A Himalayan Dream

Posted: 26 April 2001

Author: Jane Pratt

The idea of creating a park as big as Switzerland in the heart of the Himalayas spanning the border between Nepal and Tibet became reality in 1992. Here Jane Pratt explains how a conservation dream is being turned into reality.

Kamala Garung arrived in the tiny village of Seduwa, cast of Mount Everest tired but happy after walking two days from the District Centre of Khandbari, itself three days walk from the nearest road at Hile. Kamala is a community development officer of the Makalu-Barun National Park and Buffer Zone (MBNPBZ) project in Nepal, and walking and talking with villagers is a big part of her job. Today, she has come to assess progress with the women's allo weaving co-operative - one of many groups established to generate income for villagers living within the conservation area.

Weaving project

The beautiful and exotic allo cloth - something like raw silk - is woven through a laborious and difficult process from wool and the fibre of the giant stinging nettle (Girardinia diversifolia), the longest-staple fibre known in nature. Known for centuries to Scottish highlanders, native Americans, and other traditionally self-reliant people, allo weaving has died out wherever less labour intensive alternatives are available.allo weaverThe exotic allo cloth is woven from the fibre of a giant stinging nettle© The Mountain Institute

The indigenous ethnic groups in this remote region are among Nepal's poorest, making them among the poorest anywhere in the world. Allo cloth used to be one mark of that poverty, since no one who could afford to buy fabric would dream of taking all the time and trouble needed to make cloth from stinging nettles. Now allo cloth weaving, and its export to national and international markets, is part of a vast community-based conservation programme that integrates conservation, community development and promotion of indigenous culture. How the women of Seduwa came to have a different dream is part of the story of a larger vision that of conserving the rich natural and cultural heritage of the world's mountains. Makalu-Barun. National Park and Buffer Zone, covering some 2330 km², was inaugurated in Nepal in 1992. Together with the adjoining Qomolangma Nature Preserve (QNP) in Tibet Autonomous Region of China, it covers nearly 38,000 km² - roughly the Size of Switzerland - around Mount Everest. The entire area is one of the largest under protection in the world, and has been designed and supported by The Mountain Institute in a unique long-term partnership with the Government of Nepal and the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. The area under active conservation is further augmented by the adjacent Sagarmatha Parks of Nepal's Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation.

Nestled beneath the towering Himalayas, and sacred to nearly one billion Hindus, Tibetan Buddhists, and practitioners of indigenous religions, the transboundary protected areas include five of the world's highest mountain peaks: Everest, (Sagarmatha in Nepali, Qomolangma in Tibetan), Lhotse, Makalu, Cho Oyu, and Shisha Pangma. Pristine valleys radiating from these peaks extend from 8,000 metre summits down to the high, dry Tibetan plateau to the north, and to the tropical, moist life zones at less than 500 metres above sea level in Nepal to the south. In between, at 1,097 metres, the mountains shelter the confluence with Nepal's Barun and Arun River valleys, proposed site of the recently disputed dam.

Biological refuge

Recognised by leading biologists as the "last pure ecological seed" of the eastern Himalaya, the region has been designated by UNESCO as one of the ten most threatened biological treasures on Earth. The area is refuge for threatened and endangered animals, including the rare and endangered snow leopard and clouded leopard, as well as musk deer, red panda, and the Himalayan black bear. According to Professor Li Bosheng of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a pre-eminent botanical authority on the area, "Two major biogeographical zones, the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayan highland, meet here to create an exceptional variety of habitats supporting a biodiversity of global importance." That biodiversity, according to a recent survey, includes over 80 species of wildlife and more than 3,000 plant species.

The transboundary area is one of the few in the world where indigenous cultures remain intact, and where cultural value is recognised as being on a par with biological value. Pilgrims still visit the sacred caves where Milarepa - an important saint in Tibetan Buddhism - found enlightenment. According to Wagchuck Namgyal, former Director of the Tibet Development Fund, "The traditions of local people are indeed a treasure as precious as any natural or historical riches."

The protected areas are now cited as promising models in community-based conservation, and efforts are now underway to adapt the model to other regions, such as the Huascaran National Park in Peru. The initial challenges were daunting. The Makalu-Barun area was under threat due to increasing and poorly understood pressures. The familiar problems of human settlement were on the increase including over-harvesting of forests, over-grazing, and use of slash and burn agriculture by many of the region's poor and hungry people. Himalayan viewThe majesty of the Himalayas transcends boundaries© Panos PicturesWhile human settlements were sparse in the past, growing populations, and increasing tourism threatened greater environmental degradation unless careful planning and management was introduced. In addition, the area has significant hydropower development potential, forming the watershed for the Arun River. On the northern side of the range in the Tibetan plateau, the human threats to environment and culture were equally serious, and the opening of the area to tourism in recent years has dramatically increased pressure. Governments on both sides recognised the problems early, and had many reasons to want to address them.

In response to the urgent and complex problems, unique partnerships were developed among local people, governments, and international and national NG0s. Separate Memorandums of Understanding were drawn up among the various partners, based on their own strengths and capabilities.

Building partnerships The Mountain Institute, based in the Appalachian range of West Virginia, helped this process along. An international NGO committed to preserving mountain environments and advancing mountain cultures, the Institute believes that healthy mountain ecosystems, communities and cultures are inseparable. Their sustainability can only be achieved if mountain people are given the opportunities to plan and work towards this goal.

Working from these basic principles, the Mountain Institute formed long-term partnerships with the governments and people both in the Makalu-Barun National Park and Qomolangma Nature Preserve. The donors, in turn, agreed to take shared responsibility for the success of the projects.

The partnership views its responsibility as that of empowering and facilitating the real responsibility for management that rests with the local people, and with the scientists who speak on behalf of nature.Makalu-Barun boy"Namaste" greeting from Makalu-Barun boy© The Mountain InstituteProject components include park management, community development, tourism development, and applied scientific research.

The design phases are complete, and field work has begun. In Makalu-Barun alone, the project has helped turn over more than 10,000 ha of forest to management by local user groups, more than 20,000 villagers have been supported in obtaining scarce water resources, meeting nearly 80 per cent of the drinking water requirements for these villages and the project has worked with 50 communities to construct or restore local cultural and religious sites. A very significant impact has been among the 500 plus women allo producers with whom Kamala Gurung works. In the three years Makalu-Barun has worked with these women to increase weaving skills and expand marketing, their revenues and wages have nearly doubled. The initial producers' club has spun off 15 allo groups that are involving more women in the production of this valuable cloth. Traditional users of forest resources, especially women, have developed their own plans for managing their forest resources. In this they were helped by Makalu-Barun project rangers. Half of them are women a major achievement in a region where no women had ever held such positions.

After more than a decade of hard work the project is striving for sustainability once donor funding comes to an end in 2002. All the partners are working to equip local people with with skills to sustain their efforts, and both the government and local communities are supplementing their own resources with locally generated funds to keep these conservation efforts moving forward.

Looking ahead, the partnership established to protect the transboundary regions of Nepal and Tibet wants to respond to new requests from the Peruvian and Bolivian Andes, from native Americans such as the Zuni people, and elsewhere to promote exchanges of mountain people. A recent initiative, spearheaded by the Swiss Development Corporation, is to create a global Mountain Forum to enable mountain organisations and communities to share their experiences. Meanwhile, governments, donors and NGO partners are working to keep the dream alive to adapt and transfer the valuable lessons learned from this experience to conserve our planet's precious mountain environments, and mountain peoples' cultural heritage.

Jane Pratt is President and Chief Executive of The Mountain Institute. The Institute is working with partners to design and implement large-scale community-based conservation in the world's oldest, highest, and longest mountain ranges: the Appalachians, the Himalaya, and the Andes.