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Mountain Schools Initiative:  For greener Himalayas and wiser ways of living

As the winter snows melt and the freezing cold disappears, spring brings much needed warmth and cheer to the people living in Himalayan mountain villages. The hills shed their bleak winter hues and start turning into a riot of colors. Munsiyari is a sleepy town in the greater Himalayan range and a gateway to the higher valleys that lead to the Indo-Tibetan frontier. It’s time for the locals to start preparing for their migration to their summer villages in these upper valleys. 

There is another reason for the people to look forward to the spring season. It’s also the time for the annual Himal Kalasutra festival, organised by the village community in association with Himalayan Ark, Maati Sanghatan and Himala Prakriti, organisations based in Munsiari. Basically it’s a celebration of Himalayan biodiversity and local cultural traditions. The participants get to know and understand the natural ecosystem they are part of and appreciate the need to take care of it.

Himal Kalasutra festival, Munsiari

In a world where climate crises and severe weather conditions disrupt the lives and livelihoods of a vast population on a regular basis, it’s essential that human beings become aware of the harm they are causing to the earth’s natural environment and take immediate action to mitigate the damage and develop sustainable lifestyles. Drawing participants from different walks of life, Himal Kalasutra aims to create awareness about these vital environmental issues and devise ways to address them. 

During the festival, there are many workshops that educate people about the local environment and give them tools that help them protect their natural habitat. Educating young people to appreciate the rich biodiversity of their environment ultimately empowers the whole local community to take action. 

Himalayan Education Foundation (HEF), as a part of its mission to strengthen the hill  communities through education, sponsored a Himal Kalasutra event titled Mountain Schools Initiative (MSI), which brought students from different schools in the region to Munsiari. From May 22 to 26, 2023, various programs are conducted under this initiative. About 251 students and teachers from 9 schools and colleges took part in these events. About 190 children from around 45 villages participated in the 5km and 10km run.

The initiative aimed at engaging them in various learning activities in their natural environment so as to deepen a collective sense of place, ownership and pride, in mountain youth. Elaborating on these events, Malika Virdi, founding member of Himal Kalasutra says, “The objective of the program is to bring the students closer to nature. Unlike their typical classroom setting, children here learn out in the field. They get to know their forests well, identify and learn the common English names and local names of various birds and butterflies, engage in creative activities like storytelling, writing poems, origami and making art.”

“Learning about the habitat of the birds and butterflies and understanding how the changing climate is disrupting their ecosystem was one of the highlights of the festival. The idea is to make the engagements more exciting, creative and informative that will help in bringing the students and forests closer”, she explains.

Facilitating these workshops and hands-on training sessions, resource persons from different parts of India came to Munsiari. Birding experts, guides and storytelling professionals like Ashish Kothari, Aanchal,Shristee Bajpai, Rudrath and Akshay from Kalpa Vriksh, Pune and Yuvan Aves and Team from Palluyir Trust, Chennai conducted the sessions for the participants, with the help of  Aanchal Sondhi a butterfly and moth expert from Titli Trust, Dehradun.

The students are enthusiastic to learn about their own place and the rich biodiversity it contains, “We got to hear stories from the wilderness experts and watch interesting nature documentaries! As for me, I want to use social media to spread awareness about the climate issues facing humanity”, enthuses Naman Pandey, a student participant from HImalayan Inter College ( HIC), Chaukori.

Lexica Bisht of class 12th, who attended the festival, shares her thoughts, “It was an amazing experience! I joined the bird-watching program and it opened my eyes to the incredible world of birds. Meeting talented individuals like Mr. Ashish Kothari was inspiring.”

On how the event motivated her to be sensitive to her surroundings in Chaukori, she says, “Now, during my walks, I take a camera, binoculars, and a bird guidebook. The festival emphasised the importance of being observant in nature. It made me appreciate the need for more events like this in Chaukori, connecting people with nature and fostering a deeper appreciation for the environment.”

Teachers too actively participated in the workshops and encouraged more students from their schools to take part in the festival. Natural History kits were given to each school that contained Bird and Butterfly brochures, Birds of Uttarakhand Book and Nature Handbook in Hindi, Traditional Recipes and a poster on Birds of Munsiyari.

Voicing the concerns of many researchers, Raj Mahara, a teacher from HIC, who took part in the event, says ,” Our Himalayas are endowed with a variety of flora and fauna. Safeguarding this diversity is a must to protect the environment. Decades of deforestation resulted in the erosion of soil on hill slopes, which is causing landslides and floods impacting the livelihoods of inhabitants. So long term thinking is imperative in planning and carrying out developmental activities. Any disturbance to the fragile ecosystem will have severe consequences.Events like Himal Kalasutra are important for spreading this awareness among the local people.”

As for the need to further widen the scope of the future Himal Kalasutra events, Malika Virdi says, “Next year, along with the bird and butterfly festival, we will be adding a workshop on learning about the native plants, trees and its importance. We would like to enlarge the extent of the existing photo exhibition and promote it using social media and through our Instagram channels: #voicesofmunsiari and #himalayanark. We also plan to publish local stories associated with the wildlife of the region.”

Mountain Schools Initiative is sponsored by HEF

Expressing her satisfaction about the Himal Kalasutra events, Monica Lehner, president, HEF, remarks, “we are happy to be associated with the annual mountain festival, which brings the local stakeholders together in addressing the urgent environmental concerns of the high mountain valleys. We at HEF believe community events like these go a long way in building local pride in the environment among students and young people. Engaging young people is critical if communities want to make headway in mitigating the ongoing climate crisis. Connecting, collaborating and learning from each other is the way forward for realising a sustainable and more just world.”

The festival concludes with an event called “Van Kautik”, meaning- a celebration of forests emphasising the importance of trees and ecosystems for the well being of all life forms. The participants of Himal Kalasutra and Mountain Schools Initiative are enriched by what they have learned and experienced and surely inspired to act to protect nature and make the Himalayan environment sustainable. 

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