Nepal's Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) survived a war, upheavals in Kathmandu and the tragic death of its founding members in a helicopter crash six years ago. But it may not survive the interference of short-sighted politicians during the country's present fluid transition.
The future of Nepal's largest protected area is in jeopardy after the Cabinet's surprising decision in July to terminate the management of the internationally acclaimed eco-tourism project by the National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC) which had been running it for the last 25 years.
The NTNC had asked the government for an extension of its management for another 10 years to facilitate the handover of resource administration to local councils. But the Cabinet ignored the endorsement of the NTNC mandate by the Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation (MoFSC), and instead directed it to find an alternative arrangement.
ACAP was pioneered by late conservationist Chandra Gurung and it is internationally recognised as a role model for sustainable tourism development that injects tourism income directly into the village economy. Gurung and five of Nepal's top conservationists were among 25 killed when their helicopter crashed in November 2006 during a visit to the Kanchenjunga area to replicate ACAP's accomplishment in eastern Nepal.
"It shocked us all," recalls ACAP's Lal Gurung of the Cabinet's decision. "In the absence of a legal framework and skilled grassroots conservation leaders, the abrupt exit of NTNC will jeopardise late Chandra Gurung's conservation legacy." ACAP is NTNC's largest undertaking and covers an area of 7,629 sq km. It is inhabited by over 100,000 people of various ethnic groups, and it includes Upper Mustang and Manang.
Conservationists admit that many of ACAP's strict rules on energy use, forest conservation and infrastructure development may have to be modified given the spread of roads into the high mountain areas. But they say the Cabinet's decision seems to have been influenced by the 35 companies who have hydropower licences in the Annapurnas.
Like the controversy over resorts inside Chitwan National Park and changes in the regulations governing community forestry, the Cabinet's decision on ACAP could have far-reaching impact on model conservation efforts for which Nepal is internationally recognised.
Juddha Gurung of NTNC says it is unlikely that the government will completely scrap ACAP. "The government doesn't have the resources nor the capability to take over ACAP, and there will be an international hue and cry," he adds optimistically, "I think the government will eventually decide to extend the NTNC's mandate over ACAP's management."
Annapurna locals say ACAP is already finding it difficult to control timber and wildlife poaching, and its eco-tourism regulations are getting difficult to enforce. But ACAP could have a role in mapping out and developing trekking routes away from roads, and finding a new eco-tourism model for restricted areas like Upper Mustang.
ACAP is already embroiled in controversy over the annual Rs 50 million it collects in fees from trekkers to Upper Mustang. Locals want 60 per cent of that money to be channeled to the district as agreed, but it is not happening. Lal Gurung says the arrival of the road could mean Upper Mustang trek royalties will drop, but adds the government has not made any decision about whether or not to lift the restricted status of the area.
NTNC and ACAP were working on an exit strategy to handover the conservation area to VDCs and DDCs in the Annapurnas, but accountability could be a problem in the absence of local elections. "We had plans to handover ACAP to the locals by 2022, but the government's hasty decision has halted everything," says Juddha Gurung.
The loss of Nepal's pioneer conservationists in 2006 and the 10 year war pushed back the country's gains in eco-tourism. Second generation conservation leaders were beginning to learn the ropes and were gaining experience. But needless politicisation has disheartened them as well and 25 years of solid achievements are in danger of being wiped out.
Representatives of 57 VDCs from the Annapurnas have written to the Prime Minister's Office and line ministries to demand that the Cabinet review its six month ultimatum.
Says Lal Gurung, "Unless there's a legal framework in place to fully handover the management to locals and the people there are capable and accountable, NTNC should be allowed to continue managing ACAP."
On a high horse
Monsoon in the rainshadow, KUNDA DIXIT in MUSTANG
May be one last time on horseback to Lo Manthang
Conservation of interests,BHRIKUTI RAI
Nepal's internationally acclaimed Annapurna eco-tourism project has also fallen prey to political interference
In the shadow of Annapurna, GOPAL GURAGAIN
The Annapurna conservation project must find ways to reconcile its conflict with locals over resources
The future catches up with Mustang, MARK WHITTAKER
Mustang is usually preceded with words like 'lost', 'hidden' or 'forbidden', today it is none of those things
Their souls march on, BHRIKUTI RAI and STUTI SHARMA
Families and friends of those killed in the Ghunsa helicopter crash five years ago are helping nurture a new generation of Nepali conservationists
A whiff of Old Nepal, SUNIR PANDEY in LAMJUNG
Locals move out for jobs, tourists move in for a new model of trekking
More than mountains, BADRI PAUDYAL
Home stays in Ghalegaun will make you forget home