The Tribune - Spectrum



Sunday, July 2, 2000
Time Off


The land of goats
By Manohar Malgonkar

ONLY a month or so ago, I wrote about how, in 1866, the editor of America’s New York Herald sent his star reporter, Henry Stanley, to Africa to try and find what had happened to an explorer called David Livingstone about whom nothing had been heard for more than two years. It seems that the tradition of newspaper editors ordering their reporters to go to distant parts of the world on tough assignments, is alive and well. For here, in essence, is what a magazine editor in New York told one of his staff members, a lady by the name of Rebecca Mead, towards the end of 1998.

"Take a plane to Moscow, and from there, fly to Ulanbator, the capital of Mongolia. About a hundred miles from Ulanbator, is a region known as Zammar, where you’re likely to find a camp of nomadic goatherds. Better take a sturdy jeep, because there are no roads to speak of, and no house either, because those goat people only have tents made of leather. You might have to spend a night or two in one of those camps, sharing the meals of your hosts. They don’t know English, or any European language, for that matter; so you’ll have to take a guide along, to interpret. OK?

And another thing! Better take a parka or something, because the day temperatures at this time of the year are 15 below zero. At night they drop down to minus 30. Good luck!"

Gamely enough, Rebecca Mead carried out her editor’s bidding, in the course of which, on a freezing December afternoon in 1998, she was ensconced in that goatskin abode in windswept Zammar, ready to share the family’s lunch with her host, Munkhzoring, a goatherd, his wife, and two small daughters. Ms Mead tells us what she ate — or attempted to eat.

"Buttery salty milk tea to be drunk alongside jaw-breaking lumps of goat cheese and creamy crusts of goat-milk curds; boiled dumplings filled with meat and flavoured with onions; and boiled beef chops which were passed around in a large communal bowl with a single sharp knife to slice flesh — and the highly prized fat — from the bone."

Ms Mead had come to this goathered camp in Zammar to do her fact-finding about the root causes of the cashmere crisis. What crisis? Kashmir?

EARLIER COLUMNS
What a tangled web !
June 25, 2000
Rivers for sale
June 4, 2000
Knowing when to stop
May 14, 2000
The lingering memory
May 7, 2000
No, no; cashmere, crisis, which seems to be hurting the high-fashion garment designers in New York, Paris and Milan.

The cashmere crisis has a strange family resemblance with the diamond crisis: There are more diamonds for sale than is desirable for those who for all practical purposes, orchestrate the world’s diamond trade. As is well known, the De Beer syndicate plays a dominant role in controlling the diamond market; their signature slogan, A diamond is for ever, is quite as famous as Nike’s Just do it.

The civil war in Sierre Leone has upset the balance of the diamond industry. Some of the richest diamond fields in the world have fallen into the hands of a rebel faction, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). The RUF soldiers are having a field day picking up diamonds from local diggers and selling them for ready cash to whoever will buy them. The result is that more and more "rogue" diamonds find their way into the market, and let’s face it; there are few people who would resist the offer of a cheap diamond. Even if a diamond is for ever, De Beer certainly isn’t.

Cashmere to the wool trade is what a diamond is to the gemstone trade — top of the class. To be sure, there are animal-hair fabrics which are far more expensive. India’s pashmina, for one, which is made from the down of Himalayan goats, and shahtoosh, for another, which is woven from the belly and chest hair of Himalayan antelopes. But both pashmina and shahtoosh are so rare that they’re all but unknown in the markets of the affluent society. The pashmina yielding goats are reared by villagers living near the snowline and their number is dwindling. And as far as shahtoosh is concerned, you actually have to hunt and kill animal to get at its fur, and this is a criminal offence. In any case, shahtoosh is a banned fabric in most civilised countries.

Then again, while both pashmina and shahtoosh are usually made into scarves and shawls, cashmere lends itself well to be knitted into body-clinging garments which are both luxuriously warm and sensuously soft; and now they have found ways to dye cashmere in all sorts of gorgeous colours. All this makes cashmere the upmarket fabric sought after by the glamour people. A New York shop offers a "chunky pullover for $ 400", and another shop has a "jewel-coloured sweater for $ 1600" or nearly Rs 70,000. (What on earth is jewel colour?) Mind you, these are fancy stores for the big spenders — sports stars, pop singers, cine-Moghuls. But even a no-nonsense sweater made of genuine cashmere in a no-nonsense London shop such as Harrods, would nowadays cost 150. And that is Rs 10,000.

And at that sort of price, a real ‘gift’, to the what’s-money-for-if-not-to-spend-on-luxuries Yuppie generation — did not Napoleon Bonaparte order 17 cashmere shawls to present to his second wife?

O.K. So what’s the problem with cashmere?

Like all problems, it is not simple to explain. The problem is history and geography; the problem is the collapse of communism; the problem is simple-minded nomads getting wise to the ways of the world. The cashmere problem has parallels with the diamond problem; of holding to a priceline which, even though staggerringly high, has been accepted as a norm.

And the ultimate paradox is that the problem is also that of the flag-bearers of the free-market system being distressed by the fact that the goatherds of Mongolian wastelands should strive for the rewards of a free-market economy. What business have those uncultivated nomads, born into serfdom, to want to earn more and more money by hard work and better management?

Mongolia! For centuries, it was no more than a name, almost mythical, like Shangri-La. But it is a geographical entity nonetheless, a vast land uncomfortably sandwiched between China and Russia. For all its size, Mongolia has very few people; only around 25 lakh, and half of those are itinerent goatherds, with no fixed abodes.

Early in the 20th century, Mongolia found itself swept into the embrace of Soviet Russia, to become just a unit in the gigantic beehive of communism’s Utopia. The goatherds of Mongolia were neatly herded into ‘collectivised’ farms, and each farm was given its target-quota for production. So many hundred tonnes a year of mutton for the Soviet army, and so many scores of tonnes of cashmere for Soviet agents to sell to foreign countries for dollars and yens. The producers of cashmere themselves saw none of the foreign money; they got paid in roubles, and at subsistence wages regulated by Moscow bureaucrats. As with most other enterprises under the communist umbrella, the production of cashmere stagnated even as the demand for cashmere rose. Inevitably, the prices shot up.

Then came the collapse of communism. Mongolia became a free country and, almost taking a tip from the communists, set up a state organisation for the sale of cashmere. At that, some of the profits from cashmere must have filtered down to the goatherds, for they began to produce more and more cashmere to sell it to the central selling agency. There are now twice as many goats as there were ten years ago. Eleven million of them, or more than four for every man, woman or child in Mongolia.

That, in brief, is the cashmere problem; there just is too much of it on offer for the current price-line to be maintained. For the big players of the trade, cheapness is bad news. But then that is true of the diamond trade, too. And also something that is of vital concern to all of us: Oil. Here the oil barons act in unison to make sure that oversupply does not bring down the price structure, which they have been at such pains to raise to its present level.

In 1970, petrol was under Rs 1 per litre.

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