TRAVEL / Finding the right trek: Tourism is one of Nepal's biggest hard currency earners - and, unchecked, will devastate the environment. Can trekking be made eco-friendly? David Nicholson-Lord reports

RAJARAM, aged 19, is a young man with a mission. He gave up school at the age of 12, left the family farm, began a new life as a tourist guide. He struck gold recently when a French journalist gave him 3,000 rupees (worth pounds 12, enough to feed a small family for a month) to take him to the camps in the north of Nepal housing refugees from Bhutan. He gets his local knowledge from guidebooks, his command of English from tourists. His real aim, however, is to study economics at university. Why economics? 'It is a good way of making money.' You will find Rajaram, and hundreds more like him - many scarcely into their teens - in and around Kathmandu's Durbar Square. Or rather, they will find you - whether you like it or not. They are, collectively at least, one of the bigger nuisances facing the tourist in Nepal. They are also one of the more obvious signs of a society in such rapid transition that it is being stretched almost to breaking point.

Kathmandu's regular power and water cuts, the fouling of its air and water by chaotic traffic, industrial effluent and sewage are others. Yet the symptoms less visible to the average visitor - deforestation, soil erosion - may pose the more serious long-term threat. All share a common cause - tourism. And tourism in Nepal usually means trekking.

Twenty years ago Kathmandu was small, quiet and reasonably clean. You could bathe in the rivers, walk down streets without seeing a car. Ukesh Bhuju, programme officer in Nepal for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), recalls studying in an apartment near the city centre surrounded by fields and kitchen gardens. To the east of Kathmandu, near what is now Tribhuvan international airport, the river was full of sand and knee-deep clear water; the area was famous for its paddy fields.

Today, the fields and gardens have vanished under buildings. The river has been reduced to a dirty trickle; its bed has sunk 10ft because of sand extraction for development. The remaining rice fields stand above it like a plateau. In 1970 1,500 tourists arrived in Nepal. This year the figure is likely to be near 300,000, a quarter of whom will go trekking. The number of trekkers is increasing by 17 per cent a year.

The tourist industry has been at the cutting edge of Nepal's push for development. By the late 1980s, according to official figures, it was generating about pounds 40m in foreign currency a year, about a sixth of foreign exchange earnings. Along with the carpet industry, itself tourism-related, it is Nepal's largest source of hard currency. Surely this is all good news for a hard-pressed Third World economy?

Many people in Nepal are beginning to think otherwise. Vijaya Sainju, chairman of the Nepal Tourist Watch Centre (Netwac), says there is growing evidence that tourism, notably trekking, contributes little to local development - instead it has reinforced racist myths and cultural stereotypes, increased 'mutual incomprehension', undermined families and bolstered a political and economic elite.

It is also one of the main causes of the destruction of Nepal's environment, upon which the bulk of its still predominantly rural population depends for its livelihood. 'They say that tourism is a smokeless industry,' says Ukesh Bhuju of the WWF, 'but sometimes the environmental damage it does is irreversible.'

To combat that damage, the WWF has launched 'sustainable tourism' projects in highly sensitive areas such as Annapurna and Everest. Along with local conservation organisations and newly founded groups such as the Kathmandu Environmental Education Project, it is also trying to disseminate techniques of eco-friendly trekking. More than a dozen bodies have co-operated in the production of Trekking Gently in the Himalayas, a compendium of tips on dealing with waste, conserving fuel, getting on with local people (see box on page 72). The problems facing such initiatives are immense. Take Mount Everest for example. Thirty-seven people stood upon its summit one day last May. Over the last 40 years an estimated 16 tonnes of rubbish, from tin cans and beer bottles to oxygen tanks, has been dumped on the mountain alone (this does not include items such as abandoned helicopters). Sagarmatha National Park, in which Everest lies, has been labelled the world's 'highest trash pit'. One recent expedition brought in no less than 190 tonnes of supplies to Everest base camp.

People who trek in groups - these account for only one-third of the total number of trekkers - generate an estimated 22 tonnes of non-biodegradable, non-burnable rubbish each year, much of it left at ecologically sensitive sites. Hence the development of so-called 'toilet paper trails' and the tongue-in-cheek advice to trekkers doubtful of their route - follow the rubbish. Many impromptu toilets are near water, adding to the epidemic of

water-borne bacterial illness that kills tens of thousands of babies each year in Nepal.

The high-profile rubbish disposal operations in Sagarmatha provoke much local cynicism. 'Twenty people come to clean up the base camp and they bring 40 loads of supplies,' says a lodge owner. 'At the end of their stay, they leave 30 loads of rubbish. Most of the donations collected in foreign countries for cleaning the Himalayas are spent on themselves. There is more propaganda than actual work.'

Most concern, however, has focused on trees. To the 70,000 trekkers a year must be added 150,000 guides, porters, cooks and support staff - a small army that is cutting a swathe through Nepal's forests. Roughly nine- tenths of them crowd into three highly sensitive areas - Annapurna, Langtang and Khumbu- Everest - wanting food, hot water, accommodation. To build the lodges and cook the food, trees are felled. Western appetites - daily hot showers, chips, French toast - mean one trekker consumes five to 10 times more wood than a Nepali. According to the Kathmandu Environmental Education Project, each hot shower involves the felling of three trees. The lodges in one small village on the Annapurna trail consume a hectare of virgin forest a year to cater for trekkers. Each hectare of cleared forest produces 30-75 tonnes of soil loss through erosion; 400,000 hectares (nearly a million acres) are cleared each year - an area slightly larger than Hampshire. The WWF estimates that, at present rates of forest loss, Nepal's forests will be gone by 2000. Yet 86 per cent of the country's energy comes from its forests.

Critics say trekking has fostered a 'get rich quick' mentality that draws families off the land to run lodges and tea-houses, children away from school to serve in them - or to tout and guide - and husbands into portering jobs, leaving their wives to shoulder the domestic workload alone. According to the WWF, the geographical and seasonal concentration of trekking has a 'devastating impact' on the local culture and environment. Sixty per cent of trekkers go during October, November, March and April. In Annapurna, 80,000 trekkers and staff descend on 40,000 residents.

'Twenty years ago Nepali people didn't know about asking for money,' says Mr Sainju of Netwac. 'Now, when they see a white face, they think: 'The money is coming.' But they are neglecting the future for quick gain today.'

Netwac argues that uncomprehending culture clashes between trekkers and locals perpetuate myths of the 'primitive' Third World and the 'advanced' West. Nepalis find the unclothed bodies of Westerners, their open kissing and cuddling, offensive. The beginnings of sexual tourism have been reported - foreigners 'asking for girls'.

Conversely, younger Nepalis misunderstand Western culture. They see tourists smoking, sitting on temple terraces, perhaps taking drugs. 'They see the tourists, they watch satellite television, they think everyone in the West must be wealthy and sophisticated,' says Sainju. 'They don't know about the three million unemployed in Britain. In villages on trekking routes, you see young Nepali men wearing jeans and dark glasses. They cannot read or write - but they think they look very smart.'

Most damningly, however, few people seem to benefit even financially from tourism. In Annapurna, the WWF estimates that only 20 cents out of every three dollars spent by an average trekker each day reaches village economies: the rest goes on goods imported from outside, notably the West. The main effects of the trekking economy, for many local people, have been inflation and shortages.

In an attempt to conserve firewood and forests, the government subsidises paraffin for local people - but paraffin is then used to cook meals for trekkers. The tourism 'surplus' must also be set against the widespread drain of cultural artefacts to the West. 'So many of our images have been stolen,' laments Ukesh Bhuju of the WWF.

For anyone contemplating a trek in Nepal, there are probably three options. First, and easiest, is to ignore all the above and enjoy a cheap and beautiful country while it lasts. If present trends continue, this will not be for long. The second is to stay at home and buy Nepal - The Video. The third is to assume that trekking can be done responsibly - and it is an assumption - and reconcile yourself to the greater expense and research this involves.

Conservation and pollution control projects are under way in Sagarmatha and Annapurna, backed by the WWF and the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation. In Annapurna, this includes training lodge keepers in sanitation, garbage disposal and wood-saving.

Pilot hydropower schemes using tiny streams have been started. Lodge owners have been offered low-interest loans to build toilets. Two 'eco-tourist areas' are being developed, with controls on lodges and trekker numbers.

Yet many questions remain. As Mr Bhuju points out, many trekkers will not pay 350 rupees a night at the Hotel Himalaya in the 'all- electric city' of Guandruk in Annapurna, despite the fact that it has solar-heated showers, when they can get a bed at a wood-burning lodge for only 10 or 20 rupees.

The WWF - officially at least - endorses tourism. It says it has 'inspired a highly successful carpet industry' in Kathmandu. Yet that same carpet industry, according to Netwac, takes a heavy environmental and social toll. Its chemical waste pollutes rivers. Its employees - half of whom are under the age of 16 - work 15 hours a day, six days a week, in 10ft by 8ft rooms. Typically, 12 workers share these rooms with three looms, eating and sleeping there in atmospheres thick with dust and fluff. There is little health care, sanitation or sewerage. For a square metre of carpet - which represents a week's work - they will be paid about pounds 1.25. In the bazaar, it will fetch pounds 40; its export price will be pounds 65- pounds 400.

'We must make trekkers and locals aware of the impacts of tourism,' says Vijaya Sainju. 'The question is how it can be made sustainable. The West is hectic, full of panic. People come here to look at mountains, to find refreshment. Few know about the reality of Nepal.'-

Ten tips for eco-trekkers

If on a group trek, ensure that you choose the company carefully (see addresses on page 72). Ask about waste disposal, cooking fuels, conservation practices. Report back if these are not carried out.

Make sure paraffin or gas - not wood - is used for cooking and heating water. Stay at lodges which use energy-efficient technology - solar or hydro-power, for instance. Do not light campfires.

Take strong waterproof bags to take out rubbish that won't burn or biodegrade. Remove wrappings before you leave home. Bring long- lasting lithium batteries from home.

Take warm clothes so you need less heat.

Set up toilet tents or latrines at least 50 metres from any water source. Dig holes at least 18in deep. Burn toilet paper.

Do not bathe or wash clothes in streams. Use natural or biodegradable soaps and toss water well away from streams. Take cold showers if wood is used to heat water.

Eat local food - the staple (and highly nutritious) dal bhaat - not Western meals. Use treated (for example, iodised) water for drinking, not boiled or bottled water.

Stick to trails, avoid trampling plants. At high altitudes, vegetation takes much longer to recover. Choose established campsites.

Don't give money or treats to children who beg. Give it to schools or monasteries instead. Food or a few rupees are appropriate for religious mendicants or the handicapped. Try to establish a fair price for souvenirs.

Ask before you take photographs of people. Avoid using a flash inside monasteries: it will destroy the paint. Be modest in dress and avoid intimacy in public. Don't be noisy or point at things. Greet people traditionally - say 'Namaste' with your palms together.

Information

The Kathmandu Environmental Education Project (Keep) and the Himalayan Rescue Association jointly run a travellers' information centre, with advice on trekking companies etc, at the Hotel Tilicho building in Tridevi Marg, Kathmandu. Or write to Keep, PO Box 4944 Tridevi Marg, Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal (tel: 418755). Keep (UK) is based at 72 Newhaven Road, Edinburgh EH6 5QG (tel: 031-554 9977).

Nepal Tourist Watch Centre, Hanumandhoka, Big Bell Complex, PO Box 4543, Kathmandu (tel: 216248/225051).

World Wide Fund for Nature, Nepal Programme, PO Box 4755, Kathmandu. Sagarmatha Pollution Control Project, Namche Bazaar, PO Box 224, Kathmandu. Trekking Gently in the Himalayas (which costs 30 rupees) is available from both organisations.

King Mahendra Trust for Nature Con-

servation, PO Box 3712, Kathmandu (tel: 526571/526558).

Himalayan Guides for Responsible Tourism runs eco-trekking workshops. Contact Wendy Brewer Lama, PO Box 1913, Kathmandu (tel: 414195).

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