Saturday, July 3, 1999

Preserving the Himalayas

Western press concentrates on mountain of trash; Nepalis think air and water pollution are more harmful

By Dharma Adhikari

To the Western news business the serious environmental problem in the Himalayan Mountains is garbage - the tons and tons of garbage left by climbers seeking to conquer the world’s highest peaks. They have left everything from tiny glass bottles to dead bodies, the focus of numerous stories ever since June 21, 1993, when the New York Times trumpeted: EVEREST: A MOUNTAIN OF TRASH.''

But while Western coverage is preoccupied with the garbage problem, the Nepali press sees the real problem differently. They emphasize the problems of contaminated water, rampant use of plastics and a level of air pollution in the Katmandu Valley second only to Mexico City.

"There is no genuine empathy among journalists here for the subject of Everest garbage," says Kanak Mani Dixit, editor of Himal South Asia Magazine , published in Katmandu and long devoted to the Himalayan environment. As far as Nepalis are concerned, he said, ''garbage on Everest has an impact mainly if the bad publicity affects the economy by attracting fewer and fewer climbers.''

For Nepali media, the garbage problem is one small part of their environmental reportage. In the capital city, automobile emissions and inadequate solid waste management are covered with more urgency.

And because the country has the second largest hydropower potential in the world, reporters naturally emphasize coverage of water issues. The withdrawal of U.S. multinational Enron Corporation from the proposed $9 billion Karnali-Chisapani Hydropower project and its expected return this year, for instance, is one headline that has dominated the news. Other long-running stories involve the Mahakali Project, a hotly debated joint venture with India, and the Tso-Rolpa, a glacier lake in central Nepal that threatens to flood hundreds of villages.

A more balanced approach is needed, says Dr. Alton Byers, director of Appalachian Programs and Spruce Knob Mountain Research Center of the U.S.-based The Mountain Institute. ''The Western media, by highlighting the trash alone, has ignored the bigger picture of ecology and environment,'' he says.

At the same time, Byers adds, because most Sherpa households derive a significant portion of their income from tourism, the Nepali press is justified in looking at the bigger picture. Sherpas live on the southern slope of the Himalayas and often work as expedition guides.

''Isolating litter as a major problem has always impressed me as being somewhat misleading, a cosmetic problem compared to the more serious issues,'' says Byers, who has been working in the Everest region since 1973.

The Everest region is recognized by biologists as the "last pure ecological seed" of the Nepal Himalaya. Its eastern section has been designated one of the 10 most threatened biological treasures on Earth in part because of the accumulation of trash, which one estimate puts at 17 metric tons per kilometer of tourist trail on the mountain. In addition, the bodies of many of the 150 climbers who perished there were never recovered.

Clean-up efforts began in earnest five years ago, followed by measures to limit the number of climbers. Previously as many as 20 teams, comprised of more than 100 climbers and porters, were allowed to scale the mountain each season. Since August 1997, that number has been restricted to less than a half dozen teams, with seven members. A refundable environmental deposit, raised from $10,000 per expedition to $10,000 per person, has helped to reduce the buildup of trash. Visitors are instructed in ecotourism: ''take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints.''

But retrieving trash that has already accumulated on Everest has proved a Herculean task.

A locally initiated, non-commercial clean-up was undertaken in spring 1996 by the Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA) at considerable cost. The funds allotted for the effort, US$ 69,000, barely covered the expense and forced the NMA to abandon a more ambitious plan.

The debris removed by the team, including some dating back 50 years, was brought to Katmandu and sold at auction. Their efforts received enthusiastic coverage in the Nepali press. But for the most part, such stories are reported reluctantly, given that the majority of clean-up projects are undertaken by Western climbers working with Western sponsors.

''The coverage depends on who the sponsor is and their ability to influence particular media persons, rather than on the intensity and seriousness of the work,'' says Chiranjibi Kafle, an editor at the Katmandu Post. Kafle says that attitude is shortsighted, since the condition of Everest affects Nepal’s population more than anyone else.

After being overwhelmed by a series of political and humanitarian crises - seven changes in government in the last 10 years and an outbreak of famine, for instance - the Nepali media is showing a greater interest in specialized reporting. State-run radio and television programming frequently includes environmental reports aimed at fostering preservation of Everest, although critics say print media is preoccupied with politics and urban issues.

''Most of the newspapers in Nepal are political weeklies which thrive on sensationalism. They pay little attention to social and economic development, even less to reporting on the environment,'' says Bharat Koirala, executive director of the Nepal Press Institute (NPI).

Both the NPI and the Nepal Forum for Environmental Journalists (NEFEJ), formed in 1986, offer writing workshops, fellowships and awards to environmental journalists. The NEFEJ recently supported a journalist who covered the trash problem in the Khumbu region.

"However, environmental reporting on a regular basis is still not something we find in the media today," says Koirala.

But Mohan Mainali, an NEFEJ journalist, says, "The print and broadcast media have given enough attention to the issue.''

Ultimately at issue is how Nepali press covers environmental topics, not how much. The mountain's trash problem, Mainali and others say, should lead to much-needed coverage of more substantive stories, such as the environmental impact of a newly installed incinerator inthe Everest region, the government monitoring of trash removal, or the successful conservation of the Annapurna region.

Citation: "Preserving the Himalayas: Media Clash over Mountain of Trash in Nepal," Global Journalist, April-June, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 2. pp. 13-14.