You didn’t think my trek was all fun and games, did you? Gatlang, the village in which I do my research, lies just outside Langtang National Park, and shares important cultural and economic ties to the areas I trekked in. Seeing the Langtang area from a tourist’s point of view gave me a better idea of what “development” and “earthquake rebuilding” means for Gatlang, which provided critical context for the Parvati Kunda project.
Gatlang lies just outside Langtang National Park, and it is not on the main trekking routes that go up the Langtang valley and to Gossaikunda. Rather, Gatlang is on the Tamang Heritage Trail, a lesser-known and less popular “cultural” route that hits villages mainly outside the park. Unlike villages in the Langtang valley, Gatlang is accessible by road, although the nearest bus station is a 1.5 hour walk away.
Gatlang fared badly during the earthquake. All structures in the village (mostly un-mortared stone houses, famous for their black, smoke-stained wooden roofs) were rendered uninhabitable. However, damage in Gatlang did not compare to Langtang Village, which was literally buried by a landslide. This is a Guardian article that mostly focuses on trekkers lost in Langtang during the earthquake, but also discusses what happened to villagers (warning: it’s hard to read).
Both Gatlang and Langtang Village can be compared to Barpak, a village located at the epicenter of the earthquake about 50 kilometers west of Gatlang as the crow flies. The captions and pictures in this photo project provide good descriptions for what the earthquake and subsequent rebuilding process has been like in many areas: hard-to-access villages, no government support (or, no government support without a bank account, but there are no banks), and semi-permanent tin-tarp-wood shacks in place of houses. The rebuilding process in Gatlang has been somewhat similar to that in Barpak. Even though Gatlang has a road, two years post-earthquake only 10 or 12 structures have been totally rebuilt. 85% of the population (total population is approximately 1,500 people) still lives in those tin-tarp-wood shacks. People worry that, if they aren’t able to rebuild their famous traditional houses and preserve their heritage, tourists will never return.
On the other hand, Langtang Village, even though it was completely wiped off the face of the earth, is far more advanced in the rebuilding process than either Barpak or Gatalng. There are at least 8 newly-built lodges open for business plus as many homes and other structures, and most are equipped with shiny new solar panels for hot water and solar batteries. It blew me away—knowing the terrible fate of Langtang Village and based on my experiences from Gatlang, I expected only rough and rudimentary lodging options. To my surprise, the lodge we stayed in at Langtang was one of the nicest facilities on the entire trek.
What is the difference in recovery progress between Barpak and Gatlang, which suffered severe but non-cataclysmic damage, and Langtang Village, which was completely wiped off the face of the earth? Tourist dollars. Langtang gets many times the number of foreign trekkers as Gatlang. Since government relief money has been absent or insufficient, and foreign relief agencies have mostly ducked out after immediate needs were satisfied (the earthquake was two years ago now), money brought in by foreigners is often the sole base of continued rebuilding projects.
Interestingly, even in Langtang Village, which has been extremely fortunate in the constant flux of wealthy trekkers (I do not in any way mean to discredit the suffering that Langtang Village experienced during the earthquake; I refer only to the rebuilding process), lodge owners complain that foreign tourism has been extremely low, down by some 85%, since the earthquake. It seems that post-quake, many foreigners are afraid to come to Nepal, and particularly afraid to visit Langtang National Park. I will hazard a guess that that heartbreaking Guardian article about Langtang Village, written less than a month after the quake, is a large part of the reason people fear Langtang. The article is extremely well-written and accurate—it was a terrible situation for foreign trekkers and Nepalis alike, and heartbreaking for their families. However, given that the Guardian is widely read, perhaps the article was a little too well-written. I suspect the lasting images from that article have continued to deter foreigners from visiting Langtang, despite follow-up articles.
Media is powerful, and perhaps what the Langtang region needs is another follow-up article, not about earthquake rebuilding but about the incredible beauty of Langtang. And especially for those of us who live and work in Nepal, disparity in the rebuilding process is critical context for understanding how to work within these communities. Before anything else, people need clean water, food, shelter, financial stability, and a way to preserve their culture. In many cases, even two years after the earthquake, these basic needs have not been met.
In terms of environmental research, biodiversity conservation often pales in comparison to the need for rebuilding. On the hierarchy of needs, making sure people have clean water absolutely comes before protecting wetland plants. This is important background to be aware of when working with community leaders to develop a conservation plan for the Parvati Kunda wetland. Clean drinking water and the health of the community comes first, especially in a post-earthquake context. Even though my primary interest as a scientist is biodiversity conservation, it is a sign of respect for me to recognize that and act with humans as the priority.
[Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are based on experience, casual conversation, and internet research. They do not represent the results of scientifically conducted surveys or interviews]
Meet Jessie Moravek
I am a 2018 Fulbright Scholar at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. Studying for an MSc in Biodiversity and Conservation. Click here to learn more about me!