Nepali Times
From The Nepali Press
Maoist Makalu

TASHIGAUN-Thanks to the Maoist conflict, the people of this village below Makalu who had been eking out a living on tourism are back to their poverty-ridden ways. Tourists have fled from the area and with them, the dreams of the locals. Nar Bahadur Gurung, former deputy chairman of Makalu VDC used to make Rs 3,000 working as a porter from Tashigaun to Makalu Base Camp. The people of the region made around Rs 20,000 each season, enough to run their household for the rest of the year. "Now, we don't have much choice, we head down the valley for work," says Gurung. The local income resource ran dry after the Maoists destroyed the central office of the Makalu Barun National Park. There is no market even for vegetables and dairy products after the park officials abandoned the area.

Another VDC member, Pema Sherpa, used to run a lodge here since 1988. He made Rs 20,000 per month until tourists stopped coming altogether in 2000. In the heydays of trekking, Sherpa used to charter helicopters to bring supplies from Hile to his lodge. Gone are those days. "There may be one tourist a week, and even they complain about the money they have to pay the Maoists along the way and stay in tents," he says. There used to be up to 50 lodges here in the 1990s, most of them are shut down.

The lack of tourists has its positive side: food is now affordable. "A chicken used to cost Rs 700 and honey Rs 60. It had become difficult for us teachers to survive because the villagers would not sell us food," recalls teacher Mohan Niraula in Seduwa. But with the tourists gone, the foodstuff is cheaper. "We can afford to live here again," says Niraula. Then things got worse as the Maoist activities intensified and the teachers had to survive on whatever food their students gave them.

Tourists stopped coming to Makalu, the fifth highest peak in the world, when Maoists began collecting taxes and treating them badly. Some tourists came up to Seduwa and returned after being unable to meet the Maoist demand of Rs 5,000 per tourist. Harka Gurung, a member of the Maoists in Sankhuwasabha hands his receipt book that shows the group used to collect up to Rs 60,000 a day from tourism. "Tourists who pay who can go to base camp, those who can't pay go back," he says. He admits roughing up a Czech tourist who he says tried to "bully" him, and adds that American tourists are not allowed in this area.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)