Damage to the environment has become an issue of paramount importance in Ladakh. Although plastic bags are officially banned in Leh, as they clog up the vital river systems that the state so depends on, shopkeepers continue to use them. Plastic mineral-water bottles are a particular headache; you are advised to bring your own filtration system with you, or refill your plastic water bottles with filtered water at guesthouses or at the Dzomsa Laundry, near the main bazaar. As well as providing safe water and delicious local juices, such as sea buckthorn, this establishment provides a vital service in ecologically sound washing, using biodegradable detergent and water at a safe distance from habitation. It also serves as a co-op for rural, semiliterate people.
With limited resources at their disposal, a handful of voluntary organizations battle to protect Ladakh’s delicate environment and ancient culture. These include LEDeG (the Ladakh Ecological Development Group) – a local NGO that aims to counter the negative impact of Western-style “development” by fostering economic independence and respect for traditional culture. Its headquarters are five minutes’ walk north of the main bazaar at the Ecology Centre, where they show two fascinating films, Ancient Futures and The Economics of Happiness (Mon–Sat 2pm).
Helena Norberg-Hodge, the Swedish-born founder of LEDeG, is also behind Local Futures, which promotes sustainable ways of living. The organization employs volunteers on the Farm Project in Ladakh to help local farmers maintain traditional farming methods. Closely aligned to the Farm Project is the co-operative Women’s Alliance of Ladakh (WAL), based in Chubi, north of central Leh, which works to reinforce traditional Ladakhi culture. One of their more noticeable achievements was to ban plastic bags from Leh in 1998; the alliance now boasts more than five thousand members in one hundred villages. The best time to visit them is during one of their festivals, where you can sample local produce, pick up handicrafts and catch exhibitions of colourful traditional costume and folk dance performances.
Another good resource if you are thinking about volunteering is Volunteer Ladakh, which gives information about numerous projects such as teaching.