Launched in 2002, and officially incorporated as a private community-owned enterprise in 2008, the Mountain Shepherds Initiative (MSI) represents a grassroots effort to evolve a new model of tourism in the High Himalayas. Operating in the vicinity of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve (NDBR) in the North Indian state of Uttarakhand, MSI’s vision is to create a model of sustainable tourism in which the community is not just a mere beneficiary, but emerges as the prime stakeholder in the region’s tourism map. MSI is an adventure tourism enterprise offering innovative treks and ventures including high altitude yoga for its clients.
How did the Mountain Shepherds Initiative come about? How did it gain momentum?
The Mountain Shepherds Initiative (MSI) germinated in Lata, a highaltitude Himalayan village situated in Niti Valley, near India’s border with Tibet. The people of the region, which forms the Western boundary of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, belong to the Bhotiya tribe, an Indo-Tibetan ethnic group.
Two events had a significant impact on the economy of the region. The first was the India-China war in 1962 resulting in the closure of the age old cross border trade relationship with Tibet. The other was declaration of the Nanda Devi region as a National Park in 1982.
The announcement aimed at protecting the place from further ecological damage due to mountaineering and trekking expeditions to the immensely popular Himalayan peak Nanda Devi and allowing the ecosystem to heal unfortunately had a deep negative impact on the local economy.
Restrictions were imposed on the local communities, from grazing their herds, practicing religious rights inside the core zone, harvesting medicinal plants to collecting “fallen wood”.
What was extremely upsetting was the fact that these restrictions were imposed unilaterally, without consultation with the communities or any consideration regarding local livelihoods.
In May 2001, after the formation of the new state of Uttarakhand, the state government considered reopening the park to limited tourism activity. This gave birth to the Nanda Devi Campaign in Lata Village.
The Bhotiya community members of Niti Valley held a workshop elaborating their community-based ecotourism proposals to achieve a new relationship between tourists and the local communities based on equity and mutual learning.
In 2002, Dhan Singh Rana, a community leader from Lata village in Chamoli district, and I joined hands with people from the nearby villages in the region to launch the Mountain Shepherds initiative.
In 2003, the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve (NDBR) was partially opened, with the government allowing 500 visitors to enter a small segment of the park’s core zone every year (although the peak itself would remain off limits), a policy decision which paved the path for the region’s economic rejuvenation.
MSI is about efforts at grass root levels to evolve a new model of community-owned tourism and sustainability of livelihoods in the Garhwal Himalayas. It is attempting the monumental task of establishing a future without human exploitation and environmental degradation. As a development role model, its success will have an important bearing on the fate of the Himalayas and its people.