Located on Darjeeling’s north-west boundary, the Singalila National Park borders Nepal to its west and Sikkim to its north. Singalila is a small park of 78.60 square kilometers with a 2200-3660 m elevation range. The park’s flora includes rhododendrons and coniferous species including temperate, broad leaf and subtropical variants. The famed Singalila ridge and its slopes are a medley of bamboo, oak, magnolia, hemlock, silver fir and rhododendron forests. Phalut and Sandakphu are two popular summits on the Singalila ridge. Indian and international tourists avail the services of organized treks to the ridge. Gorkhey is a village in the buffer of the Singalila National Park. Gorkhey is now a much patronized trek initiating point. “Green Gorkhey”, “beautiful village”, “A Lesser Known Beauty” are some typical online tourist platitudes. Such ‘beauty’ and other aesthetic and recreational opportunities for tourists are considered in conservation circles as a ‘cultural’ service of the forest ecosystem. But what are the roles of Gorkhey’s families in production and delivery of this cultural service? What are the implications of tourism for the wellbeing of Rai, Chettri and Sherpa families? Here is what the village has to say. Their opinions and observations largely pertain to economic benefits of tourism and related energy options; and an evaluation of socio-cultural implications of tourism.
Servicing and procurement characterizes Gorkhey’s tourism economy. Home stays offer lodging and food. Some men are occasionally hired as guides as tourists who trek usually arrive with a guide. A few men provide porter services and carry tourist luggage. The services of horses are also hired. Home stays or other families who cook meals for tourists also procure vegetables, meat and eggs from families who cultivate in homesteads and rear chickens. Not all families offer home stay facilities, and while some look forward to offering such services in future, a few others are constructing extra rooms with an intent to let out. While tourism is considered an alternative to agriculture that is currently stressed by wildlife raids, some families feel that it will be difficult to both offer home stay services and cultivate. Interestingly tourists are also considered beneficial as they carry medicines with them. Servicing tourists requires energy. Gorkhey’s current and aspiring home stay owners consider LPG cylinders a more sustainable option in both conservation and consumption terms. Home stays now combine LPG cylinders and fuel wood. LPG is not an easy energy source to procure. The labour of picking twigs and branches is now considered easier than transporting a heavy cylinder. Gorkhey experiences an energy quandary. Significant distance from the nearest town and market has also meant that people have continued to collect fuelwood as transporting LPG cylinders is laborious. Families mention their preference for LPG, but are constrained by state restrictions on infrastructural entitlement such as roads in reserve forests and protected areas. Park laws prohibit road-laying in forests, and LPG cylinders need to be carried from Bharang a distant town. This prohibitive drill has implied continued extraction of dry and fallen twigs and branches. As it stands now, some families feel that LPG is an affluent energy source.
While considering the social and cultural implications of tourist presence in Gorkhey, the community perceptions and observations of tourists appear approving and positive. Foreign and Indian tourists are observed to be more environment friendly than local people in their non-littering and litter-picking habits. People are categorical in their opinion that tourists are not detrimental to local culture. Tourism revenue is considered to enable children’s education. Gorkhey’s families value education.
The beautiful Gorkhey valley, a medley of farms, homesteads, streams and forests, reflect the farmer’s landscaping labour. The aesthetics that the tourists appreciate strongly signal people’s roles and efforts. Home stay, trek guide and horse renting services, along with meat and vegetable provisioning, make the recreational roles of Gorkhey families significant. It is in this sense that the cultural services of this part of the Singalila ecosystem, is co-produced. In other words, a combination of ecosystem and human functioning. Functioning is the extension (end-point) of what the Noble laureate Amartya Sen calls ‘Capabilities’. Human capabilities are fundamentally about what people are able to ‘be’ and ‘do’. Government welfare policy must be evaluated for what opportunities and choices it offers its citizens to do and be various things; in other words function and flourish. The government has provided tourism entrepreneurial opportunities to Gorkhey. And the community has chosen to use these opportunities well. But since Gorkhey is heterogeneous and socio-economic differences mean that not all residents are able to participate fully in home stay based economy, the government needs to pursue some targeted tourism based welfare schemes.
This perspective and many others were shared by Researchers from Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology (ATREE) in a dissemination and closure workshop for the project “Integrated Approaches to Adaptive Resilience – based Management of Forests for Supporting Agro-systems in the Darjeeling Himalayas” supported by the TATA Trusts. This was held on 25th of March 2017 in Darjeeling and was. attended by academics and NGOs from Darjeeling, Siliguri, Guwahati, Tezpur and Agartala, . The purpose was to share findings of the five-year research work in eight villages near the Singalila National Park and Senchel Wildlife Sanctuary.
Siddharth Krishnan, Ph.D
Siddhartha (Sidd) Krishnan’s is a Fellow at ATREE-Bangalore. A sociologist by training, disciplinary and conceptual interests are in historicizing environmental sociology and sociologizing environmental history.
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