The buffer zone, constituting the area immediately surrounding the core zone of Nanda Devi, is home to 19 communities, 10 of which were surveyed to consist of over 2,250 residents in 1996 and 1997. While five of the communities reside in permanent year-round settlements, 14 have traditionally moved residences in the summer and winter months with one even shifting location three times a year. Lata and Reni situated near the West entrance of the reserve and the confluence of the Rishi and Dhauli Ganga, are the most prominent villages in the buffer zone. Other large settlements include Malari, Jelum, Jumma, Dronagiri, Gamshali, and Tolma. Furthest north along the Dhauli lies the village of Niti at the Indo-Tibetan frontier, from which the entire valley has traditionally drawn its name.
Ethnically, 17 of the communities are of Bhotiya extraction, an Indo-Tibetan people that have made their homes in the High Himalayas for centuries. The word “Bhotiya” itself comes from “Bo” which is the native Tibetan word for Tibet. The Bhotiyas of Uttarakhand are further subdivided into three main categories: The Jadhs of Uttarkashi, the Marchas (mainly traders) and Tolchas (farmers) of Chamoli, and the Shaukas of Pithoragarh (near Dharchula). While, the Jadhs are followers of Buddhism and the Shaukas hold to their own Hindu-Buddhist syncretic faith, the central Marcha/Tolcha group of the Niti Valley are Hindu, observing the caste system and sharing Rajput septs (family names) with their Garhwali neighbours. In addition, the festivals of Basant Panchami, Baisakhi (Bikhoti), Nag Panchami (Fela Panchnag), Nanda Astami, Dussehra (Durga Astami) are celebrated through the Niti Valley. Apart from these cultural differences, the three Bhotiya groups resemble one another in their distinct physical appearance.
In the villages, homespun wool and woolen items have long been produced and knit by women to supplement family income. In addition, staple crops such as wheat, barley, millet, and local pulses and grains, and some cash crops such as kidney beans and potatoes have been grown in the terraced hills overlooking the many river valleys. Unfortunately, due to the core zone’s closure, access to many medicinal plants traditionally used by indigenous healers was lost.
Having long straddled the border between India, Nepal, and Tibet, the migratory lifestyles of Marchas in particular involved plying the trade routes through the Himalayas as well as the practice of transhumance. Transhumance describes the seasonal migration of shepherds with their herds from high altitude alpine pastures (locally known as bugyals) in summer to grazing lands in the Terai in winter. As a livelihood strategy also followed by the Van Gujjars of Uttarakhand and tribal groups in other parts of the Himalayas, this form of migratory pastoralism has deeply impacted the local culture of most communities in the Niti Valley. Furthermore, the cyclic movement of herds across the Himalayas prevented over-grazing, thus sustaining the age-old tradition as part of a dynamic landscape.
With the closure of Nanda Devi, in addition to increasing conflicts with established settlements to the south, the Marchas’ traditional transhumance has been threatened with extinction. Flock sizes have dwindled while many herders have left the business owing to increasing costs and difficulties. This social and economic catastrophe has contributed to a further loss of cultural heritage through the erosion of animal husbandry skills and intimate knowledge of the land.