This is a guest post from Shalini Menon. Shalini works for Explorers School for Outdoor Education, a start up that focuses on experiential & environmental education working with young people across India. She is certified in Basic Mountaineering from Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling and remains an independent facilitator and outdoor educator for many organizations strengthening her work as a social artist. (This blog is part of the world environment day blogathon organized by IYCN and 350.org, so watch out for more posts from active organizers from across India)
Things were different when I began hiking through the mountains, valleys & villages spread across lower Himalayas in 2005. There were few hikers compared to what we see today, most routes were inaccessible except on foot and we were yet to violate the idea of ‘sustainable tourism’ or ‘sustainable development’.
I lived with local families who were dependent on agriculture for an income, taught at a local school or just lived off bartering Goat or Yak milk. There was no electricity, so there was no use of television. A local phone booth was several kilometers away and so was medical help. Buses passed by on fixed timings on fixed days only, often interrupted by landslides. Children walked many kilometers to get to their schools and life came to a stand still as the sun set. To an outsider like me, this was a tough life but I never met a local who was unhappy or skeptical.
In Ladakh, Himachal & Nepal, there was a steep rise in number of trekkers & tourists. The Indian government said India is Incredible and China started building roads through the most exotic trek routes in Nepal. Yes, it helps the locals travel easily and their children don’t get stuck in landslides. It brought in electricity and took away a sense of isolation. Everyone was connected… and it was time to change.
With every return to Spiti Valley – also called the Forbidden Valley – where many Tibetans found refuge amidst the rugged, harsh terrain on the Indo-Tibetian frontier – I witnessed the impacts of climate change. It started drizzling in a no shadow zone, the main crops of potatoes and peas was not beneficial any more, locals stepped into main tourist spots to find work, roads were built moving man, goods & cattle in rickety jeeps & buses. That brought along more tourist who recklessly threw out their Bisleri Bottles & empty camera batteries out into the fields. This change was not just reflective of the weather but also of the tourists who cannot find the respect for the immense environmental values such places hold.
Another major impact witnessed of late was the devastating cloud burst of Ladakh in 2010. My friend Rinchin had never seen so much water, her house was wiped off and her shepherd dad and lama brother had to leave for New Delhi in search of work. Today Ladakh is at the cross roads – more tourists and more trash. More vehicles and traffic jams at Rohtang pass has totally damaged the once shining, dazzling snow around it. In Spiti and Ladakh, I saw how the architecture was changing – flat, thatched roofs were being replaced by tin sheds forming a conical shape. People at Dhankar worry if the long standing monastery will be washed away too. My friends from Manali were not happy with the untimely snow and they didn’t have enough Apples to sell while my mother complained of rising apple prices.
In 2010, the Rathong Glacier near Indo-Nepal border receded several kilometers. Students studying mountaineering were not happy that they have to walk for so long for their training in ice craft. Every year, the walk only gets longer & tougher.
This walk will get longer and tougher for all of us.
So while India tries to be incredible, China builds plans for jeep safaris to Everest base camp and the mushrooming adventure & outdoor companies are going all out to provide an adrenaline rush to city folks. I am hoping individuals, organizations and the fast growing tourism industry will start working on building & implementing ethical & sustainable practices while operating in sensitive & vulnerable regions.
Climate change and constant human intervention in nature is slowly leading to our own undoing.
Yes, bringing our garbage back is a great idea. This environmental day can we build an intention of initiating a dialogue with all stakeholders and have a deeper meaningful impact at a policy level that holds every player accountable?
Photo I – Dhankar Monastry in Spiti Valley
Photo II – Students from Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, near Rathong Glacier.