A “vertical university” and an appeal to mountaineers
By Stephen Goodwin -
Road construction in the hitherto remote hill country between Makalu and Kangchenjunga in eastern Nepal is adding urgency to an innovative conservation project that last October received the backing of the UIAA.
The government’s aim is to extend Nepal’s road network north from Num, on the eastern edge of the Makalu Barun National Park, and create another overland link to China. But the route cuts through the forest and mountain habits of rare species such as red panda, wild yak and snow leopard.
Nepal lost a quarter of its forest coverage between 1990 and 2005 and the devastation continues. Loss of biodiversity has been compounded by an impoverishment of farming communities as young people have left the hill villages, often for low-wage and hazardous jobs abroad.
In an attempt to counter this decline, a project is underway to harness indigenous knowledge as the basis of environmental education, promote alternative income generation and conserve the kind of natural abundance that, albeit incidentally, has delighted trekkers and climbers on the trails south of Kangchenjunga.
The architects of this ambitious plan call it a “Vertical University”, though it is one without a settled campus or superannuated professors, and its “teachers” are without diplomas or qualifications of a kind any conventional university would recognise. Some cannot read or write.
Yet inspirational teachers there are; farmers for the most part, men and women whose open air classrooms might one day extend in a corridor from the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve on Nepal’s southern border with India to the permanent snows of Kangchenjunga.
The project, which secured the UIAA’s Mountain Protection Award in 2015, begins its title - KTK BELT - with the initials from those two contrasting natural wonders. In full: the Koshi Tappu Kangchenjunga Biodiversity Education Livelihood Terra-Studio. KTK-BELT was chosen from 22 projects from mountainous regions worldwide nominated to receive the US$5,000 award sponsored by Western University and Golden Rock. The money has been invested in mapping existing vegetation, wildlife habitats, hazards in the Sikti conservation area.
Currently, KTK-BELT is working in a Village Development Council (VDC) called Yangshila, where “learning grounds” have been established at altitudes ranging from 180m to 1950m. Each plot responds to a different conservation need. For example, one in the village of Rangcha is devoted to the conservation of tropical fruit diversity; in Dahar the focus is on its rich bird life, including the great Indian hornbill and Himalayan vulture; and at a plot in Chiuri Bhanjhyang ornamental plants are the priority.
Encouraged by the positive response of local villagers and international conservation bodies, the team behind KTK-BELT now plans to extend its classrooms higher into the mountains. The objective is that one day, a Nepali student could walk from Koshi Tappu to Kangchenjunga, across many different forest types, and learn from local farmers about the deep physical and biological diversity of the landscape through place-based education.
“Farmers are a society’s greatest teachers,” said Rajeev Goyal, co-director of KTK-BELT. “Nepal is a paradoxical country. Everywhere there are shortages of energy, water, fuel, and supplies. Yet few places in the world are endowed with more natural resources, physical diversity, and diversity of culture and languages.”
Eastern Nepal comprises one of the world’s recognised 34 global “biodiversity hotspots” with more than 6,500 plant species,180 mammals and 800 bird species, many found nowhere else on earth. Yet it is also a region changing rapidly under economic pressures, haphazard urbanisation and the increasingly severe impacts of climate change. In the middle hills, natural springs have dried up and even the celebrated wetlands of Koshi Tappu, a birders’ paradise, are under threat because of impacts on the Arun and Tamur river basins upstream.
“With much of the attention focused on the April 2015 earthquake, it is easy to overlook that there is a silent crisis occurring with the Nepal’s habitats and biological diversity,” said Goyal, a lawyer who co-founded KTK-BELT with Canadian architect and planner Priyanka Bista and Kumar Bishwakarma, a medicinal plant expert and teacher in Yangshila.
To meet challenge of funding their Vertical University, Goyal and his colleagues launched a Kickstarter crowd funding campaign with the aim of raising US$100,000 in 30 days. By 21 February, with just a few days to spare, they had succeeded; raising a total of $102,594 from 246 backers in more than 20 countries. An additional US$22,000 was generated in two big offline donations, plus a grant from the Living Earth Institute.
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