Driving Nepal


Photograph of Kathmandu by Tricycle via Flickr (cc)

From Yale Environment 360:

Underlying the concern about Nepal’s runaway road construction is the impact of opening up large, relatively unspoiled regions of the Himalayan nation to development. Pasang Sherpa, a former member of Parliament from far northeastern Nepal, has catalyzed a political consensus to delay road construction into the fragile high valleys of the Mewa River drainage area, in the shadows of Mount Kanchenjunga (28,169 feet) and Mount Makalu (27,766 feet). This biodiverse landscape features an abundance of alpine meadows and lakes, snow leopard, blue sheep, and wolves. The area is the source of rich origin myths for the local Limbu and Dhokpya Sherpa ethnic groups. They harvest sizable quantities of dwarf rhododendron and dwarf juniper, and transport it by yak train for regional sale as incense. Road access would expedite this exploitation.

Road construction presents a rural development conundrum: for decades, foreign aid programs have strived to include local villagers’ labor, skills, and decision-making at the forefront of their assistance. “But when heavy equipment is introduced on the scene, that becomes a useless development model,” notes Sonam Lama, an architect and filmmaker from the valley of Tsum, located within the Manaslu Conservation Area. “The villagers are told to stand aside while the dozers and excavators do all the work. It’s a one-way process, with no transfer of knowledge or training, and no employment for the local people. Then it’s left to us to repair the incidental damage, and maintain it all.”

This winter, Lama is convening a road awareness workshop for rural politicians, villagers, and religious leaders. They are up against Nepal’s well-funded imperative of infrastructure expansion. As the country hurtles forward, Lama is one of few people tapping the brakes. “We need to ask some very basic questions,” he says. “What do we mean by ‘development’? For whom? Who is making the decisions? And on whose terms are we going to transition into the future?”

“Nepal’s Road-Building Spree Pushes into the Heart of the Himalayas”, Broughton Coburn, Yale Environment 360