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Defining Solutions: The Annapurna Experience

Better to let them do it imperfectly than to do it perfectly yourself, f it is their country, their way and your time is short. - T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia)

People travel to the far reaches of the world in their desire for a adventure and experience of a culture different from their own. Although such remote areas are considered uninhabitable and inaccessible, they are often the home of indigenous people, who depend on their rare natural resources for their livelihood. The success of tourism as a national development priority in such areas can only be determined by carefully weighing economic, cultural, and ecological factors. The challenge is to create conditions that better support this goal.

Finding this balance, however, is not a simple task. Ecological and economic decisions now reach across generations and across international borders. The trend of using only agency and government agendas to define development is changing, especially in the case of resource planning and management. "Grassroots development" approaches, based upon real needs, require a solution that involves the people who are affected along with government representatives and professionals. The various projects under the World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) Wildlands and Human Needs Program show the need for "legal and policy instruments which support multiple use of areas and particularly mechanisms which encourage allocation or sharing of benefits not to a central treasury but with local communities" (WWF 1989).

As early as 1980, Karna Sakya of the Nepal Nature Conservation Society proposed a multi-use recreation area designed to carefully integrate tourism, basic rural development, and environmental protection. In the years that followed, environmental problems in Nepal received much national and international attention, and the Nepalese Government expanded its plans of action to include numerous environmental studies and specific investment projects. Even so, controversy still exists over the magnitude and cost of natural resource degradation and the efficacy of different approaches. In the mid-1980s, Nepal's National Planning Committee worked with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) to develop a national conservation strategy. As a policy mechanism, this strategy has given the Nepalese government a vehicle for discussing its environmental concerns and priorities with the international development community.

Nepal is a country with unique wildlands and diverse cultures. More than 90 percent of its people are employed in agriculture; they are few opportunities in other areas. Twenty years ago, tourism was viewed as a way for Nepal to strengthen its balance of payments and increase government revenue. The rapid growth of tourism has shifted that perception toward creating a balance between economic development, and protecting and preserving Nepal's natural and cultural heritage.

In 1985, the Nepal Plan proposed the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) as an important effort to bridge these interrelationships. Having just completed its first phase, this project can provide critical insights over the next five years about effectively planning and managing such development efforts.

Tourism and Nepal

Nestled in the Himalaya Mountains, Nepal has not only an extraordinary cultural heritage but also some of the most unique ecology and natural beauty in the world. Tourism is an important source of foreign exchange and, in isolated mountain regions, the only source of cash. From 1970 to 1986, nearly 2 million tourists visited this country. In 1970 around 45,000 visitors came to Nepal; by 1986, the number had increased to 223,000. The number of those seeking mountaineering and trekking rose from 12,600 to 33,600.

The current development plan for the period 1985-1990 shows a strong commitment by the Nepalese government to tourism as an avenue for future economic growth. For each of the five years, a target has been set for a 12.3 percent increase in annual earnings trough the following programs: (1) develop tourist areas in Palpa, Ilam, Mugu, Kailali, Baglung, Makwanpur, and the Annapurna Himalayan region; and (2) expand trekking routes and establish the necessary ancillary physical facilities.

Although tourism is clearly a national priority, the sheer number and demands of the trekkers has increased the threats to local resources and the local people's traditional way of life.

Annapurna Himalayan Region

As a rich pocket of genetic wealth, the Annapurna Himal is well known in Nepal and around the world for its beautiful mountains and its rich ecological diversity. The area is bounded to the north by dry alpine deserts, to the west by the Dhaulapiri Himal, to the east by the Marsyandi Valley, and to the south by valleys and foothills. The ecological zones range from high northern forest (cool temperate) and mountain meadow (subalpine and high alpine shrub and tundra) to the lower valley (subtropical sal forest).

Some of the heaviest rainfall in Nepal falls on the Southern slopes (more than 5,000 mm per year). The northern slopes are mainly dry grassland steppe due to the rain shadow created by the mountains. The region supports lush rhododendron forest, bamboo jungle, more than 100 species of orchids, many of Nepal's 700-plus medicinal plants, and a variety of birds and mammals.

Geologically, India and Asia were separated by the Tethys Sea more than 25 million years ago. When these two land masses collided, the Himalayas were formed. The Kali Gandaki River helped drain the Tethys Sea, eroding the mountains as fast as they lifted up and created the world's deepest gorge (more than 6,000 vertical meters) below the peaks of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri. People of the region collect the fossil ammonites from the ancient sea of 100 million years ago.

The Annapurna area is plagued by paltry economic opportunity, limited agricultural production, seasonal famines, and high infant mortality rates - conditions that are familiar across much of the middle hills of Nepal. The predominant ethnic group in the region is the Gurung; other ethnic groups include the Magars, Thalkalis, Tamangs, Brahmins, Chhetris, and the occupational caste groups such as the Kamis, Sarkis, and Damais. Besides agriculture and animal husbandry, additional sources of cash income in the villages come from economic alternatives such as trading and migrant labor (for example, soldiering with the British or Indian armies). At present, agriculture is the mainstay of the village economy: people grow maize, millet, rice, barley, buckwheat, potatoes, local peas, and beans. Traditional cultivation methods such as the hoe and plow are still used in all hill villages. Cattle and sheep are still grazed on designated kharkas (grazing land). The traditional village subsistence economy has changed from a pastoral one to an agricultural one due to four factors: population pressures from migrations, natural increases, and increasing numbers of outside visitors, who deplete the area's available resources; contact with the politically dominant Hindu people; soldiering; and the "diffusion of advanced agricultural technology."

Hotels and lodges along the trekking routes have helped to raise people's economic status. Additional sources of cash income for villagers come from working as daily wage farm laborers ad porters, teaching in school and colleges, serving in public and private organizations, and running hotels and small retail shops. South of the Annapurna area, Pokhara serves as the headquarters of the western development region. The people from this area go to Pokhara for health services, education, and social amenities.

Historically, resources have been managed trough traditional institutions and schemes such as the mukhiya or talukdari system (village head system). Although the panchyat system has assumed the responsibilities of local mukhiyas, the mukhiyas still play a significant role in village life. The tradition of rotational grazing and forest use is still widely practiced. Through the manapathi system, a heralu (forest watchman) is paid with goods from every household for looking after the forest. From 1957 on, the government centralized control of the forests with the Forest Nationalization Act, which provided officers to manage the forests. This system proved inadequate, however, and the local forest management committee has bee somewhat restored.

Because the villagers understand the forest's importance and usefulness, they know that the quality and quantity of their resources directly or indirectly affects their subsistence economy. Ritithiti has served as a source of social control mechanisms; through its system, all the land is owned and controlled communally, and, accordingly, resources are distributed to meet family needs. Under this widely held practice, people grazed cattle, sheep, and buffalo on a rotational basis, and systematically collected fodder and firewood.

Tourism and Its Consequences

The majestic Annapurna Range is shaped by a vast arc of snowy crests. Thought of as a "trekkers paradise," the Annapurna Himal attracts more than 25,000 visitors over the short trekking season - visitors whose "travel and activities have gone unmonitored and unrestricted" (Bunting and Wright 1984). Compared to the second most popular area - Sagarmatha National Park, also known as Mt. Everest - the number who come to the Annapurna area is nearly five times greater. Concern is growing that the number of international visitors will threaten the sustaining capacity of the area's environmental and cultural resources.

In a recent National Geographic (September 1989, p. 391) article on Nepal and the Annapurna region, Galen Rowell describes the problem as "the growing pollution of a priceless heritage": "The solitary splendor is dazzling - until I glance down at my feet. There, frozen into the ice cap of Tharpu Chuli, lies a miniature garbage dump: discarded candy wrappers, film cartons, plastic bags, wads of tissue, and half empty food cans, all of it left by foreign climbing groups. It is a familiar and sickening sight to old Himalaya hands."

Twenty years ago a trekker would have found it difficult to find one tourist lodge in the Annapurna sanctuary; now there are more than 20 lodges, and more than 200 along the circuit outside the sanctuary. Over the past 10 years, the annual increase in tourism has resulted in the clearing of vat tracts of rhododendron and forested areas to meet the demands of lodges and trekker for fuelwood for cooking, hot showers, campfires, and building materials. "A typical climbing expedition in Sagarmatha for example, lasts two months and requires four loads of wood per day for a total of 8,000 kg of firewood. In contrast, a sherpa hearth burns 5,000 kg of wood per year" (Bunting and Wright 1984).

A 1986 report on tourism in the Annapurna area pointed out that "the income from tourism is deceptive" (Sherpa 1987): only 20 cents out of three dollars spent daily by the average trekker remains in the village. Secondary environmental and social impacts, caused by the growing recreational use of the area, have presented more difficult issues such as disruptions of the local economy. Conflicts have arisen as villages rely less on their own self-reliance and more on tourist dollars and outside resources to meet their daily needs. The psychological impact of tourism on the local cultures has created an atmosphere in which "feelings of cultural pride and self-respect are giving way to a sense of insecurity and inferiority" (Sherpa et al. 1979), especially among the young people, who face unemployment and have to resort to begging. Tourist have influenced dress patterns, food habits, family structures, religion, community language, and daily patterns of life.

The Nepal Plan and Nepalese Leadership

In response to the growing crisis, the Nepal Plan was introduced in 1985 as a proposal that would join community development with resource protection. Modeled on the Wildlands and Human Needs Program experience, the plan was to support multiple use and encourage allocation or sharing of benefits with local communities. A new category of managed land would be created giving "village control over resources in the protected areas and retaining and distributing income within the local area." The Annapurna National Park "would meet international park standards" and the "government would sanction trust management and ensure security." "The concept for the Nepal Plan is to have the Annapurna National Park demonstrate how a nationally established but privately managed park can serve as a catalyst for socio-economic development and increased environmental awareness in nearby communities and the nation as a whole."

The king of Nepal, Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, issued directives in 1985 to investigate protected status for the Annapurna region through the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation, which conducted a six-month field survey supported by the WWF. Unlike the other six national parks in Nepal, which were established with a management plan that restricted use by the local populations, the feasibility study stressed the importance of starting with an "operational plan that would evolve over several years involving the community and community leaders." The Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) would be implemented over two phases building upon its success and learnings over time. This "new concept" stressed the overall goal of "conservation alongside the harmonious development of tourism, administered by as small a bureaucratic unit as possible relying on local participation, self-sustained through entry and use fees."

Three years ago, the pilot phase was initiated in Ghandruk village of Kaski District. Based upon the encouraging results the project will expand its activities into 13 additional panchayats covering 800 km² on the southern slopes of Mt. Annapurna and Mt. Machapuchhare. When the second phase of the project is completed, the ACAP will eventually include 2,600 km² with 40,000 inhabitants. The project area has been categorized into four zones, including an intensive use zone (agriculture and human activities) and a special management zone (those threatened by human impact or with significant trekking-tourism or other commercial development potential). As such, the ACAP will become the largest area managed by the government.

A recent report states: "The future of the earth' biological diversity is inextricably linked to improving the quality and security of life in rural populations so they are not forced to deplete their resources to survive" (WWF 1989). I remember well the fall day in 1987 when I met Mingma Norbu Sherpa. A Fulbright scholar at the University of Michigan, he introduced us all to an innovative idea in conservation and rural development: the Annapurna Conservation Area Project. Over the course of his stay, many conversations took place about the intricate role environmental education was playing in the project. Eventually our discussions turned to the implications for designing a national plan for environmental education, building on the successes of the ACAP.

It is now 1989, three years since the implementation of the ACAP. During the first week of August, an amendment was made to Nepal's Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act to allow conservation areas to be established similar to the model Annapurna project. The user fees have been raised from $3 to $8 and will go directly to the ACAP. Used as an alternative fuel source to the area, the supply of kerosene was temporarily halted with the recent trade embargo with India. In the spring of 1989, the Forest Act was amended to allow private long-term planting of trees. Local residents can now lease land from the king for 80 to 95 years, with the district forest officer acting only in an advisory role. Regulations are now being drafted to put revenue back into the community. In January 1990, the ACAP will expand into Phase I, which will include the 800 km of the Annapurna Sanctuary area.

A series of community meetings identified a number of priority programs, some environmentally related (water quality, sanitation, health care). The ACAP has introduced a range of "community development programs mobilizing available local resources, supplementing them with essential economic and technical support" (Sherpa et al. 1989). If the methodology succeeds, there are implications for "grassroots economic development and local participation in the protection and management of natural resources throughout The Middle Hills of Nepal" (Sherpa et al. 1989). The following is a brief list of the successes that are emerging from the evaluation of the pilot phase. * A Hotel and Lodge Management Committee was established to strengthen the local people's ability to manage. The committee sets uniform standards for services and prices for food and board. Training is being provided in hotel management. Owners may apply for loans up to US $250 to improve lodes and build latrines and rubbish pits. * The traditional Forest Management Committee was reinstated. The committee (Ban Byabasthapan Samiti) protects the forest of Gandruk and has zoned the existing forests for protection and firewood collection. Seedlings are given out to people from forest nurseries and plantation programs are in place on public and private land. * Community development programs are under way to address health and sanitation, drinking water, and construction and repair of trails and suspension bridges. * Alternative energy and appropriate technology are being used by hotel and lodge owners. A kerosene depot has been set up, and back boiler water heaters have been installed in the lodges. Other sources of energy such as small hydroelectric projects are being examined.

What is important about the ACAP is the key role environmental education has played from the beginning in educating people about the interrelationships among economic development, culture, and environmental protection. This process-oriented approach to conservation has created a structure whereby people - be they policy makers, professionals, tourists, or local inhabitants - can learn about environmental considerations, their relationship to the problem, and how to resolve it. It is too early to thoroughly judge the merits of the project in bringing about a sustaining balance between tourism and the Annapurna region, but time and experience will tell an interesting story in the 1990s.


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Minimum Impact Code

Every year, the increasing numbers of trekkers bring great changes to the environmental quality of the Annapurna region. As visitors and friends, join ACAP in its efforts to preserve the sanctuary of this region for generations to come. To step gently in the Himalaya, we ask you to:

Conserve Firewood: Use stoves; stay at lodges that use kerosene or fuel-efficient wood stoves; travel with trekking companies that use kerosene; make no open fires - put warm clothes on instead; limit hot showers to two per week. Kerosene can be purchased at Chhomrong.

Respect the Villagers and Their Traditions: Consider your appearance: women should not wear shorts to revealing blouses - below-the-knee skirts or dresses are comfortable and convenient; men should always wear a shirt; outward displays of physical affection and nudity are highly offensive to local people; when taking photographs, ask permission and respect people's privacy; observe standard food and bed charges. Try to learn Nepalese customs; be friendly and patient; and remember: you're a guest.

Stop Pollution: Don't litter the environment with cigarette butts, toilet paper, wrappers, bottles, cans - use rubbish pits or burn, bury, or pack it out; carry a small shovel with which to bury wastes; use toilet facilities - if none exist, make sure you are at least 20 meters from water sources.

Encourage Nepali Pride: Help dispel the myth that Western societies are affluent and without problems - give a true picture of your country, both good and bad; say "na raamro" ("not good") to begging children and don't give anything - it creates a never-ending cycle of dependence, decreases selfworth, and does more harm than good; don't give medicines unless you can provide follow-up care - instead, encourage the use of local health posts and emphasize cleanliness.

While trekking, ponder your impact on the environment and culture. Teach people the importance of respecting nature and how to conserve it. By assisting in these small ways you will help Nepal enormously.


How You Can Help

With more than 650,000 members, the World Wildlife Fund is the largest private conservation organization working worldwide. WWF focuses on international conservation programs in developing countries that preserve specific ecosystems targeted for their high biodiversity of species. Their successes are made possible through the generous support of their members. The Wildlands and Human Needs Program is being carried out in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. For more information, write:

World Wildlife Fund

Membership Department

1250 24th St. NW

Washington, DC 20037

The Annapurna Conservation Area Project is operating under the guidance of the King Mahendra Trust of Nature Conservation, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization dedicated to conserving natural resources in Nepal. If you need more information or would like to make a donation, write:

ACAP Headquarters


Ghandruk Panchayat

Kaski District, Nepal

King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation

P.O. Box 3712

Babar Mahal

Kathmandu, Nepal

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