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Nepal Monitor: The National Online Journal

Q & A: Chhora in America

brot_coburn.jpgIn this exclusive interview with Nepal Monitor, BROUGHTON COBURN, the famed author of Aama in America, discusses mountaineering, conservation, development, politics and writing.



Few Americans know the real Nepal inside out as does Broughton Coburn. The author of Nepali Aama: Life Lessons of a Himalayan Woman (Anchor/ Doubleday; now in its fourth edition), Aama in America: A Pilgrimage of the Heart (Anchor/Doubleday), Everest: Mountain Without Mercy, (National Geographic Books), and with Jamling Tenzing Norgay, Touching My Father's Soul: A Sherpa's Journey to The Top of Everest (HarperSanFrancisco), among others, has also devoted his time to conservation, motivational speaking, development, and film-making.

Coburn, 55, first visited Nepal in 1973, following his graduation from Harvard College. For two years, as a Peace Corps volunteer, he taught high school science in a remote village of Danda, in Syangja district. There he lodged in the household of Vishnu Maya Gurung, who soon took him in as her adopted son. Coburn later immortalized the elderly lady in his two books. Since then, his love for the mountains and its cultures has only grown, and he has returned to Nepal almost every year. The body of his works has also grown. His latest publication (co-edited) “Himalaya: Personal Stories of Grandeur, Challenge, and Hope (National Geographic, Oct. 2006) compiles stunning photographs, accompanied by a series of caring reflections on the Himalaya from a diverse group of writers. He may also join the first All-Sherpa Mt. Everest Expedition in the Spring of 2007 to chronicle the historic event. Recently, the Wyoming resident spoke to Dharma Nanda, editor of Nepal Monitor. What follows is a series of excerpts from an hour and half-long phone interview:

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Photo © Broughton Coburn














How are you doing these days? What is keeping you busy right now?
I have spent nearly 20 years in the Himalayas -- mostly in Nepal -- but also part of that time in Tibet and India. Beginning in 1973, I was a Peace Corps volunteer, posted in a remote village in Syangja district, and then returned to Nepal to work on conservation and development. My wife, Didi, and I came to US when our daughter Phoebe, 14, was born. That is when I wrote the books Aama in America: A Pilgrimage of the Heart and Everest: Mountain Without Mercy, and a collaboration with Jamling Tenzing Norgay, Touching My Father's Soul: A Sherpa's Journey to the Top of Everest. Jamling is Tenzing’s second eldest son. He climbed Everest in 1996 with the Everest Imax Expedition, and we spoke about telling not just his story but telling the story of the Sherpas, of climbing Everest from the Sherpas’ point of view -- as well as tying in a historical perspective going back to his father’s climb of Everest in 1953 with Edmund Hillary.

By the way, the history and the sequence of events around that time of the first ascent in 1953, especially after the climb, is very interesting. I was not aware of it all when I launched in to working on the book with Jamling, and I was quite intrigued by all the information that arose during that intense period.

I have been writing and doing some public speaking. I have a program that focuses on Everest, called “Everest: To the Top of the World.” But the speaking topic that is really most dear to my heart is the story of Aama, and Aama in her village as well as Aama’s 13,000-mile pilgrimage around America. And so I have continued to do that lecture, not really as a means of supporting myself or because I don’t have other things to do but because there has been such a very nice response to the program and people keep requesting that I return to speak about Aama. I enjoy doing it because Aama has such an important message to convey to people, and to Americans, in particular.

I go back and forth to Nepal once a year with various projects. And I may be involved in the upcoming Spring 2007 Super Sherpa Expedition, in which Apa Sherpa and Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa will take part. Both are record holders. Apa will be climbing Everest for the 17th time and the Lhakpa Gelu for the 13th time. Lhakpa Gelu was one of the speed record holders for climbing Everest. But I am not just going; my wife is leading a support trek for that expedition and I may tag along partly because I am interested in writing Apa’s story, either for a book or film or just a magazine story. Apa and Lhakpa Gelu are actually living in Salt Lake city now.

You mentioned in the conversation that your daughter Phoebe is also accompanying you to Nepal? Is the entire Coburn family Himalaya-oriented?
Yes, Phoebe is helping to start what is being called the Magic Yeti Library, a chain of children’s libraries in the Himalaya. My daughter is collecting children’s books here in the United States and shipping them to Nepal. They want to establish a children’s reading library that will contain books in English and in Nepali. The first branch of library is being established in the village of Khumjung, in Solukhumbu district. The other branches will be located in Mustang, and in Nubri of Gorkha district. And so it is a good project for my daughter; it has really inspired her to a life of service, at least right now. It is hard to tell where a 14-year-old is going to go.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported recently about the upcoming All-Sherpa Expedition. How do you view this expedition?
Part of Apa’s story is how Sherpas have been under-recognized on climbing expeditions, and I hope to illuminate and explore the important role that Sherpas play in expeditions. More than 475 climbers summited in the spring season of 2006 alone, in just one season. Many of those climbs are from the north, from the Tibet side; roughly two-thirds from the north and one-third from the south. Of course, among the foreigners, many of them were guided clients. Their ability to reach the summit is very dependent upon the help provided by the Sherpas.

Talking about Mt. Everest or the Himalayas, what are your overriding perceptions and concerns about nature and life in the Himalayas? One of the critical issues that has emerged in the past decade is the need to balance development/commercialism with conservation. What are the challenges and how does the future look like?
This is a very complex question, difficult to answer in a sound-bite. At first, it might sound paradoxical, but, in fact, may not be, really. Balancing the desire for development with the need for conservation of natural resources is the overriding goal. It has certainly garnered a very large level of attention of foreign aid agencies. And not just the World Wildlife Fund and those specializing in natural resources, including the World Bank, United Nations, the Government of Nepal, the government of United States, through USAID, and others are, perpetually mulling over this question.

There’s a trend in developing world in which the needs for conserving natural resources have been co-opted by the forces of development. Development agencies no longer just do “development”; they do “conservation and development.” It is good, in one sense, because they are drawing consideration for conservation and some of the basic conservation practices and techniques into their work. But, by and large, much of the conservation efforts in the Himalayas have occurred largely in the form of rhetoric. It is encouraging, however, to see examples in selected locations where genuine progress has been made, certainly in wildlife conservation. Right now the numbers of snow leopard are thought to be increasing in some valleys along the Himalayan belt. In Sagarmatha National Park, in particular, it was believed that snow leopard extirpated, but there has been increasing number of sightings, including a sighting by Dr. Som Ale of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

What do you think are the major concerns for the people and nature in the Himalayas?
Clearly, th primary concern for many subsistence farmers and herders in the Himalayas is one of daily subsistence. And connected with their daily subsistence, of course, is access to productive land that can grow their crops, as well as fodder for their livestock. And connected with that, in turn, is the protection of that resource.

I arrived in the Himalayas in 1973 at what you might refer to as “a quietly historical time.” When I say “historical” I mean it was right around the late 60s, or early 70s, that the population of Nepal’s hilly regions had grown to the point where they had literally reached their carrying capacity. In deed, that was the time when hill people began moving to the Terai. The eradication of Malaria in Terai came at a fortuitous time from the point of the hill people because that was just the time that they were facing a future of land and resources that would be insufficient to support them.

What do you see as the prime cause of “backwardness” and poverty in the Himalayan region that covers parts of Burma, India, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan? Or perhaps, how do you relate material means and human conditions to the people of the Himalayas?
This is another complex question. I would preface my comment by drawing attention to the term “backwardness” and what it really refers to. The conventional wisdom is that poor, subsistence people from remote areas of the Himalayas are almost by definition “backward.” But shouldn’t we ask ourselves what is meant by “backward”?

This relates to my experience of living with Aama. When I was there for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, the Peace Corps not only did not provide us with very much in terms of material comfort; they even discouraged us bringing material items with us to our posts in the Himalayas. So I arrived in Aama’s village in 1973 with a metal trunk similar to what the Lahures have, with a bed roll and some books and a small medical kit. Although Aama led a life that is popularly referred to as “backward” it soon struck me that it was certainly every bit rich and meaningful as the lives of the relatively wealthy Americans I had grown up with. When I hear the term “poverty” I assume it as an inability to meet the basic daily and human needs, to feed and clothe, for example.

I would also attempt to rephrase the question as to why many areas of those countries continued to remain in poverty while the rest of South Asia, in many respects, has developed.

Perhaps, also are the mountains to blame, the Himalayan region, the difficult geography, etc.?
That is the standard explanation. You hear that all the time: Because of the remoteness and the difficult transportation, and so on, they have remained backward. But I wonder if that is only part of the story.

I think there is more than one answer to that. There are several factors that have contributed to the ongoing conditions of poverty. One is the inattention by government and government programs which, I think, is understood as one of the primary causes of the so-called Maoist insurgency. Also, graft and corruption, within the governments and tremendous levels of inefficiency that occurred on the part of the donors and donor agencies. The touted trickle down effect just simply does not work. At the end of the irrigation line there’s not but a drop left for those in the most remote areas.

How do you see the role of culture in this? It has been debated a lot, the fatalistic culture, like the one Dor Bahadur Bista’s hypothesized. What do you say; do you tend to support parts of it?
Yes, Dor Bahadur Bista’s fatalism and development resonated with my experience out in the hills.

Aama’s belief in Karma-- that may be relevant, too?
Yes (laughs) sure. I guess it is possible as a result of the laws of cause and effect, the ripening of karma from previous generations and previous lifetimes. I would want to leave that to religious experts and historians to explore and it does tie in perhaps with the fatalism that Dor Bahadur refers to. I believe that partly but not entirely. Dor Bahadur’s fatalism was referring to the persistent or the popular belief in fate that in Nepali is called takdir.

Karma. That is another word for that. And karma has been used for different meanings.
Yes, karma has a carryover meaning of fate. They are actually, at least in English, and with the religious definition, quite distinct.

Takdir, you would say, yes. Takdir is one popular word used in the villages.
Fate implies a level of celestial control that is out of the hands of humans, that people have little hope of trying to alter their fate. But one can certainly alter one’s karma through right actions. Anyway, (laughs) I will let the religious scholars explore that one.

Clearly, though, Nepalis are not totally driven by fate, especially if you look at the prevalence of Nepalis who are out migrating to foreign countries in search of work.

It was not like that a few decades ago. I first went to Nepal when I was 21 in 1973. I remember going into the US embassy in Kathmandu which then was located in one of the most modern and prominent buildings on Kantipath, in Kathmandu. I think they had a guard standing there but you could just walk into the consular section, a very small room that had, maybe, two or three chairs. Maybe there was a window; I don’t recall it being a bullet-proof window of any sort. I went in on several occasions and never saw any Nepali there, until one time. I was curious and I said: Are you here to get a visa for the United States?

And he said, “Yes.” And then he admitted that he had connections through USAID and that he was going to go to a business school in the US. The event itself was unremarkable except for the fact that after several visits to the consular section only in one of the visits did I see one Nepali who was looking for a visa to the United States.

Now the number of visa applications to the US is pretty phenomenal, several hundred applications a day. This ties into the question about ongoing poverty. I know it is an unpopular sort of issue. I have educated Nepali friends here in the US, of course, and I don’t blame anyone for wanting to come to the US. If I were in their shoes, I would be doing the same thing, or going to Malaysia or the Philippines, or Arab or wherever.

I remember once being at a cocktail party when I was a chief technical advisor to a UNDP project, in the early 1990s. There I spoke with a secretary of one of the ministries. He came up to me and sort of quietly said: “Can you help me?” And by then I knew the subtext of that phrase: “Can you help me get a visa into the United States?” I asked him what someone of his stature would like to do in the US. He said he would do any thing, such as drive a truck, or wash dishes. It really struck me at that moment that if you have some of the senior-most and talented people in the government who want to come to the US and wash dishes, what does it tell you about the overall orientation to their country? I feel that it will be essential, at some point in time, through some means, that Nepalis begin to recognize and act upon the potential that exists in their own country, and build upon that and do it as far as possible themselves.

It can be done. There are people out there who are developing the Internet technology, industry is coming up a little bit, the tourism industry has still great potential for growth, and there’s the garment business. A country like Nepal has tremendous potential. And so I would love to see the day when there are more people taking advantage of those opportunities. Sometimes, they are outsiders; Indians and Chinese, in some cases. But there are many opportunities for Nepalis that should not be overlooked and, hopefully, Nepalis can build upon those and develop the country through that means rather than the two disturbing trends--out-migration and the dependence on foreign aid.

Another observation from the 1970s: Radio Nepal was the only radio station at that time. Over and over, you would hear the announcer talk about what a backward country Nepal was. In a way, it was a subtle form of implanting basic ideas and concepts, and that is that ‘we are a backward country’-- hami pichhadiyeko [muluk]. As a foreigner, I would have a different experience walking into a village than you do. But typically, what happens when I walk into a village and ask about the local development needs, it’s as if all of the local leaders and everyone are apologetic; they are always apologizing for how backward they are. And it really struck me. They have been told constantly that they are a backward people. So this kind of gets ground into people’s heads, into their consciousness: We are backward, we are unable to help ourselves— this is one of the messages that I think Radio Nepal, and the government, and the foreign aid agencies have just been repeating over and over again. And so, what has it done to the people? They throw up their hands and say, “Yo Nepal ho, ke garne, ha gi? ” Sure, that’s the way it is. But the next question is: Where do you go from there? How can we change it?

I think the basic concept of “let’s change it, let’s do something to make things better,” is almost as though taught out of the children. It starts in the school.

How do you view the Bhutanese approach to conservation and development as opposed to the Nepali approach or Indian, Pakistani, or Burmese approach? Have countries in the region learned from each other? Or are they learning?
The Bhutanese approach clearly stands alone relative to India, Pakistan, Burma, in their extreme caution in terms of selecting influences and development activities in their country. And Burma may be in the same category. The advantage of that is that they have protected their countries from outside influences, which has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that because they haven’t mainstreamed themselves into the global economy, they have maintained their culture, their sovereignty, traditional way of life, their economic independence to a certain degree. And so this makes them somewhat immune to changing economic and geo-political factors. Whereas, Nepal, on the shoulder of India, is, in many ways, dependent upon and very immediately influenced by developments in India.

But specifically, on development and conservation, Bhutan, Nepal and India, more than Pakistan and Burma, have developed model conservation projects that are genuinely helping preserve bio-diversity and habitat for native wildlife. And these, such as the system of protected areas in Nepal, in particular, are to be encouraged. This is of great interest to me. I was with the study team that did the original work on the Annapurna Conservation Area Project. The team included Dr. Chandra Gurung, Mingma Norbu Sherpa and I. As you may be aware, Chandra and Mingma and a score of others were tragically killed in a helicopter crash on Sept 23, 2006 – a great loss for Himalayan conservation.

Working at the ACAP, you also probably had the opportunity to work with the King. Can you describe the nature of your contacts with him?
Yes, I did. At that time the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation had just been formed. It is now called the National Trust for Nature Conservation. The chairman was Prince Gyanendra at that time. The member secretary was Dr. Hemanta Raj Mishra, who now lives in Washington D.C. It was Dr. Mishra’s vision that led to the creation of ACAP. And it was Chandra, Mingma and I who developed the so-called operational plan. It has been heart-warming for me to visit the Annapurna area and see some of the great works they have been able to do. It has largely continued even during this Maoist insurgency, under extremely difficult conditions, antagonistic conditions at times.

Oh, I drafted some letters for the king. That was about it. And I met him a couple of times.

With the publication of Himalaya: Personal Stories of Grandeur, Challenge, and Hope (National Geographic, Oct. 2006), you have helped expand literature on the Himalayas. How did the idea of the book germinate and what is special about this particular book?
The idea was that much of the literature on the Himalaya tends to fall into three or four categories: climbing accounts, geography, scholarly works, and picture books. So the idea was to combine the best of those in a way and go beyond the typical climbing accounts that you read— divide and conquer, where foreign climbers come to the Himalayas and conquer peaks and then go home. Basically, we wanted to answer this question: After all the peaks have been climbed and valleys explored, then what happens?

And that leads to the abiding theme of that book, which is a charitable one. So we selected the essayists who had felt so profoundly touched by the Himalayan region that they have been led to give something back to the people and the environment. Among the contributors to the book, we have people ranging from Sir Edmund Hillary who started the Himalayan Trust that has helped the Sherpas in Solukhumbu, to Mustangi Raja, a very deeply religious man, who has opened up the remarkable treasures of the monuments of Mustang to Italian conservators who are training a new breed of local monument conservation experts, to people such as Dr. Aruna Uprety, who is providing education to girls at risk of prostitution, or Dr. Ashok Banskota of the HRDC hospital in Banepa, to many others. The overall theme is to underscore the importance of giving back.

The book revolves around the issues of accommodating or addressing social, cultural as well as economic changes, and the forces of globalization in the outside world. Clearly, modern day influences and development have created a certain level of stress, as change always does. How that can be dealt with-- carefully and wisely, casually and carelessly? Some of the choices are very difficult because there are so many competing forces and influences, especially economic influences and opportunities. Peoples in past generations were preoccupied with survival. Today’s generation is preoccupied with opportunities, or perceived opportunities. And often, people are seeking out these opportunities without a full view of what the downstream consequences might be. Some examples of that would be the case of Nepalis seeking work overseas. Promises are made and very often they find that the working conditions or the conditions of their employment are not as favorable as they had envisioned. Other examples might be the advent of roads into formerly remote areas. The concept of “roads” or simply the word “motorable road” has become synonymous with development and economic benefit and happiness. And yet, in some of the areas where roads are being built, it’s not clear they will bring the long-term economic gain that many people expect.

Change by means of force or violence is the mantra in today’s Nepal, as you know. And some have theorized that mountains are very prone to insurgencies of one sort or another. But others, like the late Harka Gurung, maintain that mountainous regions may be poor but they are not the cause of insurgency. If that were the cause, there would be insurgencies in Mustang and Manang, too. What is your view of this issue?
I had not thought about this. The first thing I would say is that Mustang and Manang are highly unusual areas. Each one of them has its own character, and its own long history that sort of predisposes it to perhaps not getting involved in the insurgency. Khumbu and Langtang, too. First, the population of those areas is a lot lower than Rolpa or Rukum, out in the far west. They are not suffering as much population pressure. Also, those valleys have benefited tremendously by special circumstances. Solukhumbu, especially Khumbu, has benefitted greatly by tourism. So I don’t think that you are going to find that the Sherpas are especially interested in redistribution of wealth (laughs).

I think both Mustang and Manang have felt disconnected from rest of Nepal, anyway. I don’t think they really identify much themselves with the Nepal government, nor necessarily have they ever expected the government to do anything for them. So the fact that the government has not delivered to them is nothing new for them. Of course, Mustang has its own traditional, shadow government with the Raja and the royal family. The institution is still active in certain facets of life. Manang has its long trading history. Because they were so isolated, the king granted them the privilege of trading duty-free outside Nepal. The system, started sometimes in the early 20th century, has been discontinued, but only after the Manangis had set up a vibrant network of trade, which is a source of their income. So Manangis are not going to be interested in a communist-based or so-called Maoist type of government, either.

That leads us to the issue of Maoist insurgency. Obliviously there are supporters of it and opponents, too. How do you look at it?
First of all, communism has largely been discredited as a modern form of government throughout the world. We have the break-up of the former Soviet Union, and other communist governments have found that economically, at least, they have been left behind the rest of the world. I guess the obvious contradiction to that statement is China. But I would not call China Maoist or Communist as compared to what the Maoist Party wants to create for Nepal. My next thought is that there is no question the Maoists have been correct in identifying the problems, the sources of inequity, corruption and the entrenchment of government officials and civil servants. And having worked and lived in the hills and villages of Nepal with people like Aama, I have experienced their frustrations.

I remember, within weeks of my first arrival in 1973, at age 21, thinking to myself: These Brahmins and civil servants are going to “get it” one day (laughs), because they are really living in an illusion of authority that will not last forever. And so it’s been interesting to see the situation unravel, which I imagine others predicted as well. Having said that, I would still like to ask: Are the Maoists prepared to govern and manage a country as complicated as Nepal with an enlightened form of government? I have great hopes for the so-called eight-party alliance, as I think everyone does, but I also have some concerns. In the US, which of course is not free of serious problems, our two-party system at least curtails the problem that Nepal faces wherein no single party is likely to maintain a majority, which can result in divisiveness.

Where do you see Nepal heading politically and socially? What do you think should Nepalis do for a lasting peace and progress in the country?
It is difficult to predict. It is like asking: Will the stock market go up or down? The only proper answer to that question is: “Yes, it will” (laughs). It does not appear that the ink is dry on all of the agreements and there is a lot of fine print left to be crafted. I recall, though, say 15 years ago, I would tend to get more or less of a consensus type of answer to my questions about Nepali affairs from my intellectual friends in Nepal. In the past ten years, during much of the insurgency, I would ask five or ten different intellectual friends about their assessment of the direction of the country and its future, and I would really get quite a wide variety of answers. I think there are a lot of feelings, emotions, opinions, observations and analyses out there.

The evidence for possible growing divisiveness is the Madhesi activity down in the Terai, most recently. This raises the perennial question of where do you draw boundaries and lines? How inclusive can you be before you really need to be exclusive? Clearly, those in power are faced with a very difficult task of drawing lines on the map, and including the optimal variety of voices in the democratic process. If the Madhesis gain a certain amount of autonomy, then will the Gurungs or Magars decide that they want to carve out their own homelands in their respective ethnic areas? Will the Newars have their own homeland in Kathmandu? The idea of Janajati Movement is very important. As an armchair anthropologist, I very keenly support strengthening of ethnic identities and ethnic traditions and cultures. So unity, not divisiveness is the need.

Coming back to your another interest, what film projects are you involved in currently? How do you assess the growth and quality of films on the Himalayas and its people in the past few decades?
I may get involved with filming the upcoming super Sherpa Everest expedition Specifically, I feel that one filmmaker, Kesang Tseten, is doing some really good films, such as Rato Machhendranath. Another of his films, We Homes Chaps, is about the reunion of the alumni of the Homes School in Kalimpong, north India. Clearly, films, especially with Buddhist content, have been playing well in the western market. For instance, the films of Khyentse Norbu Rimpoche, The Cup and Travellers and Magicians, are great. Otherwise, I have not seen that many others. I would hope that there was a vehicle for getting those good Himalayan films out to a wider audience. I fear that many of them play only to a select circle of art film viewers.

How do you see America's role in Nepal today, particularly American ambassador James F. Moriarty's "pro-active" role in the political process? You may agree Nepalis generally are considered receptive and open to Westerners, but paradoxically, Moriarty's counsels have been largely ignored or branded as "foreign intervention."
Frankly, I thought that the US ambassador’s recent statements were not very definitive; he sounded much like a diplomat. America does provide a certain amount of foreign humanitarian aid to Nepal. In the process, the US has a duty to the American people, and I believe, to Nepalis as well, to make sure that those funds are expended wisely, without damaging the environment; equitably and in a socially responsible way. Sometimes that can be interpreted as heavy-handedness or interventionist. But in the case of Nepal, the US motivations are more enlightened than in other countries, such as Iraq (laughs). America has a brutal approach to Iraq. Because Nepal is not strategically important right at the moment, I don’t think they are enacting a great mission of global domination or control. The Maoists perceive that the US is, but I don’t think the Maoists are correct in that; the situation is more nuanced. One issue concerns the definition of the term “terrorist.” As I understand it, the US government has identified the Maoist Party of Nepal as terrorist.

If the US felt Nepal’s new parliament was being elected democratically and the leaders were part of a functioning democratic process, and not a violent process, the US would support them. It is sad that Nepal has endured so much suffering in the past decade or so. I share the feeling of many Nepalis: “Why are we doing this to ourselves?” Nepalis have always felt brotherhood across castes and ethnic lines. Quite surprisingly, for Americans, in Nepal multiple ethnic groups live in close proximity of each other. By comparison, Americans tend to be territorial. In many of these situations, I ask myself, “What would Aama think?”

Do you have any aspirations of becoming a future US ambassador to Nepal?
I don’t have enough money (laughs). I believe that in the last couple of decades Nepal, as an ambassadorial post, has shifted from “appointed” post (whereby the President would often grant ambassadorships to wealthy donors) to one with career diplomats with skills and knowledge in the area.


Posted by Editor on March 7, 2007 12:39 PM