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Environment

Sep 13, 2018

Adventure Tourism in India Leading to Deaths and Massive Environmental Degradation

Litigation against mass trekking operations has led to a ban on nearly all mountain tourism in Uttarakhand, leaving 100,000 jobless and an industry without a future. But this doesn't solve the problem or punish those responsible.

WRITTEN BY

The Outdoor Journal

Trekking and outdoor recreation in India need quality standards, regulation and oversight, not bans.

In a recent hearing at Nainital, Uttarakhand’s High Court banned overnight treks at alpine meadows across the state, one of India’s most important Himalayan destinations, and limited tourism to 200 visitors at a given time, citing ecosystem preservation as its rationale. The ban is an overactive reflex to recent trekking accidents that have resulted in deaths, as well as a mounting degradation of the Himalayan ecosystem due to mismanaged waste.

The impact of this ban is massive. An average 200,000 trekkers visit Uttarakhand each year. Some of India’s iconic Himalayan peaks are in this state, many of which have seen world-famous ascents, such as the epic ‘Meru Sharksfin’ climb in 2011 by American climbers Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk. Dozens of trails, treks and natural sites are renowned internationally, and have been the subject of books and documentaries. This includes the mysterious Roopkund glacial lake, now a critically degraded high-altitude trek, linked to the initial litigation. Over 2,000 adventure companies cater to this visitor demand by employing guides, porters, cooks and other staff while contributing to local hotels, transportation and village tourism. Now, all of the sudden, these people who depend on mountain tourism are out of work – with no attempt made to solve the actual problem of poorly managed mountain tourism.

Ambitious but Inexperienced Indians Re-Discover the Outdoors

Now, all of the sudden, these people who depend on mountain tourism are out of work.

The Indian Himalayas, as well as the lower, southern ranges and forests, have always been stepped in history and legend. With the opening of India’s economy from the late 1990s onwards, a new generation finally started having the financial ability to explore these mountain regions recreationally. Constantly growing numbers of young Indians are keen on getting into the outdoors for the first time. These young enthusiasts, so eager to capture an adventurous looking selfie for their Instagram feeds, are not adequately educated, prepared or aware of environmental issues. According to Vaibhav Kala, Founder of Aquaterra Adventures and Committee Chairman of The Adventure Tour Operators Association of India, “with no ethical understanding of ‘Leave No Trace’ principles, and scant overall outdoor experience, first-time trekkers began to tramp trails high and low.” When deciding which operator to book with, low-priced tours look appealing to them because they are ignorant of environmental logistics. They’re not able to recognize a poorly run tour with improper carrying capacities within ecological sensitive zones, unsanitary toilet ratios and hazardous waste management.

Akshay Kumar, CEO of Mercury Himalayan Expeditions for over 20 years and a previous president of ATOAI, has also been outspoken about the dangers of mass trekking in India. “Unfortunately with the boom in the domestic adventure travel market, India has witnessed an uncontrolled growth that has reached dangerous proportions. Mass trekking, overcrowded trekking routes, piles of garbage on the trail, low-cost camping and complete disregard for safety and environment, eventually leading to accidents, deaths and destruction of our Himalaya”, he said in a recent LinkedIn post.

The influx of nascent trekkers has led to recent deaths over the 2017 and 2018 climbing seasons. In hindsight, many of these tragedies appear preventable due to treatable issues such as poor health monitoring under extreme conditions and general inexperience.  Vipin Sharma, founder of Red Chilli Adventures, who has been guiding treks for over 20 years, can spot this inexperience from a mile away. “Before these companies entertaining mass tourism came into the picture, we never heard of anyone dying while trekking. It is ‘soft’ adventure; you don’t expect people to die. It’s not the same as serious mountaineering. The reason why it happens is because the companies don’t pay attention to safety standards and sanitation, and target people who have never trekked before who end up showing off and taking pictures,” said Sharma in an interview with The Outdoor Journal.

Shady Operators Take Advantage of the Ill-Prepared

At the same time, due to weak regulations and poor governance, several blameworthy operators are taking advantage of the situation by running poorly managed, poorly executed trips in large numbers with zero regards to safety standards or the environment. These few culpable trip-runners are creating havoc for the good actors that promote responsible tourism; as well as for their clients, who are dying. In addition, the environment suffers under the weight of mass traffic and tourism into its pristine ecological zones.

“Only one forest guard sits at the head of the trail and collects money for camping, and keeps no check on what people are doing.”

Over the past two decades, Sharma has noticed how the influx of mass tourism degrades the camping grounds. “With fixed camping, you’ve got lots of people in one place. It’s only the people who move, while the tents and food rations stay in one place. If anyone gets a chance to look around these tents in the camping area, it’s all filthy and full of human waste and garbage. Traditionally, not more than five to ten people move from one place to another, with their stuff AND garbage, and camp only for a night,” says Sharma.

First-time trekkers might not realize the increased danger these imprudent operators pose. Budget tours offer inexperienced guides, with fewer guides per trekker. They lack proper safety equipment and training. The quality of food is questionable. And the low ratio of toilets to guests poses health concerns and ecological damage.

In addition to safety concerns, the reckless operators are harming the mountain ecology. Fixed camps damage the ecosystem. And poor human waste and garbage disposal is deleterious to the overall environment and impacts any future trekking experiences.

Impact of the Ban – Overbroad

Due to a lack of action by India’s government, the judiciary stepped in to impose a blanket ban on all adventure activities above the treeline. On the heels of an Uttarakhand rafting ban due to mass tourism concerns, the judgement is partly in response to a public interest litigation (“PIL”) filed by a local society, registered in one of the worst-affected regions, against the State of Uttarakhand. The litigation sought the removal of permanent cement structures and the cessation of commercial grazing, but not a complete ban on overnight treks.

The overbroad ban renders all those involved in adventure tourism and mountaineering expeditions immediately jobless. The high court offered no timeframe for baseline standards to lift the ban. Thus, the livelihoods of over 100,000 people depending on mountain tourism have no timeline for recovery. It also doesn’t do anything to address the core problem – some operators simply began to promote treks in neighbouring regions that the Uttarakhand court has no jurisdiction over (80% of the Himalaya are in India, spanning 12 states).

According to the Adventure Tour Operators Association of India (“ATOAI”), the capricious judgments that arrest overnight trekking activities “are not only affecting the socio-economic health of people of Uttarakhand but also to the reputation of tourism of the state of Uttarakhand.”

Trekking in the Uttarakhand provides a deep cultural and spiritual connection for Indian people.

The ATOAI also feels that the court’s orders are going to thwart future generations of climbers, in a state known for one of India’s top mountaineering schools, and for raising the most Everesters in the world. “What are we going to tell the youth and future climbers of our country who graduate from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarkashi, Uttarakhand? That you can learn to climb but you can never climb at home, that your state does not permit this sport?”, the ATOAI asked rhetorically in a Press Release.

Read Next on TOJ: A Woman’s Account of a Mountaineering School in Kashmir

Trekking in the Uttarakhand provides a deep cultural and spiritual connection for Indian people. Every 12 years, thousands of pilgrims attempt the 280 km trek across Uttarakhand, passing through the alpine meadows and performing ritual ceremonies. Although it’s considered to be one of the toughest pilgrimages in the world, this year, over 10,000 devotees made the attempt.

Responsible Tourism is Needed

The High Court’s blanket ban is too broad – it will force tour operators, workers, hoteliers and villages to migrate, without addressing the core problem of mass trekking operations in a growing economy by unscrupulous actors. Instead, Uttarakhand’s state government should be given the reigns to manage the situation correctly by permitting responsible tour operators and disabling bad actors. Certainly regulation, along with regular education and training can reduce the degradation to the alpine meadows associated with tourism.

“What we need is a policy of “leave no trace behind.” There should be a cap on the number of people allowed on each trail and fixed camping shouldn’t be permitted. Additionally, we need stronger monitoring. Right now, there is only one forest guard who sits at the head of the trail and collects money for camping, and afterwards keeps no check on what people are doing. We need well-defined rules and strong monitoring to ensure that the rules are being followed. That’s the only way we can keep our mountains beautiful,” shares Vipin, who takes less than ten people on each trek and never camps for more than a night.

From unreported deaths, to unsustainable human activity and environmental degradation. India’s national heritage is at stake. Read all of Vaibhav Kala’s opinion piece by clicking the image. Committee Chairman of Adventure Tour Operators Association of India and founder of Aquaterra Adventures, ranked as one of the world’s best adventure travel companies by National Geographic.

Further, in addition to regulations at the government level, change can come about with personal choices. Kumar points out the need for “Regulations, control and above all to create awareness with the consumers that it is their responsibility to choose well when selecting a route, activity or operator.”

The Uttarakhand government is now preparing to appeal against the state High Court’s judgment in India’s Federal Supreme Court. Thousands of people are depending on the Supreme Court to recognize the arbitrary and capricious nature of the blanket ban and overturn the ruling. For more updates, check in with The Outdoor Journal.

Written by The Outdoor Journal’s Dave Braun, with additional reporting by Jahnvi Pananchikal and editing by Apoorva Prasad.

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Environment

Dec 21, 2018

Youth v. USA: Carbon Capitalism on Trial

As a nation's leaders shrink from imminent global catastrophe, its youth rise to the challenge. In the US, a lawsuit against the federal government could galvanize climate change policy.

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WRITTEN BY

Kela Fetters

Aji Piper was just 15 years old when he and 20 other adolescents sued the federal government. Their contention: due to decades of misconduct, the country’s highest bureaucracy is responsible for deleterious climate change. Three years later, their lawsuit, Juliana vs. USA, awaits a trial date. As citizens poised to inherit a volatile climate and its incumbent challenges, the youth plaintiffs have turned to the courts as the last bulwark against an administration devoted to business-as-usual. As children and young adults, Piper and the other prosecutors have the activist mentality and tech-savvy to promote their case online and in the streets. “We are agency in action; we have to win in the court of law and the court of public opinion,” Piper says.

Youth rally for climate justice

They’ve already got climate science on their side. Consensus from this month’s UN “Conference of the Parties” (COP) climate summit is that urgent remedial action is required of world leaders to address anthropogenic climate change. At the conference, heavyweight investors warned of $23 trillion annual economic losses should global leaders fail to slash carbon emissions and phase out coal burning. October’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report called for a 45% reduction in global carbon dioxide emission to avoid irrevocable climate-related dangers including sea level rise, mass crop loss, and extreme weather events. Forecasts predict a global temperature increase of 3°C since pre-industrial numbers by the end of the century—well above the 1.5°C target most experts champion. Climate-related hazards unfold on a visceral level as anomalous wildfire events, coastal inundations, and exacerbated respiratory ailments such as asthma. The sirens of the climate change newsroom have reached fever pitch, but they’ve fallen on deaf ears at the federal level.

Oil well at sunrise. Image via Pixabay.

Federal subsidy of the fossil fuel industry has resulted in human suffering due to climate change, and they are liable for the damage.

The prosecutors of Juliana vs. USA first brought their qualms to the judicial realm under the Obama administration in 2015. Their bid for trial puttered through a series of bureaucratic postponements that bled into the 2016 presidential election. Trump’s administration poses an additional hurdle for the lawsuit. The president, an outspoken climate change denier, has called global warming “a total, and very expensive hoax”, and has pursued pro-fossil-fuel policy since taking office. Just last week, his administration released plans to retract protection of the greater sage grouse on some nine million acres of public lands in the West to pursue oil and gas drilling. According to policy experts, the action would open up more land to drilling than any previous move the administration has made.

Youth rally for climate justice

Ironically, the defendants won’t be denying the climate science, which Juliana lawyer Philip Gregory knows is airtight. Instead, they will obfuscate the link between climate change and bodily harms and contest federal responsibility for rising carbon emissions. But Gregory says that the government has known since the 1950s that burning fossil fuels could affect the climate. “They put a foot on the accelerator and ramped up fossil fuel extraction through federal leasing and opening up the Gulf and the Arctic for drilling, despite knowledge that carbon dioxide emissions could have devastating negative health effects,” he informs. According to Gregory, the global crises is the result of more than political paralysis; affirmative government action fueled the catastrophe.

Youth rally for climate justice

The case raises some imposing questions. How will federal policies address the uncertain boundaries of climate change? What responsibility does a government bear to its citizens with respect to the climate? Gregory and the prosecutors have an answer. “The government does not have a duty to directly protect anyone; however, if it creates a danger or is a substantial factor in creating the danger, then it is obligated to protect citizens from harm,” Gregory explains. He analogizes fossil fuel to foster care. “A classic example would be the state-run foster care system. If they have reason to suspect that a licensed foster-care provider is not helping children but continue to license that provider, they would be liable for the suffering of children under the care of the negligent provider.” Essentially, federal subsidy of the fossil fuel industry has resulted in human suffering due to climate change, and they are liable for the damage.

Piper claims that Washington’s culpability is incontrovertible because “livable climate is essential to a free and ordered society.” He wants to test the clout of the public trust doctrine, which holds that the government is responsible for good stewardship of critical natural resources. The plaintiffs reason that healthy climate, a natural resource comparable to clean air or safe drinking water, is entitled to legal protection. But the potency of the public trust doctrine is already under siege; on Tuesday the EPA released proposed changes to the Clean Water Act that would truncate federal protection of vast tracts of seasonal wetlands and waterways. The plan is the latest effort by the Trump administration to rescind “regulatory overreaching” Obama-era environmental policy they claim stifles development. As the proposal demonstrates, even an established protection like the Clean Water Act is subject to the agenda of the sitting government. Federal curbing by the GOP can limit the efficacy of a “public trust” designation.

Youth rally for climate justice

It’s unclear whether victory in court will impact global carbon emissions in the critical time-frame prescribed by the IPCC report.

Should Juliana triumph in court, the US government would be bound by law to develop a climate recovery plan. According to Piper, the plan’s content is outside the jurisdiction of the courts but will necessitate unprecedented commitment to reforestation and other carbon sequestration efforts, renewable energy subsidies, and an aggressive dismantling of fossil-fuel infrastructure. That’s a tall order of a government whose President said in October: “I don’t know that it’s [climate change] manmade…I don’t want to give trillions and trillions of dollars. I don’t want to lose millions and millions of jobs. I don’t want to be put at a disadvantage.” An adequate climate plan would entail a complete overhaul of US carbon capitalism, a radical reconfiguration that the present administration will resist with every political roadblock at their disposal. Stall tactics might include an appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court, or even to the Supreme Court and its conservative-leaning bench. Due to the ambiguity of a “climate recovery plan” and the legislatorial challenges of a polarized government, it’s unclear whether victory in court will impact global carbon emissions in the critical time-frame prescribed by the IPCC report. But every month counts on a destabilizing planet, and the lawsuit’s prompt success could mean the difference between 1.5°C of warming and 3°C. “Even if we do pass a ‘tipping point’, I won’t stop being an activist,” Piper concluded. “Even helping one community or one family is making a positive impact, and that’s enough for me.”

Youth rally for climate justice. Photos provided by Marlow Baines.
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