“We have no choice. I mean, it will lead to our own extinction if we lose 50% of the biodiversity on Earth in the next 50 to 100 years.”
This is a quote shared by Andrew Pask, an epigeneticist at the University of Melbourne, about attempts to “de-extinguish” the thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian tiger (Cynocephalus thylacinus). According to him, in the face of the rapidly progressing biodiversity crisis, new approaches such as the resuscitation of extinct animals are necessary.
Viewed in this light, the North Eastern Region of India (NER) is blessed with immense biodiversity and is one of the most culturally diverse regions in the world. The region which is home to hundreds of different tribes and communities stretches across the eastern Himalayas, the low plains of Brahmaputra and its tributaries as well as the low hills of Meghalaya.
Geographically, it is a paradise that has evolved over millennia and is now divided into eight North Eastern (NE) states of India. It’s no wonder it’s one of the most important biodiversity hotspots in the world. It contributes to over a third of India’s own biodiversity resources.
The history of the NE states and its peoples is replete with traditional stories passed down orally over the centuries to its people. The language and folklore not only make it diverse and rich in culture, but also ensure that the way people have lived and survived over the centuries gives a diverse and rich flavor to the various cuisines of the Northeast.
It is the kaleidoscope of multi-faceted cultures to be found in this region which is home to some of the highest mountain peaks, such as Kanchenjunga to the plains of Assam regularly flooded by one of the longest river systems. and the most powerful in the world which begins at the foot of Mount Kailash in Tibet. Thus, the NER is home to a diverse population of people who over the centuries have migrated from all over the world.
This wealth of diversity leads us to understand why the NER is one of the best places to build ecotourism products that will valorize ecosystem services (ESS). The cultural context is all the more important as it ensures a harmonious construction until the end of this century.
SES are the many and varied benefits to humans provided by the natural environment and healthy ecosystems. In this context, ecosystems can be defined as communities or groups of living organisms that live and interact with each other in a specific environment, such as agro, forest, grassland, and water. They provide four broad categories of services, namely supplying, for example, food and water, regulating, for example, climate and disease control, supporting, for example, nutrient cycles, and food production. oxygen and cultural benefits, eg spiritual and recreational.
In this essay, we explore how ecotourism and SSE are one and the same. Ecotourism is a way to help the local community sustain itself in the modern world while maintaining a sustainable SES. Community value and ESS provisioning are most important.
A particularity of our ESS is to ensure the maintenance of the availability of water for all. Sunita Narain describes this as follows:
“This decade we can put into practice everything we have learned to turn the tide of water history in India, because in this decade we will see the revenge of nature as the impacts of climate change increase. We must step up our work to invest in local water systems to capture every drop of rain to build local resilience against drought.We must also do this in our cities – lakes and ponds are the sponges that will allow us to harvest the rains and ensure that they do not turn into wasted water.Then we must protect our forest and our green spaces because this is how the groundwater will be recharged. water stress, we must ensure that waste water – waste water – is not only treated, but also recycled and reused It is here that the water bodies we protect in our cities – the same ponds and reservoirs we use to divert and harvest rainwater – could be used to channel treated wastewater and in turn recharge groundwater. Only this approach can ensure water security.
This is the challenge we face, but can ecotourism deliver on its promise? Ecotourism involves conservation, communities and interpretation. It aims to provide effective economic incentives for the conservation and enhancement of biocultural diversity and heritage. At the same time, it is an effective tool to empower local communities around the world by building local capacity and increasing employment opportunities, thereby reducing poverty by mitigating the impacts of climate change on communities. for sustainable development.
These dynamics are illustrated in the Ecotourism Plan for Hima Malai Sohmat, East Khasi Hills in Meghalaya. This plan is launched as part of the global development cooperation project “Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in Agrarian Landscapes” implemented by Deutsche Gesellschaftfür Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH and funded under the International Climate Initiative ( IKI) of the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection (BMUV), German Government.
Malai Sohmat is home to unique natural beauty with water features, caves, cliffs, streams and waterfalls but more importantly is home to the Western Hoolock Gibbon, a primate in the gibbon family, Hylobatidae. The species is found in Assam, Mizoram and Meghalaya, listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and is among the most endangered primates in the world.
As Andrew Pask’s quote at the start showed, it is vitally important that we take special care of our habitat, wildlife and other aspects of biodiversity to sustain the biological life of Hima. Malai Sohmat. Essentially, the ecosystem services that have sustained and nurtured the people of Hima Malai Sohmat for millennia need to be nurtured and not further exploited.
The comprehensive Ecotourism Plan Report supported by GIZ India and coordinated by the Integrated Mountain Initiative (IMI) describes the concepts of designing a successful ecotourism plan and is based on how to simultaneously conserve and generate income for a village. This is a sustainable approach that, once adopted, will pave the way for greater resilience in communities.
Ideally, ecotourism can thrive when tourists and the local host community behave in a socially responsible manner and care emotionally about preserving the local environment and culture. However, planning and practicing ecotourism is fraught with challenges.
An increase in the number of tourists can hamper freedom of cultural expression within the local community and threaten its indigenous culture. In many cases, travel agencies and tours are externally controlled, with locals hired only as tour guides, which makes them feel objectified and encourages stereotyping.
Despite all efforts to minimize environmental impacts, tourist flows affect nature, especially in newly developed and untouched areas. The best-protected forest trails are still littered with plastic waste by tourists unless strict control is maintained on waste entering and leaving the area. Tourists can scare prey and disrupt a predator’s hunting habits, or cause birds and animals to move to less disturbed areas. Additionally, animals may become habituated to human presence and begin to feed on trash left behind by tourists, leading to human conflict with wildlife.
The increased demand for food and water can stress the ecosystem of the region. Plant life and soil are also affected. There are limits to the number of tourists that can be accommodated in an ecotourism destination. Therefore, the importance of conducting capacity studies remains a vital aspect for monitoring impacts on ecotourism. The mode of travel also has an impact on the environment, for example through fossil fuels and noise pollution. Lake Tsomgo and Nathula Pass, two very popular tourist destinations in Sikkim, see more than 1,000 vehicles climb the snowy heights (3,750 and 4,300 meters) every day in high season. The negative effects of diesel exhaust on increasing the melting of surrounding glaciers have yet to be investigated.
The provision of ecotourism services such as accommodation through homestays and lodges, local cuisine and ethnic cuisine, nature guiding and interpretation services, production of handicrafts traditional and memorabilia, requires the community to come together in a cohesive way, strongly supported by government and NGOs. This requires constant capacity building accompanied by financial, marketing and political support. Most of these initiatives work on a project basis and once the project is completed, the community is left to fend for itself. Unless a strong and unified community with built-in resilience for sustainability is in place, few ecotourism service providers can survive. In this context, the role of ecotourism entrepreneurs is very valuable and important.
A study of successful ecotourism entrepreneurs showed that those who understand their customers and have good marketing skills are successful in attracting growing numbers of customers across the country with many repeat visits, sometimes simply by word of mouth.
Ecotourism is inherently intended to bring economic benefits to local communities. As a destination’s popularity grows, market forces come into play and somewhere the balance between a sustainable source of income and what is manageable is upset. Accommodation is beginning to proliferate, competitive pricing is driving rates down, standards and services are being lowered as well as visitor satisfaction and, on top of that, the guiding principles of ecotourism are being thrown to the winds. An example of this are homestays in parts of Sikkim and Darjeeling. The success of ecotourism can also lead to its downfall.
Despite all the above-mentioned challenges, ecotourism remains the best bet for areas with high biodiversity like the northeastern region of India. However, the design and, more importantly, the mentoring and ownership of communities and entrepreneurs is a crucial prerequisite. Constant monitoring and evaluation of compliance with the guiding principles of ecotourism by all stakeholders helps to correct course. If successful, ecosystem services will continue to thrive with possible regeneration in degraded landscapes.
About the Authors: Prem Das Rai is the President of Integrated Mountain Initiative (IMI) while Rajendra P. Gurung is CEO of Ecotourism & Conservation Society of Sikkim (ECOSS)
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal and do not represent GIZ as an organization)