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The Planet

The Planet
October 1998 Volume 5, Number 8

Conservation or Consumption? Trekking the Fine Line

by Sarah Fallon

I'd never been camping before, but that didn't stop me from signing up for a 29-day Sierra Club trek through the Dolpo region of Nepal.

I didn't know anything. Nothing about packing for a four-week camping trip, nothing about walking for 10 miles a day, nothing about climbing 17,000-foot mountain passes. I did know, from leader Cheryl Parkins' information packets, that the main environmental problem in Nepal is deforestation, fueled primarily by a booming population harvesting wood for cooking and heating. My first camping trip, and no campfire.

Visitors to foreign countries walk a sometimes precarious line between enjoying a relatively untouched area and destroying it, and trekkers to Nepal are no exception. While people in Nepal know there is tourist money to be made off pristine, preserved mountain regions, travelers strain these fragile environments by bringing with them hordes of porters and kitchen staff, who eat village provisions and use often-scarce firewood for cooking and warmth. (Westerners are not allowed to make campfires, so participants' food is cooked on kerosene stoves, and they've got their fleece to keep them warm.)

So conservation measures show up in unexpected places, like weight limits.

Folks on Parkins' trip are allowed to bring only 22 pounds of gear for a porter to carry. (Each porter carries a total of about 70 pounds.) This is considerably less than what other outfitters allow, but less gear means fewer porters, which in turn means reduced firewood consumption. Other outfitters have also been known to tote along tables, chairs, enormous dining tents - unnecessary gear that can double the number of porters on a trek.

I didn't really get the concept of packing light, because I didn't understand that my duffel bag would be weighed and whatever exceeded the 22-pound limit would end up in a locker in Kathmandu or on my back. So four of the seven books I brought stayed in Kathmandu, and I might as well have left them all - I didn't feel much like reading when I could watch the Himalayas crash like slow waves over arid 14,000-foot valleys.

Trip leaders are responsible for the degree of conservation focus on their trips, though the Club's "Emerald Guidelines" cover the basics, like asking leaders to encourage local conservation efforts, use appropriate fuel sources and eschew products that exploit endangered species and habitats.

Parkins' focus was on the well-being of the Dolpo region, where the environment, community development and education are inextricably linked. Thus biodiversity isn't just a nice catch phrase for greenies, but a crucial part of a village's survival and economic health. So our medicinal-plant walk through the forest surrounding Phoksumdo Lake became a show of support for a diverse forest and a village with the education to display it. But then again, if too many trekkers and their attendant entourage were to show up in an area and demand to see its wide range of medicinal plants, they could take an irreversible toll on the delicate balance of village economy and forest health.

I did get a campfire on the second to last night. Ferocious biting gnats at dusk drove several porters away from a fire they had going, and they didn't return after the cold moon rose and the gnats had turned in. So I sidled over to the small blaze and indulged in what I never expected would become a guilty pleasure.
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