Sagarmatha National Park’s “burning-melting” Problems

Breaking a fresh cup at the recently opened Illy cafe in Namche Bazaar.

Brewing a fresh cup at the recently opened Illy cafe in Namche Bazaar in Khumbu.

It is lunch hour and the Illy Café is brimming with guests. Not the one in Kathmandu, not even the one in Lukla. Lakpa Sherpa, who started Aashraya Foundation Nepal, is about to have his lunch at the brand new Illy Café in Namche Bazaar (altitude: 3,450 meters). Other guests sip hot drinks and chat, or use the WiFi.

The previous evening, four young girls whose wardrobe included skinny jeans and bright sneakers, came in for Hot Chocolate and spent time playing with their cell phones, looking at a glossy magazine, taking pictures of themselves, whispering to each other and occasionally giggling.

They were locals of Namche but students at the Khumjung High School, about an hour further north.

In early November, as flights resumed in the region after a weeklong weather-related delay, more than 700 foreigners were registered entering Namche on a single day – a record.

The walk to Namche, a mix of narrow and open ledges along hillsides and on ridges, and even on a riverbed, hardly indicates what awaits a traveler once that final three-hour uphill climb is completed: 24-hour ATM machines, cafes and bakeries, restaurants and bars not unlike those of Kathmandu’s tourist center Thamel, and high-end mountaineering apparel-related stores of brands like Sherpa and Mountain Hardware.

A mountain apparel store in Namche.

A mountain apparel store in Namche.

The village, where the Sagarmatha National Park’s headquarters is located, offers a sense of cosmopolitan luxuries in the Himalaya.

This Café is but a recent example of the urbanization of an otherwise remote region that has rapidly developed as the Gateway to Everest in the last 50 years. And tourism has helped make Namche home to one of the wealthiest Sherpa communities.

But that very tourism comes at a cost, too; namely, in forest wood use for fuel as well as construction.

Because of its geography, it is difficult to imagine Namche growing in size drastically, if not in seasonal density. But the demand for energy will continue to rise.

Even those who work with the local Namche Youth Club, a popular proactive group that helps the community with everything from garbage management to setting up rest houses for porters, is uncertain of how to tackle the problems.

Despite the declaration of the region as part of Sagarmatha National Park in 1976, and strict guidelines pertaining to firewood collection and timber production, growing demand for these materials has made it difficult for locals to always follow the rules.

Regions south of Lukla, such as Phaplu, have undergone deforestation while Lukla and regions to the north continue their forest conservations efforts but feel their timber needs.

But at other times, it is also a simple matter of survival.

“If a family needs more wood than what can be collected in those 15 days, then there is nothing to do but collect more wood,” a local explained. But years of conservation efforts and campaigns have made locals more careful. “But even if they collect wood outside of the permitted time frame, they still make sure it’s dead wood.”

The declaration of buffer zones and increased local participation, many said, had helped conservation efforts a lot more.

Lakpa is in his late 20s and belongs to that group of young and educated Sherpa community who has spent time outside of his home village and come back better informed, more empowered, and quite motivated to do something for Khumbu, a trajectory that has been established by at least one generation of Sherpas before him.

Lakpa, with Aashraya Foundation Nepal supporters from Austria who travelled to Khumbu to see the foundation's work and the people it affects.

Lakpa, with Aashraya Foundation Nepal supporters from Austria who travelled to Khumbu to see the foundation’s work and the people it affects.

And it was witnessing deforestation in Lukla some years ago that made Lakpa realize what he wanted to do next: plant trees, lots of them.

For him, however, it is not enough to only mobilize the locals. If tourists are a reason for higher demand of wood, then he also sees them as potential tree planting partners to offset their own travel’s carbon footprint.

Drawing as many people from as many walks of life as possible, all of whom either live, work or travel in the region, AF Nepal managed to establish a program that even the local Community Forest User Groups have found easy to support.

The Foundation’s goal is to eventually plant and help grow 100,000 trees in the region, and have already planted 10,000.

A stove in a local tea shop near Namche.

A stove in a local tea shop near Namche.

Childreach Nepal helped the Foundation find footing, while private companies like Tara Air have also been an early and consistent corporate supporter of their programs.

AF Nepal has also found supporters in foreign countries, and Lakpa makes it a habit of not just accepting their support but inviting them to Nepal so they can actually participate in the work being done (www.af-nepal.org).

It is these kinds of actions that will help conversation efforts here but the underlying problem of growing energy and timber needs remain.

Hydro projects in the area have significantly helped meet the general energy needs but not for cooking. There is talk of building a gas depot but no one is sure when that might happen, if at all. Solar power is used successfully, if in limited capacities, for lights and water heating purposes.

But what if the region invests in briquettes made from biomass? It offers a potential to both remove firewood from the equation and be a healthier for the user too, not just in the Khumbu region but also in Nepal’s entire Community Forest User Group network.

The production process would create employment opportunities as well as keep a check on the forest on a regular basis.

To take these efforts one step further, enforcing a policy where each new home builder is required to plant a set number of trees in the region would probably help offset a significant amount of timber use.

After all, the model cannot be ending the use of forest and the growth of a community, but rather doing both in the most sustainable way.

And in order to make the entire process more feasible, perhaps it could be further explored to see if the whole efforts can be tied up to the Reducing Emissions through Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) initiative which is already being undertaken in other community forests in Nepal.

A fraction of the tens of millions of dollars that the Nepal Government receives annually as Climate Action funds could possibly jumpstart briquette-making pilot projects here, or other ideas worth exploring to make the regions more sustainable in their relationship with forest resources. But allocation and use of those funds remain largely opaque, as recently reported by BBC Nepal’s Navin Singh Khadka.

Namche Bazaar.

Namche Bazaar.

There remains the larger force at play in putting the Sagarmatha National Park in peril: climate change. Recent studies reveal worrying trends in glacier bodies around the world: Nepal has lost 21% of its glacier cover in the last 30 years while Bhutan has lost 22%. In the French Alps, the loss stands at 25% while the Chacaltaya Glacier in Bolivia is all but gone.

In Khumbu, even if its Sherpa community finds a way to deal with their habitat’s “burning” problem, it has to wait on the world to deal with its “melting” problem. Unfortunately, the results of the recent climate negotiations, including Durban this year, suggest that the wait may be long and perilous.

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