Part II: Green Initiatives As Messages for Awareness
Historically, Nepal has largely depended on agriculture to sustain themselves. Farmers, with livestock and a multitude of crops, could be found in each region - from the Himalayas to the hills to the Terai plains. Nepali people would cultivate just enough on the land to live from, to sustain their families. They would wait for Monsoon season to harvest rice, the largest staple food across the country, constituting approximately 20 per cent of the nation’s total calorie intake.
Nagarkot Hills. 2019 © Astara van der Jagt
What was harvested was eaten. What was left over was given to the animals. Anything that was thrown away, they received from earth. The trash, in plainer terms, was organic. This habit of throwing away leftovers back onto earth carried on throughout the decades, despite the introduction of plastics, paper and metals. Not maliciously. Just without fully understanding the consequences.
Until three years ago, Mr. Basnet, the CEO of The Explore Nepal Ltd. organized a 15 kg clean-up of the Bagmati River, which flows through the Kathmandu Valley (KV) and separates two of the valley’s biggest cities: Kathmandu and Lalitpur. Every Saturday morning, volunteers would gather along the holy river to pick up garbage. Over and over again, dozens of volunteers would show up to do the tedious, cumbersome job. But to no avail.
Bagmati River in Kathmandu. 2019 © Astara van der Jagt
Mr. Basnet realized reducing 15 kg of waste would change nothing. The amount of trash flowing downriver would be just as much and even increasing alongside the massive influx of people moving into the city. He said a mindset change is needed from the ground up. This is why he started a campaign in 1977 to remove the heaviest polluting vehicles from urban roads. For a while, he seemed to gain some headway. But cars get old quickly and they use a lot of cheap diesel.
Today, The Explore Nepal Ltd., one of many green initiatives in the KV, has many functions. Their main objective is achieving sustainable agricultural practices by going organic. If it were up to Mr. Basnet, he would turn the whole country organic overnight. Unfortunately, he says it's not that simple. Most farms across the country started using pesticides when they were introduced and going back now would be extremely difficult. The risk is lost harvests, failed crops and, ultimately, food insecurity, and perhaps even starvation.
Imagine a normal day in the KV. Motorcycles zooming by, barely scraping your body. Buses exuding thick grey fumes that make you feel as though you are smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day. Thirty honks or more a minute, an accident prevention technique used by every driver on two, three or four wheels I’ve come across. Mothers traversing big roads with babies in their arms and no stripes painted white to cross on.
Escaping the noise in the middle of city sounds like a feat. But actually, it’s possible. At less than one kilometre from Thamel, you can find one of Mr. Basnet’s inventions - Kantipur Temple House. As I walked into the hotel, an abrupt calm fell over me as I admired the Indigenous Newari architecture and intricate wood and stone carvings the building was built with to support local communities.
Kantipur Temple House. 2019 © Astara van der Jagt
The hotel is solar-paneled and has no TVs, bathtubs, AC or central heating to avoid consuming too much energy. There are electric fans for when it’s warm and electric blankets for when it’s cold. They don’t condone plastic bags and they don’t provide plastic water bottles. All the food consumed by guests comes from organic farms, including one Mr. Basnet owns called Organic Farm House Kapan.
His mantra has become offering “tourism that doesn’t cost the earth.”
Raj, a 31-year-old mountain guide, agrees. Having dedicated his life to a greener Nepal, Raj began an initiative known as ‘Let’s Clean Up Nepal,’ where he organizes events targeted at raising awareness on the issue to both locals and tourists. His hope is to climb mountains that are not filthy and garbage-ridden and walk through cities where the air is breathable and fresh.
But, like Mr. Basnet, Raj says, maximizing the number of volunteers, who clean up the streets is not the solution. Instead, a national mindset change is needed, which makes Nepali people throw garbage where garbage belongs - in trash bins.
A courtyard in Lalitpur. 2019 © Astara van der Jagt
The biggest irony I found upon arriving in Nepal was the number of people who follow Buddhism or Hinduism, two religions that encourage their followers to take care of the environment. Why then, I asked myself, was there so much trash everywhere?
I’m not a fan of pieces with personal reflections, but I’ve learned an important lesson I want to share. Raj told me that many Nepali people blame the government for roads that haven’t been constructed since the 2015 earthquakes, the lack of a recycling system, public toilets, affordable healthcare, rising costs, increasing air pollution, burning plastics, and I can go on. But, he told me, if we want change, we need to start with ourselves.
Raj divides his trash between plastics, glass, metals, and paper. He talks to fellow mountain guides and tourists about green living. He cleans up the mountains he treks through with tourists, knowing the result won’t be less trash. His hope is that when people watch him clean trash when it isn’t his primary job, they will at least think twice about throwing it anywhere they’d like. It’s his way of spreading awareness about how individuals can make small changes and become aware of what polluting the environment means.
In a world where travel has become affordable to many more people than it used to, it’s important that we think about ethical travel. What is the cost of travel on the environment? How much water are we consuming to “relax”? Are we packing in what we pack out when go trekking? How do we balance environmental consciousness with a country’s dependency on a thriving tourism industry?
The tourism industry contributes to the pollution that exists in Nepal today, as it does in many other countries. It is my responsibility, at the very least, to think about these questions and to pollute the least amount possible as a foreigner, who is merely passing through.
By: Astara van der Jagt
Astara van der Jagt’s career spans half a decade on four continents. Equipped with a degree in journalism and political science, she has done research on the power of social media in Kenya, worked as an au pair in Italy, and learned about the ethical reporting of marginalized communities in Northern Canada. Earlier this year, she moved to Nepal to produce a communications strategy focused on empowering the rural poor for Sana Kisan Bikas Bank Ltd., an agricultural development bank based out of Kathmandu.
From a young age, Astara was exposed to gender-based violence, extreme poverty and water scarcity. Although she has found ways to turn her own pain into power, she still has so much to offer those who do not have the passports, opportunities and support systems she does. This is why she has committed her life to finding methods to overcome these global problems through grassroots action, helping one individual at a time, all while spreading awareness through her photography, videography, and storytelling.