Porters’ Progress is a Nepali-based non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to improving the lives of trekking porters through programs that emphasize advocacy, education and empowerment. Porters’ Progress began in May, 2000 with 12 jackets in a closet and has now grown into one of the most innovative and promising NGOs in the country. Porters’ Progress is the first organization in Nepal to directly tackle labor exploitation of mountain porters and does this by working collaboratively with mountain porters on every aspect of its operations. Over the past four years of operation, Porters’ Progress has surpassed all expectations. We have outfitted over 5000 porters with warm clothing and equipment donated by companies such as Mountain Equipment Co-op and Patagonia. Porters’ Progress has offered nearly 8,000 English, Empowerment, and FirstAid classes and its work has been featured in two BBC documentary films, including “Carrying the Burden” which was selected for the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour in 2001.
Porters’ Progress has begun to implement a variety of programs that seek to address the root causes of child labor through empowering local communities. To accomplish this, we have partnered up with international organizations such as World Education and the International Labour Organization. Porters’ Progress currently operates from three offices in Nepal and employs a staff of twenty-four full and part time staff – twenty-three of whom are former porters.
Ben Ayers, Founder
Ben is a writer, activist, amateur climber, performance artist, conservationist, part-time farmhand and founder of Porters’ Progress, a Nepali NGO dedicated to improving the lives of trekking porters. Ben first came to Nepal in 1998 as an undergraduate on an intensive cultural-immersion study program. It was during this time that he first saw men and women using a simple tumpline and basket to transport heavy loads across Nepal’s mountainous terrain. Inspired by this simple and difficult form of labor, Ben decided to try carrying a load himself. From conversations on the trail and in village homes, Ben learned firsthand about the burdens of mountain porters and the idea for Porters’ Progress was born. Since then, Ben has been living and working alongside these proud men and women, and has gained their trust and respect. Ben is fluent in Nepali and has a bachelor’s degree from Bates College. When not in Nepal, Ben can be found milking cows, practicing low-impact forestry, and writing grant proposals in Maine, USA. He is enthusiastically working towards the day when Porters’ Progress will be a self-sustaining, independently operated organization of, by and for mountain porters.
Porters’ Progress at a Glance:
Porters’ Progress facilitates the safe treatment, education, and empowerment of adult and child Nepali trekking and commercial porters and their communities through intimate and appropriate programs, with the priority given to creating change within the trekking industry.
From the inception of our program, we have believed that a true and durable solution to the problems porters that face can only come from porters themselves. Accordingly, it is our vision that Porters’ Progress will ultimately be a self-sustaining, independently operated organization – of, by and for mountain porters.
Porters’ Progress, Nepal – Offices in Kathmandu and Lukla, Solu-Khumbu Porters’ Progress, USA — Sanbornton, New Hampshire.
Over the last four years we have outfitted over 5000 porters with warm clothing and equipment generously donated by companies such as Mountain Equipment Co-op, Patagonia, Kayland and numerous ski resorts throughout North America.
We have offered nearly 8,000 English and Empowerment classes to porters.
Our work has been featured in the award-winning BBC documentary “Carrying the Burden” which was selected for the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour in 2001. The film is used to educate foreign trekkers and trekking companies about the plight of the mountain porter.
Collected over 150 original poems and songs from porters, and published the annual literary magazine “Two Fists of Breath” which features poetry (with English translations) and artwork by mountain porters.
Provided 2,200 porters with HIV/AIDS education programs and distributed 16,000 condoms.
Reconstructed 7 rural schools in porter villages and, with support from World Education, provided scholarships for 250 students.
Run programs in coordination with international organizations such as the International Labour Organization, World Education, and The Mountain Institute.
Achieved official Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) status in Nepal and official 501 (c) 3 non-profit status in the USA.
Clothing Lending: The goal is to raise awareness about the equipment requirements of porters traveling to altitude, and also to provide a simple and economic means of keeping porters warm and safe on the trail. Warm clothing and gear is available exclusively to porters, and is loaned out in exchange for a small deposit.
Education and Empowerment Classes: Porters’ Progress offers free English Language classes to porters from both of our offices. These classes focus on simple language lessons that allow porters to approach foreigners for assistance during an emergency, negotiate wages, get work at the trailhead and to engage in basis conversation. Weekly trainings are also given on topics relevant to the dangers porters face on the trail and at home, such as altitude sickness prevention, environmental awareness, basic health and hygiene, and community building. During an Empowerment class, porters are encouraged to focus upon the positive aspects of their lives and livelihoods, and to determine their own means of bringing about change. We also have begun an outdoor program with porters that includes rock climbing and adventure-based learning opportunities.
HIV/AIDS Prevention: Porters, being a highly mobile population, are particularly susceptible to contracting HIV. Porters’ Progress has begun a proactive and widespread campaign of education about contraception and HIV prevention along with condom distribution.
Cottage Industry: This program encourages pride and craftsmanship among porters, and provides a small source of income. Porters are very talented folk artisans and their handicrafts – such as miniature baskets, ploughs and walking sticks – are now being made available for purchase through Porters’ Progress.
How to contact Porters’ Progress:
117 Hunkins Pond Road GPO Box 19234
Sanbornton, NH 03269 USA Kathmandu, NEPAL
Frequently Asked Questions…
Who are mountain porters and why is Porters’ Progress important?
Mountain porters in Nepal are some of the strongest men and women on earth. These rugged people carry loads for the trekking and expedition industry, working for only a few dollars a day. Porters can be seen carrying loads of over 60kgs at altitudes exceeding 5,000 Meters. This is often done in cotton jackets and sandals. Porters are typically lowland farmers who migrate to the popular trekking routes in search of work. The money they earn while trekking is essential to the cash-starved local economies of rural Nepal. Tragically, many porters die every year from preventable altitude sickness, falls, and hypothermia. Still others are crippled by snow blindness and frostbite. Trekking companies are often unwilling or unable to provide their porters with even the most basic amenities and porters, being unorganized and desperate for work, are unable to speak out against those that exploit them. Porters’ Progress is the first and only organization in Nepal that directly tackles these issues through programs that motivate and empower porters to change the conditions of their lives and livelihoods. We work to simply facilitate the dreams and ideas that porters have, and to encourage their own efforts to bring about positive change and reduce the amount of exploitation that porters face daily.
How are you tackling the problem?
Porters’ Progress is a program unique to Nepal because everything we do comes directly from and goes directly to mountain porters. Porters decide which issues, programs and actions are most important to them. We run a Clothing Lending program where porters can borrow warm clothing and gear for a small deposit; daily trekking-related classes on English language, empowerment, and health issues; a Cottage Industry Program where craftsmanship and traditional artwork are encouraged among porters as they create folk art for sale to trekkers; an HIV/ AIDS awareness program; an aggressive awareness campaign targeted at trekkers and trekking company staff members. We work as intimately with porters as possible, treating these stereotypically low class (and caste) workers with respect and privilege. Everything we do is derived from porter’s ideas and as a result, all our programs have had dramatic results.
How does the current political situation in Nepal affect the work of Porters’ Progress? Does Porters’ Progress support the government?
Porters’ Progress is registered in Nepal with His Majesty’s Government as an international NGO with a charitable mission. Porters’ Progress does not receive government funding and is an apolitical, non-religious organization. Porters’ Progress works to promote fair labour standards and enforcement of trekking industry rules designed to protect mountain porters. Because Porters’ Progress exposes the poor working conditions of mountain porters and challenges the status quo, it sometimes finds itself stirring up controversy. Currently, many porters are finding themselves caught between the warring Maoist rebels and the aggressive Security Forces, with nowhere to turn. There is a common assumption that porters – being impoverished and seemingly most likely to benefit from Maoist-style land reform – are sympathetic to the Maoist cause. When asked about this, porters reply: “This is a rich man’s war. It’s a highcaste war. If we were to fight [in this war], who would feed our children? Who would plough our fields?” Over the past two years we have seen porters of all ages fleeing Maoist ‘recruiters’ and coming to Lukla. There, they found a tremendous drop in trekkers, and 250 members of the Armed Police waiting to question and (often physically) harass anyone without a government ID card. This makes the work of Porters’ Progress that much more critical. Porters are caught in the middle of this conflict, and they need a just and sustainable trekking industry now more than ever. Porters need a safe space, a steady income and, above all, porters need an example of non-violent conflict and problem resolution.
How many porters do you serve?
It is almost impossible to gauge how many porters are working in Nepal, but some estimates state that there are as many as 100,000. Our programs, currently the only vehicle for porter-based change, have already changed the industry for all of these individuals. Our staff in Nepal estimates that we have direct contact with a population of at least 10,000 porters from our two offices.
How do you spend the money that people donate?
Porters’ Progress runs on an extremely low budget and we maintain a very radical perspective in our mission and programs. We pride ourselves on keeping our overhead as low as possible. All donations go directly to supporting our programs and to keeping our doors open in Nepal. Our North American staff and supporters all work on an exclusively volunteer basis. Our annual budget for 2003 was US$26,000 and our projected total operating expenses for the next year is US$50,000.
Why should I support Nepali porters when there are people in need in my own country?
We know that charitable giving is an essential part of our lives in the US, Canada, and around the world. Many of us are dedicated and active citizens working to improve the quality of life in our own communities. But we also feel that as members of a larger global community, we can all play a big part in creating positive change, especially in places where people have not historically had the same rights and privileges that we do in the ‘west’. In Nepal, where the average per capita income is about US$250, and where porters are paid as little as US$2 a day to carry 50kgs (120lbs) or more, your donations can go a long way. For example, US$25 buys 200 notebooks for porters, US$100 keeps the doors of our Everest region office open for an entire month and US$1800 allows us to employ a full-time Nepali office manager for one full year. Your donations benefit not only mountain porters, but also their families and their villages.
One of your programs is very oriented towards English. Why do porters in Nepal need to learn English?
Many mountain porters have limited education and some possess little or no literacy skills. This is why they are often vulnerable to exploitation and lack the confidence to speak up for their rights. English is the most common language used in the tourism and trekking business. Porters who are able to communicate in English can better negotiate fair wages and working conditions, advocate for more equitable labour standards and educate others about their cause.
If porters are being exploited, why should I hire one?
Hiring a porter is the most direct means a foreign trekker has of contributing to the rural economies of Nepal. Over time, portering has fed more people in Nepal than any other industry, and porters need employment now more than ever. Also, as a paying client, you possess a great opportunity to advocate for the rights of the porters you hire. By employing porters and taking direct steps to ensure that they are given a standard of treatment that you would expect for yourself, you will be setting a strong example for other trekkers and tour operators to follow.
How do you plan to expand your programs in the future?
The sky is the limit! Porters’ Progress will grow to accommodate the changing needs of porters, whatever they may be. Currently, we are planning to hire more porters as full time staff members, researching the possibility of opening a third office in the Annapurna region, and working with commercial porters to bring essential community development services to some of the most deserving families in Nepal. We also plan to publish a full-length book of porter poetry and photography, and start a porter scholarship fund. Porters are submitting new ideas to us daily, and we believe that by staying true to the needs of porters, our programs will serve as examples for other advocates working with porters and exploited populations worldwide.
What is your relationship with the International Porter Protection Group (IPPG)?
Porters’ Progress is an independent charitable NGO in Nepal that works in cooperation with the IPPG. By maintaining our independence in Nepal, we have created room for porters to be truly invested in all aspects of Porters’ Progress, and not beholden to foreign organizations.
Are you currently registered as a non-profit organization in the USA or Canada?
Yes. Porters’ Progress, USA is an officially registered 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization registered with the IRS. Donations made to PPUSA are tax-deductible for US taxpayers. As always, 100% of donations made to PPUSA go directly to supporting our programs in Nepal.
How can I help?
Right now, Porters’ Progress is in dire need of funding, and even a small contribution to our organization can make a great difference in lives of many deserving porters. We are also in need of warm clothing (especially boots and wool socks), sleeping bags, and a good used laptop. If you are planning to travel to Nepal, stop by our offices and volunteer your time. We also offer long-term volunteer opportunities that focus on English language instruction for porters.
The most important thing you can do, however, is to go trekking and treat your porters well!