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In principle, walking and trekking are activities where the emphasis should be on seeing and enjoying nature. In practice, however, this is not always the case, with waste, erosion and other damage as evidence. For example, some popular spots in the Himalayas are contaminated with non-degradable waste such as oxygen bottles and empty cans of food and drinks. This is despite the fact that green waste alone takes an extremely long time to perish. This is because the cold temperatures at high altitudes slow down the natural biological process. This process also affects the restoration of trees cut down for firewood. It takes much longer for plants to grow compared to lower altitudes. Trees are not only cut down for cooking the food during treks. In cold mountain areas, such as Nepal, hikers expect a hot shower. This leads to deforestation, as the felled wood ensures the heating of the water. In some cases, good waste facilities can also lead to disappointment. Take, for example, the Langtang Valley in Nepal, where bins are carefully placed near hotels and teahouses, to be emptied on the riverbank out of sight of tourists.

Due to the need for porters, cooks and other staff to take care of trek and mountain climbing expeditions, these activities can have significant socio-cultural effects. Trekking has become an important industry in some countries and regions, such as the Himalayas in Nepal, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and the Inca Trail in Peru. This has provided an economic boost in poor areas. There are many examples where personal contact between customers or tour operators with local staff has resulted in fundraising and individual development initiatives have been undertaken. But there are also many examples where the conditions and working conditions of the local population are extremely poor. In the majority of the countries of the world, labour laws and the protection of human rights are not properly regulated. This means, for example, that wearers have to work with poor clothing and equipment during treks. Many wearers only have slippers to walk on, in mountain areas where it is often below zero! They also often have to carry heavy loads, which can lead to health problems. A tour agent takes as few carriers as possible: less people means less costs. In Tanzania, a carrier is allowed to carry up to 20kg, but the park authorities of Kilimanjaro are often bribed by the tour agents to overlook this. Given the poor working conditions of the porters in harsh weather conditions, injuries are the order of the day. The International Porter Protection Group (IPPG) is committed to improving the working conditions of carriers during treks. Visit the IPPG website for more information. 

Two organisations that focus on the poor working conditions faced by carriers around the world are the IPPG and Tourism Concern. Their goals are to improve working conditions for wearers. Think, for example, of the lack of decent footwear (there are many known cases where wearers have to wear flip flops in sub-zero temperatures), carry heavy loads, sleep in the open air and altitude related diseases that have even led to deaths.

The IPPG takes various actions such as lobbying, education, control and direct action by supporting clothing banks, the construction of shelter and the supply of rescue posts. The goal is that every wearer should have access to good clothing, shoes, shelter and food which is suitable for height and weather, plus medical care when one becomes ill or injured.

Tourism Concern has been working with UK trekking tour operators to apply the comprehensive and practical policies on the working conditions of their carriers in the Himalayas; the Inca Trail, Peru and Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. The guidelines for this have been formulated through discussions with tour operators, the IPPG and other carrier organisations on site. The guidelines cover hours worked, insurance and medical care and maximum weight limits, amid other issues. As a result, 41 out of 80 tour operators in Britain are implementing the policy on the welfare of carriers. Tourists themselves are encouraged to engage with tour operators who apply guidelines for carriers and check the conditions of their carriers.

The tour operator offering trekking can also take various measures to limit the damage to nature and the environment and to ensure the working conditions of the carriers. For example, a tour operator can choose to work only with hotels and tour agents who handle people and the environment responsibly. For example, accommodations where wastewater and sewerage are responsibly constructed, suitable for the area. Think of recycling and measures to save water. By working together with local conservation organisations and civil society organisations that want to improve the human rights of carriers, conservation and fair treatment of its carriers can be contributed. Training programs for local trekking companies, porters and guides can also be supported. The tractor or hiker itself also plays an important role in keeping the area clean. By bringing biodegradable soap and shampoo, but also by bringing all the packaging material of bottles and other products back down.

Read an extensive travel report on Nepal here. You can watch a photo documentary about porters in Tanzania called: A tourist’s dream, a porter’s nightmare.

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