Contemporary Human Impacts on Subalpine and Alpine Ecosystems of the Hinku Valley, Makalu-Barun National Park and Buffer Zone, Nepal

Stockpiles of shrub juniper outside of a lodge in Tagnag in 2007.  Following the formation of the Mera Alpine Conservation Group in 2007, the burning of shrub juniper and  dwarf  rhododendron species was almost totally eliminated, as can be seen in the  2009 photograph above. (photos by A. Byers)

Stockpiles of shrub juniper outside of a lodge in Tagnag in 2007. Following the formation of the Mera Alpine Conservation Group in 2007, the burning of shrub juniper and dwarf rhododendron species was almost totally eliminated, as can be seen in the 2009 photograph above. (photos by A. Byers)

Extracts from a paper to be published in Himalaya v33, 2014

By Alton C. Byers

The objectives of our study included enhanced understandings of:

  1. the environmental and social impacts of adventure tourism within the Mera Peak region since 1995 (the date of the first known impact assessment by Cox),
  2. how to better manage environmental harm caused by tourism, and
  3. how to more directly involve local people and adventure tourists in the conservation of high altitude ecosystems.

We examined:

  1. Infrastructure Change since 1995
  2. Sanitation and Garbage
  3. Fuelwood and Timber Harvesting

Abstract:

A reconnaissance of the upper Hinku valley, Makalu-Barun National Park and Buffer Zone, Nepal was undertaken in May, 2007 to determine the impacts of contemporary adventure tourism upon its subalpine and alpine ecosystems. Results showed that visitor numbers, lodges, and other tourist-related infrastructure grew from one structure in 1995 to 129 in 2007. This growth was accompanied by a corresponding and accelerated harvesting of subalpine timber for lodge construction, and of shrub juniper and dwarf rhododendron for use as fuel in alpine tourist lodges. These practices were largely discontinued with the formation of the Mera Alpine Conservation Group (MACG) in 2008, which placed greater restrictions on timber harvesting, mandated the use of kerosene as a fuel substitute for alpine shrubs, and attempted to limit the number of new lodges that could be built in the valley. Repeat sampling of alpine hillslopes suggest that these actions have had significant conservation benefits. However, it is clear that the challenges of promoting high altitude conservation, and of finding renewable, sustainable energy sources alternative to alpine shrubs and kerosene, will remain for the foreseeable future. Strategies that could facilitate beneficial change in current alpine usage practices are discussed in the paper.

Challenges

The data suggest that significant improvements in alpine vegetation cover and groundcover in general had occurred in the interim period between 2007 and 2012, largely attributed to the changes in land stewardship and fuelwood use introduced and enforced by the Mera Alpine Conservation Group.

Satisfying as this progress has been, a number of chronic challenges remain that threaten the sustainable future of the Mera Peak and other alpine ecosystems in the mountain world. The substitution of kerosene for shrub juniper as cooking fuel has proven, in the case of the Khumbu and Mera Peak regions, to be an excellent short-term solution—the stockpiles of shrub juniper once common outside of Tagnag and Khare lodges are now largely absent (see Figures 10 and 11). However, kerosene is neither a renewable nor a sustainable energy source, and like petrol in Kathmandu is subject to frequent shortages as a result of political embargos imposed by India. There is a clear need to develop alternative sources of renewable energy within these frequently visited alpine ecosystems that may include solar, wind, and mini-hydro technologies (Culhane 2011; Byers et al. 2012).

The proper disposal of human waste remains a chronic and as yet unresolved problem that grows in magnitude with each passing year (Lachappelle 1998; Manfredi 2010). In the Mera Peak high camp (6100 m), the situation was reaching unacceptable levels when visited in 2009, and many charpis (toilets) along the main Hinku trail are situated  over the river bed, or within seasonal watercourses, with little thought given to possible freshwater or downstream contamination. Although the impacts of contemporary climate change have yet to be documented for the Hinku valley, recent studies in the neighboring Khumbu valley have identified water contamination as an additional stressor to reduced freshwater supplies brought about by changing precipitation regimes (McDowell et al. 2012)

Solid waste disposal is a third problem that grows in sequence with the popularity of the trekking or approach route (Sherpa 2003; Spoon 2013). As mentioned, tin cans, aluminum beer cans, glass bottles, plastic bottles, and other plastic goods are now burned and deposited in landfills located outside of villages. Local lodge owners refer to these accumulations by the misnomer “burnable garbage,” which is indeed “burned” periodically with little effect prior to being covered with soil. Pits full of aluminum beer cans, glass bottles, and plastic water bottles can be seen within a few minutes’ walk of most villages and lodges. In the Hinku valley and most other trekking destinations in Nepal, lodge owners are not held accountable for these practices, nor are they encouraged to employ alternative solid waste management practices such as recycling, or collection and deportation to Kathmandu or sites outside of the park. Both could conceivably be accomplished if additional fees or deposits were attached to the use of canned and bottled goods, fees that most visitors would assuredly be happy to pay in the interests of sustaining the region’s natural beauty, while promoting a cleaner and healthier environment. At present, the tons of containers and pack- aging that become the solid waste are brought in by porter at lodge owner expense, but remain within the parks, ultimately creating some of the world’s highest landfills (Byers et al. 2011). Programs that build awareness, provide training, and test incentives for lodge owners to re-cycle and/or remove solid waste from the high altitude environment (e.g., deposits on containers) are urgently needed.

Notable progress has been made by certain trekking and climbing agencies, some of which have used percentages of their profits to fund libraries, bridges, or other projects in remote villages. However, these well-intentioned gestures are irregular, geographically dispersed, usually target the sirdar’s (trek supervisor) village, and do little for actual alpine conservation. Likewise, international attention continues to focus on basecamp cleanup expeditions as the ultimate solution to high mountain conservation, when in fact the cleanup results are largely cosmetic, and do little to counter the real problems of ecosystem destruction, groundwater contamination, and environmental pollution (Byers 2005; Associated Press 2008; Byers 2013a, 2013b).

Conclusion

In 1995, the Hinku valley in Makalu-Barun National Park and Buffer Zone was rarely visited by adventure tourists and contained almost no tourist-related infrastructure. By 2007, 129 structures (lodges, porter shelters, camp kitchens, teashops), 28 of which were lodges, were present along the trail from Thukdim (3000 m) to Khare (5000 m). The majority of building activity was concentrated  in the years between 2003 and 2005, or peak of the Maoist insurgency, when the Hinku valley was a Maoist base of operations and local people were encouraged to develop the valley’s adventure tourist potential. The economic benefits of accelerated tourism came at the cost of significant forest and alpine ecosystem disturbance in the form of harvested timber for lodge construction, and destruc- tion of shrub juniper and dwarf rhododendron thickets in the alpine zone for use as fuel for lodges and trekking/ climbing expeditions. In 2007, the Mera Alpine Conservation Group, a local NGO established with the assistance of the newly formed Alpine Conservation Partnership, was created which, in partnership with national park author- ities, enforced restrictions on the harvesting of timber and building of new lodges; replaced shrub juniper and dwarf rhododendron with kerosene as fuel; and improved garbage and sanitation conditions at lodges and climbing basecamps. Significant improvements in the condition of alpine vegetation were observed in subsequent years by research team members visiting the region.

Since its establishment in 2004, the Alpine Conservation Partnership has positioned itself as a unique project that has made innovative and pioneering contributions to the protection and restoration of the alpine ecosystems in three popular climbing and trekking destinations in the Himalaya and Andes. On a pilot scale, the project is refining a model of community-based conservation that may  be applicable to other high mountain regions of the world, helping the people who live in these fragile regions protect the ecosystems from which they derive a substantial pro- portion of their incomes, while strengthening and diversifying their income generating opportunities.  Ironically, it is the direct and indirect impacts of those people professing the greatest love for these high altitude ecosystems— primarily trekkers and mountaineers—who are driving the processes that cause the bulk of the damage, such as the increased use of pack animals, overgrazing, the cutting of tons of slow-growing shrubs for fuelwood by trekking lodges and porters, or turf “mining” for building purposes. The resultant damage is becoming characteristic to most of the world’s spectacular and treasured mountains. Although the bulk of this damage is apparently unintentional, and often unrecognized by the trekker and climber clients, the situation does argue for a greater building of awareness within the tourism community for the range of their direct and indirect impacts on fragile, high mountain ecosystems. Likewise, the outdoor gear manufacturing industry, adventure tourism industry, trekking/climbing agencies, and international mountaineering clubs need to become more meaningfully involved in the protection, conservation, and restoration of the regions from which they ultimately derive their incomes and/or recreational experiences. When accompanied by realistic incentives for lodge owners to play a more active role in the recycling and/or removal of solid waste, as well as protecting the quality of their freshwater sources, these interventions could play a major role in the conservation of fragile alpine ecosystems in perpetuity.

The complete article will soon be available on Himalaya.