The trekking season has begun, and climbers and trekkers from all over the world have made for the mountains of Nepal equipped with hi-tech trekking gear, professional medical advice and plenty of insurance. But whether they are out on a "tea-house" trek or an organised one, little will they know or be informed about the state of their humble companions-the porters.
Trekking porters carry their bhari in all sorts of climates and terrain, with sparse clothing, footwear like flip-flops and plastic bags as protection from the snow. With the bhari supported on the bent 50-degree switchback of the spine, the porters clutch the namlo-a tumpline, distributing the load over the vertebrae and neck muscles, calves and thighs, and heave their way along. It is known that this style of haulage goes back 15,000 years in time, long before pulleys, levers and wheels were invented.
Locally known as bhariya, the porters in the Himalaya, men and women, are at the moment lifting loads exceeding 60 kg and transporting that for 7 hours at an average of Rs 80 per day. "People say it's a tough job. But one has to make a living," says 38-year-old Dhunja Tamang of Dhading, a freelance porter (as opposed to the staff porters of trekking agencies) for over 15 years. This ancient practice of hauling and transporting goods is a pointer to the state of the economy in this part of the world.
Porters in the Himalaya suffer four times as many accidents and illnesses as a Western trekker. In case of a fall or sickness on the trail, a porter's life is at risk. "The group just abandons us. We have to walk all the way back without any help, and often only with partial payment," says Dhuni Maya Tamang of Dhading.
So far, insurance for porters is virtually non-existent. During natural calamities at high altitudes, porters' chances of survival, or even getting compensation for injury or mutilated body parts, are low. "A direct helicopter rescue of a single person costs up to $2,200. You can easily understand why porters become the ill-fated ones," says Prakash Adhikary, chief executive of the Himalayan Rescue Association of Nepal (HRA) and the Nepal representative of the International Porter Protection Group (IPPG).
The IPPG, a volunteer-based advocacy organisation run by mountain specialists and workers from around the world, has laid out five guidelines on how to keep porters safe (See box). The HRA at its two aid-posts at Pheriche (4,200m) and Manang (3,500m) provides medical facilities to porters and trekking staff at a minimum consultation charge of Rs 50. "But most of the time we waive the fee for porters," says Adhikary.
There are no official estimates about the number of porters, and certainly no way of knowing how many people have died or gone missing while portering. During the freak storm of 1995 in the Nepali Himalaya, 42 Nepalis were officially declared dead, and many more are believed to have perished. "Cases like this have occurred time and again. But there has been no official effort so far to record them and compensate relatives for their loss," says Adhikary. Trekking agencies say that claiming a dead porter means a lot of hassle, so they don't report what is after all only replaceable manpower.
Industry sources put the ratio of trekkers to porters is 1:2 for the average 100,000 trekkers who visit Nepal every year. Trekking agencies hire porters at random every trekking season and very few agencies have staff porters. But even they are employed on a daily wage basis. Individual travellers also hire freelance porters along the trekking trail. "Most freelance porters are simple villagers. For decent money they often carry excess weight, which is hazardous," says Parsuram Dhungel, a trekking porter in his mid-twenties from Sankhuwasabha.
The major concern for porters and porter activists is safety, the elimination of exploitation and support for such measures from all concerned parties. So far, there has been no direct support from the government, and national planners have traditionally underestimated this socio-economic enterprise. However, Nepali law states that provisions should be made for the security of trekking porters, they should be provided with personal protective equipment including shoes and clothes depending on the weather, and that the management (employer) is responsible for their rescue when required.
"Law? After one trek, the next thing we have to do is look desperately for another trip. Otherwise we will be in a terrible situation, without money. If we had good laws we wouldn't be facing such problems," says another trekking porter Chandra Bahadur Tamang from Dolakha. Porters have little bargaining power, as supply is usually greater than demand. Agencies hiring porters normally tend to put porters on the defensive by threatening to fire them should they demand more than the price set by the group or agency.
Though portering is the backbone of the trekking industry and a life support system for thousands of Nepali families, there's no organisation or union of porters-they don't even have the time to come together and talk. By its nature, portering doesn't allow co-workers to sit in one place and talk things over. However, the Trekking Worker's Association of Nepal (TWAN) does raise issues concerning porters and other trekking workers.
Women join portering as an escape from drudgery and discriminatory wages back in the village. "I have four kids and three are in school. I took a long break of nine years to look after my kids. Now I plan to go and carry loads because I need money to support my kids," says 30-year-old Titi Maya Tamang from Shertung in Dhading, whose husband is also a trekking porter.
Portering might be one of the few enterprises where women and men receive equal pay. But they are not free from sexual harassment from the sirdars. "What can you do? Sometimes you see your own sister or wife being verbally harassed by the guides and sirdars. But because they are our employers we can't really be rude to them," says Chandra Bahadur Tamang from Dolakha.
Porter-related issues are moving into the limelight, though, and things are happening since the first ever conference on porters was organised six years ago by the Himal Association ("Hard Livelihood: Conference on the Himalayan Porter"). A series of conferences have been organised by the IPPG and a photo exhibition held last autumn. A calendar has been published portraying the life of a porter (from which the pictures accompanying this article have been taken). Recently, 35 porters gathered in the capital to share their experiences and needs at a two-day workshop jointly organised by the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) in association with the IPPG, called the "Sustainable Tourism Training Workshop for Trekking Porters."
The workshop exposed participating porters to ways of tackling their problems, informed them on issues related to mountain tourism, as well as their safety on treks. "We are trying to educate porters. Portering should evolve as professional work and porters given their dignity and rights," says Tara Gurung, Senior Conservation Officer of ACAP. "Since portering is an important part of the Nepali economy, we encourage travellers to employ porters and support the tradition. But that doesn't mean porters have to be exploited, like is happening at large in the country," she adds.
"What I like is that things are in motion. Attitudes are changing, people are talking and doing something to tackle the present situation of porters," says Ben Ayers, the IPPG USA representative and coordinator of the Porter Clothing Bank-a non-profit initiative to lend donated mountain wear to porters. Although modern transport-Tata trucks, Russian jeeps, Canadian Twin Otters and the Mi-17 helicopters-and porter-friendly suspension bridges (which have been used a great deal by yaks and mules transporting goods at cheaper rates) are now available, porters still show their strength and daring. Nepali porters are praised the world over for their efforts, their daring feats, and in surviving the harshest of conditions. It is said that if portering were an Olympic endurance weight lifting event, the Nepali porter would win all the medals.