The story behind the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve in the Himalayas is the epic struggle of the Bhotiya people for cultural and ecological survival. It represents one of many efforts by the inhabitants to reclaim their land rights and preserve their cultural heritage.
The Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve is significant in many ways. The sacred mountain at the core of the park is the highest in the Uttarakhand sector of the Himalayas at 25,645 ft and is protected by a spectacular ring of more than a dozen peaks over 21,000 ft. As a biodiversity hotspot, its incredible scenic beauty has inspired mountaineers and explorers for nearly a century. However, owing to building ecological pressures, its gates were closed when the whole region was declared a national park and biosphere reserve in 1982.
The local people, an Indo-Tibetan ethnic group referred to as the Bhotiya, lost their prime alpine pastures, source of medicinal herbs, and the tourist trade in one fell swoop. The conservation authorities of the day failed to recognize that the Bhotiya had been an inseparable part of the landscape, and rather than recognizing them as Nanda Devi's guardians, instituted a draconian ban on access to the park's core zone. More than simply an economic catastrophe, the foundations of their culture were threatened by these restrictions.
Moves by the state government of Uttaranchal to open the park to limited ecotourism prompted the Bhotiya to initiate a campaign to safeguard their future. Their struggle has thus moved from protests over access rights to evolving a sustainable, community-based tourism policy for Nanda Devi, one that takes into account the rights of local people and is free of human exploitation.
The communities with the assistance of seasoned activists, and supported by the Waitt Family Foundation and Family Care Foundation, prepared their own community-based ecotourism plan and outreach campaign, to develop interest in both the biosphere reserve and their unique trans-Himalayan culture. In doing so, they aim to rectify a historic injustice while reestablishing the traditional affinity the people have always held for their land.