Arun Gaur, 28, earns a livelihood for himself and the people of his village, Devalsari in Tehri, Uttarakhand through ecotourism. The villagers are also playing an important role in conserving the forest wealth of their area.
“Tourists come here to hear the chirping of Himalayan birds,” says Gaur. “They pay us for trekking through the dense forests. We celebrate the festival of birds and butterflies. Villagers get employment from this. That is why they too are now coming forward to save these birds, forests and the Himalayas.”
Gaur is an ‘ecopreneur’, one of a new class of entrepreneurs whose businesses conserve natural resources through low-carbon, nature-based livelihoods. Currently, such jobs are relatively rare in Uttarakhand.
But the state aims to train 100,000 ecopreneurs in the next three years, according to plans announced by Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami in October 2021.
The aim is to create green jobs that help to address the large-scale out-migration that is occurring due to the limited employment opportunities in the inaccessible, hilly landscape. But some experts have questioned the approach as well as the ambitious target number of trainees, which equates to around 1% of the state’s population.
Uttarakhand has 34,650 square kilometers of forest, accounting for 64.8% of the state’s total area. With six national parks, seven wildlife sanctuaries and four conservation reserves, the state has the second-largest number of tigers in the country.
Other highly endangered species like snow leopard, musk deer, elephant and king cobra are also present. There are 102 mammal species, 710 birds, 124 fishes, 69 reptiles and 19 amphibians. This biodiversity and the region’s forests, mountain peaks, rivers and meadows present opportunities for local youth.
Gaur saw such an opportunity back in 2016, when he started the Deodar Ecotourism Center at Devalsari, a hamlet in Tehri. It runs tourism-related activities in the civil forests of five villages here.
“At present, an uncontrolled number of tourists come to famous tourist cities like Mussoorie and Nainital in our state, which also affects the natural resources there,” says Gaur. “It is our endeavor to take forward ‘responsible tourism’. We have connected tourists with the biodiversity of Devalsari and given employment to villagers.”
Gaur explains that tourists visiting his center are served traditional foods such as rajma (beans), pulses, rice, milk, curd, cottage cheese and so on, that come from local farms.
“Someone from the village prepares food for the tourists,” he says. “The youth of the village work as nature guides and take tourists for trekking. If needed, horses, mules or taxis are taken from the village. That’s how they get employment."
Devalsari, at an altitude of 1,722 meters, has a dense forest of deodar trees and a rich variety of wildlife, including leopards and black bears. Kesar Singh, local expert birdwatcher, nature guide and board member of Deodar Ecotourism, says he has identified 210 bird species in the forests there.
“There are 180 species of butterflies and about 250 species of moths,” says Singh. “We recently spotted the Tawny Rajah Butterfly for the first time in Uttarakhand. The rare day-flying moth Achelura bifasciata was recorded after 125 years in this area.” Singh says that even the forest department was not aware of this biodiversity.
Ecotourism does not just create jobs and interest for nature lovers. It increases protection for nature too. Harish Gaur, who is Arun’s brother and is also a nature guide, says local people used to hunt kalij pheasants, wild pigeons, kakar (barking deer) and sambar for food.
“A few years ago, these creatures stopped appearing in the forest,” he says. “But when tourists started coming to see our forest and wildlife, the villagers also got a sense of economic protection and food security. There is much less hunting now."
Harish says that, previously, no one cared if there was a fire in the forest. But now, if villagers see one, they run to extinguish it.
A big figure
Ecopreneurs like Harish and Arun Gaur are tapping into the rapid growth in tourism in the Himalayan region. According to a report by the Government of India’s premier policy think tank, Niti Aayog, about 27 million tourists visited Uttarakhand in 2018.
By 2025, this number is projected to reach 65 million, which is much more than the population of the state (about 11.4 million). From 2010 to 2015, the share of tourism (trade, hotels and restaurants are considered as contributing factors) in the gross domestic product has been more than 20%. The state government expects tourism to contribute more to the economy in the years ahead.
It is against this background of rising tourist numbers that Chief Minister Dhami announced the eco-preneurship drive in October 2021. The Uttarakhand Forest Department had already been conducting bird watching and nature guide training programs, but on a relatively small scale. The chief minister’s goal of training 100,000 eco-preneurs presents a much bigger challenge.
“More than 50 sectors have been identified for skilled eco-preneurship,” says Parag Madhukar Dhakate, state chief conservator of forests (ecotourism). As examples, he mentions non-timber forest products, minor forest products, wildlife tourism, home stays, drone pilots, nature guides, cooks, trekking guides, plant nursery raising and pine needle processing.
“Skills for eco-preneurship in more than 100,000 persons will be developed in a phased manner during three financial years,” he says, adding that the Uttarakhand Forest Department has so far trained more than 200 people as nature guides, wildlife safari drivers, cooks and housekeepers.
Dhakate says there is no set budget for the eco-preneurship program. So far, funding has come from various schemes such as the Uttarakhand Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act mechanism, the Uttarakhand Forest Resource Management Project funded by Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Uttarakhand Forest Department’s ecotourism promotion scheme.
To date, approximately Rs 4.5 million (US$ 58,750) in various schemes have been allocated for eco-preneurship programs organized through institutions like the Forest Department, the Indian Institute of Hotel Management and the Institute of- Driving and Traffic Research.
A report by Nakul Chettri of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, and colleagues, notes that participatory and community-based approaches to conservation in the Hindu Kush Himalaya have had large ecological, economic, and social positive impacts.
They point out that when local communities are empowered to make decisions about local forests, deforestation can be reversed and degraded forests can be regenerated.
But this raises questions about Uttarakhand’s ambitions for eco-preneurship, for which there is no budget, strategy or monitoring plan. According to Dhakate, the Forest Department’s role is limited to providing training.
Sanjay Sodhi, founder trustee of Dehradun-based non-profit Titli Trust, is providing training for bird watching and nature guides across the state for the Forest Department. Sodhi has this to say about the announced target of 100,000 eco-preneurs: “Instead of going for big numbers, we should do small pilot projects. When a project succeeds, others are automatically inspired by it.”
“Our biggest challenge is to change the mindset of the youth,” he says. “We have to create eco-preneur role models. At present, only 10% of the youth who come for training are adopting it as a profession, whereas tourists are ready to spend money for ecotourism.”
Varsha Singh produced this story with a grant from EJN’s Biodiversity Media Initiative. It was first published by Down To Earth in Hindi on 7 April 2022 and in English on 27 April 2022, alongside a video version. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity. The Biodiversity Media Initiative is supported by Arcadia — a charitable fund of Peter Baldwin and Lisbet Rausing.
Banner Image: Arun Gaur’s ecotourism center / Credit: Varsha Singh.