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Porter’s plight

Visitors have started returning to Nepal since King Gyanendra’s violent, and unsuccessful, crackdown on his political opponents at the beginning of 2006. Forced to restore parliament and quit as head of government, the King was stripped of legal immunity. The climbdown has all but ended the country’s ‘eternal’ Shah dynasty. With the Maoists also recently signing a peace deal and bringing to an end a 10-year civil war that claimed 15,000 lives and displaced a further 100,000, multiparty elections are being planned for the early part of 2007. The future is looking a little brighter for the Nepali people.

One of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, with a third of its population living below the poverty line and dependent on subsistence agriculture, tourism has long been a key source of foreign exchange. In 1998 tourism contributed 15 per cent of the country’s total foreign exchange earnings, directly or indirectly employing 257,000 people.

At 4,000 metres, Alowa Sherpa and Mingha Sherpa watched fellow porters approaching. Two of the porters carried baskets weighing 40 kilos. In the third porter’s basket was a fourth porter. The sick and listless body of the young porter was being carried back to the hospital at Lukla, some three days’ walk away. ‘Altitude sickness.’ Mingha shook his head. ‘Some companies don’t look after their porters,’ he continued. ‘They don’t provide them with any training or the right clothing. If they fall sick they stop paying them and just leave them behind, because they don’t pay insurance.’

Alowa, a father of four, is in his late thirties. ‘I have been a porter for many years now, and things are better than they used to be, but this still happens.’ In a good year Alowa will work on six to seven treks that are ten days or more in duration. ‘Some of the trekking companies are good, others not so good,’ he continues.

‘The Sherpa organizations [International Porter Protection Group and Porters Progress] say that we should be paid around ten dollars a day. I normally get five. Sometimes less.’

Social issues abound too. Many porters complain to the NGO organizations about the discrimination they face as a result of their race or religious caste. Other problems include poor health and safety training, and lack of education on environmental issues. It is also not uncommon for porters to experience bouts of homesickness. ‘It can be difficult,’ agreed Alowa. ‘I can be away from my family for up to 30 days.’

‘We often have to wait around Lukla for work, so even after a trek has finished we don’t go home,’ Mingha added. It is easy to see how some porters become prone to gambling and binge drinking, and why the occurrence of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS is high. However, a teetotal and ambitious Mingha will not be wasting his money. ‘I am saving to become a guide. Then no more carrying heavy loads for me!’

Richard Human

New Internationalist issue 400 magazine cover This article is from the May 2007 issue of New Internationalist.
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