Mountaineering as a sport is about fairness, honesty, and humility born of risk. It is not about taking advantage of helplessness and poverty.
In the winter of 19 78,1 w as horn e in Phalebas, Parbat District, after an absence of almost four years. My village is situated along the eastern terrace formed by the Kali Gandaki river and commands a grand view of Dhaulagiri (8167m) and the Arma purnaranges. One evening when Dhaulagiri looked aflame in the setting sun, an elderly lady happened to find me staring at the view in fascination. She threw a quick glance at the mountain and said matter-of-factly, “Yes it is truly beautiful, but it does not feed us.” The point inherent in that statement has stayed with me ever since.
Department of Tourism statistics show that in 1990 Nepal earned U$ 63.7 million from 195,121 foreigners (other than Indians) who entered the country. In that year, the latest for which the breakdown is available, 62,092 trekking permits were issued to tourists. These included 972 climbers who were members of 120 mountaineering teams. These teams employed 863 high-altitude porters and guides and 13,316 local porters.
In 1990, the Nepali Government earned a mountaineering royalty of NRs 7.3 million (about US 160,000). In addition, the mountaineering teams were levied fees in lieu of trekking permits and entry into national parks. With the exception of the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP), where entry fees are utilised by the Project for conservation work, these direct earnings from mountaineering (royalty and other fees) went to the central exchequer.
Money from Mountains?
The lack of detailed information makes it difficult to ascertain the real beneficiaries of mountaineering in Nepal. In all likelihood, the financial benefit flow resembles the pyramid of Pumori (7161m). The maximum benefit at the base is derived by the (mostly Western) countries of climbers´ origin, tapering off through travel agents and operators in the country of origin, travel agents and operators in die host country, the sordors, the high altitude guides and porters, the owners of ´hotels´ along the major trails and, finally, the local porters and the vendors of tea and snacks at wayside inns.
This typical pyramidal structure is revealed in expenses reported lo [he Ministry of Tour ism´s Mountaineering Section in October by an Autumn 1992 British expedition lo Ama Dablam (6812m). The total cost of this expedition was reported to be U$ 23,000. The expedition had a total of 11 members and employed 25 porters for about two weeks. Although US 13,000 was declared spent in Nepal, the report to the Ministry accounts only for U$ 7,082 under different expenditure categories. This means that 69 per cent of the total expenditure was made outside Nepal.
The declared expenses incurred in Nepal makes interesting reading. The climbing permit fee (royalty) accounted for 26.8 per cent of the expenses made in Nepal. Lodging expenses while in Kathmandu took up 14.1 per cent. Purchase of food and fuel (mostly in Kathmandu) accounted for 28.2 per cent. “Agency Service Charges” took up another 12.7 per cent and the insurance premium paid in Nepal (mandatory under the Mountaineering Expedition Regulations) accounted for 3.1 per cent of the total expenses incurred in Nepal.
Wages to “local” porters and lodging costs spent during the approach to and return from Ama Dablam, which might be considered the most important elements of the expenses in terms of spreading the benefits of mountaineering, look up only 13.8 and 1.2 per cent of the total. On an average, a porter-day costs only NRs 128 to the expedition, or about U$ 2.8 at the current exchange rate.
Actually, the report submitted by the Ama Dablam expedition lo the Ministry tells only half the story. Candid conversation with persons who have acted as liaison officers and others in the mountaineering trade reveal that the Agency Service Charge (a euphemism for the commission and overheads charged by trekking and mountaineering agencies) is almost invariably under-reported, for obvious reasons. Often, the entire expedition is managed by agencies on a lumpsum contract basis. In such instances, [he ruthless law of the market prevails. Since the supply of porters in most areas is large, inevitably they end up on the losing side of the bargain.
Surprisingly, the paltry average sum of US 2.8 per day a (considering the exorbitant prices along the trekking routes) is quite high by the standards of the Ministry of Tourism. A complimentary booklet entiled Some Provisions Relating to Mountain Tourism in Nepal, published by the Ministry in 1992, provides all the necessary dos and don´ts, as well as the Mountaineering Expedition Regulations 2036 (1979) and its subsequent amendments. Under section 14(1) as amended in 1984 (and which is currently in force) a regulation states:
The mountaineering team shall provide daily allowances, at least, at the following rate to the headman, mountain guide, high-altitude porter, local porter and worker of the base camp:
(a) Forty-five Rupees to the headman.
(b) Forty Rupees to the mountain guide and high altitude porter.
(c) Thirty-five Rupees to the worker of the base camp.
(d) Twenty-six Rupees to the local ´porter.
One is forced to conclude that those drafting (and amending) the Regulations, and the policy makers and politicians who approved it in the first place and continue to regard it as justifiable and rational, must indeed have an extremely poor opinion of the worth of the Nepali lie adman, mountain guide, high-altitude porter and worker of the base camp.
Who Climbs Whom?
Porthe mountaineer lured by the challenge of the Himalaya, mountaineering as an activity needs no justification. George Leigh Mallory summed it up for all mountaineers for all time with his famous quip, “because it is there”. Bui is mountaineering list another activity? As a sport, mountaineering is also about the test of spirit, or physical stamina, of fairness and honesty, and of a deep sense of humility born of the risk associated with the unpredictable forces of nature and the reverence that goes with it. Mountaineering is definitely not about taking advantage of helplessness and poverty and, symbolically, climbing on other people´s backs.
In recent years it has dawned on us that, as far as the people of the Himalaya are concerned, mountaineering is nor just about climbing mountains.
To begin with, mountaineering is about climbing “clean” mountains, and keeping them that way. It is also about time that the Government and the agencies comfortably collecting their royalties and commissions, the policy-makers who work far away from the treacherous snows, and the politicians who produce daily avalanches of slogans, realised that mountaineering in Nepal is fundamentally about development in a very poorcountry.lt is also about equity, about raising income levels, about providing gainful employment off the land and mountains, and about the opening of choices for the multitude that have never had any choices. It is about giving voices to the mountain people and dealing with the machinations that stifle those voices. And, not least, it is about addressing the remark of that old lady of Parbat—all because it (poverty) is there.
Sharma is a Reader in Geography at Tribhuvan University and is currently associated with ICIMOD