In a way, this could be titled ethical travelling, but I would like it to cover cultural issues as well as environmental and other ethical concerns. I don’t particularly like proselytising, but I think that we all need to be responsible for our actions: it makes for a happier world for all concerned.
So, in no particular order…
First of all, when arranging a trek, please try and have a look at the ethical policy of your chosen company. Nowadays, many have a policy of ensuring that porters are properly paid and treated, food is sourced wisely and money makes its way back into the local community. The guides / cooks / sherpas or what-have-yous should be trained to ensure that the environment is treated with respect during the trek. Personally, I feel that from a selfish point of view it makes sense to choose a company that follows these guidelines, because I feel that I will be treated better by them, too. It should not be much more expensive, either.
Secondly, it is not all up to them. One of the most important things we can all do is avoid littering villages and countryside as we trek. Apart from the unpleasantness of spectacular scenery ruined by plastic bags and used loo paper, we can hardly criticise local laxness in this area if we are guilty of the same ourselves.
Deforestation is a major problem in the mountains now, which can only get worse with the effects of global warming. Consequently, anything that we can do to minimise the burning of wood is important, so please do not insist on unnecessary fires to sit around or warm up. You should have brought sufficient clothing on the trek for that. And it seems a minor thing, but if a group of trekkers turn up at a tea house and insist on lots of different dishes, then that will involve a lot of extra firewood to cook them. Try and have the same dish, if possible.
Ah, yes. Such an important part of our visit, really. The ultra-cheap clothes, the amazing antique statues, the cheap religious paintings…unbelievable bargains, compared to what we would pay in the west…
…and rather a minefield, unfortunately. Those cheap imitation brand names, as we should all know by now, are usually produced in sweatshop conditions, conditions that would often justify being described as ‘slavery’. As well as being, usually, rather inferior quality. Difficult to avoid them all; after all, who is to say we shouldn’t be buying those attractively embroidered ‘I did the Everest Trail 2017’ or suchlike t-shirts for the equivalent of a couple of dollars?
Well, there is a world of difference between the genuine sweatshop (if I can use such a phrase) and the family sitting around their sewing machines under a tarpaulin beside the stall producing their goods. The latter may be working hard for a poor return, but may be infinitely better off than those with no work and certainly better off than the sweatshop labourer who will earn far less, in conditions far worse. Even today, unfortunately, some of them are bonded labourers.
The antiques…if you go to the Kathmandu valley, you will in many places find the remains of religious statues that have been stolen from their sites beside roads or outside temples. These statues usually find their way to the west to ‘collectors’, or may be sold off to tourists who know no better. In many countries you will need an export licence from the authorities to take antiques over 100 years old out of the country simply to attempt to prevent this sort of desecration. Invariably it is possible to buy modern copies of these items – handcrafted and as beautiful as the originals. It is better for everybody if the traveller contents themselves with these, not least because the smuggler can be hit with a hefty fine or prison sentence. It is also worth mentioning that many of the ‘antiques’ are fakes, in any case.
And the religious paintings. Again, in Kathmandu, Thankas, the paintings that hang in temples, are frequently offered for sale. And again, if genuine, should not be sold. They have probably been stolen. Wherever they are offered for sale, however, there will be bright new paintings for sale – equally beautiful, well made and far cheaper. Spend your rupees on them and support the craftsmen that make a living that way.
BIG or small?
Staying with the shop theme, it seems fairly obvious that by buying from the little shop rather than the supermarket you will be far more likely to be putting money back into the local community. All well and good. Inevitably, though, it is never quite as straightforward as that. Moving south across the border to India, we may find that in the market that we are searching for souvenirs, as well as local traders there may be traders from Tibet or Nepal, Kashmiris and dealers from the city. How you wish to spend your money may pose a dilemma that I cannot solve for you. But at least give it some thought!
The same situation can arise with hotels and trekking companies. I feel that in that situation, the small company or hotel is likely to get my rupees, since, unless I know otherwise, they are more likely to put money back into the local community.
Water, water everywhere…
…but most of it comes in plastic bottles which end up littering the environment, or refilled by unscrupulous rascals with what could be contaminated water, to be sold on again. Avoid this if you can (not always possible, I admit) by taking water purifying tablets and using the local water – read the instructions carefully to see exactly what is required – or using the boiled and filtered water available in some places (See info in places such as Lonely Planet guide books). If you buy plastic bottles, scrunch them up before disposal to prevent their re-use.
In some places, such as Ladakh, you can find environmentally minded laundry shops, where the soapy water is disposed of properly, rather than just poured into local streams. May they prosper and multiply!