Winds of change sweep MustangNepal’s trans-Himalayan district faces deep demographic shift due to migration
Mustang district has always adapted to socio-cultural and trade influences from the south and north, but this trend has accelerated bringing drastic change to the lives and livelihoods of this region north of the Himalaya.
When I first visited Mustang in 1992, we had to walk for a week from Pokhara just to get to Muktinath. Today, this shrine is an 8 hour jeep drive from Pokhara. Nearly all villages in the district are now connected to dirt roads. Horses and mules are still seen, now mainly used to haul goods between villages, or to carry manure to farms.
Horse race at this year’s Yartung Festival is a symbolic display of the animal in this rugged and arid region, but it is now more of a tourist attraction displaying a way of life that is on the verge of extinction.
In the dining hall of a lodge in Kagbeni, a middle aged woman was threading wool to weave jumpers for her grandchildren. I had stayed in the same lodge 10 years earlier. This time, the woman told me that her children had moved to Kathmandu and overseas, and she has rented the hotel to a businessman from Dhading. Many other lodge-owners here have done the same.
The pace of outmigration from Mustang has accelerated, as locals move out for better education and jobs. The original Thakali, Loba and Gurung families still own property here, but they hire people from Dolpo, Dhading, Gorkha, Prabat, Maygdi, Rukum and Rolpa to take care of their businesses and farms.
In Mustang, highlanders are coming down and lowlanders are moving up. In some cases, down-valley families are simply asked to stay and look after property without paying rent. Some elders still remain, but with the young men and women away, there is a demand for outside caretakers.
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Many of the shops in Jomsom are run by outsiders who have rented the space from the Mustangi. Most jeep drivers are from outside, even though absentee locals own the vehicles. It is in fact difficult to tell a local from an outsider since the migrants have developed good social connections. On this visit, a lodge-owner in Muktinath said he had hired a young manager from Dailekh to look after his place.
This could be the reason why despite depopulation of most mountain districts in Nepal, the 2021 census actually recorded an increase in Mustang. In 2001, Mustang’s population was 14,981, it declined to 13,452 in 2011, and bounced back to 14,596 in 2021.
The 2021 census also showed that 5,907 people (41% of Mustang’s population) were recent migrants, mostly from outside. Another 1,207 Mustang people live overseas -- two-thirds of them in Europe and North America.
Along the traditional trekking route from Lete to Muktinath and Lo Manthang, nearly every house has one or two family members working or living in the US, Japan, France, UK, and Australia. Unlike other parts of Nepal, very few are in the Gulf or Malaysia.
Most schools in the district have mainly students from migrant families, and the enrollment has shrunk to as low as 4-12 per primary school. This is why the government is trying to merge schools. A few private medium schools in places like Jomsom have children of local families, but most others have sent theirs to Pokhara or Kathmandu.
A prominent politician running a hotel here says that the economy could get a boost if people returned and invested in Mustang. But that is not likely to happen, since most moved out at an early age.
At this pace of in and out migration, a demographic shift in the district’s ethnic composition may force a redefinition of who a Mustangi is. But migration is not a new phenomenon, in fact even the current inhabitants of Mustang once moved in from Jumla and Tibet.
Mustang has a potential to become a trading hub for Chinese commodities, with the upgrading of the road to the border at Korala. Shops in places like Lo Manthang sell mainly goods from north of the border, and the customers are mainly Nepali visitors.
Trading opportunities have helped generate income and employment. Mustang’s new ethnic heterogeneity is also enhancing social and cultural capital, and entrepreneurship. But there are also questions as to who is actually benefiting from these changes.
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Mustangis are well known as a resilient people well able to adapt to changes. Some of them who moved out when salt trade with Tibet declined in the late 1950s, sought other economic opportunities elsewhere.
That trend continues to the present day. They are moving out in search of prosperity while still holding onto property back home, hoping one day to return when things are right.
Jagannath Adhikari is an independent researcher on socio-economic and environmental issues, and occasionally teaches in Nepal and overseas. He has authored several books and research articles on these issues.