Community-based Ecotourism: A model from Sikkim

P.D. RAI
Chairman, Ecotourism & Conservation Society of Sikkim

 

Sikkim is known for three major things—its natural splendour, peace and harmony that its people cherish deeply, and for its foray into tourism in a big way, ushering in an economic boom. It is in fact the best performing state in Northeast India in this sector and has been winning awards and accolades for many years now.

Ecotourism in Sikkim was first looked upon in a pilot study in 1996 as part of a small project initiated by The Mountain Institute, USA, and the GB Pant Institute for Himalayan Environment and Development. It was called the Sikkim Biodiversity and Ecotourism Project. The outcome of that program was some trained manpower and the concept of ecotourism as a workable model. An organization was formed as an NGO in Yuksom in West Sikkim called the KCC – The Kangchendzonga Conservation Committee. Today this organization is the gateway to good practices in the severely overused Dzongri trail which leads to the foot of the Mt. Kanchanjanga.

Ecotourism & Conservation Society of Sikkim (ECOSS) was formed in 2001 as a direct result of much consultation amongst civil society members based on the above. Fearing a deluge of visitors, leading to devastation of the fragile eco-system and biodiversity of the State, concerned citizens came together to roll out an alternative developmental model. Thus the primary mandate of ECOSS has been to build awareness and help in formulating an eco-tourism business model which the people of the State can embrace. Happily, after so many years of efforts, the State has taken a decision to promote only ecotourism. A policy is being drawn up with the help of ECOSS.

2002 was declared by the UN as the International Year of Ecotourism as recognition of the importance of Ecotourism as a growing sub-sector and a sustainability option.

ECOSS, in partnership with The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) and the Ford Foundation, held the first International Conference on Ecotourism for South Asia in Sikkim in January 2002. Sikkim hosted this event successfully. This was one of the feeder conferences to Quebec.

Thereafter that year there was the UN Ecotourism Declaration in Quebec in October piloted by UNEP. This document forms the basis of ecotourism the world over.

The definition of ecotourism is “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and brings sustained benefits to local people” – this is from TIES.

In Sikkim, ECOSS has piloted four Community-based Ecotourism Projects. These are in North Sikkim in Dzongu, in East Sikkim in Pastanga, in West Sikkim in Yuksom and in South Sikkim in Kewzing. These have been working for sometime and driven by, in part, funding from UNESCO.

The learning from these projects can now be replicated all over the region.

Let us now look at three key questions:

Is there a way peace processes can be exported to other parts of the Northeast from Sikkim?
Can we build frameworks and processes within that to make peace an incentive?
Can we embed in the above sustainability processes the key externalities of globalization and climate change?

In a meeting with the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission not so long ago we had proposed that we spend money in the next plan to replicate at least 2000 of these kinds of models all over the northeastern region. This would make a positive impact. It makes sense when all that we have to do is to build capacity and organize the social capital to be monetized. We need to bring in some equity in the form of capacity building and market linkages. We then need to build appropriate tourism products and position the same in the marketplace. It is estimated that each project will just require about Rs. 30 lakh. If we monetize some of the social capital as contribution from the communities then the total investment in these projects is not going to be more than Rs. 800 crore over the next plan. The number of livelihoods estimated, both direct and indirect, will be in the order of about 5.5 lakh. Thus investment per livelihood is at about Rs. 15,000 only. This, to our mind, can be done.

It is really scaling it up to a level to see the impact on the ground. Impacts would certainly be in terms of conservation of the biodiversity as well as the generation of livelihoods in a sustainable manner.

NERCORMP-IFAD project in Shillong has done some excellent extension and village infrastructure building work there. It has shown that peace can be an incentive if grass root stakeholders are the relations of insurgent groups. Building a revenue model for the villages through community leadership based on eco-tourism is definitely possible. This has been demonstrated in recent active deliberations at the grassroots level with ECOSS at places like Ukhrul in Manipur.

Another interesting example is from Manas, the militants there and poachers. There is a model of ecotourism which has shown that erstwhile poachers are now guardians of the habitat since it brings in revenue through ecotourism.

The northeastern region is much more of an extension of Sikkim in terms of the biodiversity resources. It is the bio-resources epicenter of the country. Thanks to the way of life and sparse population, the biodiversity to some extent has been preserved. Furthermore, the varied cultural traits and different types of people who live in this part of the world add huge colour to the traditional and cultural equity of this region. Thus the Identity of the people can be harnessed as a resource with this kind of intervention. When this is done, development naturally would follow.

Thus, it is the right opportunity to extend the work of ECOSS in Sikkim to the rest of the region. Already some of the forays made have yielded positive experiences, both by us as well as those who have received the training/capacity building. From river dolphins to Naga tribalism to birds in Arunachal Pradesh, there are a host of places we have already done some work. But due to the lack of resources and a coordinated effort we have not been able to scale up.

Finally, there often is the argument about insurgency and other disruptions to the smooth flow of tourists. There is also the question of the gigantic task of marketing. These are well within the ambit of being managed. We need to manage the risk and we need to promote the region well. Sikkim has done this successfully.

Yes it is possible to do community-based ecotourism. This can be the harbinger for a peace process as well. This is one way of exporting a peace initiative from Sikkim.