I am presently sitting in our hotel room in Kathmandu, recovering from a bout of food poisoning. It was a real effort for me to get up this morning. I then had to gather my energy to make an appointment with Dr Siddhartha of the National Trust for Nature Conservation in Nepal.
I thought it would be useful to share some information about the area of Nepal that we will be in for the next three weeks. The information I have comes from a booklet given to me yesterday by Dr Siddhartha. This trust was formerly known as the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation and was established in 1982. Over the last two decades it has undertaken over 200 projects on nature conservation, biodiversity as well as cultural heritage protection, ecotourism, and sustainable development.
The Annapurna Conservation Area Project, launched in 1986, is the largest undertaking of the NTNC. The Annapurna region is the first Conservation Area and is the largest protected area in Nepal. “It covers an area of 7,629 sq km and is home to over 100,000 local residents of different ethnic, cultural and linguistic groups. ACAP is rich in biodiversity and is a treasure house for many plant and animal species.” It has one of the world’s deepest gorges, the Kali Gandaki Gorge, which is 3 miles long and 1.5 miles wide. “The region contains the world’s largest rhododendron forest in Ghorepani and the world’s highest lake, Tilicho, in Manang, south of the Annapurna massif.”
There are many issues in the ACAP region, not least of which is the impact of tourism. While tourism benefits the local economy it has also placed huge demands on fuel wood (consumption of fuel wood for tourism is twice that of the local people), and serious litter problems.
“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.
We’re in New Delhi now relaxing a bit and being tourists for one of the few times on our journey so far. Today we went into Delhi. First to the Gandhi memorial, created at the site where he was cremated. I found this deeply moving, unexpectedly so, but not surprising on reflection. Gandhi’s life has long been an inspiration for me. His life was dedicated to non-violent action and leading by example, by doing. We are so much in need of this sort of leadership now.
From there we walked to the Red Fort, then followed directions given by our very friendly hotel owner and plunged into the narrow alleys of the old city where we found a small place for lunch. We then walked through the maze of alleys for a while before coming to the very large mosque that is located here.
I’m now sitting in a tiny, almost cavernous, room off the street in a tiny little alcove in front of what seems like a dilapidated computer! But it works! We’re presently working to finalise travel arrangements to get to Kathmandu. We’ve booked a car for tomorrow, to go to Agra for the day. All going well we’ll be on a train to Varanasi on Thursday and flying from there to Kathmandu on Saturday. The next leg of our journey truly starts when we reach Kathmandu.
It is difficult to write a brief summary of our time in Viet Nam and what we observed and experienced. There are very strong contradictions in the relationship between people and the environment. Viet Nam is developing rapidly. The negative side of this are large open cast mines as we observed in Thai Nguyen, intensification of agriculture and the negative consequences of this as we observed in the Mekong. There is no apparent focus on the appropriateness and consequences of such developments. On the other hand there are official programmes to protect and enhance the environment, many of which are supported by NGOs and foreign government aid programmes. With people offering contacts and then not helping us at all it became impossible for us to see any of the more positive initiatives. However, informally, we found evidence of people acting and working positively for the future in their local communities.
If I think about the challenges posed by climate change in the context of the above then it is clear to me that solutions won’t come easily for Viet Nam. Some of the government programmes, such as reafforestation efforts, are having positive impacts as we saw locally in Hue. However, in the ‘rice basket’ of Viet Nam, the Mekong Delta, the challenges will be very great. There are no easy solutions there. Before we came to Viet Nam our Thai friends expressed concern about intensification of rice production and we heard about the consequences of this. There are areas already affected by drought and seasonal effects of salinisation. Insect pest problems, pollution of waterways, erosion of canal banks, are all local issues that will be further compounded by climate change. The push for increased rice production, with three crops a year in many places now, is not sustainable with these multiple challenges.
The Viet Nam situation is in strong contrast to the growing momentum of the self sufficient economy approach in Thailand. People there, albeit a minority still, are awakening to the consequences of unsustainable practices and there is a groundswell for change, along with a growing awareness of the challenges posed by climate change. In Viet Nam the pressure for economic development is creating all sorts of tensions. The most positive impression I carry is the natural warmth and wisdom of the rural people we encountered. This is where the real hope lies for Viet Nam in my view, if positive ways can be found to empower these people and somehow minimise or overcome the real desperation for money that is so evident to a foreigner in the urban areas. I believe the lessons we carried from Thailand could be of great benefit to Viet Nam.
Today we hired a boat, with a boat driver and local guide, from the hotel. The plan was to travel through some of the canals, visit a durian tree farmer on one of the islands and then to a floating market before meeting up with our van.
For the first time in the Mekong I felt as though I could relax and enjoy myself. Driving through the Mekong delta had already caught my imagination… a region with a population of 18 million in 2000 and currently estimated to be 21 million by 2010. A place of people, rice, water, fruit farms, endless bridge crossings over the many canals and larger crossings over the “nine dragons”. Being on the water totally fascinated me.
We eventually came to a bank where we disembarked to visit the ‘wise’ durian grower. As it turned out this was a young businessman and his mother, the Sau Ri family (name of the father), who had converted from rice to durian production about seven years ago with the help of Thai technology and Australian aid. They were extremely nice people, growing durian trees for fruit as well as a large durian tree nursery on their ten hectares of land.
These people have clearly acted positively by diversifying away from rice to a very productive fruit crop. The mother talked about the many problems in the area, pollution of water from heavy chemical use, erosion problems from river boats, insect pests in the rice. She commented that the weather is more erratic than in the past, but they don’t have any major issues as durian growers.
Given the breakdown with assistance we were now in a situation of having committed to the expense of a car with driver and guide, but no plan ahead of us. Doing his best to help us the guide had made contact with a local vegetable grower but this didn’t hold a lot of interest. So I asked for us to be driven to the next province, Vinh Long, where we hoped at the very least to enjoy a boat trip on the Mekong.
The main artery of the “nine dragons” river flows through Vinh Long province, which is one of the lower lying parts of the Mekong Delta.On arrival in Vinh Long we found accommodation, then lunch, and then out to the countryside. We stopped at a couple of households and talked to people. The two main things that we heard here were that water isn’t a problem for them, because it is in such abundance in this province, and that they are also now experiencing insect pest problems with their rice. When asked if there were some good local farmers worth talking to they said yes there were, but they were about 7km walk away!
By mid afternoon we’d all had enough. So we headed back to our hotel, a sort of resort complex by the river… where we sat outside to enjoy a fresh breeze and the coolness of the air as a thunderstorm passed nearby. Then to a room where the power didn’t come on until 5.30pm and even then the air-conditioning didn’t work properly!
That evening I asked our guide, Nhon, if we could somehow try and find some wise people to talk to along the river. This inspired him to call a TV station who gave him some contacts. It sounded promising for what we had decided would be our last day on the Mekong.