SUCCESS STORY: India honours saviour of Valley of Flowers

Posted: 23 July 2007

Author: Neeta Lal

Every year some 600,000 pilgrims make their way through the Valley of Flowers in the Indian Himalayas, and until recently, left behind a trail of garbage. Now the Valley and the adjoining Nanda Devi National Park has been cleaned and restored, thanks to the efforts of a diminutive female Forest Reserve Officer, Jyotsna Sitling, recipient of this year's prestigious Indira Gandhi Paryavaran Puraskar, the country's highest environmental honour.

Jyotsna Sitling
Jyotsna Sitling
Jyotsna Sitling is the proud recipient of this year's prestigious Indira Gandhi Paryavaran Puraskar, the country's highest environmental honour. Photo © Women's Feature Service
The ecologically sensitive 19-kilometre buffer zone of the Valley of Flowers stretches along the trek route from Govindghat to Hemkund Sahib. But the annual pilgrim traffic had wrecked its beautiful surroundings,with an accumulated trail of plastic bags, bottles, raincoats and other non-degradable waste.

Jyotsna Sitling, 45, not only began a restoration project in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand but has helped win the Valley of Flowers World Heritage Site status. She has also set in motion a unique conservation movement that has helped save the ecologically fragile Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve.

Sitling's assignment involved ridding the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve buffer zone of the mountain-high piles of plastic and non-biodegradable waste, which had been dumped by pilgrims over the last three decades on their way to Hemkund Sahib. But this could not be possible without local support so she painstakingly evolved a community-based waste management programme.

Mountain of rubbish

"Initially, it was difficult to motivate people for such unglamorous work. But since it could never have happened without community participation, we just plunged into it," says Sitling. To start, Sitling put together an eco-development committee of locals, and hired garbage collectors who worked for a monthly salary of Rs 1,000 (US$1=Rs 40) with an additional commission of Rs 5 per garbage bag.

After working for 14 months, Sitling's ragtag team collected 44 tons of garbage in 14,000 gunny bags. Tons of mule dung were also collected, as about 500 mules make daily to-and-fro trips during the five-month pilgrimage season. "The collected garbage matched the surrounding mountains in their height!" laughs Sitling.

The filth was then transported on horseback to Govindghat and then to Delhi for recycling. And despite the magnitude of garbage, no short cuts like burning or burying were resorted to.

But cleaning up the area was only a part of Sitling's daunting mission. Her greater challenge lay in convincing the resident business population - about 76 families in all - to demolish their 400 shacks and morph them into 76 shops - one shop per family. This, Sitling insisted, would help in the better management of the ecologically sensitive area. After much convincing, they agreed to convert their shacks into well-equipped shops with proper infrastructure.

Popular peaks

Matters were complicated by the fact that the buffer area was shared by the two parks, the Valley and the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, with its 47 villages. Both parks, administered by the wildlife section of the Uttarakhand's Forest Department, had been subject to damaging mountaineering activity from 1939 onwards.

This led to the shutting down of Nanda Devi for all anthropogenic activities in 1983. But since the region's popular peaks were mostly within the Park, the directive deprived the villagers of their income.

"The conflict of interest between the state's conservation strategy and local livelihoods led to an estranged park management-public relationship for over 20 years," explains Sitling.

To make matters worse, the Valley of Flowers National Park - 87.5 sq km valley within the upper Himalayan ridges at a height of 3,200 to 6,675 metres - had its own set of conservation concerns. Some 520 species of flowering plants and rare avifauna like the Scaly-bellied woodpecker, Great Barbett, Eurasian Eagle Owl, Spotted Dove and the Blue Magpie can be found here.

"The task was Herculean,"says Sitling. "Especially since the area's ecosystem was in tatters and motivation low among the locals." Moreover, the work required the co-operation of various agencies and involved sensitive livelihood and ecological issues.

Eco-tourism activities

That was the main reason why Sitling called for a participatory approach. Her department crafted "mini pockets" of 40 'van' (forest) Panchayats and 60 'mahila mandal dals' (women's group squads) to "make conservation a socially and economically self-alleviating experience for the locals".

"The idea was to integrate livelihood and equity concerns in conservation practices for a long-term solution," says Sitling.

Training was provided to harness local resources and generate eco-tourism activities. The growing and preserving of medicinal plants, exotic condiments and traditional crops were made a priority. This stimulated the hill economy and helped prevent poaching and illegal uprooting of herbs from nearby forests. Communities were also encouraged to document and preserve their culture and folklore. Young people became a skilled resource on local bio-diversity, folklore and culture promotion.

The forest department's pioneering efforts in environmental protection and conservation through community participation were first recognised in 2004 when the Sitling was given a state award on Sitling on June 5, World Environment Day.

Years of hard work started to bear fruit when the region's ecosystem, too, demonstrated signs of regeneration. Sitling's department nominated the Valley of Flowers to the UN's World Heritage list in 2002. On July 14, 2005, UNESCO informed Sitling of the conferring of World Heritage Status to the Valley of Flowers National Park. Apart from it being a global honour, the World Heritage award has helped Uttarakhand attract a many more international tourists and global conservation funds.

"Our unique experiment," discloses Sitling, "has shown that there's nothing which can't be achieved if people choose to work together, no matter what the obstacles."

Source: Women's Feature Service