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Trekking in the Everest Region

Trekking in the Everest Region

Excerpt:
Minimum impact trekking


Contents List | Introduction | Planning your trek | Facilities for the trekker | Sample trek | Minimum impact trekking


'Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints' (Motto of the Sierra Club)

It is undeniable that trekking has had a significant impact on the environment, the culture and the economy of the Solu Khumbu, with effects both negative and positive.

The opinions of experts as to the extent of the damaging effects of trekking on this region vary. Awareness of the problems has been raised, however, and solutions are being effected far more rapidly than elsewhere in Nepal.

What is important to realize is that Lukla and north of there are at quite a different stage and in quite different circumstances to the Jiri and Arun regions.

It was most fortunate for the people of the Khumbu that the trekking industry started just as the vital trade links with Tibet were being severed by the Chinese.

The industry has now developed into the single most important force in the economy and the Khumbu has become the richest area in rural Nepal. Many schools, hospitals and bridges, the obvious benefits of development, have been built.

Many people search for the negative aspects of the tourist industry before they begin to understand and balance the benefits.

While tourism has negatively impacted the environment, perhaps the biggest damage to the forests of the Khumbu occurred when thousands of Tibetan refugees, fleeing the Chinese ‘Great Leap Forward’ and the continuing ‘peaceful liberation’ of Tibet, arrived and stayed in the Khumbu for months before moving down to other regions.

However, the area seems to have recovered from the environmental damage this caused. Currently local villagers and lodges still use plenty of firewood but I have not read or been told that the current usage is unsustainable; after all, hundreds of tonnes of firewood still grow in the region each year.

The biggest user of firewood was Namche-Khumjung-Khunde who now have enough electricity to cook with. The burning of juniper and moss has mostly stopped now too.

As far as trail litter goes, Khumbu villages are for the most part clean, with locals organizing clean-up campaigns, often several times a year. Mostly it is the porters brought by trekking groups that litter with abandon and there is still a need for an attitude change there.

Glass was a major problem a few years ago, but since then the locals have resolved to use cans only. Probably the biggest litter problem now – aside from toilet waste – is the plastic mineral water bottles that trekkers insist on using.

Admittedly it is bottled locally and so there are some benefits but there are more environmentally sound alternatives. It is paradoxical that the water in these bottles is in fact Namche town supply water, which is 100% clean.

Then there is the tricky question of the cultural impact that tourism has on the region. The question is, should the area be closed to avoid Western influences from seeping into the local culture, or should we let cultural ‘imperialism’ take its course?

Personally, although I was apprehensive at first, I now know that the Khumbu Sherpas can handle the world with greater aplomb than most Western cultures.

Theirs is a close-knit and united community, and the bonds that keep them together seem as strong as ever; indeed, in many ways it is us that have lessons to learn from them.

As a trekker you can still minimize your impact on the land and culture. Here are some suggestions.

ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS

Pack it in, pack it out
In national parks in the West, visitors are encouraged to take out all their litter when they leave (and indeed anything they bring into the park with them). In Nepal the situation is not so straightforward since many of the national parks contain villages and much of what you consume is purchased locally.

Litter
The most worrying and obvious litter problems in the Khumbu and Hinku (Mera Peak area) are directly related to the activities of expedition-style trekking and climbing groups.

Tinned food and bottled sauces are served at every meal. The members may be careful with their litter, putting it in the bins set up in the camp, but what then happens to this rubbish?

Sometimes it is burnt, with the remains left sitting in the embers. Sometimes it is buried in the toilet, covered by little more than an inch of dirt or it may be dumped at the nearest village or simply left in the snow.

The problem goes virtually unnoticed by group members because the kitchen crew are the last to leave a camp or lunch spot. Despite constant clean-up campaigns, litter left by groups is still a serious problem.

Park rules specifically state that all rubbish generated by trekking groups must now be packed out and not dumped in village garbage pits which were dug for the needs of the villagers.

The problem of litter generated by individual trekkers is not so serious. There is little non-burnable litter that is not recycled apart from plastic mineral water bottles which are a definite and unnecessary problem.

Flour, sugar and rice come in sacks, the cardboard from egg-boxes is reused, oil comes in tins that are prized for roofing and, besides, very little tinned food is on menus. Most lodges now burn the burnables and villages have locally managed rubbish pits. Soft drink cans should be crushed flat.

don't use mineral water Since mineral water is sold in non-returnable, non-biodegradable plastic bottles and is now widely available in the Everest region (and the rest of Nepal) the empty bottles are becoming a serious litter problem. There are quite a few alternatives, of which using iodine compounds is the best.

Put litter in bins There is absolutely no excuse for dropping any litter along the trails, yet many trekkers are guilty of this, even if it's only the odd sweet wrapper. However, one piece of paper multiplied several thousand times becomes a significant problem.

Tissues, film cartons and biscuit wrappers are all easily stuffed into a backpack pocket for disposal in a bin at a lodge. You could also help by picking up a few bits of litter generated by other people.

Dispose of excess packaging before arrival Today virtually everything comes wrapped in multiple, sometime unnecessary layers. Expeditions especially will find it more environmentally sound and more economic to plan packaging thoughtfully.

Other pollution
Use the toilet facilities provided Most lodges have toilets which individual trekkers should use. Group trekkers should ensure that the toilets that are dug in their camps are of a sufficient depth and are properly filled in and covered with large stones when the campsite is left.

With the large number of groups there are now so many holes that finding a new space to put a toilet tent can be a problem. This is particularly acute in Tengboche and Gokyo. Toilet blocks specifically for the use of trekking groups are now being constructed throughout the Khumbu.

Bury or burn used toilet paper Nepalis use the ‘water method’ rather than toilet paper so all the pink streamers beside the track are generated by trekkers.

Used toilet paper can easily be burnt, concealed under a rock where it will decompose, or put in a bin that has been provided specifically for this purpose. Some toilets double as compost heaps, their contents, when mixed with leaf matter, eventually being spread on the fields.

As such, don't put tampons into these, but instead wrap them and put them into rubbish bins.

don't pollute water sources In the West the provision of clean drinking water has reduced the incidence of diarrhoea-related diseases to a negligible level. Nepal still has a long way to go but efforts are being made to provide villages with water from uncontaminated sources.

If bathing in streams, don't use soap or shampoo. Do not defecate close to the trail or a stream. If there is no toilet ensure you are at least 20 metres away from any water source and bury your waste and used toilet paper.

Fuel conservation
The total consumption of firewood by trekkers may be less than 0.1% of all the firewood consumed each year in Nepal but its effect is concentrated in a narrow ribbon along the main trails.

Not only is wood used directly by lodges but also by all the porters who carry supplies for the markets. It is true that these porters would, like other Nepalis, use firewood anyway but the majority would do so in their villages away from these busy main trails.

Depletion of the remaining forest cover compounds the already serious erosion problems.

For villages on the Jiri to Namche trail there is no instant solution. Kerosene has to be imported and is not entirely practical for lodge use.

The micro-hydroelectric schemes cannot, so far, generate enough electricity for cooking and the establishment of an extensive national rural electricity grid is beyond the thinking of politicians.

Tree replanting and community forests are, however, now well established and are showing returns.

The best news, however, is that Namche now has the most advanced hydroelectric system in rural Nepal, a 630kw medium-size hydro-scheme.

The lodges and the local people of Namche and the surrounding villages are adapting to cooking on electricity because it is cheaper than a wood-fired stove. One hopes that this admirable project will serve as a pilot scheme for others.

Accelerated erosion
Erosion is a natural phenomenon that creates river deltas and shapes mountains. In some parts of the world, however, it may occur at an accelerated rate that has serious consequences.

The Himalaya are a young range of mountains, still in the process of formation, and erosion has always been considerable here. In the last few decades the problem has been exacerbated by rapid deforestation. The natural ground cover is being stripped away for firewood or animal fodder allowing rain to erode the essential topsoil.

The problem is very serious: Nepal's forests are disappearing at the rate of 3% per year. One hectare of cleared forest loses around 50 tons of soil annually and approximately 400,000 hectares are cleared each year in Nepal.

don't damage plants and stick to the trails In the alpine areas, above the tree line, plants battle to survive in a harsh environment. Trekkers can have a negative effect on these areas. Big boots and yak hooves disturb the topsoil and sliding down a slope can leave scars that never heal.

CULTURAL CONSIDERATIONS

There is no return to the time of traditionality for those who have abandoned it because the first condition for belonging to a traditional culture is that one does not know it
Al Ghazale, 12th-century philosopher

One of the great attractions of Nepal for the first visitors was the fact that the cultures of the many different peoples living here had evolved independently of Western ‘civilization’. Day-to-day life for most people had remained virtually unchanged. Sudden outside influence, however, has brought profound change, particularly in the rural areas popular with tourists.

There is no denying that the West is a technologically advanced society but its superiority over less ‘developed’ cultures does not, necessarily, extend beyond this. A visit to a country like Nepal can be a particularly rewarding experience, especially if you have not travelled much outside the West.

Many things are done differently here but this does not make the methods any less valid and in some cases they may be better.

The Nepalese way of solving problems, for example, is to avoid confrontation which starkly contrasts with the head-on ‘Rambo’ style of the West. The incidence of murder, theft and rape (outside of the family) in Nepal is negligible in comparison to most nations.

Although probably the biggest cultural influences are from Western television and Hindi movies, here are some ways that you can minimize your impact, especially out of the main tourist areas.

Dress decently Dress standards are important despite the fact that they are overlooked by many trekkers. Whilst men may go around without a shirt in the West, this is considered indecent in Nepal. Women should not wear short shorts or singlet tops. See box p51 for further information.

Respect people's right to privacy Ask people before you take their photograph and be considerate when looking for subjects. Many people are afraid that the photo will later be thrown away, an insult and also a possible loss of karma and one of the many reasons that His Holiness the Dalai Lama will never appear on bank notes.

don't flaunt your wealth By lowland and normal Nepali standards, even the poorest foreign trekker is unimaginably wealthy. Nepalis often ask how much you earn; by all means tell them the truth, but qualify your answer by giving them some examples of the cost of living in your country.

don't leave valuables lying around as this is further evidence that you have so much money you can easily afford to replace them.

Respect religious customs Pass to the left of mani walls and chortens where there is a good path. Prayer wheels should be turned clockwise. Remove your boots before entering a gompa and leave a donation; there's often a metal box provided.

Respect traditions There are a number of other customs and traditions that you should take care to respect. To not do so is to insult your hosts.

The left hand, used for washing after defecating, is not considered clean so you should never touch anyone with it, offer them anything with it or eat with it.

The head and top of the shoulders is considered the most sacred part of the body and you should never touch anyone there. Avoid pointing the soles of your feet at a person's head.

If you're sitting with your legs outstretched and a Nepali needs to pass, he or she will never step over you. Move your legs out of the way.

Encourage pride in Nepali culture Express an interest in what people are doing and try to explain that everything is not as rosy in the West as some Nepalis might believe.

In restaurants don't consistently shy away from Nepalese food. Local people are being taught by insidious example that packaged sweets, biscuits, noodles and chocolate are more desirable than local equivalents but in most cases they are actually less nutritious.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

The initial effect of independent trekkers using local lodges was an increase in prices for many commodities along the major trekking routes. The villagers, naturally enough, sought the best prices for their produce and the highest bidders were the trekkers.

In the short term this created a problem because villagers were more willing to sell scarce commodities to trekkers. It should, however, also be considered as a stage in the long development process: demand encourages production where previously there was no advantage in producing more.

If the commodity is not available locally then it must be carried in by a porter who possibly comes from a remote village far from the trail, thus creating work in areas where there may be few employment opportunities.

Teahouse trekking stimulates the local economy. Money from individual trekkers enters the local economy via the shops and lodges but it can have an effect on the whole area.

Porters carry in the additional goods, new buildings may need to be constructed requiring local resources and labour, staff are required at the lodges and local producers have a new market.

Collectively these factors provide more jobs and can lead to a higher standard of living, not just among lodge owners. This is immediately obvious from visiting areas frequented by trekkers and comparing them with villages without this stimulus.

Namche probably has the highest per capita income in Nepal, ahead even of Kathmandu. It has often been said that only 10% of the money stays with the lodge owner, but then the other 90% is spread between the manufacturer/local growers, porters and middlemen, so there are many others who benefit.

Don't bargain for food and lodging These prices are fixed and in most cases are surprisingly reasonable. Wisely, few Khumbu lodge owners will put up with hard bargaining and most will simply suggest politely that you look elsewhere.

Don't give to beggars Some trekkers, embarrassed at the disparity in material wealth between their country and Nepal, have given money to beggars and sweets and pens to children.

They may have thought that they were helping but the opposite is probably true. As well as fostering an unhealthy dependency attitude, begging can in some places be more profitable than earning money by portering or working in the fields.

Giving sweets to children not only encourages them to see Westerners (and hence the West) as bringers of all good things but also leads to tooth decay, until recently quite rare in Nepal.

On the trail you may encounter more creative forms of begging: teenagers asking for funds for their school. it's hard to judge how genuine many of the claims are but remember you don't have to give anything.

You'll be shown a book with names and amounts donated; if the sums are unrealistically large, the solicitation probably isn't genuine.

Trekking in the Everest Region

Excerpts:

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