This July the Cabinet decided not to extend the management of ACAP by the Nepal Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC), and gave the trust six months to seek an alternative. This comes as the ACAP management finds itself in increasing confrontation with local populations over control of the region's resources.
The Annapurna area stretches over five districts and 57 VDCs in central Nepal. The terrain rises from the sub-tropical Seti Valley at 800m above sea level to Annapurna and Dhaulagiri, among the top 10 highest mountains in the world. It contains the Kali Gandaki gorge and Tilico, one of the highest lakes in the world. These topographical extremes give the region some of the greatest biodiversity found on the planet, with 474 species of birds, 1,200 types of fauna and exuberant plant life.
The Annapurnas get 100,000 trekkers a year and in the last 25 years has raised Rs 1.55 billion from visitor fees alone, this money and other donor support being ploughed directly into local development. Over the past two decades, ACAP has built 107 schools, 16 community health posts, 181 bridges, 28 micro-hydro projects and trained thousands of local people in the tourism industry.
ACAP's success rested on three pillars: the unique concept among young and committed Nepali environmental activists in the 80s that conservation was only possible through local participation, the full backing and patronage of the royal palace and resources that this could mobilise, and last but not least, the leadership and involvement of the local Gurung community. The pioneering role in ACAP of Chandra Gurung, who was born and bred in the area, was a major factor in its early success. Gurung's trust in his community, and his community's trust in him, were the vital ingredients in the success.
Chandra Gurung's tragic death in the Ghunsa helicopter crash in 2006 was a big blow not just to the Annapurnas, but also to the other conservation areas in Nepal where the ACAP model was being followed. The post-2006 political transition and turmoil also took its toll, and ACAP is now suffering from the same political interference and greed that has plagued other areas where Nepal has seen some progress.
In the absence of elected village and district councils, Nepal's local government is in the hands of the three main political parties at the centre. Accountable to no one, and driven by the party's need to raise funds, political cadres have been using provisions in the local self-governance act to wrest control over natural resources from ACAP's local Conservation Committees.
Last month the residents of Lwang Ghalel (pictured) poured out their woes during a radio program. "Our crops are being destroyed by wild animals, we don't get any compensation," said one, "we can't fish in our own streams, we can't even pick deadwood, ferns or bamboo shoots from the forest. If we can't benefit from conservation what is the use?"
Such sentiments are a far cry from 25 years ago when locals were happy about ACAP's conservation work. ACAP obviously needs to re-invent itself for a new age when there are roads everywhere, and new rules must be in line with local self-governance laws and clearly define who has the authority over natural resource exploitation.
The DDCs and VDCs are now demanding that they get half of ACAP's income from trekking fees. In the absence of charismatic leadership, ACAP began to lose out on the trust of the local people. Had local elections been held, this conflict would have been much more intense by now.
The problem now is that although the government has said ACAP should be handed over to someone other than NTNC by end-January, there is no other entity which can be trained on the conservation achievements of the past and entrusted with the management of ACAP.
The only solution perhaps is to have better coordination between the Conservation Committees and the VDCs in all 57 villages, and improve linkages between the DDCs to coordinate ACAP activities in all five districts. But it is unlikely this can be done in the next four months. So the best approach is to let ACAP be managed by NTNC until a new mechanism can be found, and wait for a time when there is less political interference.
Gopal Guragain is a broadcaster and the founder of Ujjyalo Multimedia www.unn.com
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