Dhan Singh Rana, Sunil Kainthola & Pratibha S Naithani
Namche Conference, May 24-26, 2003
“People, Park, and Mountain Ecotourism”
Mountain communities are amongst those marginalized groups whose destinies are mostly decided by an influential tribe of resourceful institutions/persons who often represent diverse interest groups. Be it in the name of conservation or tourism, we always find ourselves the last party to decide our own destinies. Perhaps it is because we live in a land of abundant resources and opportunities. Perhaps, it is because of our looking at the mountains from an all-together different perspective. Or it may be due to our isolation or poverty or a myriad of other esoteric reasons. However, in the chaos and confusion of new terminologies whereby we have been reduced to mere beneficiaries or stakeholders, we would like to reassert our stand as owners of our lands. This paper comes straight from the leadership of the Bhotia tribal community of the Niti Valley. The issues raised in this presentation belong to the Bhotia community. The main author of this presentation is a member of the local leadership. The other authors belong to an advocacy group and are also Paharies. In this paper we would like to share our struggles and the blue print of the destiny we have decided for ourselves and our children.
Our area and history: We live in the Niti Valley comprising the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve in the District of Chamoli, Uttarakhand, India. We had a flourishing trade with Tibet but the Indo-China conflict of 1962 put an end to this. With the closure of the trade we also lost the rights over our traditional camping grounds right from Niti down to the lower Terai areas. It was the collective efforts of our community which culminated in the Chipko Movement of the 1970–80s. The veteran Gaura Devi who led the women contingent of the movement to stop the felling of trees by hugging them, belonged to our tribe.
With the closure of the Tibet trade our people found a source of livelihood in mountaineering activities around Nanda Devi. Here we would like to emphasize that Nanda Devi is not mere a peak, but a sacred summit for the entire Garhwal and Kumaon region. Nanda Devi is a Goddess. For us she is the daughter of the Himalaya and the wife of Shiva. The Goddess in her sanctuary remains aloof and unapproachable. The inner area is like a bowl with only one access route from the village of Lata. The rim of this magical bowl is studded with a number of peaks making our area one of the richest in terms of biodiversity. Some of the peaks are presented in the adjoining table. In 1982, our area was notified as a National Park vide Uttar Pradesh Government Order No 3912/ 14-3 /35 / 80 dated 6th Sept 1982. We were never consulted on this important decision which was to change our lives and affect our livelihood. Though returns from mountaineering were significant it was not the case of the ban on mountaineering alone. We lost our right to access the areas, which were our traditional grazing lands and our summer dwellings (Chanees). Our traditional health care system collapsed with the unavailability of herbs and our food supplies and the space was quickly filled by the market oriented allopathic system. Though the restrictions came with a set of compensatory promises none were fulfilled. In fact the various schemes initiated in the name of rehabilitation promoted corruption and fragmentation of the society. This started a process of alienation which created a feeling of aversion towards traditional subsistence activities, especially amongst our young people. What we are witnessing today is all-pervading unemployment and a colossal loss of traditional skills and knowledge.
Right from the notification of the park, we have been struggling for the restoration of our traditional rights. There were periods of intense agitation and periods of silence when we believed in the promises of the authorities. We too have learned our collective lessons during this two-decade-old struggle. Recently we have been involved in networking with other communities and have been regularly interacting with advocacy groups. This exposure has helped us in formulating our strategies and in raising our hopes that there is still a chance to avoid tailor-made destinies. With the formation of our separate mountain state of Uttarakhand, our struggle has entered a decisive phase. This phase is full of opportunities as well as threats. Nevertheless we have been able to concretize our aspirations in the form of a declaration. As we are presently involved in the decisive phase of our struggle, we would like to share some of the critical issues with you and need your creative feedback to consolidate our position.
There is a prominent thought, which aims at manipulating our lifestyles so as to reduce the pressure on the natural resources. Some of the subtle objectives of such interventions are nothing but evil designs aimed at initiating processes leading to our migration from these natural paradises. We wonder if this cannot be termed as a case of ethnic cleansing. Approaches like these must be condemned by the civil society. Our efforts for the capacity building of our youth aim at strengthening our position as the guardians of the bio-diversity of our area. The tentative steps of our immediate plans are as under:
Convergence: The formation of a new mountain state was a major milestone in our struggle for environmental justice. Now, the concerned authorities are approachable and the present Director and Deputy Director of the park are sympathetic to our demands. However there is still a reluctance to acknowledge and align with the Panchayati Raj institutions and to hand over the power invested in them vide the 73rd constitutional amendment. The situation is similar in the other Protected Areas. The future of mountain communities the world over depends on how they assert their rights and take a proactive stand in the conservation of the biodiversity of their area. The policy planners too have to understand that empowering the local communities is the only way to ensure sustainability in the region. However this will remain a distant dream until we explore ways to establish linkages between various mountain communities and evolve a common platform. This we have learned from our struggle – that collectivism and a convergence of efforts is the key for survival and this is the invitation we would like to extend to all of you.
We acknowledge the concern and support extended to us by various concerned individuals and organizations.