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.