Environmental campaigners and activists say that the term "development" is simply a euphemism that covers up how projects like road building may destroy Everest's extremely fragile ecology. One glaciologist told The Times of India that "a road is like a direct attack on ecology" [Source: Times of India]. In July 2007, the Chinese government began construction on a 67-mile road leading up to Everest's base camp, while plans for a hotel were on hold. (China has occupied and ruled Tibet since 1951.) Chinese officials say that the road is important for the 2008 Olympic torch relay, which is supposed to include a stop on Everest's peak, but many people fear that it's simply the first step in a total development of the Everest area, including extensive mining.
Following the completion of a railroad connecting China to Lhasa, Tibet's capital, millions of Chinese have visited Tibet. Some of them are tourists while others are migrant workers, looking for employment on Chinese-run building projects. The influx of tourists, including record numbers from the West, has put a significant strain on the area. The Sherpa community living near Everest has become largely dependent on income from tourism. New infrastructure has been built to support the community and the tourists, including restaurants that serve local animals to tourists.
The increase in tourism and climbers has upset the area's environmental balance. The search for firewood has caused significant deforestation and a loss of rare vegetation. As in many parts of the world, the environment has been pillaged for souvenirs, including fossils, wild animal parts and plants.
But the biggest problem may be trash. It's estimated that more than 100,000 pounds of trash has built up on Everest in the past 53 years. Preparations for the Olympic torch relay have brought thousands of people into the region, compounding the problems with trash and sanitation. There is no waste treatment or recycling facility around Everest, and every year, 36.5 million tons of wastewater flow into the Lhasa River.
The dangers to the environment, local economy and human life are potentially devastating, but the effects may be even more tragic when one considers that Mount Everest is also an essential part of the Tibetan and Nepalese cultures. Both cultures have names for the mountain describing it as a goddess. Tibet's Buddhist tradition calls Everest a holy place and an object of pride, affection and reverence. The area is dotted with Buddhist monasteries, some of which, local monks complain, have been overrun by picture-snapping tourists.
Some efforts to save Everest and the surrounding area are underway. It has been a national park and a Natural World Heritage site for more than two decades. The gathering of firewood is illegal and Nepal has instituted programs to limit litter. Tibetan officials and the Chinese government are making efforts to improve Lhasa's waste-disposal capabilities.
Individuals and private groups are helping, too. Ken Noguchi, a Japanese climber, has gathered almost 10 tons of trash on five trips to Everest. The Indian Mountaineering Federation no longer assists groups of more than 12 people in order to encourage smaller expeditions. World Environment Day 2007, organized by the United Nations, focused on the topic of "melting ice" and cast attention on Tibet's melting glaciers.
Despite the already visible effects of global warming and the challenges ahead, Peter Hillary, Jamling Tenzing and other environmental activists say that there's still time to prevent the complete destruction of Mount Everest's ecosystem and the Tibetan people's way of life, but serious action must begin immediately.
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