Sherpa livelihoods, mountaineering and natural resources in Khumbu Himal, Nepal

The names Khumbu, Sherpa and Mount Everest have been entrenched in the minds of adventurous youth and mountain aficionados for at least half a century. By the mid-1990s, the continuing increase of mountaineering tourism meant that visitors to the Sherpa homeland outnumbered inhabitants by about three or four to one, and the present ratio may be as high as six to one.

China’s closure of the frontier with Tibet in 1959 caused another major change in the human ecology of the Khumbu by bringing a flood of Tibetan refugees into the area, some of whom stayed. It also posed a challenge to Sherpa livelihoods, which had depended on free access to Tibet for trade and yak grazing. Disaster was averted by the Sherpas’ exploitation of employment opportunities for high-altitude guides, cooks and porters.

As numbers of visitors continued to increase, the Government of Nepal saw a need to strengthen its control over the area. The nationalization of Nepal’s forests in the 1960s and the establishment of Sagamartha National Park threatened Sherpa autonomy and control of mountain environmental resources.

The government’s campaign to establish a national park was based on the recommendations of Western experts, who held the traditional view of national parks as untouched wilderness areas. Rumours spread that all Sherpa communities would be evicted to make way for the park.

Many reports were disseminated, inferring that deforestation was rampant within the proposed park boundaries and pushing to accelerate the political process for official park designation before landscapes degraded. The supposed deforestation was related to several factors: indigenous population growth, with increased demands for fuelwood and timber for house construction; tree cutting for cooking and tourists’ recreational fires; and a construction boom for small hotels and teahouses.

The claims about deforestation were found to be exaggerations that were based on inaccurate and biased information. A comparative analysis of vegetation cover in 1955 to 1962 with that in 1985 showed that although juniper woodlands were considerably thinner near the tree line, most forested areas in the Khumbu were relatively unchanged. It is now believed that the alarmist findings were aimed at having all local people evicted from the park.

Nevertheless, there has been some change in the human ecology of Khumbu. Since the 1960s, the transition from a trading-plus-subsistence farming economy to a trekking-tourist dominated way of life has had far-reaching effects. For instance, the use of livestock - yak and yak-cow crossbreeds - in portering for trekking groups has radically changed the pattern of transhumance, as well as the crossbreed mix itself. Today, animals are less frequently grazed in distant, higher-altitude pastures, and more in the villages where trekking groups hire them. This has affected vegetation growth patterns, crop management and fuelwood collection. Employment for young male Sherpa in high-altitude expeditions has reduced the availability of farm labour, as has the outflow of young Sherpa from the Khumbu to operate small hotels and trekking company offices in Kathmandu. The loss of male workers for local agriculture - including through mountaineering deaths and injuries - means that female household heads left behind have to employ temporary labour, usually from other ethnic groups from the lowlands. These changes have substantially enhanced Sherpa living conditions, albeit with inequalities among villages, depending on their proximity to the main trekking routes.

Adapted from J. Ives. 2001. Highland-lowland interactive systems.

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last updated:  Tuesday, March 27, 2007