Nepali Times
Porters in distress


LUKLA-Till only three years ago, nearly 20,000 trekkers and mountaineers used to land here every year. In the tourist season, they would be mobbed by hundreds of hungry porters from the lower valleys hoping to find work carrying baggage, supplies and equipment.

Today, despite the international publicity from last spring's Everest anniversary extravaganza, the new airport with its asphalt runway gets only about five flights a day from Kathmandu instead of the usual 15. Most of the flights every morning unload cargo rather than trekkers. The end of the ceasefire has meant that trekking and tourist arrivals in Nepal this season have not been able to rise above the low-water mark. In conflict-ridden districts like the Jiri-Phaplu trail, trekking has disappeared altogether.

The Maoists may not be targetting trekkers, but news of the Maoist insurgency and the breakdown of the peace process has scared off everyone except the most determined trekkers, or those who have been convinced by their trekking agents in Kathmandu that the Everest, Manang, Mustang and Annapurna treks are safe.

The drop in arrivals has hit trekking porters hardest. They are now fighting for even fewer jobs while watching already pitiful wage, load and safety standards drop. Commercial porters (porters who carry supplies from distant roadheads to Nepali store and lodge owners on the trekking routes) are also finding that the market for freight has fallen out. Porters now have to fill more stomachs than their meager crops can provide for, and aside from carrying loads, there is no option for income generation in the desperately poor rural hills.

The government has responded to the Maoist threat by placing security forces at the airports and gateways to the popular trekking routes. Lukla is now home to some 250 paramilitary Armed Police. As Maoist violence and recruitment increases in rural communities, an increasing numbers of porters are fleeing to the relative safety and prosperity of the trekking routes. Once there, they are subject to harassment by suspicious locals and police, fewer available jobs and more competition than ever before.

"We feel unsafe," states porter Ramesh Pathak. "When the Maoists come to our town we must do whatever they say. Sometimes we don't even have enough food for our families, but we are forced to find a way to feed the Maoists first." Porter have learnt never to carry things like torches, pen-knives or even small radios since they are confiscated during numerous security checks along the trails.

Porters are the first to be recruited by the Maoists and the first to be harassed by the police. Porters, like the working-class everywhere, are the first to be killed on the battlefield and in jail. "We are constantly in trouble, threatened by the police and by the Maoists. We feel trapped," says Pathak.

As the numbers of trekkers continues to drop, the pressure placed on porters by both Maoist recruiters and the security forces will only increase. The most pressure, however, will be on the porters themselves to earn a living for themselves and their families. If a solution is not found to the current troubles, these rugged men and women will be eventually forced to choose between a likely death on the battlefield, or one around the cooking fire.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)