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Posts Tagged ‘ecotourism’

Conservation of natural biodiversity is increasingly becoming a challenge in our insatiably materialistic age. Pristine forests are being indiscriminately hacked causing their helpless inhabitants to vanish from the face of the earth. To tackle the issue of wildlife conservation there are many scientific organizations. But seldom does one see high levels of zeal from a local community to protect the forests they once destroyed, especially from a community once dreaded as gun trotting insurgents. Such is the story of Manas Maozigendri Ecotourism society, a group of locals who through their own motivation and dedication started the uphill task of conserving the forests of Manas, without any outside assistance. My two and a half month stay with them as a volunteer was truly a phenomenal experience.

The seeds of this organization germinated from the violent past of the Bodo movement. For many years the Bodos had been suppressed by the state government, forcing them to start a mass political movement for a separate state. This political agitation came to a halt in 1993 after the signing of a tripartite agreement between the Bodo leaders, Central government and State government. But a couple of years after signing the accord, frustrated by the failure of the government to implement the agreement, the Bodos grouped together to form an armed outfit under the banner of Bodo Liberation Tigers to press for their demands.

This was the dark period during which Manas was depleted of its resources. Since the southern boundary of Manas spans across the entire Bodo dominated territory, there was vast deforestation. Due to the complete breakdown of the law and order situation in and around Manas, the locals often took shelter in the forest to escape the atrocities of the policing forces. Taking advantage of this lawless situation, some unscrupulous businessmen started forming organized groups for poaching and felling, which got free access to the park. Some groups of poachers made sporadic attacks on the forest offices causing destruction to most of the protection camps in the park . This grim situation compelled the forest guards to abandon almost all the protection camps. The situation was so perilous that UNESCO declared it as a world heritage site in danger.

Even during these troubled times a small group of Bodo youth from the Chapaguri Koklabari Anchalik Committee in the Koklabari area went ahead with their crusade of conserving Manas. They conducted motivation campaigns at selected areas where tree felling and poaching were rampant, asking the local villagers to refrain from their destructive activities by seeking other means of livelihood. At length, the student leaders of the committee put forward a crucial proposal for the protection of Manas while establishing it as an international tourist destination. The committee members urged their top leaders to place the issue of conserving Manas National Park, making it an international tourists destination, at the negotiating table while the leaders were exercising cease-fire with the Central and State governments. This event marked the beginning of the transition of the Bodo mindset from terrorism to tourism.

In 2003 when the Bodo Accord for creating Bodoland Territorial Areas Districts was finally signed, the issue of restoring Manas National Park whilst making it an international tourist spot was incorporated as one of the special packages within it. Enthused by this development, some people from the Koklabari area came up with the idea of creating a bird watching centre cum tourist spot. Thus in December 2003 Manas Maozigendri Ecotourism Society (MMES) was born with the objective of conserving Manas National Park as also to restore it back to its former glory.

The initial two years were a testing period for the organization, due to limited funding coupled with stiff resistance from the local people. To start with, awareness campaigns denouncing poaching and logging were conducted in some of the fringe villages. The members of the Society personally went and spoke to the families of hardened poachers, explaining to them the ills of the profession. As a result a group of fifty poachers succumbed to the social pressure, giving up their arms to work instead as conservation volunteers with the Society. With the help of these poachers, a survey of the forest was conducted so as to locate the areas where there was maximum poaching and logging. After identifying these areas, patrolling was commenced with volunteers. In the beginning the guards faced lots of hardship as there were no permanent protection camps in the forest. There were instances when just five or six of the volunteers were attacked by a group of fifty loggers, despite which they overpowered the loggers. The society did not even have money to pay remuneration to the guards, but their rations were taken care of. Seeing this level of dedication and commitment, the then park director Mr. Abhijit Rabha gave his complete support to the society, assisting in every possible way. The forest department along with the society joined forces to slowly eradicate all the poaching camps from within the park.

From poachers to protectors

From poachers to protectors

Over the years MMES has increased the gamut of their activities manifold. Currently there are 11 protection camps where the conservation guards stay throughout the year to patrol the national park, covering an area of more than 300 sq. kilometers. To provide logistical support to these camps MMES has built a network of roads extending more than 60 kilometers. Since the road network forms the backbone for the conservation activities, they are regularly maintained. The conservation guards patrol the forest on a daily basis to ensure that there are no illegal activities. Oftentimes they go deep into the forest for two to three days, camping in make shift shelters.

Understanding the importance that the grasslands play in the ecosystem, the MMES annually maintain the grasslands by burning them in a controlled way.  Their consistent efforts have paid off as today there is neither any poaching nor logging happening in the areas being patrolled by them. Wildlife populations have surged back as have the migratory birds. In fact, the resurgence of the elephant population is creating a man- animal conflict where the elephants often damage the houses of villagers. In such cases, MMES is paying the affected villagers compensation to repair the house. Monitoring of endangered species has been reinstated with the assistance of outside researchers. A conservation and monitoring centre of the critically endangered Bengal Florican has been set up in the Koklabari farm. Awareness campaigns are regularly held in fringe villages for educating the people on the importance of conserving the rich biodiversity of Manas. School children are taught to appreciate their rich inheritance by taking them on excursions in the national park.

Manas Jungle Camp

Manas Jungle Camp

MMES’s long cherished dream to make Manas into an international tourist destination was accomplished in 2005 when the first foreign tourist stayed at their Jungle camp.    This was thanks to the initiative by Help Tourism who spent a lot of time,effort and money in working with MMES for developing the tourism capacity over here.   They conducted many trainings and workshops for the MMES boys  to cater to the needs of the tourists.  Besides Help Tourism also put in a great deal of effort on the conservation front, by conducting many surveys for wildlife inventory.   The Jungle camp has five traditional huts made of mud and bamboo which are equipped with modern facilities to accommodate tourists. Open jeep safaris, bird watching, jungle trails, rafting on the Manas, cultural trails are some of the options which MMES offers to tourists depending on their interest. Their idea behind initiating tourism service has been, both complimentary and supplementary to their conservation activities. As a community, they want to show the world that Manas has regained its past beauty and is no more an endangered world heritage site. The greater challenge confronting the MMES has been to shed the perception of being an insurgent community, a view which is still prevalent among many outsiders. The other equally important task on hand has been to fund their conservation activities. With very limited sources of revenue for their conservation activities, tourism has been providing them with the much needed funds.

Taking encouragement from the excellent work being done by MMES in the Koklabari area, six other NGOs with a similar model have started operating in other areas in Manas.  Visibility about their tremendous effort will play an important role in the long term sustainability of their work. What Manas needs today is for us to support and appreciate this phenomenal community initiative, and to assist in dispelling the false notion of the Bodos as a gun-toting community because they are truly a warm and cultured community, their hospitality well worth experiencing.

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Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.

   John Muir

 

Most of us trekkers don’t bother too much about the negative impacts we have on the environment and local economy while trekking in a particular area. Do we care much if our support staff is from outside rather than employing locals, or if porters chop down wood for fuel, or if we defecate anywhere we please. In most cases trekking agencies are the worst culprits hiring their entire support of non locals who don’t care much about the environment. If we wish to save the fragile mountain environment for others to enjoy we will need to change our approach to reduce the negative impacts of trekking.

 

One way to reduce this negative trend is to empower and educate local communities, making them the key stake holders.  TMI, the NGO I have been volunteering for has been doing a very good job in this area. IFS officer Dr Sandeep Tambe who was deputed to TMI as a project manager had been instrumental in eliminating grazing from most places in the Kangchendzonga National Park. Unsustainable grazing practices were having a very adverse effect on the fragile ecology of the park, destroying much of the habitat. To compensate the local communities for the loss of income TMI initiated community based treks/tourism in few of the remote villages, by forming local eco-tourism committees. After a few years of relationship building coupled with oodles of patience and tons of hard work, this initiative by TMI has seen the light of success.

 

In this I found an ideal opportunity to contribute to the people of the mountains, assisting them in their efforts to conserve their vanishing customs and environment. Thus I planned my trip to few of the villages in West Sikkim to interact firsthand with the locals. My failure to take the only taxi leaving for Geyzing in the early hours of morning, proved to be a very expensive affair. Changing three jeeps, waiting endlessly in Ravangla market for a connecting jeep, crossing over a landslide at Legship, missing the final jeep from Darap, walking the final four kilometers to Nambu, was the price I had to pay. At long last reached my destination, Nambu, in the fading light of day. I was greeted very warmly by G.D Subba, my host with whom I had a very long conversation about the local community. Soon we were joined by Bimal, the treasurer of the Yambong ecotourism society who gave me a background of the committee. TMI had worked together with the villagers to make a trekking route, establish camps and build capacity of locals as cooks and guides. To support the marginally poor they made it mandatory for all trekking parties to hire porters and mules from these three villages only. A small percentage of porter, mule, cook, guide charges are retained by the committee as a plough back to maintain the trail, do clean up drives and upgrade infrastructure at the camps. The model seems to be very effective producing good results, which was visible from the statistics that Bimal had. Tired and famished from my adventures, requested for an early dinner, which consisted of a lavish spread on which I feasted.

 

Early next morning I had visit from Lakhu, the president of the society who was to accompany me to Sanghkhola. Contrary to my expectations it was a sunny morning with clear skies, making our walk a pleasant one. The first thirty minutes of our trek were knee wobbling steep as the route descended to the banks of the Rimbik River. From there it skirted the banks of the river, across some fields. Within an hours time we reached the Rimbik village, where under the shade of a mighty oak we took a short break. Lakhu was a great companion, modest, cheerful, soft spoken, holding on to interesting conversation. From Rimbik we traversed a bit further into the valley before hitting the main climb which really wasn’t all that steep.  

Bamboo bridge

Bamboo bridge

  Negotiating the final and trickiest bamboo bridge got us to Sanghkhola in the midday sun. Lakhu took me to Nima’ sister’ house, where I was going to stay for the night. It was a very pretty place overlooking the river, with views of the verdant valley on both sides. It felt amazingly relaxing to be sipping on a hot cup of tea listening to the gently roar of the river. By late afternoon the weather had turned upside down as rain clouds engulfed the valley accompanied by light showers. Despite a turn in the weather we decided to go to Chongri village, the remote last village in West Sikkim. But within five minutes of our walk the rains lashed down with full fury forcing us to take shelter in a house. Thirty minutes of waiting brought us no luck of any kind so we called off our trip, deciding to try our luck the next morning instead. Once the rain showed some signs of abating we left our shelter to walk around the village. Lakhu showed me the local primary school. The rest of the evening was spent reading and chatting away with Lakhu and my hosts’ family.

 

 

 

The clear skies indicated a promise of a fine morning. By nine Lakhu and myself were on our way to Chongri, climbing the steep slopes. The two hour climb passed through perennially forested slopes, enlivened by the chirping of the birds. Was completely captivated by the rich hues of the Fairy Bluebird of which we saw quite a few.  

Views from Chongri

Views from Chongri

 Towards the end of the climb got stupendous views of the valley below, stretching out for many miles.

 

 

 

At Chongri, Lakhu showed me the trekker’ hut, a basic clean one, which had been built from the money they had accumulated. Spent some time meeting the panchayat, went to meet Nima’ parents and  left back for Sangkhola. On Lakhu’ insistence had my lunch before I left for my return to Nambu. The going was quick and easy, but that was only till I reached my final climb from the river bank to Nambu. The climb proved to be quite a killer with its steep continuous gradient. Half way through my thighs were shouting, heart thumping, with runnels of sweat running down my forehead. Every time I looked up I could only see more steps; in what seemed to be a never ending game of snakes and ladders. With wobbling legs I did finally manage to reach G.D. Subba’ house where I stayed the night over.

 

The jeep to Yuksom came to Darap around one in the afternoon so I had plenty of time to while away the next morning. Had a late breakfast or early lunch, whatever you choose to call, for by this time I had got used to the fact that in this land every meal consisted of rice, dal and vegetables which was given a different name depending on the time of the day you ate. At around midday began my march to Nambu which turned pretty entertaining three quarter way through. I was crossed by two guys on a motorbike who halted seeing me walking with a backpack. The two Biharis were pretty amazed to see a crazy guy from Mumbai walking alone in this part of Sikkim.  For twenty minutes they talked non stop about their experience in Sikkim giving me all sorts of tips and advice, while I nodded my head. In all their friendship they offered to give me a lift till Darap, to which I politely refused. That was not acceptable to them, so after five minutes of coaxing me I finally gave into them.  Very anxiously I tried to balance myself as the bike picked up speed, swinging like a balancing scale which had gone haywire. Then came the terrifying movement of crossing a large stream where I was pretty sure we would fall, but by God’ mercy we somehow managed to clear it. With a great sigh of relief I bid my two over friendly companions goodbye as they dropped me to Darap in one piece.

 

The reason for my overnight stay to Yuksom was to meet up with Kinzong. Kinzong is one of those few people from the younger generation in Sikkim, who is taking a leading role in environmental conservation as a long term benefit to the local communities. Being a local from Yuksom he has taken many initiatives to conserve the degrading environment along the Yuksom –Dzongri trail, by educating the local communities as also by getting certain rules enforced for trekkers. He has played an active role in KCC (Kangchendzonga Conservation Committee) which is doing a good job of improving the livelihood of the local communities while protecting the environment. Besides Kinzong is an excellent trekking guide having a good deal of experience organizing and guiding treks in the Dzongri region. I wanted to understand the finer nuances of the business, as also clear the myriad haze of permits involved.  

 

Yuksom looked very different in the light mist and rain, than what I had seen it the previous October. It bore a very desolate look, albeit one which was extremely peaceful and serene. Had the terrific aloo paratha at Gupta’ restaurant for lunch, to my surprise he recognized me even through my thick beard. We spoke for quite some time while  I awaited for Kinzong to pick me up. Spoke to Kinzong the entire evening, our conversation ranging from environmental conservation, community development to the political situation in Sikkim. Got lots of inputs from him regarding organizing treks, about how the Yambong committee could be helped with their endeavor, some of his work in Arunachal with WWF. So absorbed were we that it was nearly midnight before we ended our wonderful conversation. Early next morning left for Gantok, bringing to an end a momentous two and a half month stay in Sikkim.

 

For more information regarding the Yambong trek and the ecotourism committee check their website http://www.yambong.com/

 

You can check the KCC website over here

 

For organizing a trek to Goecha La or in the Yuksom region you can get in touch with Kinzong at kinzong(at)gmail.com

 

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