Walking separately and often kept apart trekkers would have no idea of where their porters are sleeping, how they are dressed, what food they eat and, most importantly, just how ill they might be when paid off if unable to carry further.
Born in the north of England Dr Jim Duff started rock climbing already as a teenager, then got into ice climbing in Scotland before studying medicine at Liverpool University in the sixties. Mountaineering Norway and the Alps lead on to expeditions to the Himalayas as a climber-doctor and gave him his interest in wilderness medicine. It also brought him into contact with porters and their problems "to which", he admits, "he slowly woke up". Dr Duff is also the author of a bestselling guide on first aid and wilderness medicine. He now lives in Australia and sails rather than mountaineer. The International Porter Protection Group (IPPG), which Dr Duff founded in 1997, prides itself in being a grassroots network: totally voluntary and with a minimum of organization and bureaucracy. There is no membership as such and anyone who is interested can become involved by donation or by propagating IPPG's aims: for every porter to have access to adequate clothing, boots, shelter and food (appropriate to the altitude and weather), medical care when ill or injured and insurance.
ECOCLUB.com: In terms of exploitation through tourism, few scenes are more appalling and reminiscent of colonial times than watching uninsured porters wearing little more than flip-flops on ice carrying incredibly heavy loads of westerners and risking their lives for a pittance. How is your organisation trying to change all this and what are your main achievements so far?
Dr Jim Duff: Yes it is a sad situation that becomes especially problematic above the tree line and above 3000 metres, where cold and thin air add to the serious nature of the environment. It must be said at this point that trekkers often have little or no contact with their porters on an organised trek. Walking separately and often kept apart trekkers would have no idea of where their porters are sleeping, how they are dressed, what food they eat and, most importantly, just how ill they might be when paid off if unable to carry further. It was a situation like this that is outlined on our website that led to the formation of the IPPG. In 1997 my partner and I were working at the rescue post on the Annapurna circuit trek when a porter died. He had been payed off near the top of the pass (around 5000 metres) because he could no longer carry his load. He staggered down and died two nights later. Piecing together the events leading to his death we found the following: he died from HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema), he was sent down alone, the Trekkers never knew this, the foreign trek leader would not have known. The porter Shyam Bahadur left behind a wife and child with an uncertain future. Furious at this ignorance (including our own) we set out to publicise the situation. Rather than trying to change the exploitative neglectful nature of the Nepali business men and contractors that hire the porters we realised that with our limited resources the best approach was to educate the trekking public and shame the trek companies both in and outside Nepal. We drew up the five guidelines, wrote articles, engaged journalists, had documentaries made (such as BBC's "Carrying the burden"), sent a photographic exhibition round the world and generally made a nuisance of ourselves. We then found that we started getting emails saying what about porters in Peru, Pakistan, Africa, PNG etc and we realised as we could not be everywhere we needed volunteers with an interest in those countries who could use our website and funds. The next step was to open clothing banks to help small Nepali companies to outfit their porters. Following on from that, when we found porters were often sleeping rough or in caves, we started building or funding the building of porter shelters. We have now been involved in the construction of a dozen shelters. Finally it became obvious that the beautiful valley of Gokyo in the Everest national park was a bit of a porter death trap so we opened a rescue post up there in 2006. This helps porters (there is a porter shelter attached) local, people and of course trekkers whose insurance pays for this expensive project.
ECOCLUB.com: IPPG seems to operate exclusively through unpaid volunteers, apart from a locally-based, paid member of staff and 'with a minimum of organization and bureaucracy". Is this an ideological or practical decision? In fact, how are decisions reached at your organisation, is there some sort of consensus process and how do you achieve participation by the porters themselves?
Dr Jim Duff: Initially in 1997 this was a practical decision as there was just three of us. As the word spread more people volunteered and we realised that (a) we did not want to become an 'empire' and (b) did not like the overheads and bureaucracy of a regular charity. The doctors in the UK who run the Machermo and Gokyo porter shelter and rescue posts have set up a charity for that aspect of our work and as one of the doctors spends nearly a day a week on management they are looking at paying her. Because of the volunteer nature of the IPPG we have been able to deliver 98% of donations to the projects.
ECOCLUB.com: There seem to be a number of other, more recently founded, organisations claiming to work for the benefit of porters. Does this create some confusion, competition and duplication or are there synergies with the most active and genuine of these?
Dr Jim Duff: I do not think there is a problem here. We are all aware of each other, share links and support each other. Also we have encouraged activists with vision to start their own organisations. For instance Ben Ayers was an IPPG representative and we encouraged and helped him start Porters Progress. This organisation sprouted Porters Progress UK and we are working ever more closely through them via IPPG UK.
ECOCLUB.com: Among your sponsors at IPPG, which are very transparently presented at your website there seem to be rather few trekking companies. With fundraising becoming increasingly difficult for small NGOs in many countries in this era of austerity and with public grants also drying out, have you also felt the need to adjust your fundraising strategy and try new tools such as crowd-funding?
Dr Jim Duff: Wouldn't it be good if more companies saw their way to aid our efforts, especially the ones outside the destination countries. Our major effort at the moment is the building of the Gokyo porter shelter and rescue post and the maintenance and running of the one at Machermo. These are major undertaking for a small our fit and fundraising is proceeding reasonably well. We have not looked at crowd-funding - perhaps we should!
ECOCLUB.com: You have authored a bestseller pocket guide on first aid and wilderness medicine. Considering how many lives could be saved and the prevailing universal ignorance on such an important issue, do you think it would be practical (to campaign) for basic first aid to be taught at schools worldwide, and also be made a legal prerequisite for all trekkers and adventure tourists in general?
Dr Jim Duff: This is a good point, basic first aid should part of the school curriculum. I'm sure it is in some countries. Requiring all adventure tourists and trekkers to have sufficient first aid is not feasible but I would encourage individuals to consider it. Most people going into remote wilderness areas requiring wilderness medicine skills usually have fully trained leaders or are sufficiently skilled themselves.
ECOCLUB.com: Under the positive, and hopefully realistic, scenario where IPPG succeed in raising porter welfare, payment and working conditions to where they should be, would you be prepared to see your organisations role gradually undertaken by porter trade unions? Today are there any active and powerful porter trade unions in the countries where you are active and in what ways do you cooperate with them?
Dr Jim Duff: When we started our activities in Nepal we made several contacts with union representatives. Many of these disappeared as the civil war in Nepal intensified. In an ideal world government and unions would sort these issues out and, given time, I am sure they will. It is embarrassing actually to be directly interfering in a countries affairs but it is necessary at times. It would be good to work with unions but this would take far more time and resources than volunteers have. We made an early conscious choice to concentrate on informing the Trekker public and applying pressure on trekking/travel companies.
ECOCLUB.com: As a doctor who is also a world class trekker and a renowned wilderness medicine expert do you consider the constantly growing numbers of tourists trying to reach dangerous peaks a healthy development, for the porters, the tourists and the peaks involved?
Dr Jim Duff: Trekking and tourism have some wonderful benefits, providing cash to subsistence farmers, educating people, breaking down barriers etc, etc. But of course there are also negative aspects such as pollution and erosion (both environmental and cultural) local inflation and exploitation. So here is a great opportunity to increase the benefits and minimise harms. For instance I have seen Kathmandu turn from the last clean and beautiful pedestrian capital city into a polluted noisy traffic jam (let me add quickly here that is has also gone from a feudal kingdom to a thriving democracy). Wouldn't it be smart to see it as the first capital to re-pedestrianise? Tranquillity would be restored, the traditional city porters (now unemployed) would be back in business and pedestrians, bikes, rickshaws and electric vehicles would reclaim the streets and alleys. I would also like to see a steep hike in park fees, porter load weighing stations as there is on Kilimanjaro and more enforcement of government regulations around porter issues.
ECOCLUB.com: Assumed there are none so far, do you see any chance for trekking companies owned & managed by the porters themselves (i.e. worker-managed companies) and if so would IPPG consider helping bring this about?
Dr Jim Duff: Last question first, no we would not, we are a tiny ginger group fighting well above our weight as it is. Your initial assumption is wrong. In Nepal there are several porters who have gone on to work their way to trek leader then company owner. And Mike Cheney back in the sixties started the Sherpa coop trekking company.
ECOCLUB.com: It is good to hear, although companies owned by former porters are not necessarily worker-managed companies. We could only find one tentative online result about currently active porter cooperatives in Nepal, hopefully there are more but they just do not have an online presence yet. And a final question: Apart from making a donation to IPPG, what are other key ways our readers can assist porters and your organisations work? For example, can they become volunteers?
Dr Jim Duff: As you can see on the IPPG website we have a number of 'country representatives' who are all volunteers. They undertake local activities, field questions and other tasks. There are some countries that use porters for trekking that do not have representatives. So there are vacancies there! Also the public can complain immediately they see exploitation, write or ring the company and contact us.
ECOCLUB.com: We hope more travellers will become aware of and sensitive to porter problems and actively support your work, perhaps through an online donation. Thank you very much for your time.
IPPG recommends the following 5 guidelines:
1. Clothing appropriate to season and altitude must be provided to porters for protection from cold, rain and snow. This may mean: windproof jacket and trousers, fleece jacket, long johns, suitable footwear (boots in snow), socks, hat, gloves and sunglasses.
2. Above the tree line porters should have a dedicated shelter, either a room in a lodge or a tent (the trekkers' mess tent is no good as it is not available till late evening), a sleeping mat and a decent blanket or sleeping bag. They should be provided with food and warm drinks, or cooking equipment and fuel.
3. Porters should be provided with life insurance and the same standard of medical care as you would expect for yourself.
4. Porters should not be paid off because of illness/injury without the leader or the trekkers assessing their condition carefully. The person in charge of the porters (sirdar) must let their trek leader or the trekkers know if a sick porter is about to be paid off. Failure to do this has resulted in many deaths. Sick/injured porters should never be sent down alone, but with someone who speaks their language and understands their problem, along with a letter describing their complaint. Sufficient funds should be provided to cover cost of rescue and treatment.
5. No porter should be asked to carry a load that is too heavy for their physical abilities (maximum: 20 kg on Kilimanjaro, 25 kg in Peru and Pakistan, 30 kg in Nepal). Weight limits may need to be adjusted for altitude, trail and weather conditions; experience is needed to make this decision. Child porters should not be employed.
Note: All photos by Nick Mason, Olympus Top Photographer - nick(at)summitphotographs.com