In India, not all are pleased by a national park's World Heritage status

A view of the Khangchendzonga National Park. Photo by: Aadil Brar

SIKKIM, India — At 4,000 meters, the landscape of Dzongri in Khangchendzonga National Park in northeastern Indian state of Sikkim is stunning. The snowy peaks of the Khangchendzonga mountain range peer over steep valleys dotted with lakes and temples. In the spring and autumn, tens of thousands of tourists from all over the world visit the park each year to trek. During the frigid winter and harsh summer monsoon season, however, the landscape becomes hostile and unwelcoming. Then, only a few hundred people — the local porters, cooks, and hosts for the reams of tourists — remain inside the park.

Since 1975, when the formerly independent Kingdom of Sikkim became an Indian state, the area has played a key role in geopolitical relations between India, China, Nepal, and Bhutan. The merger brought an end to the 300 year old Tibetan Buddhist monarchy, also known as Namgyal dynasty. In recognition of its unique ecological and cultural role, the Khangchendzonga National Park was created in 1977. It is part of a broader sacred landscape that overlaps the border between India and Nepal. The 178,400 ha national park area falls within diverse ecosystems, ranging from subtropical to alpine to high altitude Himalayan cold desert.

Decades later, most of those remaining in the park are indigenous Lepcha, Bhutia, and Tibetan communities, who have lived in Sikkim for centuries. The area’s unique ecological and cultural significance has not gone unnoticed. In July 2016, the Khangchendzonga National Park area was declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.

As India’s first “mixed” World Heritage site, the park was recognized by UNESCO for both its natural and cultural significance. The listing — meant to be a recognition of “deep cultural meanings and sacred significance” — was celebrated by the government, local officials, and the tourism industry. Some, however, have greeted the move less than enthusiastically. Seven months of investigation in the state of Sikkim has uncovered major concerns from experts and community members over the award process, the criteria by which it was judged, and its impact on the environment and people. All of which gives rise to the question: who, exactly, comes to benefit from a World Heritage status listing?

Designation

The UNESCO listing process is a lengthy one. The government of India first submitted its proposal on behalf of Khangchendzonga National Park in 2012. An evaluation was undertaken in 2015 and the designation made in 2016.  

Once the nomination is made, there are a number of steps to be carried out. The state party makes a case for recognition of their site under one or more of the 10 main criteria that UNESCO's World Heritage convention lays out. Each nomination for World Heritage status proposed by the state party goes through a desk review and a site visit by officers from UNESCO’s advisory bodies — the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS).

All throughout the process, the committee cross-checks to make sure it meets at least one of those criteria, which ranges from a “masterpiece” of human genius to “superlative natural phenomena.”

For years, meanwhile, UNESCO has also made a point of linking World Heritage and sustainable development. In 2005, the agency added to its operational guidelines that “the protection and conservation of the natural and cultural heritage are a significant contribution to sustainable development.” A decade later, it adopted a policy to integrate sustainable development into the processes of the World Heritage convention.

“The overall goal of the policy is to assist State Parties, practitioners, institutions, communities and networks, through appropriate guidance, to harness the potential of World Heritage properties and heritage in general, to contribute to sustainable development and therefore increase the effectiveness and relevance of the Convention whilst respecting its primary purpose and mandate of protecting the Outstanding Universal value of World Heritage properties,” UNESCO noted.

In theory, UNESCO undergoes numerous consultations during its awarding process in order to ensure these aspects are met. Its dossier about Khangchendzonga highlights the diverse group of stakeholders who were consulted. “The mission also met with a wide range of representatives from national, state, district, and village level government, site management staff, NGOs, and communities including representatives of the indigenous Dokpa [herders] people,” the report notes.  

What that looks like in practice, however, is a different matter.

Kinzong Bhutia is a board member of the Khangchendzonga Conservation Committee, which was one of the key NGOs involved during the UNESCO consultations.

Bhutia told the author that the consultation involved no small amount of coaching, effectively undermining what are meant to be independent discussions. Initially, UNESCO officials asked that participants explain their cultural relationship with the landscape. When the UNESCO officials “weren’t convinced with what we told them,” Bhutia made an effort to provide the participants with pointers to pass on to the consultants. “We gave them the points to tell the UNESCO visitors. It included things like how Khangchendzonga is full of nature and culture." 

The last free flowing stretch of the Rongyoong river in the indigenous reserve of Dzongu, and sacred to Lepcha origin story. Photo by: Aadil Brar

Meanwhile, seemingly key stakeholders were left out of the process altogether.

Gyatso Lepcha is an activist and the general secretary of the Affected Citizens of Teesta organization, a group that has been campaigning against the construction of hydroelectric projects in their indigenous reserve area known as Dzongu for over a decade.

The initial proposal for the UNESCO World Heritage nomination had included a substantial area on the fringes of the national park for designation. In the end, said Gyatso, the boundary around the designated national park was reduced to less than 500 meters, which meant that a large area of the ecosystem has been excluded from the now World Heritage site. It is in this excluded area, on the fringes of national park, where a new hydroelectricity project — the Teesta IV dam — is coming up.

Most consultations were carried out in west Sikkim, which is dominated by the Bhutia community. Those living in the north in Dzongu, the Lepcha reserve, are barely mentioned in the UNESCO dossier. Gyatso and his colleagues have been fighting a well-documented battle against hydroelectricity in the region for two decades. All of which makes him question how such well-known, critical voices could have been left out of discussions.

“We were never informed about the UNESCO World Heritage nomination process or else we could have presented our concerns,” he said.

Asked whether concerns over the dam project were addressed in the evaluation process, a UNESCO spokesman directed Devex to the advisory body evaluations filed by IUCN and ICOMOS, noting that they include information about the “challenges it is facing along with recommendations for improvements, notably concerning local communities and their environment.” Hydropower dams are indeed noted in the evaluations as a “major threat to these areas,” with ICOMOS citing successful campaigns to halt dams within the park of buffer zone. But that does not address the dams outside the site boundary, and the evaluation urges that dam projects are “carefully monitored in the future.”

Rather than lessening environmental impacts, Gyatso believes that the award ended up emboldening controversial projects.

 "Our hope was that UNESCO would take notice of the violations and there would be some action. But there has been no such action."

“Conservation and preservation of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites KNP should be followed in letter and spirit,” he added.

By ignoring the concerns of the indigenous Lepcha, meanwhile, the award also ended up undermining the struggles of the very same indigenous communities it was meant to be celebrating.

The Lepcha believe that their ancestors were born out of the snowy peaks that protect Sikkim and its surrounding areas. When they die, their souls travel to their final resting place up the holy Rongyoong river. The upcoming hydroelectricity project right at the fringes of the Khangchendzonga National Park will shift the flow of the Rongyoong river, and as Gyatso expressed, this would be catastrophic, according to the Lepcha beliefs.

During an interview, Gyatso grew anguished as he explained. “If my soul doesn’t go back to our ancestral caves in the mountains through the course of Rongyoong river after death my soul will wander all over the world.”

The price of conservation 

It’s not just the environmental activists who were left out of the consultation process. Indeed, tourism, along with conservation policies, have long been used to justify displacement of communities living at the lower reaches of the national park. And the fact that such displacement was never addressed by the UNESCO committee has also raised eyebrows.

A key stated goal of the World Heritage Convention is the link between cultural and natural heritage. On its website, UNESCO notes that “the Convention reminds us of the ways in which people interact with nature, and of the fundamental need to preserve the balance between the two.”

Critics argue that by ignoring the government policies of displacement, UNESCO overlooked a key means by which local community and culture has been undermined.    

For centuries, pastoral communities have been moving between India and Nepal, with thousands living in and around the national park. Since the 1990s, the government has been toughening its forestry laws, including anti-grazing measures. Over time, many of these families have been forcibly displaced.  

Bhoj Raj Acharya, professor of Zoology at the local Sikkim University, explained how these policies, particularly the grazing ban of 2008, have played out.

“[The government] believed that if the grazing cattle were removed from the national park, the illegal poaching would also be curbed. In the process cattle sheds belonging to herders were burnt down and people were forced to move out of the national park area. Though there haven’t been any impact assessment studies of the grazing ban and its after effects on the ecosystem, studies in neighboring Bhutan have shown that this hasn’t had any positive impact. On the contrary, human-wildlife conflicts have increased.”

Acharya is not the only one who believes these heavy-handed policies have played out poorly and with little regard for traditional methods, which appeared to be working. Retired Chief Secretary of Sikkim government and the former head of the Forestry Department, K.C. Pradhan, said while he initially supported the ban, he believes it has gone too far.

“The ban on grazing has been quite extreme, some grazing is required for the people and to manage the forest.” Research has supported that, with studies suggesting that despite claims to the contrary, traditional pastoralism carries a slew of positive ecological impacts.

Ganshyam Sharma, who heads the Sikkim office of the Mountain Institute — a U.S.-based NGO focused on the challenges faced by mountain communities — has long researched the impact of grazing bans on local communities. During a 2015 conference on the park nomination, Sharma spoke to UNESCO officials about the problems of such policies.

"I presented a paper during the conference in Gangtok in 2015 on the grazing ban. I had raised concerns about the ban with officials from UNESCO as they were planning to consider it for World Heritage nomination,” he said.

Though the grazing ban and its impact on local communities could well undermine the stated aim of preserving the “balance” between people and nature, such issues are not taken up by UNESCO when making its designation evaluation.

Kai Weise is one of the ICOMOS officers who evaluated the national park area between Sept. 28 and Oct. 9, 2015. A longtime UNESCO consultant and advisor, Weise is an expert on World Heritage Site management. In an interview in July, Weise said he was aware of the concerns raised by various parties, but said the process leaves the committee's hands tied to no small degree.

“We were there to just tick off the evaluation list — though we know of the major issues that exist with the UNESCO designation for KNP. But as an evaluating officer I can’t do much.”

In awarding the designation, “The World Heritage Committee requires that countries respect their obligations vis-à-vis the convention and its operational guidelines, which require states to hear and respect local communities. It is the responsibility of each country to live up to its commitments,” said Amelan, the UNESCO spokesman.

Weise, who has spent decades as a UNESCO officer, admitted there were shortcomings within the award process.

“That is the issue with the structure of UNESCO … there is no process of redressal after the nomination has been awarded.”

An isolated issue?

World Heritage sites attract tourists from across the world and bring in large revenues. In a 2010 report by the Global Heritage Fund, it was estimated that major World Heritage sites in developing countries contribute over $24 billion combined, and that is growing each year.

With such big money at stake, governments are keen to join on.

Christoph Burmann, a professor of social anthropology at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, has been working on a project to assess the impact of UNESCO World Heritage sites on remote locations. In a recent article in the journal Latest Thinking, Burmann stated, “On the local level, they discovered that communities often had little influence on the management of [World Heritage] sites and that these were rather maintained in the line of national interest. These findings suggest an unexpected assertion of national interests in contrast to global institutions’ advice.”

Khangchendzonga range: The sacred peak hides in the cloudy mist. Photo by: Aadil Brar

This is not the only time UNESCO has come under criticism for these failings. Indeed, it’s not the only time in India. Just last year, a study came out in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers highlighting major issues with UNESCO consultations during the 2014 nomination to designate Great Himalayan National Park as a UNESCO cultural heritage site. Ultimately, that nomination was turned down after leaked documents led to mounting pressure from the local community.  

As with the Sikkim case, a high degree of orchestration appeared to have gone into the consultative visits. “The agency in charge of the organizing the visit — the Forestry Department — deliberately neglected to advertise the team’s visit and purpose and organized a few closed door meetings with interested individuals in selected villages. Local representatives and activists discovered this subterfuge, but it was too late. The UNESCO team had already left the [Great Himalayan National Park],” note the report authors.  

This collusion between the state organizations to keep the consultation a closed door process has been repeated again during the KNP nomination as reported by Kinzong Bhutia. Sharma of the Mountain Institute and others maintain that UNESCO must revisit its consultation process to ensure that wider community in consulted independently, without pressure from the state parties.

Burmann, of the Max Planck Institute, concurs. "The other question is, of course, what role cultural heritage does play in people's' lives and imaginations. And I think the lesson to be taken from our research is that more attention should be paid to those who are not necessarily involved officially in heritage management, in heritage discourses; to go beyond the specialists and beyond the activists and to take the perspective of ordinary people," he said in his video report.  

A similar incident also played out earlier this year at site of Hoh Xil in Qinghai province of China, which received UNESCO heritage status despite controversy over its impact on the herding communities in the area. Similar to the Khangchendzonga case, rights groups, including the International Campaign for Tibet, warned that the award served as tacit approval for large-scale displacement of indigenous herders and a halt to their traditional practices.

Burmann, the researcher from Max Planck argues that because of the lack of local input, World Heritage sites have become a promotional tool for tourism and government at the cost of local communities. Whether it is Hoh Xil or Khangchendzonga National Park, the approval of controversial sites doesn’t align with U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, which has been unanimously ratified by its member states.

“We can also observe that a lot of the World Heritage Sites, in a sense, are less under the control of the local communities; that people there would see their old rights and old interests or practices constrained by decisions taken again at the national level, or by the new institutions deliberately founded for managing World Heritage sites."

This story is part of an investigative project that was funded by National Geographic Society.

About the author

  • Aadil brar profile

    Aadil Brar

    Aadil Brar is an international freelance journalist and a National Geographic Young Explorer. His articles have appeared in the Diplomat Magazine, The NortheastToday, the Asian Pacific Memo among other publications. Aadil holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of British Columbia, and is based in Toronto, Canada.

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