Thursday, September 08, 2005
Garbage dump turned into World Heritage Site
Just three years ago, the valley was a garbage dump. It took the extraordinary effort of a forest officer Jyotsna Sitling to change it into a world heritage site.
The Valley of Flowers, ensconced within the upper Himalayan ridges at 3,200 to 6,675 metres over 87.5 sq. km, had its own cachet of conservation concerns. About five lakh Sikh pilgrims converge at the Hemkund Sahib shrine here from June to October every year. The 19-km long route to the shrine is through the Bhyundar Valley, which is also the access to the Valley of Flowers. The ecosystem of Bhyundar was under great pressure because of the accumulation of garbage and plastic waste, said Srikant Chandola, chief wildlife warden of Uttaranchal.
Sitling's department prepared a conservation plan for the entire region. One of the first things was to clear an 87-tonne pile of garbage (which matched the surrounding peaks!) from the buffer zone of Nanda Devi biosphere. The work required synergy between many agencies and involved sensitive livelihood and ecological issues. Hence, Sitling's department struck upon a participatory approach. They crafted mini pockets of 40 van (forest) panchayats and 60 Mahila Mangal Dals to make conservation a socially and economically self-alleviating experience for the local people. The disposal of garbage involved no burning, burying or draining of the refuse through the water gradient. The Mahila Mangal Dal packed all non-biodegradable waste in 14,000 sacks and transported them on mule back to Govind Ghat, 19 km away, for recycling.
The department has formed an eco-development committee to maintain the ecology of the Bhyundar Valley. Local youth have formed 'Friends of The Valley of Flower Group' to promote environmental cause. They have also been trained to become guides for tourists in the valley. The community was trained to grow and preserve medicinal plants, exotic condiments and traditional crops. This ultimately helped prevent poaching and illegal removal of herbs from nearby forests. Local people were also encouraged to document and preserve their culture and folklore. The department underscored cleanliness in home stay facilities with the flavour of exquisite remoteness.
Slowly, the region's ecosystem started showing signs of regeneration. Egged on by the Archaeological Survey Of India, Sitling's department nominated the Valley of Flowers for the UN World Heritage list in 2002. Nowhere else in the Himalayan region will a tourist find a trove of over 500 flowering plants in profusion (from May to October) within a compact 87 km.
The UN team visited the region in September 2004 to assess the conservation status, its management strategy and the community interface in the conservation of the two parks. On July 14 this year, Sitling got a call from Unesco informing her about the world heritage status to the valley. The World Heritage Site list includes 812 properties which form a part of the unique cultural and natural heritage of the earth. Of these, 628 are cultural sites, 160 natural sites and 24 mixed sites.
The valley's international status has other positive spin-offs, like attracting more international tourists and global conservation funds. Not to mention a thrilled local populace who can now go back to boasting, How green is my valley.