Keep Out... Come Again

The underbelly of American-styled conservation in the Indian Himalayas.

IN DECEMBER, THE ROAD leading to the Tirthan Valley entrance archway of the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP), a UNESCO World Heritage site in India’s mountain state of Himachal Pradesh, is a potholed mudslide: For miles, a fleet of excavators and tunnel-boring machines are lopping and drilling the mountains to widen and extend the highway. Most of the traffic passing through a big, dark tunnel blasted through the mountain is headed to Manali — the mass-tourist hub of the Western Himalayas, about an hour’s drive farther north.

My partner and I pass through the archway and weave the motorcycle along a cliffside road into the gorgeous, narrow valley. Villages and orchards dot the ridges. The first snow is melting off the roofs, and far below the Tirthan River runs free and fast. This is still the off-beaten path. But around every turn, we see signs that development is on the rise. Guesthouses, campsites, cottages, hotels, and resorts are sprouting up outside the park’s boundaries. Trucks carrying construction material drive traffic off onto the shoulder. On the opposite ridge, a new helipad access road is being carved out. The area appears to be under construction, not conservation.

It seems that by putting this once little-known national park on the global map, conservationists have catalyzed a massive wave of development along its border. And ecotourism, though ostensibly a responsible form of development, looks over here, as one researcher put it, more like “old wine in a new bottle.”

In the two decades since it was formed, the park has displaced over 300 people from their land, disrupted the traditional livelihoods of several thousand more, and forced yet more into dependence on a risky (eco)tourism industry run in large part by outside “experts.” In many ways, the GHNP is a poster child of how the American national park model — conceived at Yellowstone and exported to the Global South by a transnational nexus of state and nonstate actors, continues to ignore the sociopolitical and cultural realities of a place. As a result, protected areas around the world continue to yield pernicious impacts on local communities, and, to some extent, on the local ecology as well. It also raises the question: If protecting one piece of land requires moving its long-time human residents out, developing adjacent land, and flying in tourists from around the world — what is actually being conserved?

IN THE EARLY 1980s, at the invitation of the Himachal government, a team of Indian and international wildlife biologists led by a British researcher named Tony Gaston surveyed the Western Himalayas for a possible location for the state’s first national park. The state government had been eyeing the Manali area, but after a broad wildlife survey, Gaston’s team recommended the Upper Tirthan and Sainj valleys instead.

The ecosystem was less disturbed, home to more wildlife, and thus had “excellent potential for attracting tourists”— especially foreign tourists — who might constitute both a “substantial source of [park] revenues” as well as “an enormous input to the local economy,” the team’s report said.

A rain-fed stream in the Great Himalayan National Park. Given its location at the junction of two of the world’s major biogeographic realms, the monsoon-fed forests and alpine meadows in and around the park sustain a diversity of plant, moss, lichen, bird, and mammal species, many of which are endemic, including blue sheep, the Himalayan goral, and the endangered western Tragopan pheasant. Photo by Varun Bharti.

A western Tragopan (Tragopan melanocephalus). Photo by Kingsubash11 / Wikimedia Commons.

Himalayan goral. Photo by Akhilesh Tambe / Wikimedia Commons.

The proposed 754.4-square-kilometer park included the upper mountain glacial and snow melt water source origins of the Jiwa Nal, Sainj Tirthan, and Parvati rivers, which are all headwater tributaries to the Beas River and subsequently, the Indus River. Given its location at the junction of two of the world’s major biogeographic realms — the Palearctic and Indomalayan — its monsoon-fed forests and alpine meadows sustain a diversity of plant, moss, lichen, bird, and mammal species, many of which are endemic, including the Himalayan goral, blue sheep, and the endangered western Tragopan pheasant and musk deer.

The park’s boundary was strategically drawn so that only four villages needed to be relocated. But this glossed over the problem of resource displacement. To the northwest, the proposed park was buffered by high mountain systems that include several other national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, but the land in and around its southwest boundary was home to about 150 villages with a total population of at least 11,000 people, all of whom were officially dispossessed of the forests they depended on for centuries when the Indian government inaugurated The Great Himalayan National Park in 1999. These villages are now part of a 265.6-square-kilometer buffer, or so-called “ecozone,” leading into the park.

‘India’s alpine meadows have been used by pastoral communities for several hundred years.’

A large majority of these families were poor. Many of them cultivated small parcels of land that provided subsistence for part of the year, and they relied on a variety of additional resources provided by the forestlands in the mountains around their homes to meet the rest of their food and financial requirements. That included grazing sheep and goats in the alpine meadows, extracting medicinal herbs that they could sell to the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industry, and collecting gucchi, or morel mushrooms, that fetched high prices in international markets.

“IN THE INDIAN CONTEXT, the notion that you can have a landscape that is pristine and therefore devoid of humans is an artificial creation,” says Dr. Vasant Saberwal, a wildlife biologist and director of the Centre for Pastoralism, an organization based in Gujarat state that aims to enhance our understanding of pastoralist ecosystems. “India has [long] been a heavily populated country. So, when you think of alpine meadows at 15,000 feet above sea-level, they have been used by pastoral communities for several hundred years. You cannot now go into those landscapes and say we want a pristine alpine meadow. There’s no such thing.”

In keeping with the lingering idea, tracing back to early American conservationism, that pastoral societies destroy their own land, the Gaston team’s original report claimed that firewood collecting, hunting, and especially overgrazing, were degrading habitat within the area. It recommended a ban on grazing and medicinal plant collection in order to maintain the park’s biodiversity.

Indigenous Gaddi tribesfolk typically travel up to the alpine meadows during the summer months to graze sheep and goats entrusted to them by individual families. Photo by Sankar Sridhar.

India’s Wildlife Protection Act, which prohibits all human activities within a national park, does recognize people’s traditional rights to forest resources. Photo by Varun Bharti.

Only a handful of families in the villages around the park still have sheep and goat herds today. Photo by Kinkhab / Wikimedia Commons.

But Saberwal’s research shows that grazing practices in the park’s high alpine meadows — which constitute almost half the park’s area — were likely necessary to maintain its high levels of herb diversity. Before the area was closed off to people, traditional herders of the Indigenous Gaddi tribe would travel up to the alpine meadows with about 35,000 sheep and goats entrusted to them by individual families, and graze them in these meadows for six snow-free months from April through September.

“So, when you talk to people and suggest to people that their use of the park leads to degradation, they say that we have been using these resources for the past 150-200 years,” he says. “They say, if our presence here has been such a threat, then why would there be biological diversity here?”

Saberwal’s findings are consistent with reams of scholarship in recent years documenting how local and Indigenous communities, without external pressures, live convivially with nature.

That is not to say that external pressures aren’t impacting the region. There has definitely been an uptick in morel and medicinal herbs extraction from the park area, especially since the early 1990s when India “liberalized” its economy. Yet today, without adequate enforcement, it remains unclear just how much the park actually helped curtail extraction of these herbs or instead just forced the market underground.

Other threats include poaching, human-wildlife conflicts, and hydropower development. Ironically, a 10-square-kilometer area was deleted from the original map of the GHNP for building of a hydro-power project, underscoring a typical approach towards conservation “wherein local livelihoods are expendable in the interests of biodiversity, but biodiversity must make way for national development,” Saberwal says.

India’s Wildlife Protection Act, which prohibits all human activities within a national park, does recognize people’s traditional rights to forest resources. It therefore requires state governments settle or acquire these rights prior to finalizing a new national park’s boundaries, either through financial compensation or by providing people alternative land where such rights can be exercised. But India’s record of actually honoring these rights has been sketchy at best. In GHNP’s case, the state chose to offer financial compensation to only about 300 of the 2,300 or so impacted households, based on family names listed in a colonial report with census data for the area dating back to 1894. It eventually provided the rest of the villagers alternative areas to graze their livestock, but this land was inadequate and nutrient-poor compared to the grasses in the high alpine meadows. Only a handful of families in these villages still have sheep and goat herds today.

Saberwal, and many mainstream conservationists, says there is an argument to be made for allowing villagers into the park, and not only because it supports their livelihoods. “The presence of people with a real stake in the biological resources of the park can also lead to far greater levels of support for effective management of the park, including better monitoring of who goes into the park, for what, and at what times of the year. Poaching could be more effectively controlled, as could the excessive extraction of medicinal herbs,” he says.

DESPITE STIFF LOCAL RESISTANCE, the forest department — with support from an international nonprofit called Friends of GHNP, as well as the World Bank, which chipped in a $2.5 million loan — developed an ecotourism industry in the area to help local communities adapt.

Eco-development, of course, is the current cool idea for making exclusionary conservation acceptable. On paper, it requires community involvement to create “alternative livelihoods” to reduce locals’ dependence on a park’s resources. So, with the support of Friends of GHNP, the forest department helped form a street theater group. It developed firewood and medicinal herb plantations in an effort to wean villagers off of foraging for these the park. A women’s savings and credit collective called Sahara was set up to produce vermicompost, apricot oil, and handicrafts. The Forest Department also handed out “doles” — stoves, handlooms, televisions, pressure cookers — what Mark Dowie, in his book Conservation Refugees, calls “cargo conservation,” or the exchange of commodities for compliance.

If creating a park cracked the door open to development, minting GHNP a UNESCO World Heritage site flung it wide open.

Yet, the project was mired in corruption and mismanagement. The male director of the women’s collective, for instance, was discovered to be siphoning off the collective’s funds. Meanwhile, local ecodevelopment committees set up to coordinate expenditure on livelihood projects were run by the most powerful people in the villages, usually upper-caste males of the devta (deity) community, and chose to spend the money on things like temple and road repairs. According to a 2001 study of the ecodevelopment project, 70 percent of the funds were spent on infrastructure initiatives of this kind. Much later, in 2002, in an attempt to distance itself from the program, the World Bank concluded ecodevelopment had left “very little or no impact … on the ground.”

In 2014, the park, along with the adjacent Sainj and Tirthan wildlife sanctuaries, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, again in spite of more protests from the impacted local communities. Friends of GHNP wrote the application.

If creating the park cracked the door to development in the Tirthan Valley, minting it a UNESCO World Heritage site flung it wide open.

The Tirthan Valley entrance to GNHP. The influx of tourists has injected more money into the valley than ever before. Photo by Yardian Amron

But many locals say they are are losing opportunities to outside entrepreneurs who come with deeper pockets, digital marketing savvy, and already established networks of potential clientele. Photo by Yardain Amron.

On the economic front, it’s certainly true that the influx of tourists has injected more money into the Tirthan Valley than ever before. And it’s true, too, that many locals, the youth especially, are excited, or at least hopeful, that the industry will improve their lives and alleviate poverty. But on the whole, locals are losing opportunities to outside entrepreneurs who come with deeper pockets, digital marketing savvy, and already established networks of potential clientele.

“That kind of investment and marketing involvement is difficult for locals for figure out,” says Manashi Asher, a researcher with Himdhara, a Himachal-based environmental research and action collective. “Basically, what many locals have done instead, is circumvent local ecotourism policies by turning their properties into homestay or other kinds of [tourist] lodgings and leasing them out to outsiders to run.”

Though there are no official estimates yet, there’s a consensus among locals that outsider-run guesthouses have already cornered a majority of the valley’s tourism revenue. “City-based tourism operators are licking out the cream, while the peasantry class and unemployed youth earn a pittance from the seasonal, odd jobs they offer,” Dilaram Shabab, the late “Green Man” of Tirthan Valley who spearheaded successful movements against hydropower development on the Tirthan river, wrote in his book Kullu: The Valley of Gods.

When I read this quote to Upendra Singh Kamra, a transplant from the northwestern state of Punjab who runs a tourism outfit for fishing enthusiasts called Gone Fishing Cottages, he emphasizes how, unlike at most properties, they don’t lay off their local staff during low season. Some have even bought motorcycles or cars. “Logically, you have nothing and then you have something and then you’re complaining that something is not enough. So it doesn’t make sense for me.”

Many locals see it differently. Narotham Singh, a veteran forest guard, told me he leased his land for 30 years, but now worries for his son and grandchildren. “If they don’t study, what they’re going to be doing is probably cleaning utensils and sweeping in the guesthouses of these people. That’s the dark future.” Karan Bharti, one of Shabab’s grandsons, told me many youth are so ashamed to work as servants on their own land that they’re fleeing the valley altogether.

More broadly, tourism is also a uniquely precarious industry. Global market fluctuations and environmental disasters frequently spook tourists away for years. (The Western Himalayas is primed for an 8.0-plus magnitude quake tomorrow). And when destination hotspots flip cold, once self-reliant shepherds turned hoteliers are left holding the bill for that high-interest construction loan.

Sadly, this is exactly what’s happened. In Himachal, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed just how dependent the state has become on tourism. After the borders were shut in late March, pressure to reopen to salvage a piece of the summer high season was palpable in the press. Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur proposed Himachal advertise itself for “Quarantine Tourism.” The hotel unions shot down the idea as absurd.

THERE’S NO SIGN NOR ROAD to Raju’s Guesthouse. To get to it, you have to cross the Tirthan River in a cable basket or makeshift plank bridge and climb up the opposite bank into a fairytale. Vines climb the dark wood facade. There are flowers, fruit trees, and a fire pit. When I visit, kittens are playing around an old cherry tree and a pack of dogs bark up the steep south face; leopards, I learn, come over the ridge at night sometimes and steal dogs.

Raju’s Guesthouse is one of the few tourist properties in the area that practice anything close to real eco-tourism. But even its owners admit that their business isn’t 100 percent sustainable. Photo by Sandipan Dutta / Alamy Stock Photo.

Raju, in his late sixties, toothpick-thin, and wearing a baseball cap, is the pioneer of ecotourism in Tirthan Valley. He is also Shabab’s son. When I first spoke with him on the phone, he called the park an “eyewash.” What he meant was that most people don’t come to the park for the park. It’s a steep, half-day trek just to the official boundary, and, inside, the trails aren’t marked. Most tourists are content with a weekend kickback at a guesthouse in the ecozone.

Still, if real ecotourism exists, Raju’s comes as close as I’ve ever seen. Food scraps are boiled down and fed to the cows. There’s fishing and birding and trekking on offer. No corporate groups allowed, even though that’s where the big bucks are. And no fume-expelling diesel generator, despite guests’ complaints after big storms. There’s a feeling of ineffable wholesomeness that has kept people coming back year after year, for decades now.

In a 1998 report titled “Communtity-Based Ecotourism in the GHNP,” a World Bank consultant was so impressed by Raju’s that she recommended it be “used as a model for the whole area.” But this was a consultant’s fantasy. Rather than provide support to help locals become owners in the tourism industry, the government and World Bank offered them tour guide, portering, and cooking training. Today, similar second-tier job trainings are part of an $83 million project funded by the Asian Development Bank to develop tourism (mainly by building parking lots) across Himachal.

Varun, one of Raju’s two sons who runs the guesthouse, doesn’t think any tourist property in the area is practicing ecotourism, even his own. People are illegally catching trout for guests’ dinners, cutting trees for their bonfires, and dumping their trash into the river, he says.

In 2018, Varun founded the Tirthan Conservation and Tourism Development Association, a union of local guesthouses that works to “eliminate the commercialization of our neighborhood and retain the aura of the valley.” They do tree plantings, enforce camping bans around the river, and meet regularly to discuss new developments in the valley.

Yet, Varun doesn’t see any way of stopping the development wave. “I mean, it’s inevitable. No matter how much you resist, you know, you’ll have to accept it. The only thing is, we can delay it, slow it down.”

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