Today we went out from Kathmandu to the village of Lalitpur, in one of the hill areas that surround the Kathmandu Valley. Here we were assisted by Sarad Ghimire, a recent University graduate. This is his home village, a place where he grew up with the trees. Sixteen years ago the government gave the people of Lalitpur 96ha of land to manage. Initially there was scrub and pine trees, now there is a diverse regenerating forest with increasing numbers of birds and other animal species. With Sarad as translator I interviewed Mr Mani Ram Ghimire who is Chairman of the community forest management committee. There are 60 households involved in managing this common land and all are realising the many benefits of the regenerating forest, including a cooler local climate, fresher air, cleaner water, and importantly a more readily available firewood supply. The latter is carefully managed. The success of this programme is now serving as a model for other communities. It was certainly very refreshing to see such a positive initiative happening on the edge of Kathmandu, where there are multiple problems with issues such as air and water pollution, rapid population growth, urban spread, loss of tree cover. With ecological restoration now well underway the community of Lalitpur is now exploring potential economic developments that are in harmony with their local environment.
We are back to ‘civilisation’ after 19 days walking in the Himalayas. Over this time I’ve managed just over 3 1/2 hours of filming time and around 1000 photos. I filmed less than I hoped, but believe that we have captured some quality material. From two months travelling and talking to local people we now have about 20 hours of film, about half of this from Thailand. It is already clear to me that there are some special people and special things happening in Thailand. Back to Nepal. Here are some reflections from the last 19 days. We’ve had an amazing journey. Despite our challenges with illness we managed to experience and appreciate some stunning landscapes as we followed the Marsyangdi river towards its source. Early on in the journey there was clear evidence of deforestation. The building of the road also became a part of the thinking and reflections on present and future changes. As we moved into higher altitudes we came to people who are originally of Tibetan origin. My impression is that these are very strong people who possess a strong connection with their local environment, with rivers, forest, mountains. Not all are as aware as others, but it seemed to me that there is strong local leadership in places such as Chame and Manang. These people who are providing leadership need to be supported as much as possible. Our high point was Thurong La Pass, but the night before at Thurong Phedi was something special. Michung Gurung had a clarity, directness, and practical wisdom that I believe can only come from living with the power of high mountains and appreciating the true power of nature.
Beyond Thorong La our experiences were quite different. We no longer had this huge high altitude challenge ahead of us. We also struck a level of development that surprised me. The building of a road is far more advanced on this side. The more we walked, the more we listened and saw, the more the girls and I became very upset by this development. It is impacting, and will continue to impact, on local communities, local economies and on the environment. Nature will prevail in a region that is already prone to erosion, landslides, flooding. They are building the road, by hand, through some very unstable terrain. It can’t and won’t survive in my view… certainly not without a huge and ever increasing input of resources. If I put climate change into the mix then I see very big challenges for communities that are becoming less self sufficient and resilient.
The saddest thing about all of this is that everything that has happened in the Annapurna region over the last decade or so has involved the undoing of the Annapurna Conservation Area Project. It is worthwhile reflecting on the summary I wrote on ACAP three weeks ago, before we began trekking. In the summary I quoted the following:
“The multifaceted problems of the Annapurna Conservation Area have been addressed through an integrated, community-based conservation and development approach, an experimental model which has been in the vanguard of promoting the concepts of ‘Conservation Area’ through an ‘Integrated Conservation and Development Programme’ approach in the country and abroad.”
The road through the Kali Gandaki, combined with the destruction of ACAP offices in some villages, has been the undoing of this programme. My view is that communities will be increasingly vulnerable and less resilient as a result. As I said in the Marpha post (Into the Kali Gandaki and the reality of the road, 16 April) our fixation with building more and more roads is consistent with what my friend, Dave, calls “straight line thinking”. It’s the type of thinking that prevails with our addiction to fossil fuels, and the belief that continued economic growth is good for us all. At what cost?
It wasn’t until we came to Ghandruk, a village of Gurung (Ghurkha) people, that I managed another interview. This is a large village, around 6000 people, with many challenges but very good community organisation. With early support from the Annapurna Conservation Area Programme (ACAP) they have a strong community forestry programme and other positive initiatives. Unfortunately the local ACAP building, like others in the region, was demolished by the Maoists a few years ago and the ACAP workers fled to Pokhara. A lot of good work has been undone through such actions.
Soon after we arrived a massive thunderstorm descended over the village. After the rain cleared we went for a walk, asking after local people who I might be able to interview. We were directed to Kisam Gurung. We met and talked with Kisam Gurung that afternoon and interviewed him the next morning. He is a local leader and lodge owner. He informed us of positive initiatives within Ghandruk, including on-going community engagement with the community forestry programme initiated by ACAP. With the building of the road through the Kali Gandaki there is already increased presence of trekkers in this village, and that is likely to increase as alternative trekking routes are used. How the locals manage such pressures will be vital to their future.
After talking with Kisam Gurung his eldest daughter, Alisha Gurung, took us on a quick tour of the village. Alisha is only 10 years old but clearly very bright, very socially aware and very strong minded. A future leader. A young tree that has potential to grow tall and strong. It was a pleasure to meet this family.
We then walked out to the road end at Birethanti and on to Pokhara.
From Tatopani we climbed towards Ghoropani. We only got as far as Shikha village before a thunderstorm hit, so stopped there for the night. Next day we climbed to Ghoropani where, arriving early, we were able to get some washing done. Next morning (21 April) we were up at 4.30am to watch the sunrise over Poon Hill. We descended for breakfast before setting out for Tadopani, feeling very energetic and running through the rhododendron forest.
After Marpha we had a long walk down through the Kali Gandaki valley to the village of Ghasa. For most of this walk we managed to avoid the road. From Ghasa to Tatopani the stupidity of the road became too much for me… so out came the camera as I filmed some of what I was seeing and shared my thoughts. This road was becoming a powerful metaphor for all the bad decision making in the world that ignores the obvious power of nature and benefits of working in harmony with local environments and wisdom of local people.
What direction do we want to go in? Do we want to be connected with, and working with nature. Or do we want to continue with the belief that we can dominate nature? The age of cheap oil has given us a false sense of our power, and it has fostered both laziness and greed.
Yesterday we walked to Jomson and then today a short walk to Marpha. What a contrast already to the first part of our trek up the Marshyangdi Valley to Manang and then over Thurong La pass. We saw signs of road building, but nothing like we encountered as we walked down from Muktinath into the Kali Gandaki Valley. Tractors pulling trailers carrying local people, motorbikes … not a lot as yet, but enough to disturb the peace and solitude of walking.
In Marpha Village we met with Mr Bhakti Hirachan. We walked above Marpha to a spot with a commanding view of the village and Kali Gandaki river, where we stopped for a while. He talked about the issues they’re faced with, as well as the positive things they are doing. While they are observing changes with climate, the biggest issue at present is the development of the road. Mr Bhakti has been opposed to the road and still is. He believes it will create more environmental problems. I agree with him.
I offered to write my reflections for him, which included the following:
Of far greater importance than the road in the Annapurna region is the need for reafforestation. If I consider the needs for:
1) environmental protection
2) sustainable fuel supplies
3) water resources protection
4) natural beauty protection
5) sustainable local economies
6) social well-being
then I find far more reasons to be funding reafforestation rather than road building. All of the above matter hugely in developing resilient communities in the face of climate change and other issues.
Marpha Village is a beautiful place, and has a very strong community.
“We have a very powerful women’s group called the Mothers’ Group and also a Youth Group who have been instrumental in promoting and implementing environmental management practices. The Mothers’ Group has been crucial in promoting planting of deforested areas, waste management and safe drinking water. The Youth group has been the effective voice in encouraging young people to be actively involved in the community work, preserving the environment and culture.” Mr. Bhakti Hirachan
They have worked as a community to protect their unique environment. How they cope with the challenges and changes that the road brings remains to be seen.
Karma and I barely slept. The altitude and cold, dry air were affecting my breathing and I was concerned about Lena. Karma was worrying about Lena all through the night. About 4.10am I had Karma outside my door. We went and checked on Lena. She was feeling OK, no more headaches or vomiting. The decision was to get up and go.
I can barely put in words the challenge of this day. The long, slow, 1000m climb to Thorong La Pass (over 5400m); the sense of relief and emotion when we reached the top; the sheer guts and determination from Lena; the incredible strength of Ali, who at 13 years old has to be one of the youngest foreigners ever to do this crossing … who Karma originally didn’t believe could do it when he heard her age, but he did believe when he saw what good walkers both girls are. And for me, an end to any doubt I had about my ability to do this at 48 years old and completing something I had originally been drawn to 24 years ago.