WORDS BY BEATRICE MURRAY-NAG
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANDREA DE FRANCISCIS
An ancient relationship between rural communities and cannabis has long existed high in the Himalayas. Today, the rising popularity of hemp could revive this fast-disappearing cultural heritage—but only if legislation is designed with the local plants in mind.
High in the Indian Himalayas, wild cannabis grows tall on mountainous slopes, nestling whole villages in a leafy embrace.
The presence of the plant is intertwined in local culture, religion, and folklore. According to Himalayan ethnobotanist G.K. Sharma, cannabis was first referred to in the Vedas as early as 4,000–5,000 BC. The sacred Sanskrit texts describe it as a “liberator” and “joy giver,” while its medicinal use dates back to the Sushruta Samhita, one of the foundational texts on Ayurvedic medicine. In his unexpectedly poetic genre of academic writing, Sharma himself calls cannabis “one of the oldest associates of man.”
Many village communities in the remote mountain regions of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand have long depended on its flowers, leaves, stalks, and seeds to feed, clothe, and finance them. And as the abundant presence of wild cannabis would suggest, the mountain ecosystem creates the perfect conditions for its cultivation. But when it was outlawed in India under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act in 1985 following pressure from the U.S., many rural communities were forced to rethink their relationship to the plant that once provided their livelihoods.
Now, as global awareness builds around the environmental benefits of industrial hemp, the states of both Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh have taken steps to legalize the cultivation of low-THC varieties for organizations in possession of a government license, and Himachal Pradesh has recently hinted that it is ready to follow suit. Rather than supporting the communities who have a long history with the cannabis plant, legalizing industrial hemp and outlawing local varieties based on their THC content could pose a threat to both the local biodiversity and the autonomy of these communities.
“Growing cannabis as a household product is still common across all the mountain regions, especially Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh” explains Rashmi Bharti, the cofounder of Avani–a nonprofit organization that has been working with farmers and artisans from the Bora Kuthalia community in Uttarakhand for over 20 years. “Every family will have four or five plants where they will use the seed, and the rural community historically processed the fiber, too,” she adds, explaining how this was done by extracting the fiber manually with the teeth, spinning it using a drop spindle, and weaving it on a waist loom to make sacks for grain, ropes, and floor mats.
Although the quotidian use of cannabis as food or fiber was technically permitted under the NDPS Act, confusion resulted in irregular enforcement and a growing stigma around the plant, stemming from doubt as to whether or not it was actually legal. As a result, the community started to abandon their craft. “Most of the families have burned their waist looms, and very few young people are continuing to weave hemp,” Bharti adds. Avani’s own work seeks to preserve the traditional hand spinning and weaving skills by providing the community with alternative fiber sources, such as Tibetan sheep wool, and even training them in the cultivation of silk.
Having witnessed the decline of the craft traditions associated with its production, Bharti recognizes the potential that changing the law around its cultivation could have for the village communities in the region but believes that the policy and enforcement must be carefully thought out so as to not cause further problems for farmers. “We all know hemp is a very good choice for fiber. And Uttarakhand can grow so much hemp that nobody would need to migrate out of this area,” she speculates, speaking carefully.
The main issue is that unlike industrial hemp, which is broadly defined as having equal to or less than 0.3% THC (the compound that produces the ‘high’ associated with cannabis), the locally cultivated varieties can be used recreationally, too. Rather than differentiating between ‘hemp’ and ‘marijuana,’ the Bora community has a holistic approach to making the most out of a single plant, and it is smoked in small quantities, as well.
Limiting the THC-content allowed in legally grown hemp means outlawing the seeds long used in these areas, and in turn, threatening the ancient approach that comes with them. “In the last couple of years, there have been so many rumors about there being raids on people who still had the [Himalayan] seeds,” Bharti recalls. “People in a lot of villages that I know burnt their old seed—and the crop, too—so the whole seed bank is going to waste and disappearing. Instead, we could have somebody new entering the market to sell these low THC seeds. And that is a scenario I actually am quite afraid of.”
One thing that we always learn as farmers is to trust the soil… We have learned over time that it’s always better to use what is around you.
It is also widely speculated that the wild plants contain higher THC levels (although, given the strict regulations around research, little hard data exists). So, legalizing industrial hemp cultivation under 0.3% would likely see more organizations importing seeds from countries such as China that already produce the low THC variety. Alternatively, research could be done on the Himalayan plants in the hope of finding seeds that naturally contain less THC, or working with scientists to breed them. Yet if these are patented by one single corporation, they would effectively become a private commodity, taking the power out of smallholder farmers’ hands and in turn leaving them vulnerable in those of larger private corporations.
And Bharti is not alone in her fears. In the neighboring state of Himachal Pradesh, Haneesh Katnawer cofounded the Himalayan Hemp Cooperative with Sonam Sodha to help preserve the native strains, while rebuilding the lost village ecosystems that once revolved around their cultivation through the establishment of a cooperative society in the Kangra valley. Katnawer too believes that safeguarding Himalayan hemp will protect the biodiversity and cultural heritage of the local area. “One thing that we always learn as farmers is to trust the soil,” he shares. “We have learned over time that it’s always better to use what is around you.”
As well as stifling an ecosystem that was once self-sufficient, the introduction of low-THC seeds threatens the thriving genetic diversity of the plant in the Himalayan region. The Himalayan Hemp Cooperative vision is to preserve this with an open-source, not-for-profit seed bank, with seeds they have collected from wild plants around the region. They hope to protect the properties of the different Himalayan varieties by categorizing them as fiber or medical seeds, so farmers can make an informed choice. “It would be more like an office where people will come and get information for the next harvest,” Katnawer envisions. The end goal would be to protect against industrial corporations or pharmaceutical companies creating a seed monopoly.
Conducting this research requires a government license, which is not always easy to acquire when working with high THC seeds. But the ethos is to take things slowly, prioritizing long-term impact over immediate action. “Right now, we have reserved just 30 different seeds from 30 different regions. But that is sufficient for us, because that means 30 different mountains, and 30 mountains is a lot of research. Even my lifetime will not be enough for that!” he admits.
While cultivating the endemic seeds remains out of the question, the Himalayan Hemp Cooperative is turning its attention to reviving the cultural practices associated with cannabis in the region. Working in collaboration with the local forest authorities, the cooperative is able to legally forage the stalks of the wild hemp plants to develop products that could be made from this variety.
Bringing back the mountain hemp economy in this way could then address the problem of mass migration from the mountain villages of both Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh by creating local opportunities. Currently, there is little economic opportunity in these remote villages, which can be far from the nearest road and accessible only by foot. Many have emptied over time, as inhabitants seek work elsewhere.
One of the larger initiatives working in the area, Hemp Foundation, wants to understand its potential for reverse migration in the Rudraprayag and Pauri districts of Uttarakhand. Working on the recognition that hemp is so deeply embedded in Himalayan culture that even the NDPS Act could not completely stamp out its cultivation, it commits to purchasing seeds and fiber from smallholder farmers in Uttarakhand. “Hemp is a staple crop here, and people have been growing it even though they have felt that it is illegal, “explains founder Vishal Vivek, explaining how he came to create an agreement with over 500 farmers to buy their produce.
Hemp Foundation uses different parts of the plant in different ways. Vivek says the seeds are processed in Rishikesh, while fiber for handloom weaving is extracted and water retted manually, carded in a local facility and then sent back up to the mountains to the Mandakini Women Weavers association, where they have been training local women in hemp weaving. Meanwhile, the rest of the fiber is sent to commercial mills, before being cut and sewn into clothes in Delhi. It’s not the self-sufficient mountain ecosystem of yesterday, but it is a take on balancing the rebuilding of a Himalayan hemp economy with the commercialization required of modern times.
“Everyone told me that if we could grow hemp down in the plains, we would make a lot of money and profit,” Vivek explains, going on to detail the costly process of transporting hemp down the mountain from the remote villages—either by foot, with the help of mules, using small trucks, or a combination of all three. Compared to industrial hemp from abroad, the production cost and manual labor that goes into Himalayan hemp grown in the mountain villages makes it difficult to carve out a place for it in the market. “But it is not about profit,” he continues. “We want to work with the Himalayan people to bring back these traditional skills.”
Perhaps that is the most important ethos, and it’s one shared by all three initiatives: It is not the cannabis or hemp plant itself that offers true value from a sustainability standpoint. Neither is it the low-input, low-water cultivation methods and naturally regenerative qualities for which it is often lauded in the rest of the world. High in the Himalayas, the true lessons lie in the culture and skills that once existed around it, contributing to a longstanding, symbiotic relationship with a plant that gave multiple gifts in return. It’s no coincidence that the forests around the Bora Kuthalia in Uttarakhand are some of the most perfectly maintained in the world, demonstrating how cannabis came to thrive among communities that knew how to live in harmony with nature.
With a legal framework designed to support biodiversity and cultural heritage, rebuilding a new hemp ecosystem in the Himalayas could help to bring back these inherently sustainable practices. But the legislation must look inward, not to the rest of the world, and realize the value of local plants and ancient ways in preserving the planet for tomorrow.