economic and environmental changes that have been leading to the decline in chilgoza production in Kinnaur. Findings suggest several factors contributing to this decline. As the commercialisation of apple production gains prominence, the traditional collective harvesting and distribution practices of chilgoza are losing importance. Contemporary harvesting practices contribute to long-term damage of the tree and therefore decline in seed production and regeneration. Climate change and a general reduction in winter snowfall have also been diminishing production. Chilgoza decline can potentially reduce the diversification of the broader Kinnauri economy, possibly placing Kinnauris at risk, as they become dependent on a single cash crop. Here, I illustrate the story of the chilgoza pine nut of Kinnaur and explain the social and environmental factors and implications of its decline.

Keywords: Pinus gerardiana, Chilgoza, pine nuts, climate change, common pool resource, market integration, apple production, Kinnaur, Western Himalaya

How to cite this article:
Rahimzadeh A. Socio-economic and Environmental Implications of the Decline of Chilgoza Pine Nuts of Kinnaur, Western Himalaya. Conservat Soc 2020;18:315-26

How to cite this URL:
Rahimzadeh A. Socio-economic and Environmental Implications of the Decline of Chilgoza Pine Nuts of Kinnaur, Western Himalaya. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2020 [cited 2021 Jan 26];18:315-26. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2020/18/4/315/291279

Current Designation: Independent scholar

   Introduction Top

Pinus gerardiana, commonly known as chilgozaor neoza,1 is a pine tree native to the dry temperate forests of the Hindu Kush-Himalaya region. Within this area, it is confined to small pockets in Western Himalaya including in tribal areas of the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh (Kinnaur and Chamba Districts), Indian state of Kashmir, eastern Afghanistan, and the Suleiman Range of Baluchistan and also in parts of the mountainous region of northern Pakistan (Malik et al. 2012), and small areas in Tibet (Farjon 2013).

Chilgoza has been a significant part of Kinnauri livelihoods, culture, and tribal identity. Until the 1950s, Kinnaur was dependent on barter and subsistence, and devoid of a cash-based economy (Rahimzadeh 2017). Prior to this transition, chilgoza pine nuts provided the only means of monetary revenue to the people of Kinnaur. Pine nuts, harvested from both commonly-managed wild and privately-held trees, were thus a vital commodity with which Kinnauris traded for items such as cotton, rice, and other essential goods. While no longer central to the barter economy, pine nuts offer a small sum of supplementary income and remain an important part of religious and cultural functions in Kinnaur. Moreover, oil-rich pine nuts provide a source of nourishment, especially during long winter months. Because of its nutritious properties, chilgoza is also traded as an important international food commodity (Sharma et al. 2013), but as the harvest rapidly declines, the role of chilgoza in the Kinnauri economy and culture is threatened. Today, widespread cultivation of apples is gradually taking the place of pine nuts as a valued commodity.

Commercial apple cultivation for export began in the 1950s and gradually created newfound prosperity in Kinnaur. Nonetheless, the economic shift from collecting wild pine nuts to apple cultivation may impact the local population, particularly given greater risk to the economic security of the region as apple production becomes increasingly threatened by climate change. Several factors have contributed to the chilgoza decline including harvesting practices, dominance of apples as a lucrative cash crop (Minocha 2015), and decrease in winter snowfall. In addition, informal village-level institutions and social networks that were once strong regulators and managed local natural resources have been replaced with formal committees that manage the harvest of chilgoza by contracting and hiring outside labourers. Finally, with market penetration and the success of apple production as a cash crop, there is now disinterest amongst Kinnauris to collectively and sustainably harvest chilgoza, as it has been done traditionally.

Climate change and reduced precipitation in the amount of winter snow (Rahimzadeh 2017), as well as unplanned and dilapidated development, are also contributing to the decline of chilgoza production. The term ”dilapidated development” is used here intentionally to indicate development practices that are destined to fail from the onset, because they do not equitably and sustainably serve people, and contribute to environmental degradation. Dilapidated development exploits resources while producing waste and pollution, harming the environment and human health. In the case of Kinnaur, dilapidated development illustrates the unsustainable and unplanned infrastructure development that has been dilapidated from its inception. This includes the road system, the rapid unplanned expansion of buildings, and hydroelectric projects on fragile mountain slopes, the unplanned and rapid development of a tourism industry that utilises precious resources and produces colossal waste, all of which contribute to deforestation and damage to existing chilgoza trees.

Mountains offer a host of ecosystem services such as non-timber forest products, water, energy, biodiversity, and food, locally and more globally to about 40 percent of the world's population (Grêt-Regamey et al. 2012). Mountain areas are key global biodiversity hotspots (Maselli 2012) and are uniquely sensitive to climate and socioeconomic change, including to dilapidated development (Jodha 2005b). Mountain ecosystems, including the chilgoza forest, may serve as early indicators for socioeconomic and climate change, illuminating barriers and opportunities for adaptation. To acquire better information on mountain ecosystem services and biodiversity, it is essential to understand the state under which ecosystems function. Knowledge of the chilgoza pine nut decline in Western Himalaya can ultimately help draw lessons for how native species in other mountain regions are undergoing change.

The decline of chilgoza forests in Kinnaur creates risk in the event of a downturn in the export market for apples or a disruption in apple production, by limiting an alternative source of sustenance. This situation has relevance to other areas of Himachal Pradesh and possibly other areas of the Western Himalaya in which chilgoza grows and cash crop production has taken precedence over other sources of livelihood in recent decades. Communities at an earlier stage of transition to cash crop production may be able to retain or devise a more sustainable system of chilgoza management than the currently destructive Kinnauri practice of outsourcing harvesting to contractors without oversight. This case study may also offer insights to students of community-based resource management. It reminds us that sustainability of traditionally managed communal resources is dependent on strong community institutions and consistent enforcement of rules by those institutions.

Because human influences contribute significantly to declining chilgoza production, understanding these factors is critical to mitigating the problem and forming effective conservation strategies. Yet there is a paucity of social science research focusing on the social factors and ramifications of chilgoza decline. The current available research on chilgoza is mainly centred on physiological, biological, ecological, and biochemical aspects of the trees and the pine nuts (Aziz et al. 2017; Malik et al. 2012; Malik et al. 2013; Shalizi et al. 2016). This article investigates chilgoza in the context of socio-environmental change and will contribute to literature on rural mountain livelihoods in the area of human-environment interactions, which are integrated within a wider system shaped by political and economic structures.


This qualitative ethnographic research is based on roughly 14 months of fieldwork from 2010 to 2018. The chief methods of data collection included participant observation in 37 villages in Lower, Middle, and Upper Kinnaur, two focus group discussions with eight women and two men in each group, and 60 in-depth, semi-structured and open-ended interviews in 26 Kinnauri villages that exclusively focused on chilgoza pine nuts. Open-ended interviews were mainly conducted with elders focusing on oral history regarding chilgoza use.

Data obtained through one method were later tested and reinforced through other methods and through discussions with key informants who were identified based on their knowledge of chilgoza pine nuts, conservation, and community dynamics. Participants belonged to different socio-economic, caste, age, and gender backgrounds and included Kinnauri elders, orchard owners, contractors, panchayat2 members, and government officials. This study employed a multi-sampling technique, including expert informants and snowball sampling. Interviewees were sampled for variation to provide critical and diverse perspectives from the broader population (Weiss 1994) and were selected to include examples of important divergent variations in the larger population (Weiss 1994).

Analytical Framework

Mountain peoples have traditionally devised diverse livelihood activities and strong social networks to mitigate the constraints of their harsh biophysical conditions. With the shift from subsistence to market-based agriculture, however, these traditional strategies have weakened, resulting in a decline in economic diversity, which may increase vulnerability to climate and other shocks (Jodha 2005a). When livelihoods diversify, people have more options as they rely less on a single resource, cash flows may increase, and human capital expands so that knowledge and skills can diversify (Ellis and Allison 2004). Diversification can therefore enable people to endure and adapt to extreme climatic conditions as an overall risk management strategy (Block and Webb 2001).

The resilience of social and ecological systems are linked because social systems depend on ecological systems (Adger 2000; Berkes et al. 1998). Social resilience shaped by a diversified livelihood system, access to resources, and responsive social institutions, can help communities absorb external shocks and perhaps respond positively to them (Adger 2000; Adger et al. 2002). Because networks create cooperation between people vertically and horizontally across socio-economic boundaries for a shared gain, they produce a foundation for social cohesion (Field 2003; Putnam 2000). As networks weaken and alter social relations, social safety nets also disintegrate, leading to the dissolution of cohesion within the community.

It has long been recognised that market integration in general weakens social insurance mechanisms that are rooted in relations of reciprocity and exchange (Swift 1993). Markets shift traditional production systems by commoditising resources and labour and separating economic relations from social relations (Swift 1993). In some cases, market transactions are dominated by contractual relationships, which deteriorate personal relationships such as those based on kinship that exist in pre-market societies (Kornblum and Smith 1994; Parsons 1991). Nonetheless, it is important to note that such relationships are not always adversely affected. Many subsistence mountain communities such as the Kinnauris have engaged in barter-based trade to supplement their livelihood. Participant responses and observations recorded in this research suggest that some of these predictions, including the decline of social reciprocity resulting from market integration, are being realised in Kinnaur.

The successful operation of common pool resources, such as chilgoza pine nuts, is based on their management networks and institutions (Feeny et al. 1990; Ostrom 1990). Institutional failure to control access to resources and to enforce rules results in the disruption or failure of common resources. Failure can be due to both internal factors, including the failure of users to manage the system, or external factors such as market incursions providing new prospects (Berkes and Folke 1998). In Kinnaur, institutional failure stems from both internal and external factors. Local informal village institutions that once arranged and managed the harvesting practices of chilgoza are being replaced with formal institutions that engage in commercial harvesting practices. The Kinnauri institutional failure in sustainably managing chilgoza harvest, and the decline in chilgoza, may lead to low social resilience in the face of risks and hazards. While the social safety net of chilgoza has weakened, externally, climate change can potentially threaten commercial apple production while the decline in chilgoza means it is less likely to mitigate any future economic or environmental risks.

Kinnauri social arrangements and social networks that have been in place traditionally, are evolving and declining as can be observed with current chilgoza harvesting and distribution practices. For example, the declining practice of cooperative labour, where relatives and neighbours help each other harvest chilgoza, work in the fields, or help construct homes, has been one factor tied to weakening of community solidarity and cohesion (Rahimzadeh 2016). Conversely, individual behaviour and decision-making has been on the rise (Rahimzadeh 2016). Declining cooperative labour practices have deeper social repercussions both in the household and the village. For example, collective chilgoza harvest has provided an opportunity for building relationships and collective decision-making about the harvest, while commercial harvest is devoid of such networks.

   Study Area Top

Kinnaur District is located in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh [Figure 1]. The area is steeply mountainous, adjacent to the Tibetan border, and extends over 6,400 km 2 of the Western Himalaya. The district is divided into three distinct agro-climatic zones of Lower, Middle, and Upper Kinnaur that correspond to their altitudes, ranging between 1800 m to above 3000 m with considerable difference in the amount of rainfall each receives. Due to its mountainous terrain, agricultural land is limited with low fertility. The land that can be cultivated has been heavily terraced (Singh 2003).
Figure 1: State of Himachal Pradesh, India, Western Himalaya

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Kinnauri tribal people were traditionally subsistence agro-pastoralists who conducted cross-border trade with neighbouring Tibet. The 1962 Indo-China war led to the closing of the India-China border, which cut off Kinnauris from their trading partners, instigating a major economic and cultural shift. Early significant changes included the construction of a strategic highway through Kinnaur and to the border area, militarisation of the border, and the initiation of major hydroelectric projects. The promotion of horticulture spurred Kinnaur to produce apples for export. Concurrently, a series of land reforms provided land to landless Kinnauris (Rahimzadeh 2018).

Prior to India's Independence, much of the land in Kinnaur was concentrated under the control of upper caste land owners (Rahimzadeh 2018). Under land reforms, specifically, the Nautor Land Rules of 1968-1998,3 however, land ownership was provided to the majority of landless Kinnauris (Rahimzadeh 2018). Nautor land was distributed from undemarcated Class III forests, which are categorised as ”wasteland” and considered less agriculturally productive (Rahimzadeh 2018). Distributed nautor land in Kinnaur was to be used for specific non-forest purposes including horticulture and agriculture (Rahimzadeh 2018). Allocation of forestland under nautor and other land reforms have resulted in Kinnauris across socio-economic and caste divides owning private chilgoza trees on their land.4

While land reforms may not have been equitable in their distribution in the beginning stages of their implementation, over time they provided land to the poorest classes and the lower castes and shifted Kinnauri agrarian relations (Rahimzadeh 2018). Land reforms have had a significant role in the broader social dynamics of Kinnaur and have contributed to the district's economic changes and the current 'golden era' of its apple economy. Today, the majority of Kinnauri households, regardless of their caste and economic status, own small parcels of land 5 and profit from apple cultivation (Rahimzadeh 2018). According to a former Deputy Commissioner in Kinnaur, the highest-ranking government official in the district, about two percent of the entire population is completely landless today (pers.comm. 2016). All households in this research (100%) owned a parcel of land, however, and economically benefitted from apple cultivation.

Nautor Land Rules of 1968 succeeded in transforming Kinnauri agrarian relations and reducing the gap between different social groups, especially in the context of caste. Land reforms have played a factor in improving the socioeconomic status of the poor through distribution of land, which provided formerly landless Kinnauris a means of production and participation in the broader regional economy (Rahimzadeh 2018). Similar to other areas in India, Kinnauris practice caste discrimination. However, access to land and improved economic conditions have empowered those in the lower castes, and discrimination no longer plays a central role in the Kinnauri economy.

Prior to the cash economy beginning after India's Independence in 1947, chilgoza pine nuts were of utmost importance to the people of Kinnaur. Apple cultivation was minimal, with only 300 hectares under apples in 1961 (Government of HP 2011). In the 1980s the economic transformation based on apples began to expand. By 1991, the area under apples had grown to 4,431 hectares producing 16,530 metric tons of apples (Government of HP 2011). By 2017–2018 that figure had increased to about 10,965.31 hectares producing about 52,189 metric tons of apples (Government of HP Department of Economics & Statistics 2018). The increase in production has been accompanied by commercialisation, leading to a transformation of the Kinnauri lifestyle.

Though most Kinnauris' standard of living has increased, there are environmental and cultural trade-offs. Common pool resources such as chilgoza forests are declining. Climate change is enabling encroachment on higher elevation forests that previously did not support fruit trees, and is harming established orchards at lower elevations (Rahimzadeh 2017). Rapid unplanned or dilapidated development and reduction in snowfall are now placing pressure on chilgoza forests.

   Pinus Gerardiana Top

The chilgoza tree has been referred to as 'the champion of rocky mountains' due to its ability to endure harsh growing conditions (Malik et al. 2013). This robust tree can survive in little soil and in extreme cold and drought conditions at an altitudinal range of between 1500 to 3300 meters in dry temperate regions (Malik et al. 2012). Chilgoza trees flourish in areas with little rain, heavy snowfall in winter seasons (Singh et al. 2009.), and a temperature below 35°C in the summer seasons (Chandy 2002). Fluctuations in rainfall and soil moisture affect the growth of this slow growing species (Singh and Yadav 2007). The radial growth rate of the tree, which can live to be between 150 to 200 years (HIMCOSTE and HFRI 2018), has been identified to be higher on cooler slopes that contain some moisture (Ahmed et al. 1991) indicating the importance of soil moisture for its growth. In Kinnaur, chilgoza forests are mainly situated in the region's dry temperate zone and cover an area of about 2,040 hectares (Malik et al. 2012).

Chilgoza female cones containing the seeds are produced in the spring months and reach maturity in the fall of the following year, after which seeds are released from cones (Shalizi et al. 2016). Trees require about 30 years of maturity before they begin to produce cones and seeds (Chandy 2002).

Regeneration occurs naturally when seeds are released and dispersed from cones. Natural regeneration occurrence, however, is extremely slow. In Kinnaur, natural regeneration occurs at a rate of between 7.5% to 26.50%, with an average of 15% (Malik et al. 2012). Much of the slow natural regeneration has been attributed to the unsustainable harvesting practices by the local communities (Malik et al. 2012; Peltier and Dauffy 2009; Sharma et al. 2010), and grazing domesticated animals in chilgoza forest (Malik et al. 2012). Other causes of poor regeneration include climatic factors, low soil nitrogen levels, and arid settings (Aziz et al. 2017). Further, conditions such as drought, temperature fluctuations, and desiccating winds also reduce regeneration rates (Kumar et al. 2016).

Although the range of the chilgoza forest is widespread, it is small and low in density (Farjon 2013). In 1973, it was estimated that the chilgoza forests of Himachal Pradesh, most of which are located in Kinnaur, had declined by about 2000 hectares (Singh et al. 1973). In 1993, Kinnaur had a total area of about 3,278 hectares under chilgoza (Sharma and Minhas 1993). In 2001, this number had shrunk to 2845 (Negi 2017) hectares, which had reduced further to about 2040 hectares by 2011 (Sharma et al. 2010). In 1998, the chilgoza forests were placed on the IUCN (World Conservation Union) Red List of Threatened Species under the category of Lower Risk/Near Threatened. In the reassessment of the chilgoza for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, lack of adequate data prevented the exact quantification of chilgoza forests,6 ”it is strongly suspected that it is approaching at least 30%” (Farjon 2013: 1). In 2013 the chilgoza forests were reclassified as ”Near Threatened” (Farjon 2013). Due to the fragmented distribution of chilgoza forests, today there may be less than 2000km2 of natural chilgoza forest remaining globally (Farjon 2013).

   Significance of Chilgoza in Kinnaur Top

Chilgoza trees have historically had ecological, economic, and social importance in Kinnaur. As this significance is recognised by the Kinnauris, they universally praise the chilgoza and its many positive properties and refer to it as 'God's gift,' an important resource that does not require any input. ”Chilgoza is god's gift because it needs a special climate for production that exists here in Kinnaur. We don't put any work into the chilgoza the way we do with apples, we only harvest this gift” (Interview, September 2012). This is a common understanding and acknowledgement among Kinnauris. Nevertheless, despite identifying with chilgoza and lamenting its decline, engagement for its protection and preservation is widely missing in Kinnaur.

Socio-Cultural Significance of Chilgoza

Chilgoza pine nuts are significant socio-culturally. Chilgoza plays an important role in the Kinnauri tribal identity and is an important part of Kinnauri social obligation. Kinnauri women string the pine nuts into long garlands, which are then provided as offerings during ceremonies including births, weddings, deaths, various religious functions, and when welcoming guests and dignitaries. During a focus group discussion [Figure 2], when I asked a group of women who were extracting the chilgoza seeds from the cones to explain the significance of chilgoza, they emphasised how pine nuts are used in various ceremonies and functions. In September 2018 in the Buddhist Temple in the village of Pangi in Middle Kinnaur, during a one-year anniversary of the death of a woman, family members and friends lined up to offer chilgoza garlands to the prayer-reciting monks. Subsequently, during a wedding celebration at the groom's home in the village of Kalpa in Middle Kinnaur in October 2018, about 40-50 women stood in a line inching toward the groom's relatives. As the women neared the groom's family members, they would give a chilgoza garland to each person as an offering [Figure 3]. During various temple functions, chilgoza garlands are also offered to the local village deities.
Figure 2: Extracting chilgoza seeds in a village in Middle Kinnaur, 2018.

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Figure 3: Kinnauri woman making an offering of a garland of chilgoza pine nuts in a wedding in Middle Kinnaur, 2018. Photo by Author

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Chilgoza is also known for its nutritional and medicinal values and it has been a considerable source of fat, carbohydrates, proteins, and dietary fibres, especially during long winter months when access to nutritious food was difficult (Malik et al. 2012). Pine nuts also contain unsaturated fatty acids that can aid with reducing cholesterol levels (Cai et al. 2017).

About 25-30 years back, chilgoza was a big part of our diet. People kept some chilgoza for themselves and traded some for sugar and rice. Chilgoza was also used for its oil. In those days we did not have other nutritious food to eat, so chilgoza was a big part of our diet. That's why people who were born 60 years back, are much stronger than we are today (Interview, September 2012).

Other benefits of chilgoza include using the pine needles as mulch in the fields and orchards to retain moisture in the soil. Fields and orchards are also fertilised by mixing pine needles with cow dung to prepare a natural fertiliser and to enhance the fertility of the soil. Moreover, both branches and cones (after seed extraction) are used as fuel for heat and cooking purposes.

Ecological Importance of Chilgoza

Because chilgoza pine trees often grow on shallow and rocky soil (Shalizi et al. 2016), they help preserve the ecology of mountainous slopes by preventing large-scale soil erosion that is common to the region (Malik et al. 2013). The roots of the tree act as a strong soil binder, especially in the dry temperate and semi-temperate zones where the species is found (Aziz et al. 2017). In areas with steep slopes such as Kinnaur, chilgoza trees are important because they hold the slopes together preventing landslides. The expansion of unplanned infrastructural development such as roads, hydroelectric dam projects, hotels and residential buildings constructed on steep mountainsides and encroaching onto the forestlands, can destabilise the slope causing erosion and ecological disruption (Wang et al. 2019).

Kinnaur has been characterised by short summers from June to August, and long winters sometimes lasting from about October/November to April/May. The region is referred to as being in the rain shadow and has been receiving little precipitation in the form of rain. These characteristics have contributed to the region's formation of its dry temperate forest, native home of the chilgoza. In Kinnaur, 68%, or 770 mm, of its average annual precipitation is received in the form of snow between December to May (Yadav 2011; Yadava et al. 2016). Kinnaur's share of precipitation, predominantly in the form of winter and spring snow, has been crucial for the foundation of the socio-economic conditions of the region, its human settlement and agriculture. A decrease in winter and spring snowfall can lead to drought for the region (Yadava et al. 2016) with widespread implications for the Kinnauri livelihood. According to local perception, Kinnaur is now receiving more rain and less snow. Although climate data are unavailable for Kinnaur District, the region of Northwestern Himalaya, including the state of Himachal Pradesh, has experienced a significant warming trend of 1.6°C in the last 100 years; much higher than the increase in the global air temperature (Bhutiyani et al. 2007). Furthermore, almost all climate research stations in Western Himalaya show a decrease in snowfall and an increase in rainfall levels (Bhutiyani 2017).

Climate change has been leading to an increased risk in weather volatility in the Himalaya (Chaudhary and Bawa 2011). The region is geologically fragile and generally susceptible to erosion and landslides (Sharma et al. 2019; Wang et al. 2019). An upsurge in extreme weather events, including an increase in highly variable rainfall and drought is already being experienced in many areas in the Himalaya (Panday et al. 2015). In Kinnaur, extreme weather events have already been experienced in the last decade (Rahimzadeh 2017). Severe winter storms of 2012-2013, followed by uncommon rain and snowfall in the summer of 2013, for example, triggered avalanches and landslides that destroyed orchards, farms, and tourism infrastructure, and caused road closure and communication cut-offs for weeks. Removal of chilgoza trees for the purpose of infrastructural development or apple orchards, will further exacerbate soil erosion and landslides placing further pressure on the Kinnauri landscape and ecology (Minocha 2015).

   Chilgoza Decline Top

The diminishing size of the chilgoza forests since the 1970s has led to a reduced annual harvest. Climate change, a booming apple economy, dilapidated development and unsustainable harvesting practices have all contributed to this decline.

Climate Change

The changes in the local climate mentioned above are adversely contributing to the health of the chilgoza trees, which have adapted to a very specific climactic condition. Lack of adequate soil moisture affects regeneration of chilgoza seeds (Malik et al. 2012). When discussing the effect of climate change on the chilgoza trees, participants claimed that the changing weather patterns are causing damage to the trees. Respondents invariably attributed the decline in the chilgoza harvest to a reduction in winter snow. ”We used to harvest 100 kilos, but in recent years we are harvesting 60-70 kg. There is now less snow and more rain, otherwise, there is no need to give the chilgoza trees anything; this is what nature gives us” (Interview, April 2013).

A chilgoza contractor who had been involved with chilgoza harvest since the 1980s recalled observing many changes in the last 30-35 years including reduction in snowfall, which has led to diminishing harvest. ”No one irrigates chilgoza trees, but when trees receive moisture from snowfall, they do much better. The earth becomes soft after the snow melts, which helps the tree stay healthy and robust. Production will therefore be high” (Interview, October 2018). When asked whether anything can be done to prevent the reduction of chilgoza, he said, ”no, there is nothing. With reduction in snowfall, there is reduction in chilgoza” (Interview, October 2018).

Market economy and an apple boom

In those days before we had money, we walked for seven days to Rampur to trade chilgoza for rice and other commodities. Big landlords went on horses and mules, but most people walked. If we had a lot of chilgoza, then the chilgoza would have to be carried on the backs of mules and dzos.7 Now look at us, we are making so much money from apples (Interview, April 2013).

Market integration dependent on apples as a dominant cash crop is linked to the decline of chilgoza. Because of the overall rural transformations in Kinnaur, chilgoza has lost its importance in the rural economy. The rise of the apple economy, which has thus far proven successful, has diverted interest away from chilgoza and onto apples. Despite the high prices fetched for chilgoza serving as a supplementary source of income, the total returns from apple is much higher. Today, the Kinnauri chilgoza is sold for about 1,000-1,500 Rupees per Kg (about 14 USD).8 It is subsequently resold for about 1,600 Rupees (about 22.5 USD) in markets such as Delhi and other domestic Indian markets. Conversely, a 20-25 kilo box of apples sells for between 1000-1500 Rupees, depending on the quality of the fruit and market prices.

Chilgoza and apple harvests take place simultaneously in autumn. During this time, households with private chilgoza trees are busy with harvesting their apple orchards and have little time to devote to the harvest of chilgoza. In some villages, however, larger households with numerous able-bodied family members may still conduct the harvest on their own. The general small sizes of landholding (Rahimzadeh 2018) place chilgoza trees at a disadvantage to apple trees. Due to lack of adequate land and the desire to maximise apple production, chilgoza trees are either completely removed, or limbed to provide room and light for the apple trees. During an oral history interview with a 93-year-old elder, I discussed whether there is a connection between the apple economy and declining chilgoza production. He animatedly exclaimed, ”Of course there is a connection. Chilgoza is decreasing because of the apple trees. People are cutting their chilgoza trees on their property to replace them with apples” (Interview, April 2013). This claim was verified by other participants who invariably discussed gradually replacing the chilgoza trees on their private property with apple orchards. A young couple revealed that they once owned about 60-70 chilgoza trees on their property producing about 60-80 kg of pine nuts annually. In 2013, about 40-45 of the trees remained, providing the family with 25-30 kilos of pine nuts. The family cut down about 20-30 chilgoza trees to open the forest for an apple plantation. Additionally, every year the family cuts down chilgoza branches to create open areas for the apple trees to receive sufficient amount of sunlight.

In another example in Lower Chini in Middle Kinnaur, I came across a forested area that was in the process of being developed into an apple orchard [Figure 4]. A Nepali labourer was hard at work using stones to create a retaining wall for terraces. About 100 apple saplings were to be planted the next day in large holes that had been dug into the ground. The ground was covered with chilgoza branches and the sound of a chopping axe echoed in the forest. The landowner was high on a chilgoza tree chopping large branches. He owns the land, amounting to three bighas9 (.22 hectare). About 10-12 chilgoza trees were being removed and the remaining chilgoza trees would be lopped for now to make way for the coming apple orchard. In about five years, however, during which time the apple trees will have developed, the rest of the chilgoza trees will be removed to provide light for the growing orchard. The cut chilgoza branches were being used as fencing around the periphery of the property. Some of the wood would also be used as fuel for heating and cooking in the traditional Kinnauri wood burning stoves.
Figure 4: Cut branches of chilgoza cover the ground making way for an apple orchard. April 2019. Photo by Author

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The man owns more land in higher altitude near the village, which is already being cultivated with productive apple trees. He and his brother have partitioned the land between them, a common practice in Kinnaur in recent years (Rahimzadeh 2020). His brother was in the process of constructing a massive house on the adjacent land. Traditional homes are rapidly being replaced with new large lavish buildings as a status symbol and a sign of a prosperous apple economy. The brother's orchard had mature trees of about 15-20 years old, but there were also many younger apple trees, of about five-years old, scattered throughout the orchard. This is a common trend all over Kinnaur today. Upward socioeconomic mobility has been leading to unplanned and unsustainable development, which renders chilgoza less important.

Dilapidated Development and an Upsurge in Road Construction

Although infrastructural development may bring socioeconomic benefits and improve accessibility for remote areas, dilapidated development may be detrimental. Dilapidated development and an increase in the number of roads in Kinnaur have opened areas that may have been difficult to reach in the past and therefore were more protected from chilgoza over-harvesting. There has been a rapid construction of hydroelectric dams and roads since 1962, including those that connect villages to the main arteries. ”Before, chilgoza was traded informally, without cash. For example, if I had chilgoza, I would barter it for a few kilos of rice. But when the road network came in, chilgoza started to go out and cash started coming in” (Interview, September 2012).

Every village has a kanda (high elevation forest and pasturelands) where people from that village own land. Since warmer weather patterns and milder winters have been opening up higher elevations, apple orchards have been increasingly established in the kandas (Rahimzadeh 2017). Until recently, walking on mountain paths was the only way to reach these high elevation areas. Harvested apple boxes are sent down in baskets that are operated by cables, or where baskets are inoperable, with Nepali labourers carry the boxes. This laborious process changed in the last several years, however, when new roads were precariously carved into the forest linking the villages to their kandas.

Roads to the kanda benefit a small number of villagers with land in the area. Poor planning and short-sightedness in road construction or, ”dilapidated development,” however, generates more harm than benefit for the majority. While roads may benefit some people in the short-term, they contribute to environmental degradation such as landslide, erosion and forest and hydrological harm in an already fragile landscape, further compromising slope stability (Wang et al. 2019) and requiring constant maintenance and upkeep. The roads to the village kanda were constructed at the cost of uprooting chilgoza pines and other trees, leading to erosion and loss of forest cover. These roads also provide better access to the chilgoza trees that may have once been protected.

   Chilgoza Harvest Top

Chilgoza has been harvested at the village and the household levels as chilgoza trees can be found on both government and private lands. Each village has access and usufruct rights to the common village chilgoza forests, all of which are under the management of the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department. There are no imposed government restrictions on the amount of chilgoza harvested (HIMCOSTE and HFRI 2018). Today's chilgoza harvesting methods have been substantially altered from traditional methods, as I detail below, contributing to a decline in cone regeneration and overall tree damage.

Traditional Harvesting Practices of the Chilgoza Common Forests

In traditional collective harvesting at the village level, decisions were made either by the members of the panchayat (the traditional council when a village had one), Dev Sabha Committee (manages affairs related to the village Deity) or through a joint agreement between villagers. The villagers made joint decisions about the date of collection and how to collect and distribute chilgoza for that specific season. Informal management structures provided rules that upheld harvesting methods, distribution, and regeneration and overall sustainability of chilgoza pine trees. Traditional practices began to cease in the 1980s and 1990s, although two villages were recorded as having transitioned to commercial harvesting in the 1960s (Sanan 1997). Today, most villages in Kinnaur have adopted commercial harvesting, although in parts of Upper Kinnaur some villages including Jangi, Nesang, and parts of Spillo, still conduct collective harvesting.

Under traditional harvesting practices, a male and a female member of each household of the village participate in collective harvesting. Men climb the trees and use a sickle to pluck each of the ripe cones from the branches, while women collect the fallen cones. Unreachable cones left on the branch (Peltier and Dauffy 2009) would open releasing their seeds and potentially regenerating. After the completion of the harvest and extraction of the seeds from the cones, all members of the village receive an equal share of the pine nuts despite their caste or other social differentiation. In the case where a household is unable to send two members, however, it receives a reduced share of the harvest or profit. Traditionally, emphasis was placed on harvesting the ripe cones, leaving the smaller, younger cones for the following year's harvest and regeneration of new tree saplings.

In this context of the collective chilgoza harvest, caste does not play a factor as every household in the village receives an equitable amount after the sale of chilgoza. Regarding gender, however, because men control the income from the chilgoza harvest, women benefit only indirectly, as their husbands, fathers, or other male family members distribute the earnings from the sale of the pine nuts. Below I elaborate further on gender.

Chilgoza Harvest on Private Lands

At the household level, people traditionally harvested their own private pinecones through their networks of collaborative labour, which include their close family members and neighbours. Today, however, with the apple economy taking priority, the majority of private chilgoza landholders also hire contractors and/or Nepali seasonal labourers for the harvest. ”These days I hire the Nepali labourers because local people have less time and are busy with their own apple orchards. Also, local Kinnauris work less, but the labourers work much harder” (Interview with a local chilgoza contractor, September 2012). With a general upward socioeconomic mobility, Kinnauris are able to refrain from certain labour-intensive work, and most households hire seasonal labourers. There is growing social stigma attached to doing the work that can be done by labourers. And as the previous interviewee expressed, lack of time to devote to laborious work is another chief reason to hire outside help.

Unsustainable Chilgoza Harvesting Practices

Communal harvesting, both on the common village forests as well as private lands, has been largely replaced by commercial contractors. Most villages auction the harvest of their communal chilgoza forests to contractors, most of whom are local Kinnauris [Figure 5]. Contractors compete by bidding for the harvest of a common village forest, or a section of the forest. Once their bid is accepted, contractors hire unskilled migrant Nepali labourers to conduct the actual harvest. With respect to contracting, one 35-year-old man who has been involved with chilgoza harvest since he was 12-years-old, commented, ”During my father's time, all the neighbours and relatives harvested together. But this all changed to labourers. Now people have sufficient money from apples and don't want to do hard work that they think should be done by the labourers” (Interview, April 2013). Other interviewees all offered similar accounts regarding people's lack of interest or time in participating in the harvest.
Figure 5: Chilgoza harvest being auctioned off to contractors in a village in Middle Kinnaur, 2017. Photo by Author

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The main aim of the labourers is to harvest a large number of cones in a short amount of time, a strategy that maximises their efficiency and profit, but requires hard work that can be dangerous at times. Their method of harvest, however, is generally unsustainable. For example, if a mature cone dangles at the end of a branch that is difficult to reach, rather than leaving the cone, which would allow the seeds to fall and regenerate, the labourers cut the entire branch. Doing so terminates every existing cone on the branch, including the undeveloped cones that were once left for the following year's harvest or the regeneration of the tree. During harvest season, it is common to witness piles of chilgoza cut branches under the trees [Figure 6]. In the fall of 2012, 2017 and 2018 as chilgoza harvest was proceeding, I observed long branches axed to collect the one mature cone at the end, while sacrificing all other undeveloped cones.
Figure 6: Chilgoza branches are piled up on the ground during the chilgoza harvest in 2018. Photo by Author

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Because every ripe and unripe cone is collected, there is little likelihood for natural regeneration of the tree. The only chance for regeneration is on steep, rocky cliff sides where collection is dangerous and almost impossible. But there, too, the seeds have to be carefully protected in order to survive animals and birds. Further, there is unregulated and unrestricted grazing in these forests, which deters regeneration of the cones that have not been harvested (Kumar et al. 2016).

An elder woman in her mid-eighties remembered that roughly about 50 years ago she used to participate in collective harvesting. The village common chilgoza forests have been auctioned to contractors ”since the time of our elders. Now everyone is educated and people have work. Locals no longer participate in the harvest. Instead, these days we send the contractors and labourers” (Interview, October 2018). She further explained, ”Back then, there used to be heaps and heaps of chilgoza for harvest. These days the harvest is much smaller” (Interview, October 2018).

Lack of Management Skills, or Motivated by Profit?

In discussions regarding the fatality of today's harvesting practices, the contractors invariably blame the labourers who are the direct harvesters. Almost all research interviewees expressed their distress regarding the current harmful harvesting practices. In response to a lack of proper harvest training for the labourers, however, participants' reactions were similar to the following excerpt from one contractor, showing an indifference to the preservation of chilgoza. ”The labourers are advised on correct harvesting methods in the beginning when we show them exactly what to do. But they don't listen. After we leave, there is no one monitoring them. So, they cut big branches causing production decline” (Interview, April 2013). It would be presumed that this contractor and others like him have some control over the harvesting practices of their labourers. Yet the contractors, and those with private chilgoza trees, expressed helplessness in altering the work practices of their workers.

The labourers are generally from Nepal and travel to Kinnaur on a seasonal basis earning a daily wage. They generally follow the orders of their bosses, in this case the chilgoza contractors. Cutting chilgoza branches as opposed to leaving a cone on a branch, or taking more time to pluck the cone, will reduce their harvest time on each tree, allowing them to move on to the next tree quickly. The contractor hence completes the job quicker without having to pay the labourers for extra hours or days of labour. This may be an explanation for the contractors' indifference to delaying the labourers by imposing careful harvesting practices.10 Short-term profit therefore takes precedence over the long-term health of this local native species.

Cone Extraction

After the cones are harvested, they are collected and placed in sacks of jute by the labourers and carried to the village for cone drying and seed extraction. Cones are kept in a room for about two to three weeks for drying after which the contractors hire local village people, usually women, for seed extraction. This process can take up to several weeks depending on the quantity harvested.

The extractors gather around in a circle, usually with the contractor himself present [Figure 2]. Generally, the contractor uses a small hand-held tool to slice the cones into four sections [Figure 7]. The rest of the group using their fingers to pull the seeds out from under the scales of the sliced cones extracting the seeds. The emptied cones are later used as fuel. To avert the thick sap from sticking to their fingers, the extractors frequently submerge their hands in one of the several small bowls and plates filled with cooking oil, wiping any residual sap.
Figure 7: A chilgoza contractor in a village in Middle Kinnaur slicing chilgoza pine cones, 2018. Photo by Author

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Gender and the Chilgoza Pine Nuts

Gender social organisation of chilgoza harvest and distribution must be understood in the context of the Kinnauri Scheduled Tribe 11 customary law and gender divisions of labour. According to the Wajib-ul-urz, the Kinnauri tribal customary law, women do not have official property rights (Rahimzadeh 2018), and hence they do not have direct economic access to chilgoza. As part of their household, however, they indirectly benefit from the sale of either private chilgoza or the common village chilgoza.

Kinnauri men and women have distinct labour roles. For example, while women are generally in charge of irrigating the apple orchards and making a circular raised bed around each tree, men are responsible for spraying the orchards and pruning the trees. In terms of chilgoza, however, the commercial contracting and harvesting are done by men. Privately, too, harvest in most cases is normally conducted by hiring male contractors, or a male member of the family may climb the tree to conduct the harvest. Generally, the men negotiate the sale of their private chilgoza, and hence collect the funds. In this context, women do not have equitable access to the income earned from chilgoza.12

As is described in the last section, however, women play a role during the process of seed extraction [Figure 2]. For example, in fall 2018 in a village in Middle Kinnaur, nine women were hired by a local chilgoza contractor, working for eight hours per day for 10-to-12 days for which they received a daily wage of 250 Rupees (3.40 USD). Similarly, in another village in Middle Kinnaur, eight women and two chilgoza contractors were extracting the seeds for about 15 days. Here, too, the women received a daily wage of about 250 Rupees. These women expressed that chilgoza was important to them because ”it gives us strength when we eat it. It also brings us [household] income. It is now 1500 Rupees per kilos” (Interview, October 2018). Again, much of this income trickles down to women indirectly except in the case of women who are hired for seed extraction. Traditional rules of distribution thus provide women with unequal access to chilgoza, regardless of their social status.

   Conclusion Top

Kinnaur is currently undergoing a set of complex and dynamic changes. The decline in the chilgoza pine nuts illustrates the area's social and economic transitions in light of broader economic and environmental change. Market integration has significant implications for the foundation of the Kinnauri ecological and social structures that have traditionally been in place. These changes are witnessed in the decline of the chilgoza pine nuts, and a gradual weakening of collective management and decision-making, which has been an important strategy in this previously remote mountainous area.

The chilgoza decline is a matter of significance for the potential loss of this native species in itself. The loss of chilgoza forest will contribute to ecological disruption including habitat and biodiversity loss. Chilgoza decline is also alarming for its social ramifications because this loss may have consequences on food and livelihood security of Kinnauris. Its decline largely represents a rise in the vulnerability of the Kinnauri society in light of climate change, increase in cash crop production, and weakening of social networks that have functioned as social insurance for Kinnauris.

As illustrated here, the human factors contributing to chilgoza decline are complex, yet central to understanding the impacts of dilapidated development and climate change on the local population. Activities executed without appropriate planning and environmental impact assessments lead to degradation of the chilgoza forest.

For the last 20 years, monocultured apple orchards have covered much of the limited cultivable land, bringing prosperity to Kinnaur, yet affecting the livelihood diversity of the region. Declining diversity may possibly weaken resilience to economic or environmental shocks (Adger 2000). Though the majority of Kinnauris have gained socio-economic mobility, there appear to be significant environmental, social, and cultural compromises, including the decline in the chilgoza pine forest as an important part of the tribal culture of Kinnaur.

   Acknowledgements Top

The author would like to thank the people of Kinnaur first and foremost to whom I am grateful for their time and participation in this research. This project would not have been possible without their contribution and support. All participants remain anonymous in order to protect their privacy. This research was funded by support from a US Student Fulbright Award, a Critical Language Enhancement Award through the US-India Educational Foundation, and a Fulbright Nehru Academic and Professional Excellence Award. The author also offers gratitude for the kind support of the Institute of Economic Growth at the University of Delhi where she was an affiliate. Any aspect of the work covered in this manuscript that has involved human subjects has been conducted with the ethical approval of all relevant bodies.

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