Lowland porters in the Solu Khumbu
Angharad Law and George W. Rodway
Impact on socio-economic status and health of lowland porters
Much has been written about the environmental impact of tourists in the mountainous regions of Nepal, but there is scant information about the impact of tourism on the indigenous population. The Solu Khumbu district is one of 75 districts of Nepal and has a population of 122,965.1 It is an area of huge economic importance to Nepal because it contains Sagarmatha National Park, a World Heritage Site. Within this area lie Everest and other climbing and trekking peaks, bringing approximately 60,000 tourists a year into the area(verbal communication with Nepal Tourism Board, 15 August 2007). These tourists provide employment for thousands of trekking porters who carry their provisions, luggage and equipment up the valleys and mountains and also carry their rubbish back down. Commercial porters also work in the region carrying supplies for local people, as there are no roads in these valleys and the paths are often too steep for beasts of burden (particularly in the lower valleys). There are no reliable figures available for the number of individuals working as porters in the region.
Many people associate this area with the Sherpas, a high altitude ethnic group who migrated to Nepal approximately 500 years ago from neighbouring Tibet. The Solu Khumbu district is mountainous and, as a result, people live and work at hugely varying altitudes - from 1500 to 8848 m. While it contains the largest group of Sherpas outside Tibet, not all of these people are Sherpa. Many others who live here come from other ethnic groups such as Rai, Tamang, Magar and Gurung.
Here we concentrate not on Sherpas, but rather the low-altitude porters who ascend through the valleys each season to do the work of portering, for both trekking and commercial purposes, on the routes up to, and around, Everest Base Camp. For the purposes of this essay, high altitude is defined as elevations above Lukla (2840 m). Many people fly into Lukla in order to begin their treks into the Khumbu region, home to Sagarmatha National Park and, of course, Everest itself. All of the porters interviewed and/or referred to below make their permanent homes at altitudes less than 2840 m.
Altitude change and distance covered between Jiri and Everest Base Camp. (Fig.1)
Figure 1 indicates the different elevations along the route from Jiri, which is the the road head for those en route to Everest Base Camp without aircraft support. Above Jiri everything must be transported by either air or carried by porters or yaks. Everything between Jiri and Lukla is carried up by porters, as it is too steep for donkeys and too low for yaks (which don't thrive below 3200 m).
Helicopters and small 'Twin Otter'- type fixed wing aircraft fly into Lukla providing an alternative means of transport for goods up the valleys. These planes also carry trekkers and climbers into the region. This means that few trekkers or climbers walk in to the Khumbu from Jiri, providing porters and lodge owners below Lukla with little opportunity for contact with tourists. Thus, portering work being done on the route from Jiri to Everest Base Camp can be seen in some respects, as two different entities - before Lukla and after Lukla. Prior to reaching Lukla, the porters encountered almost exclusively perform commercial work. Above Lukla, porters during the trekking season are predominantly involved with serving trekkers.
Nepalese porters use special equipment for load carrying: a tumpline (namlo) links the forehead to a basket (doko), which leans along the bent back and is periodically rested on a T-shaped stick (tokma) also used as an alpenstock. (Fig.2)
Although the method of carrying loads remains the same between trekking porters and commercial porters (Figure 2), there are two distinct systems for payment and weight of load. Trekking porters are paid much more and, in general, carry less weight than commercial porters. This has encouraged many lowland porters to head up into the mountains for work.
The lifestyle of the commercial porter doesn't appear to have changed much over the years. Nepal is one of the world's poorest countries with an average gross national income per capita of $270 US2 (less than the global gauge for poverty of a dollar a day). Approximately 80% of the population live in rural areas (Verbal communication with Tourism for Rural Poverty Alleviation, 1 August 2007) and 76% rely on agriculture for a living. 3 In order to supplement their hand to mouth existence as subsistence fanners, many people - mainly men - turn to portering.
There are no regulations as to how much a commercial porter should carry, nor are there any age restrictions on portering. Since there are no weight restrictions for porters and, and as they get paid per kg (average payment per kg for commercial porters is currently NRs. 20 [roughly 15 UK pence or 30 US cents]), they often tend to carry unbelievable loads from a westerner's perspective. Most porters we met were carrying at least their body weight, and it was not unusual to meet porters carrying much larger loads.
A 2001 study by Basnyat and Schepens4
found that of 113 randomly selected porters, their average load was 89% of their body weight. The authors also reported that 88% of men and 71% of women were carrying more than 50% of their body weight, while 20% of men carried more than 125% of their body weight. Our recent anecdotal experience suggests that commercial porters carrying at least their body weight is not an uncommon occurrence.
The photo of the group of porters (Figure 3) was taken just outside of Jiri. Their respective ages and weights carried were: 15 years old, carrying 50 kg; 20 years old, carrying 75 kg; 14 years old, carrying 50 kg and 15 years old, carrying 50 kg. They were walking together carrying supplies to their village, a three-day walk. When asked whether they found portering difficult, the eldest said that it 'takes a while to get used to the load'. He said that initially it really hurts and is almost impossible to carry, but you become used to it after a week or so.
A group of young porters on the trail just outside of Jiri.
Shortly thereafter we encountered a 24 year old man who weighed 52 kg carrying a 90 kg load from Jiri to Kakou, a six-day walk. For this journey he would be making NRs. 1800 or approximately $27.00 US in total. When most people are earning less than a dollar a day, this is considered a substantial sum - though arguably not without a price on the load bearer's health. The next day, a man was encountered who was 60 years old (the average life expectancy for men in Nepal is 61 years). He was carrying 50 kg from Bhandar to Sete - a two-day walk - with a load that was roughly his ownbody weight. This would have been a lucrative load as it would have made him approximately NRs. 500 or $7.50 US a day. Perhaps the most shocking load we saw was that carried by a 22 year old man. He weighed just under 50 kg and was carrying nearly 150 kg. The weight was so heavy that he had an obvious impression in his head where the namlo, or strap, cut across it. He said that he had been to school between the ages of 6 and 11 and had then had to quit school in order to porter. The load was so heavy that he could barely walk 10 m before he had to stop and rest.
After speaking to many similar porters, it is difficult not to conclude that it is a myth that these individuals find it anything like easy work. On the contrary, they seem to find it very strenuous work. One porter related that he would rather do other work but there was none available nor had he been adequately educated to look for alternative work. Without exception, none of the porters with whom we spoke wanted their children to do this work. They all wanted to use the money they make to pay for their children's education so that they could pursue other paths in life.
The trekking and climbing industries in Nepal have grown continually since the first mountaineering expeditions in the mid-20th century. They have brought a great deal of wealth and work into the Solu Khumbu district, making it one of the most prosperous districts in Nepal. Unsurprisingly, lowland Nepalis often come to this region seeking some of the wealth. For those who don't own or work in a guest house, the next easiest way to tap into the revenue from tourism is to porter.
As an example of the distinct hierarchy that exists amongst porters on an expedition, the new workers will typically start off being a porter carrying loads - be it tourists' luggage, tents or kitchen equipment. They may then move onto becoming a kitchen hand, washing up pots and doing some cooking. Subsequently, one will often become a 'kitchen boy', cooking for clients. After this, you are eligible to become a guide. At this level you are no longer carrying heavy loads. Further up the ladder is the chief cook, and at the top of the hierarchy is the Sirdar, who is typically in charge of all of the porters and Sherpas on the expedition.
In Lukla, we spoke to Nima Sherpa who is in charge of the local office of Porter's Progress. Porter's Progress is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that started in 2000; it focuses on porters' welfare. Nima told us that there are no laws governing the treatment of trekking porters. However, there are guidelines that have been agreed between trekking companies and porters to try to both restrict the weight of their load and standardise their pay.
In effect, this means that trekking porters are considerably better off than commercial porters. The normal industry weight restriction is 30 kg per porter, not including their own luggage (which they also carry). Thus, they usually carry 35-40 kg. The payment is between NRs. 500 and 600 a day. With this pay, the porters have to find their own accommodation and food.
Most reputable travel companies make sure the porters are properly equipped. This used to be a huge problem as, up until as recently as 2000, porters were going up to altitude without proper clothing, gloves or boots. Some were walking through snow in flip flops, and frostbite was a recurring problem. Huge improvements have been made in this area. The trekking company that we utilised, Summit Trekking, had a large store-room in Lukla full of tents, boots, jackets, trainers, hats, etc. with which to equip their porters.
Nima related that the rate of pay for porters had risen enormously in the last 20 years. About 20 years ago they may have received seven rupees a day. Five years ago they would have obtained NRs. 300 or 400 a day. Now, NRs. 500 or 600 a day is the accepted rate. This is more than ten times the national average daily income. Nima was very clear in suggesting that tourism is a good thing for the region because of the money that is brought in. However, he said that the major concerns for porters are due to the fact that weight restrictions and set wages are not properly regulated. Nima still worried that many porters are still ill-equipped for altitude and cold. Porters often walk ahead of, or behind, trekkers. They also find their own accommodation at night in porter huts or caves (though cave dwelling is decreasing as more porter shelters are built by the likes of Porter's Progress). It is easy for tourists to not notice that porters are cold or uncomfortable if they are out of sight.
Nima's final worry was about the porters' lack of education and the barriers this posed to finding alternative employment and to basic awareness of health dangers such as acute mountain sickness (AMS). Porters don't get paid if they don't work, so they are often reluctant to complain of illness. This can be very dangerous when altitude sickness is involved. As the Nepalese physician and altitude specialist, Buddha Basnyat, notes, 'invariably porters usually present to the clinic when they are too sick to continue.' 6
Like western tourists, porters often come from lower valleys and don't always adapt well to the environment at altitude. We met one porter in the hospital at Lukla who was being treated for cerebral oedema after having been brought down from base camp. A paper relevant to this issue compares the medical problems of porters and trekkers.7 This study examined the health issues during a 22-day trek at altitudes between 487 and 5100 m among a group of 155 members: 102 Nepalese porters, 31 Nepalese trek staff and 22 western trekkers. The porter staff and trekkers had roughly the same rate of illness. It was much lower for the trek staff that were unloaded - the majority of whom were Sherpas. The authors found that the porters experienced the highest diversity and severity of illness, developing a total of twelve different medical problems. Illnesses included fever-suspected typhoid, high-altitude cough, AMS, gastroenteritis, severe anxiety, high-altitude cerebral oedema (HACE), and cellulitis -induced septicaemia. The authors recommend that: 'It should be emphasised to trek organisers and physicians that the Nepali staff do not all reside in high altitude areas, particularly the porters, and are likely to be as susceptible to altitude illness as the western trekkers'.
Buddha Basnyat explained that very little research had been done on porters. In a personal interview, he indicated that 'This is not a documenting society', which made clear why there is so little reliable data about porters and why evidence of how their lives have changed is, for the large part, anecdotal.
Kit Spencer, Managing Director of the Summit Hotel and Summit Trekking in Kathmandu also provided an interview (Verbal communication, 1 May 2007). He has been working in the trekking industry for 13 years. Kit felt that porter's lives have improved a great deal since the 1990s. This is when weight restrictions and pay guidance were introduced. They are better paid and they carry less now than when he first started in the business. He also noted that the recent influx of cheap Chinese goods, such as trainers and jackets, into the area has made warm clothing much more readily available and affordable to porters. Kit thought that portering might well change (in Nepal) in the future, as fewer people want to do this work. As may be seen in many developing countries, the rural population of Nepal is flocking increasingly to urban areas to look for employment.
The Solu Khumbu district is an area where there are few roads, and none exist on the route up to Everest. Unless roads are built here, porters will undoubtedly carry goods up these valleys for many years to come.
Portering is the life-blood of the area and there are few other means of transportation of goods. It is an important source of income for local people. In the late 1980s porters protested successfully to stop helicopters flying goods into Syangboche (higher than Lukla) because it was taking work out of their hands. Portering provides extra income to families who would otherwise be living well below the poverty line. It also crosses the lines of the old caste system - which appears to be changing to some extent in Nepal - as it is considered a perfectly respectable occupation. While porters may not want their children to do this job, they still want the job to be available to both themselves and others, and are keen to stress the importance of trekkers and climbers employing porters.
One could argue that the most obvious means of improving the lives of porters (and Nepalis in general) would be to provide access to free education, in order to enhance employment options. UNICEF explained:
We of course hope that the Millennium Development Goals8 will be met by 2015. A new School Sector Reform is in development in Nepal - primary schooling will expand to Grades 1 to 8 (currently 1-5) and the current draft plans for this to be free. Currently the plan does not include any of these grades to be compulsory' (Written communication with UNICEF, 27 September 2007).
Dr Nick Mason, who works with the International Porter Protection Group, neatly summarises how western tourists can help meet the challenge of improving porter's lives:
Anybody who travels to the mountains and uses local porters should take the time to befriend them; should be aware of their needs and complain vociferously when these proud but vulnerable people's needs are not being met.
This is an abridged version of an article first published under the same name in the journal Wilderness and Environmental Medicine in 2008. Reprinted with permission of the Wilderness Medical Society, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. A.L. would like to thank the BBC Onassis Trust for giving the bursary that allowed for her experience in Nepal.
1. Government of Nepal, Ministry of Health and Population: Total district profile http://www.moh.gov.np/dist_profile.asp
(accessed August 2007).
2. British Broadcasting Corporation: Country profile for Nepal (quoting World Bank, 2006) http://news.bbc.co.Uk/l/hi/world/south_asia/country_pro
(Accessed August 2007).
3. The CIA World Factbook, Nepal: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-
world-factbook/print/np.html (Accessed August 2007).
4. Basnyat B, Schepens B. The burden of the Himalayan porter. High Alt Med Biol 2001;2:315-316.
5. Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS): http://www.unaids
. org/en/Regions_Countries/Countries/nepal.asp (Accessed August 2007).
6. Basnyat B. The Khumbu Cure. High Alt Med Biol 2005;6:342-345.
7. Basnyat B, Litch JA. Medical problems of porters and trekkers in the Nepal Himalaya. Wilderness and Environmental Medicine 1997;8:78-81.
8. United Nations Millennium Development Goals: http://www.un.org/millenni
umgoals/ (accessed February 9, 2008).
Study of issues relating to Lowland porters in Nepal, specially in the Solu Khumbu district.
Angharad Law: BBC Alexander Onassis Bursary Trust, BBC Bush House, Aldwych, London, UK.
George W. Rodway PhD University of Pennsylvania, Center for Sleep and Respiratory Neurobiology, Philadelphia, PA, USA