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Trekking to balanced development

14/08/1992

Trekking to balanced development AT FIRST sight, Gandruk village, which is high up in the middle Himalayas, seems no different from other villages on a popular trekking route in Nepal. Children and dogs scamper about, seemingly oblivious of the mid-day heat. But, on closer scrutiny, differences become manifest. For a start, the village is extremely clean and the abject poverty that is to be seen elsewhere in the country is missing. Though only 9 per cent of Nepal is electrified, Gandruk gets electricity for almost 12 hours a day now and expects to get it throughout the day next year.

Gandruk is the headquarters of the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP), a project that was started in 1986 under a directive from King Mahendra. ACAP's concept is unique and, as project director Chandra Gurung explained, "it is different from other programmes because we involved the people of the area from its very inception in preserving the forest resources of this area." This emphasis on people's participation is the cornerstone of ACAP's philosophy, which requires that a new programme must first be vetted by the people and only then implemented.

In the ACAP project, Chandra Gurung and his staff of about 20 set out to marry natural resource use to a conservation ethic and their success is a compliment to their skills as a lami, a Newari term for a marriage broker.

Until ACAP was conceived, local community interests were rarely considered in setting up a nature park or a wildlife reserve. Not surprisingly, conservation efforts were less than successful as large sums had to be allocated to curb poaching and restrict the entry of people into the reserve.

At ACAP, this strategy was discarded and instead a particular region was earmarked as a "conservation area", with the local community responsible for its development. Since the project began in 1986, empowerment of local communities has moved to centre-stage.

ACAP simultaneously instills the conservation ethic through education and awareness programmes, with equal emphasis being put on economic development. Chandra Gurung explained this succinctly, "In a poor country, we have to think of people's stomachs first." Adds Min Bahadur Gurung, mayor of Gandruk, "In the wake of the project, even the number of government-sponsored development programmes has increased."

Traditionally, the people in the Gandruk area depended on agriculture and seasonal earnings from trekkers, but ACAP now offers them a wider range of earning opportunities. Publicity given to the project has put Gandruk high on the "must visit" list of tourists to Nepal and almost every house in the village now offers lodging facilities. ACAP is also experimenting with mushroom cultivation, though this has still to catch on. The ACAP office in Gandruk also coordinates programmes in three areas -- Siklis, Lowang and Gandruk -- involving community forestry, health, water, education, alternative energy and tourism awareness.

Because the emphasis in all these programmes is on integrated, holistic development, ACAP is criticised by some for spreading itself too thin. Nandita Jain of the University of Michigan, who is completing a doctoral thesis on the ACAP experiment, noted, "The ACAP people have been lucky so far. Here was a dynamic, charismatic leader (Min Bahadur Gurung) who was willing to give the villagers a chance. In other areas, success is unlikely to be so easy."

Jain's point is well-taken, for ACAP has its share of drawbacks. Complains Min Bahadur Gurung, "The project has neglected the farmers. The lodge-owners have been the principal beneficiaries."

Because it consciously follows a policy of positive discrimination, which means only if there is no qualified member from the local community does the group seek help outside the area, project employees tend to belong entirely to the local community. Dibya Gurung, women and development officer of the ACAP project, contended, "This policy facilitates acceptance by the community, which might otherwise be suspicious of an outsider."

There is also a likelihood that as ACAP spreads its wings, it may have to deal with communities less willing to accept new ways. The ACAP staff, though confident, freely admit having made mistakes. During earlier training programmes, Dibya Gurung recalled, participants were given a stipend as an attendance incentive. When this failed to stem falling attendance, it was decided to include only serious candidates who would pay part of the training costs.

ACAP charges each trekker an entry fee of NRs 200 (IRs 121) per visit. As about 80,000 trekkers, including support staff, are expected in the area this year, ACAP stands to collect a whopping NRs 1.6 crore ( about IRs 97 lakh) which greatly reduces its dependence on donor agencies. The authorities have also launched a massive campaign to educate tourists on ecologically-sound trekking techniques.

ACAP now faces a major battle with the Nepali establishment on the development of the Mustang region. Chandra Gurung explained that despite ACAP's opposition, Mustang was opened for trekking. Nevertheless, ACAP has managed to "Bhutanise" the region -- limit the number of trekkers and make the privileged few pay steep trekking fees -- but this is, at best, a stopgap arrangement. For ACAP, Mustang is the litmus paper test of its efforts to promote development with people's participation.

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