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Mountain Shepherds – Leading Community-Backed Tourism In The Garhwal Himalayas

Ecologically sustainable wildlife tourism is best handled by local communities and the homestays run by Mountain Shepherds in the villages of Lata and Tolma in the Dhauli Ganga valley in Garhwal illustrate just that. Abutting the wild and pristine Nanda Devi National Park, Mountain Shepherds is an offshoot of the Nanda Devi Campaign for cultural survival and livelihoods spearheaded by the Marcha Bhotia community of this valley. You stay in small but comfortable traditional village homes, and enjoy some delicious local cuisine prepared by your hosts. The organisation even arranges for treks in the deodar and birch forests of the national park with local guides who know the local flora and fauna like the back of their hands. Learn more about this interesting model of community-backed tourism.

Harshmani Bhatt, 25, is a young lad from Uttarkashi. This simple village boy is a high school graduate and had no skills attached to him until he joined Mountain Shepherds (MS). He was trained at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM) at Uttarkashi and has been working with the MS as a guide since 2006. In a good trekking season (June-October) he says he earns about 12,000 to 15,000 and sometimes more. But, more than that, he is glad about the fact that he is one of the 11 full timers in MS who own 12 per cent of the company.

Thirty-year-old Narendra Singh from Lata village is one of the ‘boys’ who has been with MS since the start of the company and today has moved up the rank as one of the directors in MS. A graduate in geography, he is a guide and also trains volunteers. He makes Rs 500 a day when he works as a guide and earns more as a trainer. He is also a shareholder in the company.

A view of the Garhwal Himalayas
A view of the Garhwal Himalayas

Mountain Shepherds initiative is all about grassroots effort to evolve a new model of community-owned tourism and sustainability of livelihoods in the Garhwal Himalayas.

It’s on my first trip to the Garhwal Himalayas in 2007 when I was trekking the Nandadevi Sanctuary, against the backdrop of the spectacular 7,816-metre (25,643 feet) Nanda Devi peak – the second highest peak in the Indian Himalayan range – that I met the Mountain Shepherds(MS) and through them learnt about community-based tourism and sustainability of livelihoods in villages.

Lata Village, where MS was initiated
Lata Village, where MS was initiated

But, before I tell you about the Mountain Shepherds, let us take a peek into the history that has a direct bearing on the present. The Nanda Devi Sanctuary Trek retraces the pioneering steps of mountaineers Eric Shipton and H. W. Tilman through the Garhwal Himalayas in 1934.

It’s their exploration of the inner sanctuary that set the stage for all subsequent mountaineering expeditions. Till 1982 though, the entire region around Nanda Devi was declared a national park and all human activity banned inside the inner sanctuary. The well-meaning conservation efforts had a devastating impact on the local economy.

Tholma Village, another base of the Mountain Shepherds
Tholma Village, another base of the Mountain Shepherds

Against this backdrop, the Nanda Devi Campaign, led by the locals was launched in 1990s. The campaign was the struggle of the Bhotiya community, an Indo-Tibetan tribe, to regain forest rights in their homeland – the upper reaches of the Himalayas.

In 2002, almost two decades after the government banned tourism in the region to preserve its ecology, Sunil Dutt Kainthola, a psychologist and Dhan Singh Rana, a community leader from Lata village in Chamoli district, joined hands with people from the nearby villages in the region to launch the Mountain Shepherds initiative.

Their primary objective was to improve the living standards of the Bhotiyas by promoting eco-friendly adventure tourism. Says Kainthola, the head of Mountain Shepherds, headquartered at Lata village in Chamoli district:

We are trying to evolve a model of community-owned tourism where the community is not a mere beneficiary but among the main stakeholders in the tourism enterprise of the region.

To this end, Mountain Shepherds directly plans treks to the sanctuary and other places in the Garhwal Himalayas including skiing in Auli. Many of these packages involve long treks with home stays that allow tourists to take in the breathtaking sights in that part of the Himalayas.

Porter  Kundan Singh, who walked with Bill Aitken
Porter Kundan Singh, who walked with Bill Aitken

The idea behind this initiative is that the locals want to take control of the tourism in the area they belong to. And, MS ensures that local culture and way of life is showcased to the tourists.

In order to get the local boys and girls involved, MS started with training them at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM) at Uttarkashi to become local guides, porters and technical experts in search and rescue operations during trekking expeditions in the Garhwal Himalayas. These locals are well versed with their homeland and its history and most of them are able to converse well with the trekkers.

One of their campsites
One of their campsites

The trained boys pledged that they will develop tourism as envisaged in the Nanda Devi Declaration, which chalked out the biodiversity conservation and eco-tourism guidelines in 2001. Says Kainthola: “The boys who currently operate full time with Mountain Shepherds have eventually become partners in Mountain Shepherds”.

And how is that? MS started as a co-operative initiative but since the local youths wanted to become a part of the initiative and own the company, six years later Kainthola decided to convert the organziation into a Private For-Profit Orgaization and the boys, majority of whom are Bhotiyas, own 12 per cent of the company.

Today, MS has built capacities of more than 70 youth (boys and girls) from remote areas in a variety of skills necessary for responsible tourism in the Himalayas ranging from search and rescue operations, emergency medical response, life saving techniques, trekking guides, yoga and cooking.“The core team of Mountain Shepherds has 30 to 35 boys and around 18 of these work full-time with us,” says Kainthola

Kitchen staff Lakhpat rests after trekkers have had their morning breakfast
Kitchen staff Lakhpat rests after trekkers have had their morning breakfast

Talking about the performance of the company Kainthola explains that MS has guides and cooks accompanying trekkers.”In the first year, we had just about 15 tourists and earned Rs 60,000 to Rs 70,000,” he adds. In 2011-12, Mountain Shepherds had over 100 tourists and revenues of Rs 27 lakh.

Earlier, most of the trekkers were foreigners but now Indians account for half the number. The operating profit margins of the company are about 40 per cent, according to Kainthola. These profits have been used by the company to further expand to buy campsites in the region and also take a mountain lodge on lease at Auli which it has refurbished to call it Shepherds’ Devi Darshan lodge.

Local Spice - Chillies
Local Spice – Chillies

An interesting feature is that the tourists are given the option of choosing home stays owned by villagers or living in camps. This is an additional source of income for the villagers apart from direct sale of handmade carpets and woolen products and mule services for treks.

To further give the local community a boost, MS has also started an e-commerce portal called ‘Angwal’ through which it sells ethnic handicraft products, local spices and herbs, and local language books. “We have made a beginning and the response has been good. But, it will take a while to establish itself,” says Kainthola.

MS porters at Tholma village, one of the Homestay villages
MS porters at Tholma village, one of the Homestay villages

When MS talks of community-owned tourism it has also made sure to minimize the ills of tourism. The first step in this direction has been to set up a systematic garbage management system. The exposure of local communities is increased through direct interaction with visitors and through participation in tourism fairs.

MS is not stopping just at these. In the last one year it has realized the need for more specific training in mountaineering such as emergency medical courses, global safety standards courses that is currently not offered at NIM. To this end, it has now set up its own institute called ‘The Nandadevi Institute’ to impart international standard training to the locals as well as the outsiders. The trainers are called from the US for specific courses. The courses are generally for 10 days and Rs 30,000 is charged. The institute is getting both local as well as foreign students.

First Campsite set up by MS at Kannuk on the way to Nandadevi Santuary trek
First Campsite set up by MS at Kannuk on the way to Nandadevi Santuary trek

Mountain Shepherds has thus transformed from a mere seasonal trekking company to become a good example for community-owned adventure tourism company. The future plans involve improving infrastructure to strategic locations, expanding the network of people and promoting the capacities of youth in other tourism potential areas.

Anusha Subramanian started her journalism career 17 years ago as a general news reporter with Mumbai’s leading tabloid ‘Mid-Day’. She has worked in the past with The Observer of Business & Politics, now defunct, Business Standard, Hindustan Times and Business Today from where she recently quit as its Associate Editor. She bagged the British Chevening Scholarship in 2012 for the South Asia Journalism programme. In the same year she also bagged the Press Club’s National Award for Excellence in journalism for her investigation into how environment clearances are given out for projects. She has also been interviewed by CNN’s South Asia bureau and BBC Radio 4, London as a media expert talking about the Indian M&E sector.Anusha is a trained mountaineer and when she is not writing she is climbing mountains.
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