Exploring porter life

By Mike Leung

Carrying the Burden explains the unfortunate plight of porters in Nepal who support the adventure trekking industry surrounding the world’s most famous mountain range. In particular, a whole tourism industry surrounds the base of Mount Everest–but because of the remote conditions, a great deal of goods must be literally carried up to base camp. The film explains how porters form the workhorse foundation supporting these endeavours. They differ from the sherpas who support climbers more directly on high-altitude expeditions.

More often than not, working conditions for porters are atrocious because of the extreme mountain conditions. Porters are mainly sustenance farmers who come from lowland villages to the mountains in search of employment. As a result, they are poorly clothed to deal with alpine conditions. Some trudge up mountains wearing only sandals and return with frostbite or altitude sickness. Others perish.

In just the last year, several organizations and individuals have combined to combat these issues. These include the Himalayan Explorers Connection and the Porters’ Progress group. The attention they garnered resulted in the BBC documentary aired at the festival. HEC’s Executive Director Scott Dimetrosky describes the injustice of the situation wrought on the backs of porters.

"At 16,000 feet up you can still buy a beer," Dimetrosky says. "All of this is carried up by porters. There’s even a washing machine and a dryer that had to be carried a mile or two on someone’s back."

Before Dimetrosky got involved, it was a university student from Maine who initially began drawing attention the porters’ plight. Ben Ayers, now the Executive Director of the Porters’ Progress organization, was originally on a travel study trip to Nepal. After living with porters and learning the Nepali language, he could not ignore the suffering these individuals endured. Ayers explained that there was resistance from the trekking companies initially, whose goals were obviously profit motivated. Resistance has since subsided.

"I attribute it mostly to knee jerk reactions–people were afraid of what I was trying to do," says Ayers. "Those were mostly just ignorant assumptions. If the issue wasn’t dealt with, the trekking industry would have exploded sooner or later."

After trying the job of a porter himself, Ayers realized that the life of a porter–a direct result of the trekking industry of Nepal–was not easy. While the porters desperately needed the income, Ayers felt that they shouldn’t be paying for that income with their lives. Many positive impacts have resulted from Carrying the Burden.

"Change came from two areas," says Ayers. "There was much more awareness of the porters and the job they were doing. When the film originally aired in the U.K.–something like a million viewers–we had people coming from there who suddenly cared about their porters. The change was tremendous. We’ve also had several groups donating as well."

Ayers will continue his work in Nepal.

"As long as I feed myself, that’s all I’m doing, all I need for myself," he says. "It’s all about compassion and heart. With these things ordinary people can see to it things improve for others."

Today, the PP group and HEC now have enough jackets, shoes, hats and other clothing to support almost 300 porters. New offices also act as a social centre for the porters. Besides using the offices as a place to hang out, porters also use the office as a place to create crafts and art sold to tourists as well. English classes are offered as well as education on altitude sickness and basic health care and nutrition. Ayers and Dimetrosky are also setting up a stove lending program, which helps cut down deforestation while porters are out hauling loads and need to warm up.

Carrying the Burden was an example of how certain films at the festival carried a social gravity about them that made other films seem insignificant. Otherwise, it was readily apparent that the film festival was a great venue to explore such issues. Ayers and Dimetrosky will continue to work at improving the porters’ livelihood and because of the film, their jobs are a bit easier today.

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