The onset of the GHNP Community-based Ecotourism Cooperative – Part 1

By Stephan Marchal, co-founder of Himalayan Ecotourism

I wish to be clear about the purpose of writing this story.
I strongly believe that the development of tourism, in an area like the Tirthan valley, could bolster conservation and sustainable development PROVIDED the locals get united and empowered to have a certain level of control over the businesses related to tourism in an inclusive way.
For this to happen, the locals need a conducive environment for gaining knowledge, raising their awareness and undertaking whatever they feel appropriate for their well-being in a sustainable way.
My experience in supporting the emergence of the GHNP Community-based Ecotourism Cooperative shows very well what a conducive environment is or is not. This story is told so that anyone can learn from my experience and get an idea of what may work and what may not work for promoting sustainable development through tourism in rural India.

Of course there are a lot of persons, officers and organizations involved in this story. I named them only when I feel appropriate to do so, as I do not want to spark a controversy.

As the story is rich in learning I will highlight some conclusions drawn from specific events. They will be all compiled in the last article.

Part 1 – The situation when I came to the Tirthan valley

It was a time when the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) was without a Cooperative for the organization of treks inside the Park.

I settled in the Tirthan valley, just front of the GHNP in the year 2011. It was quite a long journey from the place I used to work as a rural development consultant with several NGOs in the tribal state of Jharkhand, around 2000 km!

But from Jharkhand to Himachal Pradesh I did not forget to bring my love for nature and the rural people with me. And so I should say that I did not decide to settle front of the Great Himalayan National Park by chance. I knew from some readings that there was a kind of troubled relationship between the Park administration and the local community.

How is it that a conservation effort is not warmly welcomed by the local community so close to the pristine wilderness of the Himalayas ? That was intriguing to me, and I thought that perhaps, thanks to my experience with the tribal people in Jharkhand, I could do something interesting to address that particular issue and hence work for conservation and empowerment again.

As my first step was to build my house in the beautiful village of Bihar (yes, like the State), I initially preferred to be a quiet observer of the situation in the valley. I met many people, mostly around my village, but I also met, what a sociologist would call the “big men”, these people who have a higher level of local influence !

Among them I remember to have met a man who was, and still is at the time of writing this article, the director of the local NGO which was initiated shortly after the creation of the Park in 2000. Let’s name him the ‘NGO director’ from now.
Surprisingly, the NGO’s office is located right in the premises of the Park administration in Sairopa, Tirthan valley. I never saw before a Non-Governmental Organization who settled so close to a government institution, but anyway… Let’s name it ‘the Sairopa NGO’ from now.

The director had a vision that the revenue of tourism (along with other income generating activities) could compensate the locals for the losses caused by the creation of the Park. Yes, you read it right, the creation of the Park was associated with a substantial loss for the local community as they were not allowed to enter the Park area, rich in natural resources, anymore.

Trying to understand how they were trying to bring tourism as an alternate source of income for the locals, the ‘NGO director’ explained me that the main tourism activity is trekking into the Park. He further explained me that their main difficulty is to reach directly the customers. They have no clue about what marketing is, and so, for the same, they are dependent on a private company which actually set the rules of the business since they have a kind of monopoly. Trekking was supposed to be the business of the local thanks to the NGO, but actually it appeared to be the business of a dominant local private company – let call them the ‘private company’ from now.

I remember very well the tone of the trembling voice of the ‘NGO director’ when he said to me: “we do not like to work with such people” as he, unfortunately, had no other choice. Later on, after discussing with many other people, including the first Park director that I met in Shimla, I understood that in a few words the ‘NGO director’ actually painted the picture quite well !

Some persons who had key roles in the making of the GHNP – I will talk about them in the next article – have trusted that the ‘private company’ could bring genuine ecotourism in the Park, but instead, it seemed that they had set up their business in a very classic way, the simple ‘maximization of profits’ way, keeping less opportunity for the locals. In the same time they had cleverly arranged the Sairopa environment, as well as the internet environment related to the GHNP, so that nobody could take their place. They proclaimed themselves to be the only authorized ecotourism operators for trekking into the GHNP, as mentioned very clearly on their website. This information is fake, and I realized that “faking” has been a continuous strategy to promote their business whatever the adverse consequences it may cause to the locals.

This highlights an inherent problem to any unregulated industry environment. Any business designation should not be self-proclaimed but made available by the administration only to the companies that comply with a set of strict criteria. Otherwise there is a significant risk of having private players taking advantage of the situation at the expense of the locals, the environment, the customers and the competitors who do their work sincerely.
I personally don’t trust anymore any business designations like ecotourism, homestay or anything of that sort in India.

My next step was : let’s go and trek the GHNP!

I brought a group of Belgian tourists in the area and I asked the ‘NGO director’ to organize a trek in the GHNP for us. I was astonished to see how the local men organize treks. They need so much of staff ! Although it is very different from what a European is used to – the solo alpine style – it is actually a great experience to be in a group with locals who seem to enjoy the trek and our company. And above all, the treks offer good employment opportunity, which is a very good point in our context.

Of course I took this opportunity to talk about the trekking business with our staff. Quite spontaneously they depicted to me a more detailed picture. In short : before a trek, they are called independently to be hired for a specified number of days. After the trek, there are paid for the number of days according to the daily wage in force. That’s it !

Well I thought, this is confirmed : as it is, the tourism business is not the business of the locals, as they are only daily-wage earners, and so there are very little chances that this will compensate the local community for the losses caused by the existence of the GHNP…

On the last day of the trek we had a break at the Park gate, and I suggested the staff, my new friends, to share their numbers so that we can meet again and have further discussions with more people.

And that’s what we did.

At the first meeting they were around 20. We sat together at the Forest dept. complex in Sairopa. Very soon, I realized that they had all come to … listen to me. What a foreigner who speaks some Hindi, and who had taken an interest in the trekking related issues, would have to say ?

As an experienced social worker I tried to keep myself as silent as I could so that they could speak more. But there was no words from their side at all. They had come to listen to me so I had to talk…

I remember that I carefully brought the idea that if they get associated, if they show themselves united, they would have better control over the trekking business and ultimately better income. On their silent face I could somehow read : that sounds good but how could we do that ? Stop dreaming, man !

So I suggested that we meet at least once in a month, and that at the next meeting I shall come with some more practical ways of achieving this idea.

At the second meeting they were around 25.

From my research I found that the cooperative model was most likely the most appropriate form of joining efforts in our context. And so I introduced the concept to them with the help of Indian volunteers. And this time, at least, I could hear them whispering between them. They confirmed that the idea is worth exploring and we agreed that at the next meeting we will try to progress in that direction. Hooray !

Two weeks later we met again, but we decided to meet somewhere else. The meeting was held outside, near Gushaini, closer to their home and in a more neutral “political” environment. About 30 participants had come.

Believe me, on that day I could barely say a few words as their motivation towards the project turned them into a very noisy group of friends and future members of a cooperative society.

The most important work of the catalyst was done, the social reaction started, and with it, a lot of challenges that we never foresaw.

On that day, the leaders of the cooperative were selected. Keshav, as President, Tara Chand as Secretary and Pratap as Treasurer.

Of course, during these weeks of discussion, the question of marketing was raised quite often. How the cooperative will get business ? We had, and still have, a plan that we need to convince everyone who organize treks in the GHNP to do it through the cooperative. But understanding that this will not happen overnight, I was given the responsibility of bringing customers.

Gradually this commitment toward the cooperative became Himalayan Ecotourism.

The next articles about the onset of the GHNP Community-Based Ecotourism Cooperative are :

  • The Friends of the GHNP
  • The Great Himalayan National Park Administration
  • The GHNP is a World Heritage site
  • The dark side gets united against the Cooperative
  • The Coop survives but not unscathed
  • A better future
  • Set of advice for promoting a grassroots organization in the field of tourism

I have decided not to publish these articles for the time being, as some stories with other players in the game have not yet come to an end.

Follow us to be informed when these articles will be publicly available.

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