Ishita Khanna, On Spiti Ecosphere

Posted: July 28, 2010

Ishita Khanna of Spiti Ecosphere, who works in the areas of tourism and employment opportunities with the people of the remote and beautiful Spiti valley in Himachal Pradesh, is that rare person who has clubbed her Masters degree in Social Work with a love for the environment and the mountains.

By Aparna V. Singh

Ishita Khanna, a post-graduate in Social Work from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) is among the co-founders of Ecosphere, a social enterprise working in the Spiti valley with a focus on sustainable development and conservation. Working in tough conditions with unreliable electricity, Ishita managed nevertheless to find some time and share with us an account of her interesting work with Spiti Ecosphere.




Aparna V. Singh (AVS): Why Spiti in particular? What drew you here? And – what’s it like living in Spiti? (Yes, you can tell we are jealous!)

 

Ishita Khanna (IK): There is no one particular reason for why we chose Spiti. It was a combination of factors, issues and people that eventually led us to start and continue working in Spiti. Living in Spiti has its ups and downs.

At times one does miss the comfort of amenities which are the norm in cities – such as electricity, communication facilities-the lack of which make working in Spiti very hard and at times frustrating. However, apart from the hindrance to work, Spiti is really quite a blissful place to stay in.

AVS: When and how did Spiti Ecosphere take off? What were the challenges you faced on starting up?

IK: We began our interventions in Spiti in 2002 as Muse (an NGO). Spiti Ecosphere has slowly grown out of the various initiatives of Muse and was first conceptualized as a social enterprise in 2006.

Before we came to Spiti, we asked people whom we should meet there, and everyone referred us to the ‘Nono’ (the title for the King of Spiti). We were quite amazed that Spiti had a king and a bit apprehensive if he would be interested in meeting us or in any of our plans. The first thing we did in Spiti was to meet the king and much to our surprise he turned out to be extremely enthusiastic about our plans and volunteered to support us in every way possible.

Over the next few weeks and months, Nono became an active part of our team. Due to his immense support and trust we didn’t face any issues in gaining the trust of local people.

The first thing we did in Spiti was to meet the king and much to our surprise he turned out to be extremely enthusiastic about our plans and volunteered to support us in every way possible… Due to his immense support and trust we didn’t face any issues in gaining the trust of local people.

AVS: What are Spiti Ecosphere’s main areas of work?

IK: Ecosphere was established with the objective of responding to the need for developing alternate and sustainable livelihood avenues that responsibly use available local resources (natural & cultural) and protect the environment.

We believe that Spiti’s unique and fragile environment and culture needs a sensitised approach to development issues and aim at providing solutions that will not compromise sustainability, especially in the context of climate change.

To address these concerns, Ecosphere works on various issues that range from:

– Responsible eco-travel

– The promotion and installation of renewable energy

– Promotion of traditional crops and organic practices

– Revival of art forms and their promotion

– Development of greenhouses that enable vegetables to grow even in the winter months

– Construction of solar passive houses to reduce fuelwood consumption and carbon emissions as well as

– Livelihood generation from indigenous plants such as the wonder berry Seabuckthorn that is ecologically very conducive for the area. (More information on Seabuckthorn here).

Ecosphere has developed its own range of Seabuckthorn products such as Seabuckthorn Jam, Crush and Teas under the brand name of Tsering which in the local language means ‘Blessings for a Long Life’.

AVS: Tell us more about your work in the eco-travel area; Spiti is becoming a popular destination, isn’t it?

IK: Spiti’s rich culture and unique landscape are great attractions to travelers. Moreover, having been an isolated society till recently, Spiti has a lot to offer tourists and the past few years have witnessed a steady growth in tourist numbers. However it was found that very little of the revenue actually remained within the area as almost all the tourist traffic was managed by people from outside.

A key concern was the long term impact of tourism on the ecological and social fabric of the region. It was felt that a planned approach could help conserve the ethos of the region while providing a memorable experience to the traveller and generating income for the local community.

Hence Ecosphere worked on developing a range of activities and trips that could make travel profitable for the community, culture, ecology and traveller. Homestays, cultural and Buddhist trails, wildlife trails showcasing Spiti’s rare and endangered wildlife such as the Himalayan Wolf and the Snow Leopard, botanical tours, fossil excursions showcasing Spiti’s geological wealth, trekking and peak ascents, ‘voluntours’ that link travel directly with development and conservation, are some of the  experiences that Ecosphere offers.


Homestays, cultural and Buddhist trails, wildlife trails showcasing Spiti’s rare and endangered wildlife such as the Himalayan Wolf and the Snow Leopard, botanical tours, fossil excursions showcasing Spiti’s geological wealth, trekking and peak ascents, ‘voluntours’ that link travel directly with development and conservation, are some of the  experiences that Ecosphere offers.

Moreover all Ecosphere’s trips are carbon neutral. While the core objective is to reduce carbon emissions of all trips, we realise that travel entails emissions and it is our attempt to ensure that we minimise these emissions at all levels. Emissions generated are offset through investments in Ecosphere’s in-house projects on renewable energy that enable reduction in the usage of fuelwood.

Ecosphere is also engaged in various other activities to minimize the negative impacts of tourism and maximise the gains for the area such as garbage management & cleanliness drives and providing tourists with alternate drinking water facilities as a substitute to buying mineral water bottles.

AVS: You mentioned initiatives to reduce the usage of firewood; what has been your experience in this area?

IK: Spiti being a Trans-Himalayan cold desert witnesses 6 month long winters where the temperatures fall down to as low as -30 degrees centigrade. Moreover, due to its high altitude (the average altitude is 4500 mts asl) and extreme winter climate, vegetation especially trees cannot grow or survive. Therefore, during the winter the inhabitants of Spiti burn coal, wood, dung and other bushes to cook and warm their houses.

Due to the long winters, the summers are when people earn the major part of their livelihood from activities such as agriculture or daily wage labour. During summer and autumn, the women need to devote a significant part of their labour (between 2 to 4 hours a day) to collect the 4-5 tons of fuel wood required to warm the house during the winter months.

The burning of fuel wood generates a lot of smoke due to the combustion of dung in energy inefficient and poor quality stoves. As the rooms are not well ventilated due to the extreme cold temperatures, the ambient air is very smoky; it irritates the eyes and leads to lung disease in the long run. Finally, shortage of fuel (bush and dung) and the high price of imported conventional fuel results in a situation of energy vulnerability.

Although Spiti is extremely cold in the winters, it has an abundance of sunny days. Simple solar technologies, based on passive solar concepts with the usage of local material, are being used to minimize fuel wood consumption. This helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions emitted while burning and transportation (as a large chunk of the fuel wood is brought in from outside), deforestation and extraction of shrubs as well as associated health problems from excessive smoke. Reducing fuel wood consumption also saves people the money and time they spend on either buying or collecting it.

During summer and autumn, the women need to devote a significant part of their labour (between 2 to 4 hours a day) to collect the 4-5 tons of fuel wood required to warm the house during the winter months.

AVS: Apart from its use for cooking and heating, how else are you utilizing solar energy?

IK: Some of our initiatives promoting the use of solar energy are:

Improved Green Houses. One of the critical issues within the Spiti valley is the availability of green vegetables throughout the year, especially in the harsh winters, when it is practically impossible to grow anything. Moreover, transporting them from the plains in the summers is very expensive. The improved green houses are well adapted to the geographic and socio-economic context of cold desert areas such as Spiti. Since they enable vegetable cultivation in harsh climatic conditions, they not only provide additional income to the locals but also contribute to the improvement of daily nutritional intake.

Energy Efficient Buildings. An energy efficient building uses the suns energy passively to gain heat and thermal insulation to retain heat inside the building.

Studies on energy efficient houses have shown that fuel consumption is reduced by 60%, temperatures of rooms are always above 10°C and the inner air is smokeless. Cold-related illnesses have reduced and households are able to take on income generating activities such as handicrafts and double their production.

Solar Bathing Facilities. Bathing in these high altitude cold desert villages is difficult due to the limited availability of fuel wood to heat water, more so for the women as there are no designated bathing areas in the houses. Using solar geysers to heat water, Ecosphere has set up community bathing facilities in villages which are now being used by both the villagers and tourists visiting these villages and staying in locally run Homestays. This is hence providing not only an additional income generating opportunity to them but has also worked towards increasing levels of hygiene of especially the women and children.


…we felt it imperative to transform into a social enterprise to ensure the long term sustainability of the various initiatives we had undertaken…Being based on grants and outside support we felt was an unsustainable approach and extremely unreliable.

 

AVS: Since Spiti Ecosphere is a non-profit organization, funding must be a challenge? How do you deal with it?

IK: We prefer calling Ecosphere a social enterprise as opposed to a non-profit organisation. Through our initiatives based around Responsible Travel and Seabuckthorn we endeavor to generate revenues for Ecosphere which we then plough back towards our development and conservation works.

While we did begin as a non-profit, we felt it imperative to transform into a social enterprise to ensure the long term sustainability of the various initiatives we had undertaken and which we felt were contextual and required further replication in the region. Being based on grants and outside support we felt was an unsustainable approach and extremely unreliable.

AVS: Given that you’ve trekked extensively in these areas – what is your favourite trek and why? What is a trek you would recommend for a first-time trekker/visitor to Spiti?

IK: Spiti’s moonscape clubbed with its natural and cultural splendours makes trekking here extremely interesting. One of the best treks in the region is what we call the Cultural Trail – which is a combination of trekking along rolling pasturelands clubbed with stay in homestays providing a unique blend of nature and culture.

But, Spiti is a photographer’s nightmare – one just can’t stop clicking!

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Comments

2 Comments


  1. Great Post … With insights into the heart of the subject.
    Enjoyed reading it 🙂

  2. Spiti is interesting place.I want to get involved in it. Please guide me how to start.

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