issue 245 - July 1993
photo: SHAILENDRA THAKALI
The lure of wilderness in the Annapurna region of Nepal
drew so many visitors that it was being destroyed.
Shailendra Thakali tells the story of how his village developed
a conservation project that offers a new way forward.
Tourism in Nepal started in the Annapurna area, before Everest was climbed. Then a brave and diminutive Sherpa man carried a heavy, frost-bitten ‘French Sahib’ from the steep, icy slopes of the Annapurna Himal (mountain) and the area became world news... and every trekker’s dream.
Within a relatively short trek you cross the lands of the Gurung and Magar peoples living in the world’s largest rhododendron forests on land rich in flora and fauna. My family live in the world’s deepest valley, Kali Gandaki. The spectacular view of the Dhulagiri and Annapurna ranges from Pun Hill; the mountain heights and valley depths of the Annapurna Sanctuary; the vast Tibetan plateau in the Northern Annapurna: all this has helped to make the area the most popular trekking destination in Nepal. This year’s visitors are due to top the 40,000 trekkers who visited in 1992.
But the years of booming tourism brought problems. Lodges for trekkers proliferated – there are now over 650 in the area and our rhododendron and bamboo forests were cleared to make way for them. Rapid deforestation resulted in landslides and soil erosion. Rubbish accumulated and water became polluted. The social life of local residents began to change beyond recognition and in response to this we campaigned to make the region Nepal’s first conservation area. In 1986 the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation, Nepal’s leading environmental organization succeeded in launching the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP).
ACAP’s approach is ‘putting the local interest first’. Unlike national parks and reserves in Nepal, it didn’t drive local residents off the land or seek military assistance. It invested in people. Local representative committees were encouraged to participate in all areas affecting them: health, education, infrastructure improvements, tourism, forestry and agriculture. In 1988 the project was granted permission to collect entry fees from visiting trekkers. The revenue has been used to create an endowment fund for future projects. Above all, ACAP invested in conservation education and extension programmes. The project emphasized changing attitudes among local residents, managers, workers and, not least, the trekkers themselves.
In June 1991, I attended a meeting of about 60 local lodge owners in the stone-paved courtyard of a local lodge in the Southern Annapurna area of Western Nepal. The day was clear and under the shadow of Annapurna and Machhapuchhare Himals we discussed a proposal to relocate nine lodges in the Annapurna Base Camp area.
The Base Camp is a sacred place for the local Gurung people and used to be visited only by local hunters and herders who took shelter in caves. Today there are 26 well-built lodges along the trail. Trekkers had complained at the lack of wilderness. The meeting was called to discuss new locations for lodges, this time at three- or four-hour intervals, based on the walking distance between lunch and an overnight stay. At one location there would be at least three lodges sharing a common camping ground. The new arrangement would make it easier to monitor conditions and manage Base Camp.
During the meeting Min Bahadur Gurung, the Chairman of the Ghandruk Conservation Committee, made this plea: ‘You (lodge owners) have built lodges on the public lands, some of which are vital for access to our livestock. You, who live a long way from the community in the forest, are using more fuel-wood and exploiting forest resources beyond the quota set by the Conservation Committee. You are piling up rubbish, sometimes on our sacred sites and also polluting our water courses. Despite all these things, seeing you make a good income from tourism and your children getting better education, we had no complaints. However... if you still fail to pay attention to increasingly poor sanitation and safety standards, inefficient use of fuel-wood and building bigger and more lodges, you are not only jeopardizing your trade, you are risking our livelihood, too... When worse times come, you will be hardest hit. You have forgotten your traditional agricultural skills... Therefore, if you still pay no attention to maintaining resource quality in our area... tourism will be doomed and you will become useless not only to your family... but for your community, too.’
There was tension – and scepticism from local lodge owners. Who was behind the proposal? The issue lingered for a long time and sometimes led to intense personal attack. If it had come from those lodge-owners who had no real interest in Base Camp the proposal would surely have been turned down. If it had come from the villagers they would surely have had it settled by the village council. But it came from their own committee, from their own representatives. The meeting went on for nine hours and finally the proposal was endorsed.
At the end of May, when the spring trekking season ends, Lodge Management Committees of all villages in the Annapurna Area meet and discuss their plans. They control every aspect of lodge management from menu pricing to sanitation and send their plans to ACAP. Today the villages of Southern Annapurna are full of committees and groups for virtually everything. Each winter they decide on community works: bridges, schools, drinking water systems and trails. In midsummer they deal with forest and agricultural programmes. Women’s groups raise money by singing and performing dances in honour of visitors. Their funds are invested in community programmes and projects aimed at improving women’s standing in their communities.
The villagers in the Southern Annapurna no longer hunt or collect more fuel-wood and timber than they require. The forests no longer belong to the Government, but to their own communities. ACAP’s success has earned them management rights for another ten years. After that, ACAP hopes that local people will be able to manage their lands and affairs by themselves, without much help from either their Government or other agencies.
Shailendra Thakali is Conservation Officer for the Annapurna Conservation Area Project. He is currently completing the social anthropology MA in travel and tourism at Roehampton Institute, Southlands College, Wimbledon Parkside, London, SW19 5NN.