On 22 September 2006, a ceremony was organised to inaugurate the shift from locally managed to locally owned forests in the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area Project (KCAP), in the northeastern tip of Nepal. Little expense was spared in promoting the handover – the first of its kind in the country – with a high-level group of ministers, conservation pioneers and other environmentalists flown in for the event. The following morning, a helicopter took a select few through a narrow gorge to the remote village of Ghunsa, for more liturgy and festivity. Yet in a grievous turn on the way back, the helicopter crashed and killed all 24 passengers on board.
Many exemplary figures were seated in that helicopter, including the one who had organised the trip – Chandra Gurung, the director of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the financial and technical promoter of KCAP. Gurung had long believed in good publicity as a tool to achieve conservation work. And so, he was present at the momentous occasion along with some of his closest friends and mentors, former tourism minister and ground-breaking geographer, Harka Gurung; the previous head of WWF, Mingma Norbu Sherpa; and the “first warden of Nepal’s first national park”, Tirtha Man Maskey. “The handover was history in the making… conservation history!” writes Manjushree Thapa in her new book on Gurung’s life and legacy, commissioned by the Chandra Gurung Conservation Foundation and supported by the WWF. This is not mere hyperbole.
Some of the most important conservation projects in Nepal took form during Chandra Gurung’s lifetime, their successes largely credited to his gregarious and determined spirit. Critically, this spirit came out at a time when conservation was undergoing a groundbreaking shift in approach, from one of government decree to one of community decision-making. Gurung was hired by what was then the King Mahendra National Trust for Nature Conservation (KMTNC) in 1986 as a consultant, tasked with two others to conduct a feasibility study on launching a model conservation project in the Annapurna area, which would address the needs both for tourism and the preservation of nature for the benefit of local communities. Gurung proceeded to infuse the concept of ‘people participation’ with soul and sense, spending a massive amount of time travelling and talking to the local communities about their concerns.
Despite his growing international recognition, Gurung kept his home and his community close to his heart, gaining credibility and affection from the villagers with whom he worked. Himself a village boy from the southern flanks of the Annapurna range (originally from Siklis, the highest Gurung village in Nepal), he left home early to attend the Soldiers Board Vocational Training High School in Pokhara. Gurung spoke the local language, could negotiate the nuances in village power-sharing, and would respect locals’ manner of dress and demeanour. The author discerningly describes him as “simultaneously a local leader and a worldly PhD, a villager and an internationalist, a son of the soil and an iconoclast, a leader, a thinker, a hippie, an activist. He was also extremely good-looking.” To the surprise of some his more cosmopolitan colleagues, he even believed some of the local superstitions. In one incident, after Gurung was flung several metres by a pipe explosion, US-trained Bikash Pandey notes: “There was a belief in the village that if you suffer a fright, you lose your saato [spirit] … At first I thought he was just going along with what the villagers were saying … But he was quite serious about it. He stopped smiling, he stopped laughing. He wasn’t himself anymore.” Following local custom “Chandra wore unrefined threads to get his saato back, and sprinkled water on a chicken to see if his saato had returned”, writes Thapa.
A pilot project for what became the world-renowned and award-winning Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) was implemented in 1986 in the village of Ghandruk, a stop along the Annapurna hiking circuit. The first thing that Gurung and the other researchers did was to install a reliable drinking-water system. Only thereafter did they begin building bridges and expanding school infrastructure. Gradually, they undertook more traditional conservation-connected initiatives such as nurseries, plantations and community forestry, always trying to convince the local communities that it was in their best interests to preserve their natural ecology. Thapa writes of their first efforts:
Everyone in the village was allowed to cut a maximum of five trees a year to meet their timber, firewood and fodder needs. But, even while observing this quota, some people began to cut mature trees, while others would cut young, immature trees. The latter hampered the regeneration of the forests. ‘They soon realized that the forests would be cleared due to their decision,’ Chandra said. The committee amended the rule, banning the cutting of immature trees. In this way, the local people learned how to pass environment-friendly regulations.
ACAP went on to flourish under Gurung’s leadership, becoming the largest conservation area in Nepal (and one of the largest in the world) where nature is allowed respite amidst a populated landscape. His electric spirit caught on, making conservationists of a whole new generation of youths. All the while, his projects produced real results to the intended communities, initially without even mentioning conservation. Such undertakings “turned ordinary villagers into environmentalists” – not through emotional manipulation, “not out of a love for nature, but because [they] saw some benefit in it.” Once people felt that it was in their self-interest to conserve the local ecology, they did so. Launched as an experiment in eco-tourism, ACAP’s progress has since earned worldwide acclaim, and many imitators.
Activities in Nepal, especially those that set a good example – as seen in the successes of novel community forestry, local radio and conservation initiatives – do not often breach the international consciousness. Here is a book that does just that, narrating Nepal’s revolutionary approach to protected areas in a fluent and personalised manner. While often reserved in her inquiry of Chandra Gurung’s private life, Manjushree Thapa is acute in pinpointing his public achievements, particularly as a leader in the field of conservation.
Chandra Gurung understood the value both of working hard and of publicising one’s efforts – of tapping into people’s ability to reason as well as their emotional facilities, of merging globally-oriented rhetoric with substantial local initiatives. “His style was to mix the serious and the difficult with the light and the celebratory,” Thapa writes. In looking at how collective memory can be framed, a few lessons can be taken from Chandra Gurung’s method – advocacy on a global stage coupled with the delivery of tangibly grounded results.
Three years after the high-profile gathering in ,Kanchenjunga another spectacle was organised to advance the environmental cause on 4 December 2009. On that day, in the run-up to the international climate summit in Copenhagen, the Nepali government held the world’s highest-ever cabinet meeting, at the 5545-metre Kala Pathar peak, a popular vantage point for viewing Mount Everest and a pantheon of other peaks. The purpose of the high-altitude gathering was, of course, to highlight the impact of climate change on the Himalaya. While the cabinet meeting at Kala Pathar attempted to convince people through sensationalism to reduce their carbon footprint and innovate on ways to adapt, it would have further benefited from setting its own examples on how this could be done. If the Nepali government had short-term accomplishments to show for its officials’ long-term vision, their high-attitude feat at Kala Patthar would have had a better chance of being remembered as a success rather than as a stunt. Doing so would also have proven that they had learned the lesson taught so astutely by one of their brightest environmental thinkers.
~Smriti Mallapaty is an assistant editor for Himal Southasian.