The mountain porters of Nepal are the very backbone of Nepal's trekking and climbing industry. Fifty years ago, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's first ascent of Everest was supported by 350 porters. Ten years later, the 1963 US Everest expedition used more than 900. Every expedition before and since has depended upon the kind labour and the strong backs of porters to put climbers onto the highest summits in the world. In turn, this industry has arguably put more food in more stomachs than any other that Nepal has ever seen.
Porters are not the specialised high-altitude Sherpas who carry loads to high camps and set the routes for paying climbers. They are poor farmers who flock to popular trekking routes in search of work carrying luggage and supplies for our foreign clients. Although they never travel above base camp, porters carry ghastly loads to altitudes exceeding 5,000m.
Wherever paying clients want to go, their porters follow. Portering is the only option for employment for many in Nepal's rural hills. It is a type of work that chases the very roots of what it truly means to work, and what it means to earn one's living.
In Nepal, a porter's naamlo (tumpline) proves that our head is first and foremost a muscle. This realisation is a sacred contrast to the helmet-based paranoia found in most developed nations. All of our ancestors have carried in this manner and, as we often turn to our elders for advice, there is much to be learned from porters. The greatest resource in Nepal lies in the minds that rest underneath the naamlos.
However, porters compete for jobs with pack animals and often receive similar treatment once on the trail. This year alone has seen four porter deaths in the Everest region. On top of this, there have been two porters brought to safety by helicopter rescue-one of whom was in a coma for two weeks (See Nepali Times, 'Out of danger' # 147). This year, a helicopter with empty seats still took off with two foreign trekkers while the doctor pleaded to let a dying porter also be airlifted. Thousands of porters have gone trekking without insurance or proper equipment, knowing full well the risks that they are taking. This year has seen porters forced to take these risks for a wage that doesn't even cover the cost of their food on the trail.
Porters have died and their bodies have been left beside the trail to decompose. Porters have been denied entrance into lodges even when space is available. Porters as a rule have been forced to sleep in caves and under trees at high altitudes. Decades have passed with foreign clients rarely considering to inquire about the skills, the families, or even the names of the men carrying their bags. There is no record of the number of porter fatalities and accidents that occur in Nepal each year, but there is no shortage of negative publicity and anecdotes.
It is time that Nepal faces the social challenges that line the trails to base camp. It is time to explore the freedom that comes with knowing-with truly knowing-the value of a plate of rice, the importance of a smile and the magic of a song. This is a wisdom that is written in the eyes of every porter and a freedom that is burned black into the sticks with which they support their loads. The most under-utilised resource in Nepal is not hydropower or mineral resource, but rather human resource. The abilities, skills and passions of mountain porters and the rest of Nepal's rural citizens have hardly been tapped.
Without developing a new professional standard for porters, the trekking and climbing industry lies in great danger of collapse. One possibility is the continuation of negative publicity regarding the lack of basic human rights for porters. Television viewers are quick to react and a few large productions could certainly stimulate an international boycott or, at the very least, the further tarnishing of Nepal's reputation. Another possibility is an increase in political and social instability fuelled by the natural frustration that results from being subjected to daily discrimination and exploitation.
Change will come to the porters of Nepal. The current situation is too unstable and porters are too capable and intelligent for the future to be otherwise. It is our responsibility as trekkers, tour operators, members of the government, porters and as ancestors of future porters ,to ensure that this change is sustainable and beneficial to all.
A nationwide trekking porter registration program, for example, will construct a professional identity for porters. Once a porter is seen as a professional, a porter will see himself as a professional. Accountability will follow, as will a higher level of service and training. Eventually, this will lead to a fair standard of load and wage limits, which will eliminate the uncertainty and mistrust that turns so many trekkers away.
Tour operators in Nepal are beginning to understand that taking care of porters is good business practice. Investing in the safety and comfort of porters has an incredibly high dividend. A porter that is fed well on the trail is many times less likely to contract altitude illness. A porter who speaks some English can open the eyes of a guest to the importance of blessing oneself while crossing a bridge or of placing some branches and leaves under a rock when one's leg hurts. Should a tragedy occur, the family of an insured porter will have a better chance of surviving, and the sons and daughters of that porter will grow to take up where their father left off.
The community of tourism professionals in Nepal must bring awareness to the governmental level to promote enforcement and strengthening of current legislation regarding safety for porters. Nepal's trekking industry must reach an international standard of workplace safety and provide for the basic human rights of porters. The trekkers, trekking companies and tour operators who are indeed setting a great example by treating their porters well, must also be recognised and celebrated.
Nepal must recognise that its rural citizens are this country's greatest asset. Porters are not asked to dance often enough during treks and their knowledge of local herbal medicine and farm practices is never transferred to the clients. The focus of adventure trekking should shift from unexplored high passes and seldom-climbed peaks to the unexplored rural portering communities.
These villages offer a tangible example of the fruits of hard work and sustainable living that cannot be found in the consumption-based societies which most trekkers call home. These communities also will benefit the most from any income generated. Trekkers also need to experience millet and hot water, buffalo milk. This type of experience is of critical importance to our shrinking world.
A first step is to discontinue the use of the term 'coolie' to describe a porter. The Nepali for porter is bhariya. Coolie signifies classism and servitude. Nepal is not a country of coolies. This is a country of bhariyas. A small change on the tongue, after all, can be a large change in the heart.
In the coming years, the Nepali trekking industry can lead this stupendously scenic land by running creative and compassionate treks that will sustain tourism into the future.
Ben Ayers has been living and working among Nepal's trekking porters for the past four years and is the founder of Porters' Progress, Nepal.