India’s environmental crusader

Five years ago, the Valley of Flowers National Park in India was in a shambles after sustained environmental abuse. Jyotsna Sitling, India’s first female tribal forester, arrived as director in 2002 with the aim of regenerating the area. Three years later the park’s ecosystem was flourishing once again and the site was granted World Heritage Status from UNESCO. Jyotsna, winner of the 2007 Indira Gandhi Paryavaran Puraskar prize, India’s highest environmental honour, explains how she did it

Jyotsna Sitling receiving the Indira Gandhi Paryavaran Puraskar prize. Photograph: supplied by Neeta Lal

I was born into the ‘Lepcha’ tribal community of Kalimpong in West Bengal, a region bordering Tibet. My village Chibbo Busty, though a mere blip on India‘s vast geographic radar, was stunningly picturesque. Rugged ochre and dun-colored hills, an emerald green forest cover and children with beatific faces made it an idyllic place. I remember walking through the village’s misty woods with my parents, extremely curious about the region’s flora and fauna. “What is that tree called?”, “And that flower?”, “Where does mountain snow disappear?” “How do birds feed their young?” I brimmed with queries about nature.

After school, I enrolled at the Darjeeling Government College with botany as my major subject. Nobody raised an eyebrow when I chose forestry as a vocation. As India’s first woman tribal forester, I felt proud to join the Indian Forest Service (IFS) in 1987. My first assignment – as conservator of forests in India’s most troubled state (Jammu and Kashmir) – was a challenging one. There are still just a handful of female foresters in the Indian Forest Service, so in my career’s initial stages I had to work doubly hard to establish my credibility.

I was posted in Uttaranchal as the director of Nanda Devi National Park (NDNP) in 2002. This beautiful park was in a shambles due to rampant environmental abuse. Ensconced within the upper Himalayan ridges at 6,675 metres, the entire area had a cachet of conservation concerns. A shame really, considering the splendid Valley of Flowers National Park (VFNP) in Uttaranchal is one of the world’s most scenic alpine valleys, breeding exquisite floral and avian diversity: 520 species of flowering plants and rare avian breeds like the Scaly-bellied Woodpecker, Great Barbett, Eurasian Eagle Owl, Spotted Dove and the Blue Magpie.

Soon after taking over, I launched a vigorous movement to save the park from further degradation. We first planned to rid it of mountain-high piles of plastic and non-biodegradable waste strewn by pilgrims over three decades of visiting the Sikh religious site of Hemkund Sahib each year. To achieve this, a community-based waste management program involving the local populace was fleshed out. The highly irresponsible environmental behavior of the pilgrim traffic had totally wrecked the beautiful surroundings, resulting in accumulation of tons of putrescent garbage (plastic bags, bottles, rain coats, sundry packets) and non-degradable waste.

The 19km trek route was impacted further by some 400-odd shops illegally installed by locals. Their plastic waste had literally filled the whole area. The region’s verdant slopes, once a green canvas punctuated with sweet-smelling flowers, were transformed into junkyards through a mindless act of man. The fragile eco-system of the entire valley was under duress due to this pilgrim traffic.

Of course it was tough to motivate the local people for the unglamorous task of cleaning up the area, but we just plunged headlong into it. I made the Park staff understand the social and livelihood dynamics of the community which could be decisive in preserving it. This was followed by giving them focused training and mentoring them regularly to equip them professionally to handle community-initiated conservation processes. Being a woman, the male staff saw me as a role model to initiate such processes in the garbage-ridden VFNP.

For starters, we cobbled an eco-development committee (EDC) comprising the local people, especially women and hired garbage collectors who worked on a monthly salary of 1,000 rupees (about GBP11) with an additional commission of 5 rupees per garbage bag. After working tirelessly for 14 months, my team collected a whopping 44 tons of garbage in 14,000 gunny bags. The collected garbage matched the surrounding towering peaks in height.

This garbage was transported on horseback to New Delhi for recycling. The heaps also included tons of mule dung because about 500 mules go up and down this religious stretch from May to October each year – the main five pilgrimage months. Despite the garbage’s volume, we didn’t take any eco-unfriendly short cuts like burning, burying or draining off of refuse.

Cleaning up the area was only part of the problem. A greater challenge lay in convincing the resident business population of about 76 families to demolish their 400 shacks and morph them into 76 shops; that is, one shop per family. This, I argued, would help in the management of the ecologically sensitive area. The entrepreneurs, adamant at first, finally relented and demolished their shacks to build well-equipped shops with proper infrastructure.

We struck upon a “participatory approach” for protecting biodiversity in the sensitive areas. The locals were educated about the benefits of making conservation a socially and economically self-alleviating experience. We worked in synergy with the local populace to hammer out economically viable and sustainable solutions to conservation versus development conflicts. The idea was to integrate livelihood and equity concerns in conservation practices for a sustainable, long-term solution.

Community training was imparted to harness local resources and generate eco-tourism activities. Growing and preserving of medicinal plants, exotic condiments and traditional crops were listed as a priority. This stimulated the avenues connected with the hill economy which helped prevent poaching and illegal removal of herbs from nearby forests. Communities were also encouraged to document and preserve their culture and folklore. Local youth were taught and became a skilled human resource on local bio-diversity, folklore and culture promotion.

The local populace were trained and linked with regulated tourism business opportunities to become beneficiaries and custodians of the NDNP. Years of hard labor started to bear fruit when the region’s ecosystem showed signs of regeneration. Our forest department received a state award and nominated the VFNP to the UN’s World Heritage list in 2002 by submitting a proposal to the World Heritage Centre (WHC). The UN evaluation team visited the VFNP and NDNP in September 2004 to assess its conservation status, its management strategy and the community interface in the conservation of the two parks.

On July 14, 2005, I got that historic call from UNESCO informing us about VFNP being granted World Heritage Status. It was an exhilarating moment. I still get goose flesh thinking about that call, which symbolised our triumph against such massive odds. Apart from bestowing a prestigious global honor, the WHS status has had other positive benefits as well – like attracting a lot more international tourists and global conservation funds. Our unique experiment has proved that there’s nothing that can’t be achieved if people choose to work together, even if the task is of ‘Himalayan’ proportions. Nanda Devi, the venerable Goddess of Uttaranchal, has every reason to smile.

• Jyotsna Sitling was speaking to India-based freelance journalist Neeta Lal. – From Guardian UK

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