It has been well documented that unchecked tourism is leading to destruction and damage to several places around the world. World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has declared that tourism can be a source of environmental damage and pollution, a threat to the socio-cultural structure, a heavy user of scarce resources and a potential cause of negative externalities in society. The ideal scenario is where one seeks to balance tourism with the well-being of natural resources and local communities.
This is where an organisation like Himalayan Ecotourism comes in. It was set up by Stephan Marchal who is originally from Belgium but has been working in India for the past 10 years. The trekking tours and adventure cooperative operates in the Great Himalayan National Park (awarded the UNESCO heritage site in 2014 for its outstanding biodiversity). The area houses around 10% of the world's endemic and exotic species of flora and fauna. Among the rare species that can be spotted here are the Himalayan Black Bear, Himalayan Ibex, and Himalayan Musk Deer. It is also home to gucchi, a local species of mushrooms which have a GI tag.
We had a conversation with Stephan about the project, and conservation efforts, and how local communities living there are being empowered through cooperative business models. Here are extracts.
How it all began
I had worked for seven years with an NGO in Jharkhand until 2012, collaborating with 450 women belonging to the tribal community, the Munda. We enhanced their prosperity using natural resources in a sustainable way. This was a really good experience because it is like a social intervention - conservation and regeneration of natural resources. This is how I landed in Tirthan Valley. I decided not to continue in non-profit mode due to financial issues. I heard about a conflict between local communities and the administration because the national park was used by local villages for their own incomes and livelihoods. So, when the park was created, they were deprived of their wood and livelihood. The locals were very angry. In that context, I reached the valley. I wanted to continue working with women, so I conducted extensive surveys, about women's status and problems, etc, and found that there were plenty of opportunities in ecotourism.
Out of my ideas, working with women was not an option at that point due to old cultural obstacles, so I decided to work with the men as they were mostly involved in trekking. I organised treks in the national park and took the opportunity to interact with the staff. The administration had envisioned that ecotourism could help in partly compensating for the loss of the local’s livelihood but the way it was organised by the only operator at that time was not the correct way to engage in ecotourism. There should be a better way to operate treks. After about five meetings, 30 villagers came together and under my expertise, especially due to my experience in Uttarakhand, gained confidence, communicated, and explained the idea, in a much better position. They decided to build a cooperative society. And we decided to name this Himalayan Ecotourism.
The aim of Himalayan Ecotourism
The venture has always been towards conservation of natural resources. With Himalayan Ecotourism, a substantial part of the profits will be used to run conservation programmes. But first, the objective is to provide members with economic stability, because without
any economic support, you cannot expect someone to conserve the environment. In this cooperative, everyone is like the owner of the company. Each and every member knows their financial status; there is no hierarchy. The business model is a social enterprise, and it works very well. We do a lot of interesting projects.
Earlier, nobody knew about Himalayan Ecotourism, so I had to establish an online presence, by working on marketing. Some of the projects we did - developing green technologies, and awareness campaigns to fight intentional forest fires.
The different kinds of treks available
We operate in the Great Himalayan National Park, officially spread over an area of 750 sq km. It is unique, because it protects ecosystems, including endangered wildlife and birdlife. The treks start at an altitude of 1500m and go up to more than 6000m. As we are currently working with administrators of the park, there is a continuity between this park and other adjacent ones, which approximately cover 3000 sq km of protected area. It is in this area that we organize treks - short, easy trips which require only 2 or 3 days, which are short introductions to the National Park. To reach the deeper areas of the park, you need at least 8 days. Unlike other areas where you enter a village, stay in a homestay while a trek, this is different. As soon as you enter the park, you will be completely immersed in nature, with no houses or villages to welcome you. This park is pristine in nature, so even shorter trips are worth the time.
What makes for the most magical treks
That is very difficult to choose. I would say treks reaching the sources of rivers are really magical. One of these treks is the Tirth trek.
A trek is an adventure that starts at home. In cities, the remaining life has the shape of homo sapiens, stray dogs and cows, rats and cockroaches. Do we remember what nature is? Through the National Geographic channel, perhaps? We think of going for an adventure and rejuvenating ourselves. On the way to the mountains, the biodiversity barely increases. The pesticide-sprayed fields are home to single GMO species decorated with rare trees. The water bodies are dirty and polluted. Are there any fish surviving in these waters? The first mountains we meet on the way to the Great Himalayan National Park are slightly better. At least, there are tree covers on the steeper slopes, where no human activities seem to be economically viable. Still, we do not find much biodiversity here, as only the fire-resistant species have survived the long decades of intentional forest fires. The same scenario goes on till we reach the higher parts of the Tirthan valley where the protected area of the national park starts.
Our gaze escapes into the waves of pure water and takes our mind into the universe of nature. It is then when looking upwards, one feels welcomed by the forest full of shades of green, full of birdsongs, and a strange blend of serenity and wildlife. The trek begins. From here, the pure water comes, but from where exactly? We begin our Tirth trek to answer this question. For the first two or three days, we cross a paradise on earth. The river cascades between huge rocks, it seems to emerge from a tunnel of dense and luxuriant forest, the birds represent all colours, the fauna is well hidden, but shows itself to us furtively, like the extraordinary characters from fairy tales.
Then, little by little, the trees become rarer. Bushes and shrubs replace the trees because they resist a layer of snow of several meters in winter. The river is still there, thinner, with a diminishing decor. The further you go, the simpler the landscape becomes. In the city, our mind
is trapped in the mechanisms of the human, industrial machine. Moving away from the city, one can only glimpse the extent of the industrial dictate over natural resources.
At the gates of the national park, it is magically noisy as extravagant nature paints the picture. As we go upwards, towards the course of the river, nature and mountains become simpler. Afterwards, the bushes remain as a few grasses, there are a few flowers. The complicated shapes of the forest give way to the slender shapes of the Himalayan peaks. The forest, which is the cradle of mankind, which has been our home for thousands of years, stirs our spirit. It makes us relive our own nature, where food, habitat, and social life have the same forms, those of living nature.
But as soon as we approach the sources of the river, we almost stop thinking, all our attention is focused on a goal, an origin. When we arrive on a small grassy plain, flooded by the meltwater of the glaciers which cover the surrounding mountains, and over which winds the sources of the river, we cannot help but think that going to the sources of the Tirthan river is to go to the source of life.
The social activities a traveller can engage in
There's a lot one can do. You can do an education programme. Work for economic prosperity for the villagers - the economy is connected with the use of natural resources here. One day, we hope to have a strong programme with women because women are the key to success for any conservation effort. We realized at one point while running our campaigns for ‘Forest Against Forest Fires’, that it is difficult to mobilize adults for our campaigns, to bring a shift in their lifestyle. We were already working with schools at that time, and we saw that children were much more responsive to these issues. To do conservation in the long run, we thought it was important to work with children. At that time, the pandemic struck and government schools were closed. The parents thought of bringing them in and doing something for them. In that context, we built two schools in the villages. The interns helped with this, and they also taught women to be better teachers. We created a pandemic-run teach and travel programme where travelers spent half a day teaching children and women, becoming closer to the community, and living like a local. Now, government schools have opened so parents have decided to send the children back to school. So our schools are not operating right now. But we are planning to relaunch the education initiative by September, and engage travelers in this. We will try to supplement school education by helping kids open their minds, engage in personality development, etc.
The reaction of the local people
It took about two months to really make the locals understand the benefits of making a cooperative society. They were not the problem. It is the elite of society, especially those who have privilege, better business, or economic status; some administrators, and the higher caste system. When you are trying to empower locals, it doesn't please the people who are already in a favourable position - any change will be considered a threat. Cooperative members have experienced very strong opposition from the elite here. It was difficult to keep the morale, but this changed when we started winning awards. Beyond their valley, even their country, there were people who responded. And then the villagers felt recognized for their efforts. Shortly after winning international awards, the villagers themselves thought about launching a three-plantation ecological restoration programme.
What is ecotourism all about?
I am actually afraid of the word ‘tourism’. When I see a place called ‘untouched’ and if someone says some villagers can benefit from tourism,I feel it will only benefit those with privileged positions, and trigger an ugly and disturbing development of infrastructure - without any management like waste management or water resource management. Tourism in the classic sense is destructive and it will create economic disparities. It of course brings money, but it won’t be for the good of all, but advantageous for a small percentage of people who are already privileged. Himalayan Ecotourism is an attempt to use tourism as a tool as an instrument to promote economic welfare and social welfare and conservation. This is how I would define Himalayan Ecotourism.
Organisations they have partnered with for conservation purposes
It was disappointing when we first started out. Every year almost all the forests of Tirthan valley were burned intentionally. For three years, until the pandemic, we campaigned, raised awareness and stopped these forest fires. But during the pandemic, we lost touch with the villagers who restarted these. We started sending emails, documentation of our programmes to forest departments, or the DC in Shimla but received no reply. Then we thought about how we could replicate this in other areas so that we could have a bigger impact. I thought about associating with similar-minded organizations from other valleys, and trying to have a federation of like-minded organizations. We have Shivyanath who was quite excited to organize this with me. We got on board with Spiti Ecosphere, and will most probably collaborate in the future with HIAL, the organization of Sonam Wangchok, and Ladakhi Women’s Travel Company, the organization of Thinlas Chorol, and other people who have shown interest in collaborating. Unfortunately, we have not been able to give a concrete shape to this, the pandemic being one reason. But this is very much on our plate; we will definitely take this ahead with Spiti Ecosphere. With HIAL, we will be going ahead in June. I cannot explain completely, but we will be focusing on setting strict guidelines on what it is to run a business in a sustainable way. And based on these guidelines, we will build more collaborations.