As travellers, we tend to forget our negative impact on the local communities and livelihoods. Ishita Khanna, one of the founders of Spiti Ecosphere — a social enterprise committed to developing the place, people and resources of the region — opens our eyes to a concept and mindset that should become a part of all our vacations. Text by Bayar Jain; Photographs by Spiti Ecosphere
It’s rare to find a social enterprise driven by the passion to conserve the environment and local livelihoods, coupled with vigour to boost tourism as well. As the travel industry chugs their way to hotels and resorts, Spiti Ecosphere has overhauled this trend and brought in homestays to the mountainous region. Today, the group promotes responsible and sustainable ecotourism with an approach that simultaneously tackles economic empowerment, conservation and sustainable development. Lovely treks aside, they even organise activities such as Yak-Back safari, local cooking sessions, Bhuchen performances (a rare Tibetan Buddhist tantric dance), etc. — so that travellers can soak in the complete Spiti Experience.
1. You’re one of the co-founders of Spiti Ecosphere. Could you take us through its journey?
I was working with the state government of Himachal Pradesh many years ago. At that point of time, I visited Spiti to assess their programme. That’s when I chanced upon a berry called sea buckthorn. I read about its great medicinal potential, and in turn its economic value for the local community. That’s what led me to go to Spiti and work on it. Eventually, a group of us started a small project around the berry in the early 2000s. Gradually we got into the tourism space, and developed homestays across the villages as an additional source of livelihood for communities.
2. Why did you choose Spiti, as opposed to any other destination in India?
I think, sometimes, things just happen in one’s life where you are led to a destination and you start working on a particular project. Once you start living in Spiti, you start understanding the issues and problems faced by the local people. From there, one thing leads to another. In fact, when we first started out, we didn’t begin by saying ‘Okay, Spiti will be the place.’ It was only after we started living there, people got involved, we spoke to the local team, and now I’m still there!
3. When travelling, how can one ensure they’re helping the local community?
Staying in homestays is one thing travellers can opt for. It ensures that the direct benefits go to the local community. While here, there are lot of local activities one can get involved in – you can learn how to cook local dishes or even try conserving local handicrafts. In fact, we [Spiti Ecosphere] also work with the last surviving potter in Spiti, so that he can continue his dying craft. This way there is a market for him, and travellers can learn pottery as well. You can even travel locally or use local tour operators to ensure the revenue doesn’t go outside the region, allowing locals to flourish economically.
4. Our mountains are known for the lack of infrastructure and basic amenities, especially with respect to constant electricity, water, or even proper roads. How do you deal with this?
Ecosphere, being a social enterprise, has a bunch of projects. One of these is solar electrification through which we’ve electrified a bunch of villages, schools, and monasteries. Not so long ago, Spiti valley would go an entire year without any electricity. The situation has improved slightly but even now there are months without any electricity. Two years ago, we would only get electricity every alternate day, that too for a few hours. Even though things are gradually improving, the situation is still worse than elsewhere.
Electricity aside, Spiti even gets very cold during winters with temperatures going down to minus 30 degrees. To stay warm, people burn a lot of wood, which is usually brought in from outside. To combat this, we’ve adapted simple architectural techniques. A family of seven to eight people sit together in a winter room, which has enlarged windows and are better insulated than the other rooms since the heat gets trapped inside during the day. This way, even if the temperature is minus 30 outside, at night, the temperature doesn’t drop below ten degrees inside. By doing this, not only do we cut down on fuel consumption by almost 60 per cent, but also curb carbon emissions generated by burning wood.
Another problem is the lack of access to drinking water, especially during winters. People have to walk many kilometres just for 20 litres of water. To resolve this, we’ve set up solar water pumps, which send water from the river to the villages. This water is then stored in large tanks. We have even set up green houses where the water doesn’t freeze over. To provide fresh vegetables in the region – which are otherwise only found in Kaza – we have set up greenhouses using mud. Here, volunteers help in maintaining the space. With these houses, we can even grow vegetables in minus 25 degrees.
5. Responsible tourism is on the rise in India. Do you see any visible changes in the mountains due to this?
There are a lot of people talking about travelling responsibly, and a bunch of travellers are also conscious. Over the years, I have seen an increase in the number of volunteers who want to make a difference, but the masses are not bothered even now. Being conscious is all about making a choice, especially when there are alternatives. For example, we can’t stop people from eating Maggi in the mountains, but its important to see how it is disposed off. It is important to have the systems in place. We shouldn’t feel the need to buy bottles, instead we can just carry our own.
6. Initiatives such as yours helps promote tourism to formerly lesser-known places like Spiti. Do you think that, in some ways, this could even lead to over tourism, in turn harm the environment you’re working to protect?
I agree. It’s a double-edged sword. We started working on tourism since travellers had already started coming into the area. We found that there was hardly any income going to the local communities, and the revenue wasn’t staying back. Since the concept of homestays didn’t exist either, hotels from outside were functioning. You can’t stop a place from getting tourists; they will eventually get there. Travellers are always on the lookout for undiscovered destinations. But it’s all about how you can manage the development in that area.
7. What would you say are some of the lessons city-folks can learn from locals of the mountains?
I can talk about what were perhaps my biggest learnings. Being in Spiti, I learned how to reduce. The people of Spiti know how to be happy with a small amounts of things. Living in the city, I feel most of us would be pulling our hair out if we didn’t have electricity for a year. People in Spiti, however, see it as no problem. We should learn to adapt to situations, and realise how happiness need not always come by buying things. Happiness is a state of being. It doesn’t come from having resources or from what we call ‘a comfortable life.’
8. Since you’ve spent countless years in Spiti, what are some of your favourite treks in the region? Which treks would you recommend to first-time visitors to Spiti?
One of the most beautiful treks is the Pin Parvati trek. Although it’s a little hard, it’s awesome. There are also some treks within Spiti that take you from one village to another, through the pastureland of the region. The Himalayan Lakes and Highland Desert Trek – offered by Ecosphere – is really nice too.
For first time travellers, I would recommend treks that go from village to village, and allow you to stay in homestays along the way. I would recommend the Himalayan Lakes and Highland Desert Trek, but you need to be physically fit for it. In fact, since Spiti is at a high altitude and lacks oxygen, people with an average level of fitness could also find the treks difficult.
9. When travelling, what are some basics one should keep in mind to reduce their carbon footprint?
I think it’s better to join a group as opposed to travelling independently. Make use of public transport as opposed to hiring your own vehicle whenever possible. You shouldn’t look at using public transport only when you’re on a budget. If you’re travelling independently, it’s better to be a part of a group. This will definitely reduce your carbon footprint.
10. Any advice to female travellers, especially if they’re embarking on a solo trip?
If you’re travelling solo, it’s better join another group at some point. In fact, over the past few years, we’ve been getting a lot of female volunteers. Maybe only 10 per cent of them are boys. It just goes to show that women seem to be more adventurous and outgoing, while men tend to stick to the tried-and-tested stuff.
11. Any final advice you’d like to give to our readers?
Travel to experience a place, instead of striking things off your checklist. Travelling is all about getting into a place and understanding it. That’s what will make your trip truly beautiful and memorable. Volunteering, in my opinion, is by far the best way to travel. You get a feel of the place, and you develop a relationship with the place as well.