Scaling great heights

A tourism collaboration has made noticeable strides in its efforts to keep the Himalayan National Park ecosystem intact

Four of us sat in the dimly-lit room of a restaurant at Gushaini in Himachal Pradesh, eating noodles and momos. The discussion began with tree-planting —
local tree species, tree guards, funds required...The idea was to plant trees along trek routes, the routes beyond the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) that today stood bereft of trees. This would also be an apt follow-up to the awareness campaign the cooperative had taken up with Himalayan Ecotourism.

Cooperative here is the group of locals engaged in undertaking treks in and around the Great Himalayan National Park, and Himalayan Ecotourism is a set-up that helps market the treks. Gushaini, in the lower Tirthan valley, is the gateway to GHNP. 

At the restaurant, Sanju and Keshav shared how the cooperative managed the treks. Stephan, of the Himalayan Ecotourism, was the fourth person at the table.

The 65 members who formed the cooperative more or less run the show. Depending on the needs of each trekking group, they freeze the number of guides, porters, cooks and others (if any) needed. The payments are made on fixed rates. It’s crucial to ensure financial transparency; in other words, keep track of each rupee that comes in and how it’s used.

Members going on the trek are aware not only about the itinerary and dietary needs, but also finances. They added that since most members stay in villages with no bank branches, funds are transferred from one member to another using Pay tm and Google Pay. 

They shared how April had been a good month. The number of groups they catered to were more. We had sweets over their having recently won the a ‘Responsible Tourism’ award­ — for charting a new model where people in the locality are involved, by way of a cooperative, in decision making and not just employed as guides. This had not only raised their morale, but also their stock locally. I then sat in silence as the three of them went to the market.

Long way from home

This has not been an easy journey for either the cooperative or Himalayan Ecotourism. They began a few years ago with the goal to provide economic benefits to the locals and conserve GHNP. In other words, to make GHNP beneficial for the locals beyond the ecosystem services. GHNP is a prime repository of biodiversity in the western Himalayas. This has been lucidly brought out in a book published earlier this year — The Great Himalayan National Park: The Struggle to Save the Western Himalayas by Sanjeva Pandey and Anthony J Gaston — two people who have had a long association with the landscape.

They also write of how it was one of the first protected areas in the country where the forest department implemented a people-centric model of conservation. A model that brought the forest department and GHNP acclaim and international attention. It also led to setting up of multiple institutions, collaborations with external agencies, and infusion of funds. A number of activities were initiated. This took place more than a few years ago. 

Himalayan Ecotourism and the cooperative came together at a time when these efforts had begun to age. They had to take cognisance of the efforts taken up during recent past and learn from their predecessor’s experiences — read not repeat the same mistakes.

On occasions, they also had to deal with the needs and expectations of the local people; creation of GHNP had resulted in economic loss for many of these people.

To top all this, they were not short of those wanting to pull them down. The valley, all three of them stated, thrived on politics. The scenario, like at many other conservation priority landscapes, was complicated.

Himalayan Ecotourism has ‘Creating joy and sustainability in the Himalayas’ as its tagline, while Stephan is called ‘Tintin in the Himalayas’. Stephan has, over the years, tried developing chulas that are friendly to both the forest and users, and running a cafe. Today, he also runs a homestay in Bihar, near Banjar, where he is based.

One evening, as we soaked in the stunning view from Stephan’s balcony, I asked if the slopes bereft of twinkling lights were a part of GHNP. He nodded. We discussed how he began his association with the landscape with friends of GHNP, his frustration with not-for-profits, to how, today, some of his actions have got him into trouble with the local elite. He shared plans to explore the use of drones in monitoring forest fires. Forest fire is an issue he believes warrants more attention, and Himalayan Ecotourism has also taken up a campaign on this. 

To the present

The three of them returned and we requested the restaurant for tea. I asked Sanju and Keshav about the cooperative’s plans. They were hopeful that the award, would bring in more business.  

Later that evening, I wondered about the fresh set of challenges they faced. Prime among these were sustainability concerns in the midst of burgeoning tourism in the valley and ensuring joy in the cooperative.

And as I write, they have initiated a crowdfunding campaign to support the tree-planting. They have come a long way from the cooperative’s first meeting, that Stephan had described. That day he had been the only one who spoke. 

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