One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. In the Indian Himalayan state of Uttarakhand lies the stunning ecological treasure that is the Valley of The Flowers, spanning 19km of alpine valley in the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve en route to the Sikh pilgrimage site, Hemkund Sahib. This treasure had become the trash bin of the 600 000 pilgrims that pass through it annually. Multiplied by three decades of avoidance, it had amounted to literally tons of piled putrescent garbage. When Jyotsna Sitling arrived in Uttarakhand to fill the role of national park director in 2001, things looked bleak for her goal of obtaining status for the Valley as a World Heritage Site from the United Nations.
After rigorous trial-and-error attempts to clean up the area proved temporary and fruitless, she realized that the solution was harnessing the power of the local communities. She cobbled together an eco-development committee, integrating locals with hired garbage collectors who received a monthly salary plus an additional commission per garbage bag—within 14 weeks they had collected 44 tons of garbage and tons more of mule dung from the 500 mules that pass through daily. Trash was sorted and recycled in Delhi without resorting to burying or burning. Tending to the tenuous economic livelihoods of the residents—who were dramatically hit 20 years earlier when misguided conservation strategies cut off their main source of income, mountaineering services. She convinced the residents to morph their sad 400 roadside shacks into 76 fully-operating shops (one per family) with proper infrastructure. She crafted mini pockets of 40 ‘van panchayats’ (forest assemblies) and 60 ‘mahila mandal dals’ (women's group squads) to “make conservation a socially and economically self-alleviating experience for the locals and investing in their independence.” Training was imparted to harness local resources and generate eco-tourism activities. Growing and preserving medicinal plants, exotic condiments and traditional crops were listed as a priority, stimulating positive and sustainable eco-tourism employment, which has helped prevent poaching and illegal uprooting of herbs from nearby forests (capitalizing on the near-520 species of rare flora and fauna). Communities were encouraged to document and preserve the local ecology, while the development of local youth was invested in as a human resource on local biodiversity, folklore and culture promotion.
Fast forward to today, Sitling has not only transformed the ecosystem, which has quickly begun demonstrating regeneration, but also networked 47 communities who are now proud and participatory members of a UNESCO-granted World Heritage Site that has in turn catalyzed environmental funding and eco-tourism benefitting all. In 2007, Jyotsna Sitling received India’s highest environmental honour, the Indira Gandhi Paryavaran Puraskar.