We Have a Rich Culture

Features Issue 58 Jul, 2010
Text by Ivan Sada

Dr. Chandra P. Gurung is the Country Representative for WWF Nepal and hails from Sikles Village in Kaski District. His expertise includes eco-tourism, sustainable development, integrated conservation and development, and protected area management. With a master's degree in Geography as well as in Rural Development, Dr. Gurung completed his Ph.D. on Medical Geography from the University of Hawaii in 1988. He, along with two other colleagues, designed and implemented the first successful community-based integrated conservation and development project, the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) ­­ regarded the world over as one of the successful protected areas in its ability to integrate conservation with sustainable rural development and to promote eco-tourism. Recently, as the CR of WWF, he has been instrumental in implementing the first landscape level conservation program - the Tarai Arc Landscape in Nepal. Dr. Gurung shares his experiences and talks of his achievements with Ivan Sada.

Have you achieved what you hoped for after leaving Sikles?
Some ex-Gurkhas called it the 'Hawai-Jahaj' after a plane flew overhead and I was awestruck because it was the first external exposure for me at the village when I was a student in a small school in Sikles. To be a pilot then, one had to pass an Intermediate with Science as majors but my School Leaving Certificate grades were poor. So I could not get into Amrit Science College in Kathamndu. Then I continued with the Intermediate in humanities and thought of becoming a Section Officer because it was the second best option, but that also did not materialize because of my poor grades. It is because I simply did not understand the value of education. It was only later in life when I was exposed to the west in 1974, when I first visited America and Europe, that I could appreciate its value. I then returned to Nepal in 1975 and excelled in the level and subject I was studying for my Master's degree in Geography at the Tribhuvan University. Thus, I would say I did achieve something to a certain level, but my dream is still to return to my village to produce more Chandra Gurungs. It is a struggle, but I dream of achieving that.

And the attributes to your successes are?
I was influenced by my parents. As the village headman, my father was a strict disciplinarian and though he was a Gurung, he never consumed alcohol. And my mother never went to school, but could read and write as she used to listen in when her brothers took lessons from a Brahman teacher in the village of Yangjakot. With humbleness as traits, my parents encouraged me to be like them and often cited the example of the fruit- bearing tree, whose branches bow low due to the weight of its fruits. It was through them that I realized that if anyone is to grow and wants to achieve a certain level of professionalism and success in life, one has to be adaptive to learning, because it's a process that never ends, and humbleness helps you reach there.

Tell us something on Dorothy Mierow.

A year after her mother died, Dorothy traveled extensively around the globe with her father and came to Nepal in 1958. A year after she returned to the USA her father also expired. As Dorothy was single, she felt alone in her hometown at Colorado Springs and decided to leave her country. Then in 1961, she returned to Nepal as a Peace Corp Volunteer and taught at Tri Chandra College for a year. She was then transferred to Pokhara and liked it there. After completing her first term as a volunteer, Dorothy returned to the US and underwent a medical examination. She was misdiagnosed with cancer and told by the doctor that if she spent US$ 10,000 she could survive another two years. She decided to return to Nepal to spend that money in building a museum, which has the largest butterfly collection at the Prithivi Narayan College (now Campus) in Pokhara.  Her inspiration-- 'admiration' of her clothes in her closet by the local women when she was a Peace Corp volunteer in Pokhara. Two years later, she went back to the States for a second medical check up and was told by the doctor that she did not have cancer. She again joined the Peace Corps for the second time and returned to the Prithvi Narayan College to teach geography.  I met her for the first time in 1967, when I was a student of Geography at the College as she was my teacher. As her student, I started helping her in the museum when she was busy. Later, I was appointed as librarian at the College and I helped her often in the museum. She completed her third term with the Peace Corps and then adopted me as her son and took me to America in 1974. She stayed with us in Pokhara and was like a mother to me. In 2002, she succumbed to cancer at the age of 79.

You made an overland trip from Europe to Nepal. How did that happen?

When I was a student in Pokhara I had made many friends mostly Peace Corp volunteers, British Volunteers and German Volunteers. After a six-month stint in the US, I flew to London on 25th October 1974. Dorothy had bought me a one-way ticket to Nepal that allowed me to stop at different places in Europe. And while in London, I spent US$ 500/- within two months, which was given to me by Dorothy for expenses. A friend helped me financially, and I came to know about some hippies coming overland to Kathmandu at a cost of US$ 200/- per person. I cashed in my Panam airline ticket for which I received US$ 600 and on 5th January 1975, I left London on a boat to Sweden and after that I hitchhiked around Europe. After three months, I took the Oriental express to Istanbul and met friends at the famous 'Pudding Shop'; which still stands, and from there we started our journey to Nepal via Tehran, Massad, Heart, Kandahar, Kabul, Lahore, Delhi and Bhairawa. It was a fantastic learning experience that helped me gain confidence in myself. It was a travel of different minds from different zones and I was fortunate to see all those places in their prime.

Tell us about the Terai Arc Landscape project.
In terms of community-based conservation, Nepal globally is a leader, but we are weak in terms of marketing of our success. However, I'm fortunate to be a part of WWF; whereby I've been exposed on how to market successes and how to learn from your failures. After three decades of conserving mega faunas, the population of larger mammals grew and their habitat became smaller. It was difficult to accommodate all in the island type of smaller habitats, but at the same time it was not wise to create more parks. We then realized that we needed a new approach in conservation. In the late '90s, WWF network developed a concept of conservation called 'eco-region conservation'; which means conservation at the landscape level. Then in July 2001, WWF Nepal in collaboration with the Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation implemented 'Terai Arc landscape' (TAL) level conservation with the aim of creating forest corridors that will link 11 trans-border parks of Nepal and India. These corridors are managed in collaboration with the local communities by promoting community forestry to fulfill their daily subsistence while increasing the space for large mammals to move in.  This was necessary as the "islands" type of parks will not be able to sustain in the long run. The corridor's resources are managed, protected, conserved, and utilized by the local communities. This program also provides communities with fuel for sustenance and enough space for the roaming mega animals like the tiger and elephant. Therefore, TAL is a new ambitious visionary program that we've been able to initiate here in Nepal, which is making a big name in the global conservation arena. Though creating a balance between conservation and livelihood is a big issue, in the present circumstances, we are on the right track. We have to wait and see the rest, perhaps after 5 to 10 years.

What is the charm that Nepal holds that has held you back?
Between the west and Nepal, there is a vast cultural difference.  The cultural and social norms in our country attracted me the most and that is why I have returned to Nepal.  For example, in the six months I visited the US, our neighbors never visited us nor did we visit them. I was born in a village and if I visit now and stay there for a year without any employment or money, the community will always support me. That is not the case in the west and it's extremely different, and I was never comfortable with urban culture. We have a rich culture and everyone cares for each other, and I was never after materialistic possessions. During all my time in the west, I always wanted to come back to the love, care and support my people had for me, because I value our social and cultural heritage. That is the attraction that holds me back.

Your office generates positive energy. How do you motivate your staff?
I think it is most important to build trust and confidence with your staff. They should be comfortable and confident to know that you are a listener, that even if they give negative feedback, you will be receptive to it. If you are able to develop that open culture in your organization, everyone will feel free to express his/her feelings and work harder for more productivity. At WWF, we have a public feedback session where everyone is present and each one shares his or her personal and management issues. Sometimes we are criticized, but we do not defend ourselves or hold any grudges. We take things positively and that is the strength of our organization. Instead of pointing out their shortcomings, we try our best to appreciate the good they have done. Sharing is also important and credit is always shared among us. If we fail, we fail together and if we succeed, we succeed together.

Finally, I would like to address the youth of our country and particularly those who have traveled to cities from their villages, and remind them not to be disheartened by not having someone to assist them in realizing their dreams, because that is what they say most often “aphno manchhe kohi chhaina”. Our country has ample opportunities and if you are committed, innovative and take some risks, even if there is no one to help you, you will still succeed. We can always count on examples like those of Dr. Harka Gurung and Dr. Sanduk Ruit, who recently received the Magsaysay Award. What I have been able to achieve and where I am today, coming from a village like Sikles, I did not believe in push and pull, but rather believed in an individual's strength, capacity and optimism. I hope the little story of my life that I shared with you will inspire our youth and will help them to succeed in life.