Transformation and resilience in the shadow of Nanda Devi
Updated: Jul 3
My parents enjoyed gardening. The nearest nursery was in another small town 13km away. As a child I’d get loaded into the family car when needed and help them collect more plants for our garden. Once I was loaded up for a trip to the nursery but at the unusual time of 7.30pm. What are we doing I wondered. But I didn’t protest too much - this was shaping up to be a rare night out.
On arrival we were greeted with a screen and slide projector ready to light up the dark of a southern Riverina night. Not many chairs though – a screening for a select few. The nursery owners appeared dressed in their casual-best and spoke of huge mountains and far-away places. The screen ticked over image after image: mountains, snow, people, landscapes. It was well beyond the flat of this part of New South Wales.
These were images, I was to learn, of something called the Himalaya.
Those mountains remained one small part of my early socialisation. But it was the part that was set free many years later when I embarked on a PhD and then a career working with local communities and policymakers supporting their sustainable futures.
And the Uttarakhand Himalaya in India have become central.
I was so tired at my first sighting.
“Go to the newsagent in Rishikish and book a ticket to Gopeshwar,” said the director of the Delhi Institute where I was on secondment. Not a problem. I was picked up at 3am joining the daily journey delivering newspapers throughout the valley. I was in the middle of the back seat of an Ambassador car. By the time of the first sighting, I’d been awkwardly leaning forward giving myself room for what seemed too many hours.
But that first sighting was worth it. The Alaknanda River was no longer deep in the valley but next to the road. It was dawn. We turned yet another corner and there they were – Himalayan peaks with snow lit by golden early light and the river sparkling at our side.
The mountains in this part of India occupy an important part of transformations in my life. But they’realso the scene of community-led resistance, resilience and transformational change. These reflect cultural connections to the mountain landscapes around Nanda Devi, spiritual connections to the goddess Nanda and the deep responsibilities felt for their protection.
Nanda Devi (7816m) is protected by a wall of peaks and deep valleys - a central part of the stories of the colonial age of exploration. In 1934, Eric Shipton, HW Tilman, Angtharkay, Pasang and Kusang, pierced the wall for the first time via the Rishi Ganga gorge.
But while the post-colonial allure of the peak continues, the influence of Nanda Devi has been felt across generations of local people. The mountain itself is the abode of the goddess Nanda and the wall doesn’t (or shouldn’t) need to be pierced. Consequently, much of the Uttarakhand Himalaya is considered sacred - a place of pilgrimage for thousands with local communities feeling significant responsibilities to respect and protect the mountains and their landscapes.
It was here the Chipko movement began – a movement of women from the villages of the area who hugged trees to protect them from illegal logging in the early 1970s. Their legacy remains in the area and indeed is felt around the world.
Yet collectively these villages have felt the impacts of lost income from decisions made elsewhere. Access has become more problematic by national park and world heritage management. Mountaineering has been restricted meaning the expeditions that provide income are drying up.
In response and demonstrating the agency shown by the Chipko movement, in 2001 people from the area arrived at Lata village to discuss their futures. The result, The Nanda Devi Biodiversity Conservation and Ecotourism Declaration, sets out a series of shared values, goals and aspirations that focus on community rights and sustainable livelihoods for all. Point 12 of the Declaration, its final point, highlights forms of resilience and transformation:
Today on October 14, 2001, in front of our revered Nanda Devi, and drawing inspiration from Chipko’s radiant history we dedicate ourselves to the transformation of our region into a global centre for peace, prosperity and biodiversity conservation.
The transformation is well underway. Local trekking co-operatives such as Mountain Shepherds ensure the economic benefits of trekking remain local. An accommodation and educational centre just out of Lata village hosts school children, trekkers and naturalists so they can stay, listen and learn before embarking on guided treks where their understanding becomes deeper. Those community responsibilities are embedded in this local tourism.
I’m glad I didn’t protest too much when getting loaded into the family car at 7.30pm all those years ago. It opened a new world.
Brian Furze has spent many years working at the intersection of tourism, community rights and landscape sustainability. The Indian Himalaya holds a special place in both his professional and personal lives. You can find out more at brianfurze.com or lostinslowtravel.com