Journey of a Self Proclaimed Advocate for the Himalayas

TASHI GURUNG, Daayitwa Fellow 2021

Inundated with thoughts, my mind wandered around and across dimensions while I forcefully tried to fall asleep. Continuously rolling right and left, exercising breathing techniques I learned from watching youtube, and even trying to count imaginary white sheep with long circular horns failed me. After several failed attempts to fall asleep, I get a notification on my cell phone that is placed strategically upside down next to my pillow. I resisted reaching out for the phone to avert the risk of insomnia. After a whole 13 seconds of irresistible struggle, I checked my phone. The time was 3:39 am and it was an email from Daayitwa Nepal. The title of the email was “DNPPF 2021 Decision”. A while ago I applied for the Daayitwa Nepal Public Policy Fellowship (DNPPF) 2021. The fellowship was intended to enable the youths of Nepal to collaborate with the government to conduct policy research and promote evidence-based policy decisions. The fellowship would allow me to work with the ministry and have a shot at making a real impact, beyond the four walls of academia. Nervous and anxious, I was apprehensive about the content of the email. But, to my surprise, I read the email and found out I have been selected for the fellowship at the National Planning Commission (NPC). What caught my attention was a sentence that said, “we believe in your passion and potential to contribute to our nation’s progress.” That is all I have ever wanted, that is all I have worked for to this day, that is all I have ever hoped to have achieved during my time on this earth. How did I get to this point? Let’s go back 25 years.

I come from a remote Himalayan village called Lo-manthang, Mustang, a culturally and geographically unique region that is often neglected by the central government of Nepal. While my family lacks financial resources, we are rich with values, beliefs, and traditions. When I was five, my uncle, a monk, taught me the value of Tibetan Buddhism; a deep spiritual concern for the welfare of all living beings and the earth as a whole. Resources are scarce in my village; we are conditioned to pay attention to every grain of rice and every opportunity that knocks on our door. Education was my knock. I vividly remember the proverb my elementary school teacher repeatedly pitched; बन्दुक भन्दा कलम बलियो, which means “a pen is more powerful than a gun”. Later on, I would learn about Nelson Mandel and his wise words, particularly, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” With the values instilled in me during my early ages, I realized the importance of education. It is only through education, I believe, I would be able to enhance vital research and analytical skills that can enable me to have a better understanding of the dynamics of designing effective policy solutions to complex social, economical, and environmental issues. The process of getting an education does not come without its struggles and sacrifices in a community that adulates quick financial stability, often earning me the title of “black sheep”. One can only imagine the comments I get when I say I am a student and have been for the past 25 years. Yet, I remain nonchalant about all the criticisms and continue to be a student, one that is interested in the nexus of climate change, tourism, and the economy.

The Himalayas are also known as the third pole as they comprise the third-largest amount of snow on the earth after the Arctic and Antarctica. They are also known as The Water Towers of Asia. With global climate change, the temperatures on the Tibetan Plateau in the Himalayas are rising substantially compared to other regions. The Himalayan people are far from being the top contributors to this climate change, yet they suffer its hardest consequences. Himalayan communities across the world are already at a disadvantage geographically because of their remoteness and isolation from the central government. As US senator Bernie Sanders said in his presidential campaign, “climate change is not just an environmental issue, it is a social justice issue.” Studies show that communities struggle to adapt to the changing environment because of limited information, poor or no access to services, lack of infrastructure, lack of capacity on the part of the central government, an unfavorable geographical location, lack of external support, etc. Hence, rural mountain communities in developing nations such as Mustang in Nepal have very low adaptive capacity. In addition to the many existing problems like poverty, the changing climate has exacerbated the numerous difficulties of the day-to-day life of people in the mountains. 

During the summer of 2018 when I traveled to Upper Mustang to conduct my pilot research on climate change and its consequences, I found out the locals are more curious about the future of tourism in the region. Like other Himalayan communities, before the inception of the tourism industry, Upper Mustang livelihoods revolved around three occupations; agriculture, animal husbandry, and trans-Himalayan trade. I found out that limited livelihood options and harsh environmental conditions have made the people of Upper Mustang more vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change. My findings suggest that due to this combination of climatic, economic and political factors, mountain communities in developing nations like Nepal have a low adaptive capacity and are forced to adopt livelihood options that are less vulnerable to climate change. Across Himalayan regions, there is a swift shift from agriculture and animal husbandry to tourism as a perceivably less risky and more lucrative economic investment. Consequently, people resort to tourism - an industry that has become a primary mode of income generation.  

When it comes to the economy of Nepal, the contribution of the tourism industry is the indisputable chart-topper. In the year 2019, tourism contributed to 7.9% of Nepal’s GDP amounting to Rs. 240.7 billion in revenue and supported more than 1.95 million jobs. Tourism in Nepal has contributed to the growth in GDP. GDP is also the key macroeconomic indicator. I was placed at the NPC, on the topic "Assessing Economic Recovery of Nepal from COVID-19." This placement was my first choice and I firmly believed I would be able to execute high-quality work for the agency because I have a vested interest in the nexus of economy and tourism in the context of social, political, and environmental transformation. In addition, at the core of my academic research is the institutional analysis of tourism in the Himalayan region with a particular focus on the case study of Upper Mustang, Nepal. Throughout the initial phase of my fellowship, I have had the opportunity to engage with my mentor, supervisor from NPC, and DNPPF alumni and discuss the research design. My research will explore the nexus of fiscal policy, labor market, and the tourism industry on the road to economic recovery post-COVID-19. Based on the research, some evidence-based policies will be recommended to spur innovative policy intervention in the tourism sector. 

Daayitwa firmly believes in the role of youth for sustained economic growth. Not everyone is as privileged as me and has the opportunities I have had. Therefore, I believe, people like me have a moral obligation to my people, to my country. I desire to use my time during this fellowship to hone my research skills, nurture collaborative work, adaptive leadership, and most importantly to ensure the hardest-hit demographic post-COVID-19 are the primary beneficiaries. As I turn back and look at my childhood, I realize I am still doing the same thing the monk uncle in my family taught me: work for the welfare of all living beings and the earth as a whole.

For An Enterprising Nepal