August 12, 2013: Professor of economics, and conservationist, and mountaineer Dr. Harshwanti Bisht has been selected to receive the Sir Edmund Hillary Mountain Legacy Medal. According to Dr. Beau Beza, Program Director in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, the award is presented “for remarkable service in the conservation of culture and nature in mountainous regions. The medal both recognizes Sir Edmund Hillary’s own service on behalf of mountain people and their environment and also encourages the continuing emulation of his example.”
In 1981 Harshwanti Bisht, Rekha Sharma and Chandra Prabha Aitwal were the first three women to summit the main peak of Nanda Devi (7,816m). Bisht was also a member of the Indian expedition to Mt. Everest, in 1984. However, as Beza points out, the Hillary Medal is awarded for philanthropic achievements, not for sports achievements:
For 25 years, since 1989, Dr. Bisht has labored to improve conditions in the Gangotri area of Uttarakhand, at the headwaters of the Ganges in northern India. Her Save Gangotri project has planted tens of thousands of saplings, organized eco-awareness campaigns, propagated endangered medicinal herbs, and introduced ecotourism standards to an area that had been ravaged by climate change and unregulated pilgrimage.
Dr. Bisht, like other mountaineers, shifted her focus from recreation to conservation and sustainable high altitude tourism development as a direct result of the work of Sir Edmund Hillary:
When I was in Khumbu with the 1984 Indian Everest Expedition, I saw the great effect of Sir Edmund Hillary’s work to conserve the natural environment and to bring economic opportunities to the Sherpa communities. So that inspired me to work in Gangotri, which is one of the holiest pilgrimage sites but faces many great challenges, both in protecting the environment and in serving the needs of the various stakeholders.
Bisht has had remarkable success in restoring the birch forests around Gau Mukh (Cow Snout), the terminal area of Gangotri Glacier, ravaged by the double-whammy of unmanaged pilgrimage and mass-market tourism as well as climatic change. As the forests take hold, they have an increasingly significant impact in increasing humidity and lowering local temperatures. According to Kumar Mainali, president of Mountain Legacy and editor of Himalayan Journal of Sciences, this labor-intensive approach is an extremely positive development:
Dr. Bisht’s great contribution needs to be seen in the context of the Chipko Andolan, the movement of village women who used place their bodies in the path of large-scale commercial timber operations in an effort to empower, or recover the power, of local forest managers. That grassroots movement inspired similar actions around India, and had a significant impact in slowing the rate of deforestation. Dr. Bisht’s plantations are located in Uttarkashi district, adjacent to Chamoli, epicenter of the Chipko movement. Like the Chipko heroes, Dr. Bisht is showing that the action of a committed woman can make a difference against forces that seem irresistible. In this case, Dr. Bisht and her colleagues are reforesting the ancient birch stands alongside Gangotri glacier, creating a slightly cooler microclimate that Dr. Bisht hopes will slow the glacier’s recession. Like all new grassroots efforts, it sounds quixotic, but it is not. If we don’t pitch in and help, our loss will be incalculable.