Paul Deegan says it’s time for individual mountain travellers to take personal responsibility for the welfare of porters and the environment - even if you use a tour operator.
15 years ago I co-led an environmental expedition, with mountaineer John Barry, to clean-up 35 years of accumulated rubbish at the foot of Mount Everest. This was 1988, before the green revolution had caught on in the UK, and John described the 45 people who joined us on the trip to Nepal as the world’s highest dustmen and women.
By the standards of the day we did a reasonable job, burning some of the trash at high altitude and burying the rest down crevasses: practices that are no longer an option for today’s enlightened and environmentally-conscious trekkers and climbers. Nevertheless, our project generated awareness in the media which ranged from ITN’s News at Ten (on the night of the US Presidential Election) to a column in The Baghdad Times. If nothing else, our project drew attention to the mountain environment and the impact that humans have on it.
A decade and a half later, and we know so much more about protecting the mountain environment, and how best to respect the people who live in the hills and valleys. Plenty of resulting theory has been written on ‘best practice’, but how relevant are these notions when applied to everyday life on a trek or expedition?
Take cooking fuel. Firewood is heavily frowned upon, as a heavy dependence on it can lead to green wood being cut when the supply of dead wood is exhausted. One obvious alternative for camping groups is liquid fuel, usually in the form of paraffin (kerosene). However, spilt paraffin can be an environmental hazard. In addition, promoting the use of liquid fuel in land-locked countries (such as Nepal) who are dependent on their supply from a larger neighbour is not necessarily a positive step. Bottled gas is sometimes available, but its weight and cost prohibits its use when compared to wood and liquid fuel.
Then there is rubbish itself. Should it be dealt with on-site, carried out to the nearest village or air-freighted back to the UK at the end of the trip? Every option has its advantages and disadvantages. In 1999, I led an expedition to a previously unexplored massif in the Pamir mountains, close to the border of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and China. Before departure, we minimised the amount of packaging in order to leave us with the minimum amount of rubbish to deal with at the end of the trip. Once the expedition had begun, we dug shallow pits for human and biodegradable waste, burnt paper and card at the relatively low altitude of Base Camp, and divided non-burnable items into stuff that had come with us from the UK, and wrappings bought in-country. The UK rubbish (amounting to 20kg) returned with us at the end of the expedition, whilst locally-acquired litter went back to the city of Tashkent with our Uzbek support staff.
Not all our attempts to minimise the expedition’s environmental footprint were successful: Base Camp was situated close to a small lake, which we nearly drained in order to provide ourselves with water for drinking and cooking. And our attempts to defecate inside plastic bags during the ascents (in order to remove all trace of our passing) proved to be something of a messily hit-and-miss affair.
However, it’s not just the environment that needs thought and attention. Of critical importance are the sensitive issues that surround the employment of local people. Porters, mulers and yak herders (to name but a few) form the backbone of many treks and expeditions. How much money represents a fair wage? What quality of clothing should they be issued with? How comprehensive does their insurance need to be?
And in the final analysis, just whose responsibility is it to see that minimum standards towards local people and the mountain environment are met and preferably exceeded?
The person who organises his or her own trips without the support of a tour operator will often feel compelled into taking responsibility for finding solutions to these and other issues: indeed, in some countries there is a legal requirement to do so. However, in many destinations only a moral responsibility to maintain standards rests with the individual. During a trip to the Himalaya in 1993, I circumvented the tour operator net and hired porters directly from a village. We equipped each man with footwear, sunglasses and plastic sheeting to augment his own clothing. Had one of them suffered an accident or injury, the onus would have been on us, the members of the expedition, to take financial responsibility for his long-term welfare and that of his dependents.
However, in the majority of cases, the expedition organiser or the individual trekker will at some point use the services of a UK or locally-based commercial agency. As soon as the financial transaction for services are agreed upon, there is an often overwhelming temptation to wash our hands of any further responsibility towards the environment, or the people who may be employed by the agency to carry loads, cook or guide for us. After all, we pay to have rubbish taken away from our doorsteps and most of us don’t give a second thought as to where it goes or how it is disposed of, so why should it be any different on a trek in a foreign land? As a result, many trekkers give their trash (including toxic used batteries) over to eager-to-please guides, at which point its disposal becomes the local person’s responsibility.
Unsurprisingly, the hillsides on many popular trekking routes have been turned into open rubbish dumps, full of plastic wrappers and empty bottles of water. In so many countries there is simply nowhere else for it to go. The same abdication of responsibility can often be applied to porter welfare. I’m not talking here about the confident and well-dressed English-speaking local guides, but rather the (often poorly-educated) hill people who are employed on a week-by-week basis to carry heavy loads. As the International Porter Protection Group (IPPG) reports on a sadly regular basis, it is not uncommon for porters who struggle with life-threatening altitude illness to be paid off and dismissed at high altitudes. Left to fend for themselves, many of the porters treated in this inhumane way perish or suffer long-term disabilities.
In 1999, I led a commercial trek to Kilimanjaro, and made it my business to enquire about the health of the local guides and porters on a regular basis. At one stage, a porter came and found me, and complained of symptoms that suggested the onset of moderate altitude illness. I was able to liaise with the senior local guide in order to have the man accompanied down to a safe altitude, and he subsequently made a full recovery. However, some western tour leaders and their clients never find out about sickness in a porter as such matters are normally dealt with ‘behind close doors’ by the local guides so that the leader and the clients are not bothered or alarmed.
Organisations like Tourism Concern and the IPPG have in recent years highlighted the plight of porters, and publicly named the commercial tour companies who maintain acceptable standards of pay and welfare for their local employees. However, the ultimate power to raise standards still further rests with us, the paying punters. If we quiz operators on their policies, refuse to be appeased by lip service, and demand to see written commitments to local employees as well as to the mountain environment, then standards will inevitably rise.
Higher standards will benefit everyone involved. A tour operator that invests in its staff is also investing in its own future, as happy staff more often than not result in happy clients, who are more likely to re-book with the same organisation in the years to come. Similarly, a cleaner mountain environment is more likely to attract additional tourists, resulting in an increase in earnings for companies, their staff and local communities.
At the same time, clients must be prepared to only book with companies which are working to raise the quality of their product, even if this means paying a few dollars more. Once on the trip, we all have the moral right to observe whether the local staff on the ground are adhering to the codes published in the glossy brochures. Running treks and climbs in remote destinations is not easy and from time-to-time standards may be compromised. However, a company that recognises its own limitations and welcomes comments from its clients so that services and standards can be maintained and improved is to be applauded.
We all have the power to change things in the mountains for the better, by voting with our hard-earned cash.
It is up to each of us to cast our votes wisely.