Article - Summer 2020

Guardian of the Glaciers

As climate change threatens the future of the Himalayas, might the mountains’ salvation lie in endowing them with legal rights?

By Alex Basaraba | June 2, 2020
A yak bears empty water jugs near the settlement of Lobuche, with Mount Pumori, on the border between Nepal and Tibet, looming in the distance. (Alex Basaraba)
A yak bears empty water jugs near the settlement of Lobuche, with Mount Pumori, on the border between Nepal and Tibet, looming in the distance. (Alex Basaraba)

Formed of a living god, Himālaya, supreme
Raja of the Mountains, rises in the north
and bathing in the western and the eastern oceans
stretches out like a rod that could measure the earth.

— Kālidāsa
(translated from the Sanskrit by Hank Heifetz)

Humans have lived in the shadows of the Himalayas for the past 5,000 years, so it is not surprising that the world’s tallest mountain range would figure prominently in the mythology, folklore, and culture of the region. This is especially true in Nepal. Spanning the length of its northern border and forming a barrier that separates the Tibetan Plateau from the alluvial floodplains of the Indian subcontinent, the Himalayas are central to Nepal’s identity. They not only exert an immeasurable spiritual and emotional force on the nearly 30 million people who inhabit this small country, but they also provide the population with water, food, and medicine. Bihan uthne bittikai himal dekhna paaiyos, begins a popular Nepali song: “Let the Himalayas be seen when we wake up,” words reflecting the collective longing, consciousness, and imagination of a nation.

Centuries of migration have brought people from India, Tibet, the Islamic world, and elsewhere, creating an astounding range of cultures in Nepal—123 languages are spoken by people from 126 castes and ethnic groups. This cultural diversity is rivaled only by the area’s biological richness. Get on a bus just about anywhere in Nepal and in a single day you could traverse arctic, alpine, broadleaf forest, grassland, wetland, plain, subtropical, and tropical ecosystems—and still get only a glimpse of the country’s 118 distinct ecological communities. Roughly 900 species of birds and 200 species of mammals, some critically endangered, inhabit these varied ecosystems, including the elephant, tiger, and ever-elusive snow leopard.

All of that life, all of that biological diversity, depends on the health of the Himalayas. Which is why a 627-page report published last year by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development—declaring that the Himalayas are the fastest-warming mountain range on Earth—is especially alarming. According to the center’s director, David Molden, climate change has already affected the alpine regions of the Himalayas in a profound way, causing significant glacier loss, avalanches, rockfalls, and melting of the permafrost. In the Himalayan foothills, climate change has led to severe flooding, an increase in vector-borne diseases such as dengue fever, more frequent landslides, unpredictable growing seasons, reduced crop yields, and the loss of many natural springs on which people and animals rely. And although precipitation events have become more variable and extreme, the average amount of monthly rainfall in Nepal has decreased by 3.2 percent, most notably during monsoon season.

Between 1977 and 2010, moreover, Nepal experienced a 29 percent decline in its glacial ice reserve. Currently, glaciers in Nepal are receding at a rate of about 15 square miles a year. With average annual temperatures expected to rise between 1.3 and 1.8 degrees Celsius within three decades (and up to 2.2 degrees in the highest elevations), some scientists predict that between one-third and two-thirds of the nearly 54,000 glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalaya region will be gone by 2100. The loss, given how essential glacial snow is to the mountains, in ways both symbolic and substantive, would be unthinkable. The very word Himālaya is derived from the Sanskrit hima, meaning “snow,” and alaya, “abode.”

Now consider that Nepal contributes a scant 0.0027 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions—neighboring China and India account for 30 percent and seven percent respectively—and the scope of the country’s problems becomes clearer. Nothing this small country can do at present can mitigate the harm done by the rest of the world. But what if Nepal could hold other governments responsible for the environmental damage being wrought within its borders? One activist is working on a plan to do just that, though it would require a radical rethinking of how many Nepalis view the natural world. What if the Himalayas were thought of as living, breathing beings? What if the rights accorded to humans could somehow be conferred on more than 230,000 square miles of schist, granite, gneiss, and snow? If the Himalayas were granted the status of personhood, it just might be possible to sustain the essential social and ecological functions that they provide—not just to Nepal’s population but to the 1.6 billion South Asians who depend on the mountains’ snowmelt.

  • Shrawan Kumar Sharma in his home in Bhaktapur, not far from Kathmandu: “Without snow, the Himalayas will be as a human body is without life.” (Alex Basaraba)

Last June, I traveled to Nepal to meet Shrawan Kumar Sharma, a former journalist now in the field of political and conflict analysis. Affiliated with the Center for Economic and Social Development—an organization dedicated to protecting human rights, fostering peace, and advancing democracy in Nepal—he is also one of the country’s leading environmental advocates. I had been hearing about Sharma’s work for some time, but tracking him down took considerable patience, given that his job requires him to spend months at a time traveling to remote communities. Indeed, we spent nearly six months talking over Skype and WhatsApp before I was finally able to arrange a meeting.

I have traveled to Nepal before, but every time I land in sprawling Kathmandu, I am captivated by the ineffable mix of sounds, sights, and smells—a glorious sensory overload. This time, as I made my way to the city center on a hot, dusty afternoon, I heard the familiar cacophony of honking taxis and blaring horns from the extravagantly painted semis. Prayer flags, sunbaked and weather-beaten, flapped in the wind from the tops of temples and houses painted red, lavender, and blue. I caught the aroma of incense wafting from the alleyways and the enticing smells from the street-food stalls, where vendors were selling samosas, momos (a savory dumpling, ubiquitous in these parts), and doughnutlike breads called sel roti. Children in school uniforms, just released from their classes for the day, were running down the sidewalks, laughing. Old women, their foreheads adorned with bright red tikas, were making their daily visits to neighborhood shrines and temples. As my taxi approached the lavish Singha Durbar palace, home to Nepal’s parliament as well as several government ministries, I noticed mustachioed guards in crisply starched uniforms carrying machine guns as they patrolled the palace gates. I was meeting Sharma in a fancy café nearby, a place, he later told me, that he visits often to woo politicians who work in the neighborhood.

He was immaculately dressed, wearing a dark suit coat, in spite of the heat, and aviator sunglasses. As soon as we sat down, he began speaking about the environmental issues facing Nepal. On that early summer day, the subject of our conversation turned to snow. “What will happen if the glaciers melt?” Sharma said. “Without snow, the Himalayas would not be alive. Without snow, the Himalayas will be as a human body is without life.” The disappearance of the glaciers, Sharma said, would “affect the entire life cycle of South Asia.” Many of the world’s largest rivers—the Yellow, Mekong, Yangtze, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Saptakoshi, Gandaki, Salween, Sutlej, Indus, and Karnali—are fed by Himalayan snow.

Sharma’s mission is to persuade the Nepali government to amend the country’s constitution to grant personhood to the Himalayas, giving the mountains rights that could be defended in a court of law. In a country with “a rigid constitution,” as Sharma put it, this is not an easy task. Nepal’s federal parliament has two houses—the House of Representatives, with 275 members, and the National Assembly, with 59. A bill to amend or repeal an article of the constitution may be introduced in either house and must then be published for the general public within 30 days. It subsequently needs support from at least a two-thirds majority of parliament before it can be delivered to the president.

Since 2009, Sharma and his organization have been working with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a public-interest law firm based in Pennsylvania that is at the forefront of the so-called rights-of-nature movement. The underlying principle of this movement is that the natural world is not the property of humans to own, damage, and exploit, and it should be endowed with the same rights to exist and flourish that humans hold. If Sharma is successful, Nepal will have codified a legal mechanism by which other governments could be held responsible for their contribution to climate change and the harms suffered by Nepal’s ecosystems and people.

The concept, it turns out, is rooted in ideas that first came to the fore nearly half a century ago. In 1971, the Sierra Club brought a lawsuit in federal court against the secretary of Interior, Rogers Morton, seeking to prevent the construction of a Walt Disney ski resort in a subalpine glacial valley of the Sierra Nevada. The case, Sierra Club v. Morton, made it to the U.S. Supreme Court the following year, and though the Court ruled in Morton’s favor, Justice William O. Douglas offered an impassioned—and quite remarkable—dissent. “Contemporary public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium,” Douglas wrote,

should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation. …

Inanimate objects are sometimes parties in litigation. A ship has a legal personality, a fiction found useful for maritime purposes. The corporation sole—a creature of ecclesiastical law—is an acceptable adversary and large fortunes ride on its cases. The ordinary corporation is a ‘person’ for purposes of the adjudicatory processes, whether it represents proprietary, spiritual, aesthetic, or charitable causes.

So it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life. The river, for example, is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes—fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, otter, fisher, deer, elk, bear, and all other animals, including man, who are dependent on it or who enjoy it for its sight, its sound, or its life. The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it. …

The voice of the inanimate object, therefore, should not be stilled.

That same year—1972—saw the publication of an article in the Southern California Law Review by USC law professor Christopher D. Stone. In “Should Trees Have Standing?—Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects,” Stone predicted a future in which rising temperatures, warming oceans, and melting polar icecaps would not only destroy “our great coastal cities” but also compromise our food supply. The solution? Granting “legal rights to forests, oceans, rivers and other so-called ‘natural objects’ in the environment—indeed, to the natural environment as a whole.” Stone went on to argue that “throughout legal history, each successive extension of rights to some new entity has been, theretofore, a bit unthinkable”—whether that “entity” has been a corporation, a ship, the Church, women, or African Americans. Stone did not suggest that nature be endowed with every human right, or even that it have the same rights as humans. Rather, he wrote, we must reject the notion that nature is the dominion of human beings. Stone argued that we must therefore abandon one of the fundamental tenets of Darwin, who “gave moral approbation to struggle, conquest, and domination” and who “also had the effect—intended or not—of reducing our awareness of the mutual interdependency of everything in Nature.” Western philosophy may have taught us much about the uniqueness of the human will, yet, Stone pointedly asked, “What is it within us that gives us this need not just to satisfy basic biological wants, but to extend our wills over things, to objectify them, to make them ours, to manipulate them, to keep them at a psychic distance?”

Stone’s article would become the foundational text of a movement, even if that movement did not really begin to coalesce until around 15 years ago. In 2008, Ecuador ratified its 20th constitution, a major section of which concerns “Nature or Pachamama,” a reference to the earth mother goddess of the indigenous Andean peoples. The constitution grants Pachamama the right to exist, persist, and maintain and regenerate its life cycles. “Every person, people, community or nationality,” the constitution states, “will be able to demand the recognition of rights for nature before public institutions.” This extraordinary stipulation means that you or I could appear in Ecuadorian court and litigate on behalf of a threatened forest or river. In 2009, Bolivia (where indigenous peoples also venerate Pachamama) passed the Law of Mother Earth, granting to nature the same rights accorded to humans.

In 2011, Richard Wheeler and Eleanor Huddle, Americans who owned a home on Ecuador’s Vilcabamba River, brought a suit on behalf of the river against the government of Loja Province. At issue was a road-widening project that had commenced without an environmental impact study. Large amounts of rock and excavated material had been dumped into the river, causing flooding and destroying several riverbanks. The provincial court ruled in the river’s favor, but such outcomes have been rare. Ecuador has the third-largest oil reserves in South America, and its economy is heavily dependent on petroleum exports. In Bolivia, meanwhile, the mining of tin remains as integral to the economy as it has since colonial times. The indigenous Andean groups in both countries may have been responsible for enacting landmark changes, yet when they have since challenged the oil and mining industries in court, they have consistently lost.

New Zealand, by contrast, has been much more successful at institutionalizing laws that support the rights of nature. In 2014, a remote and forested stretch of land on the country’s North Island—the former Te Urewara National Park, a region of more than 800 square miles—was granted legal personhood. Three years later, two other sites on the North Island, the Whanganui River and Mount Taranaki, were also acknowledged as living beings and were granted legal rights. These measures in large part reflected attempts at redress by the New Zealand government, which recognized, after more than a century of colonization, the Maori peoples’ relationship to and stewardship of the natural world. Maori peoples have always relied on the Whanganui River, for example, for food, medicine, and transportation. More than that, the river is considered a venerated ancestor, a living being that has been defiled for decades—dynamited to create easier passages for tourist boats, its gravel removed for construction projects, its headwaters modified to accommodate hydroelectric power. Now the river has officially appointed legal guardians, a group consisting of both Maori representatives and those of the Crown. A similar governing body was established for Mount Taranaki.

The rights-of-nature movement has spread to Mexico, Sweden, Uganda, France, Australia, and Canada, as well as the United States—with varying results. In February 2019, residents of Toledo, Ohio, fed up with the blooms of algae destroying the ecosystem of Lake Erie, voted to confer legal standing on that body of water, its tributaries, and its wildlife. The Ohio legislature, however, shot down this Lake Erie Bill of Rights, thereby protecting the interests of agribusinesses, which had been responsible for the runoff causing the algae. But this April, rural Grant Township, Pennsylvania, after a seven-year struggle, successfully used a rights-of-nature argument to get the state’s department of environmental protection to rescind a permit allowing the injection of fracking waste into a well.

Closer to Nepal, in India, a citizen filed a lawsuit in the high court of the state of Uttarakhand, hoping to prevent further damage to and encroachment upon the Yamuna River, the second-longest tributary of the Ganges. The state court’s historic decision, in December 2016, stated that the

Rivers Ganga [Ganges] and Yamuna are losing their very existence. This situation
requires extraordinary measures to be taken to preserve and conserve [them]. … The Rivers Ganga and Yamuna, all their tributaries, streams, every natural water flowing with flow continuously or intermittently of these rivers, are declared as juristic/legal persons/living entities having the status of a legal person with all corresponding rights, duties, and liabilities of a living person.

The decision could well have mitigated some of the worst abuses perpetrated on the sacred Ganges and its tributaries—some 1.5 billion liters of untreated sewage and 500 million liters of industrial waste enter the river every day—but in July 2017, India’s supreme court issued a stay of the Uttarakhand court’s order, citing an inability to enforce the law. An appeal is pending.

More promising is a recent decision from Bangladesh, in which the high court division of the supreme court recognized that all the country’s rivers—most of which are fed by the Himalayan tributaries of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers—are living beings with legal rights. The court granted authority to the National River Conservation Commission, an independent body made up of scientific experts, to oversee guardianship of the rivers and protect them from industrial pollution and illegal encroachment, among other things.

Sharma and I talked about many of these cases, and he knows that there is no guarantee of success in Nepal. Yet despite the consistent challenges, he remains undeterred. “People believe that nature is only for the use and benefit of the people, for the benefit of the state,” he said. This is a paradigm he desperately wants to challenge, something he alluded to often during our conversations and during our meetings with Nepali politicians, environmental lawyers, and other advocates—even a former prime minister of the country.

  • Glacial ice in the Khumbu. According to some scientists, up to two-thirds of the glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalaya region will be gone by 2100. (Alex Basaraba)

If the rights-of-nature movement is to truly take hold, we must reorient the way we think of the environment. This would require us to broaden the Judeo-Christian view of the world, in which humans were given dominion over the fish, the birds, and “every living thing that moves on the earth.” We would have to reject the idea that nature is an inexhaustible resource, a commodity that can be exploited in the name of commerce, and we would have to move away from a mode of thought that, over the years, helped give rise to colonialism, protectionism, and Manifest Destiny.

We must instead be willing to learn from other cultures, traditions, and belief systems. We must start viewing the natural world as a living being, not as a material asset. We must think of a river not as a collection of constituent elements (water, riverbank, riverbed, headwater, mouth, tributary, and channel) but rather as an interdependent whole. So far, so good. It’s in the next step in the evolution of our thought—the conferring of legal rights on that river—that resistance often arises.

As the environmental lawyer David Boyd wrote in his 2017 book The Rights of Nature: A Legal Revolution That Could Save the World, the likening of nature to people is viewed in some quarters as “absurd, demented, or even dangerous.” A mountain is a mountain, critics may argue, not a sentient being. And yet, in many countries, as we have seen, personhood has been granted to inanimate objects—churches, ships, even Hindu temples. In the United States, as Justice Douglas articulated, corporations are persons, entitled to certain fundamental constitutional rights, such as the freedoms of speech and religion. This has been settled law since the 1886 Supreme Court decision in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific, which essentially granted personhood to corporations under the Fourteenth Amendment, allowing them to enter into contracts with individuals, to sue, and to be sued. “Personhood has always been a highly malleable tool of law,” Anna Grear, a law professor at Cardiff University and a rights-of-nature expert, told me. “The law generates persons for its own systemic purposes.”

A corporation is defined as a number of persons united in one body for a common purpose. If such an entity can be a person, why shouldn’t the Himalayas—“a common ecosystem of microbial life, animals, plants, forests, people, and water,” as Sharma put it—be granted similar legal rights? When the forests of the Himalayas capture carbon dioxide and other pollutants from the air, the mountains can be thought, in a way, to inhale. And when they release glacial snows in seasonal runoff, when water flows down into life-sustaining rivers, are they not in a sense exhaling, too? Mountains are hardly static. They grow, they shrink, they change their shape. Mountains, Sharma told me, remember.

But as Grear said, when I asked her specifically about Himalayan personhood, a constitutional amendment, though powerful symbolically, would be only as effective as the strength of Nepal’s legal institutions. “It is entirely possible,” she told me, “that the Himalayas could have personhood, and that standing for the Himalayas would not necessarily change the outcome of any legal dispute undertaken on their behalf, since other forms of persons, including corporations, also have sets of rights and interests protected by law.” This was the conflict that arose in Toledo, when the municipal Lake Erie Bill of Rights was overturned. And what of other potential conflicts? What if a river happens to cross international borders, as so many do? How can one country monitor that river, or enforce laws concerning its health, across international boundaries? And what about the kind of ethical questions that have arisen recently in Bangladesh, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims, escaping the genocide in Myanmar, took up residence in refugee camps, leading to the severe pollution and contamination of the country’s protected rivers? Do rights of nature take precedence over human rights in cases of humanitarian crisis?

Even among Nepalis—even among the country’s indigenous populations—not everyone believes that personhood for the Himalayas might be effective or even necessary. Cultures, traditions, and belief systems are both heterogeneous and fluid.

I wanted to get a better sense of how Nepal’s indigenous Sherpa peoples view the Himalayas, so I talked to anthropologist Pasang Yangjee Sherpa, a visiting scholar at the Pacific Lutheran University in Washington State. “One thing people don’t recognize,” she said, “is that when we see Mount Everest, we don’t just see a huge mountain, a geologic feature. For us, it is where the goddess Miyolangsangma resides. The mountain is just a vessel, but the god, the spirit, the deity that resides in it is what makes it remain alive.” When I asked her how the mountains figure in the daily lives of the Sherpas, she touched on a specific sacred connection. “When Sherpas start their day” in the Khumbu, or Everest region, they “start by burning incense to the mountain Khumbu Yül-Lha, the protector deity. During important rituals throughout the year, we have to first acknowledge the mountains. Only then can we start our other festivities. It’s a very important part of our spiritual world. Besides Khumbu Yül-Lha and Mount Everest, there are other mountains that have their own cultural significance. Each mountain has its own story. Each mountain is a character, is a personality.”

The mountains do more than feed the spirit. They also provide people a livelihood— mountaineering and tourism have opened up opportunities for many Sherpas and other Nepalis. “I am not saying that everyone in the Everest region is wealthy and has a good life,” Pasang Yangjee Sherpa said. “In fact, economic inequality persists. But many people have been able to do extremely well. We have a younger generation of Sherpas and even older Sherpas who have dreamed of summiting Mount Everest because of all the fame and wealth that can come with it.” What rights-of-nature legislation might mean for the climbing industry is a great unknown. If tourism were restricted in the future, if climbing were curtailed, the economic consequences could be devastating. Pasang Yangjee Sherpa also voiced other doubts. “Based on how much the Nepali government has or has not responded to climate change issues,” she said, “and how the government bodies keep changing over and over without much work being done, I am not so sure” that they would effectively implement a sweeping rights-of-nature law for the Himalayas. Although she has “a lot of faith in individual people who are doing a lot of good work to bring attention” to the climate crisis, she is not persuaded that a rights-of-nature law would work in Nepal, given its current institutional and legal frameworks.

When I asked her whether Sherpa peoples have been represented in climate change policymaking, her response was emphatic: “No, not enough.” Moreover, she said, if you travel south from the very high mountains to the middle hills of the country, “you will start to see a lot more indigenous Nepali villages mixed with Hindu belief systems. This opens up a whole new set of ideas and experiences that are different from the northernmost high mountain regions. Most of the policymakers, those who are thinking of law at the constitutional level—they are not indigenous peoples. They are high-caste Hindu men from the middle hills of Nepal.”

She reminded me again of the diverse nature of the mountains, and that the areas around Everest and other peaks are already protected as national parks. What would rights-of-nature legislation for the Himalayas accomplish that national park status cannot? she wondered. Would different parts of the Himalayas be treated separately? And if Nepal were to enact a law, how effective would it be if surrounding countries didn’t follow suit? If Sharma and others aren’t thinking about these hard questions, she said, “then it is just going to be one more crazy idea the Kathmandu elite comes up with and puts on top of indigenous peoples and local people who couldn’t care less about what it’s called—a national park or personhood. The environment is already so much a part of the local people’s lives. It is already so much a part of their social world. Another label like personhood is not going to make much of a difference.”

In previous trips to the hills and mountains of Nepal, I have seen the importance of the international mountaineering and tourism industries to Sherpa communities. Once, when going by bus from Kathmandu to the Sindhupalchok District, I was joined by Dawa Sherpa, an expedition chef who has cooked on numerous climbs, including on Everest. We stopped at a teahouse along the way, and I remember being overwhelmed by the picturesque setting atop a verdant hill, with mist and fog rising from the rice terraces below and mountain peaks visible above the clouds in the distance. Dawa, three other guides, and I were sipping tea and eating biscuits when I asked them whether they had noticed any changes to the Khumbu in recent decades. “Thirty years ago,” Dawa said, “there was a lot of snow and ice on the top of the mountains. Now, they are turning black.” Dawa reminded me that these mountains were the main source of income for people in his region. I had expected the guides to say more, but nobody seemed inclined to go further. It was as if they were hesitant to contemplate what a future with black mountains—one without tourists and a steady income—would mean.

It’s not that Nepal has failed to address climate change in its strategic planning and policymaking. Within the past decade, the country has effectively laid the foundation to integrate climate change measures into national policies, strategies, and planning. Nepal is a signatory to the Paris Climate Accord, and it is committed to reducing its minimal contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. When I talked to Amrit Bahadur Rai, Nepal’s permanent representative to the United Nations, he stressed the importance of climate adaptation and mitigation initiatives at both national and local levels. “We have a climate change policy and corresponding strategies to reduce emissions,” Rai said. “We have focused on clean and renewable energy sources. We also earn from carbon trading. But despite a negligible emission, we have been bearing the brunt of climate change. This is not a problem of a single country. So, all countries as well as all stakeholders should unite behind this cause. There is no other option than to effectively implement the Paris Agreement both in letter and spirit, while focusing on the problems and challenges facing smaller, poorer, and vulnerable countries like Nepal.”

This is the great hope for Himalayan personhood: it could empower a small and vulnerable country to take on powerful neighbors in international courts of law. Mari Margil, who at the time was the associate director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (the organization that works closely with Sharma), told me that “not only would personhood build a legal platform to hold climate polluters responsible, it would build a moral and organizing platform to drive a fundamental change in how we govern ourselves toward the natural world. As with other social movements, the shifts in culture and shifts in law drive each other and are both necessary.”

Last June, Sharma and I met with potential allies and advocates for the cause:
Sher Bahadur Tamang, a member of parliament; Ram Kumar Acharya, an environmental lawyer who is an advocate for Nepal’s supreme court; Lalbabu Yadav, adviser to Bidhya Devi Bhandari, the current president of Nepal; and Tara Devi Bhatt, the chair of Nepal’s Sustainable Development and Good Governance Committee. But there was one person Sharma was especially keen for me to interview: Madhav Kumar Nepal, the current leader of Nepal’s ruling party and its prime minister from 2009 to 2011.

Late on a Saturday afternoon, Sharma and I set off in a taxi for the Baluwatar neighborhood, a residential district near the Bagmati River. Saturday is the day of rest in Nepal, but given the former prime minister’s busy schedule, this was the only opportunity for us to meet. The sun was a dull red, the sky suffused with crimson, when our taxi turned off the bustling four-lane road. What a difference in mood a few blocks made, the sounds of the city seeming to remain in the warren of alleyways behind us. It was calmer and quieter in this neighborhood of large, handsome houses, compounds really—the homes of important and wealthy Nepali people, Sharma told me—nearly all of them set behind imposing wrought-iron gates. We rounded a corner and got out at a newly built, four-story, red-brick house. In front of us rose a high stone wall draped in foliage that was blanketed in a layer of Kathmandu dust.

Sharma opened the viewing slot in the wall’s gate and gave our names to a sleepy guard dressed in army fatigues and carrying an automatic rifle. We passed through the gate and were met at the front door by M. K. Nepal’s personal assistant, who showed us in and asked us to wait. Green couches lined the perimeter of the large sitting room, which was filled with awards, gifts, and trophies that the prime minister had received while in office. Paintings and rolled tapestries were propped up against the walls, conveying the feel of a house in the state of being unpacked.

We waited for 40 minutes before M. K. Nepal shuffled down the steps. Handsome, olive-skinned, and confident, he wore sleek wire-rimmed glasses, a meticulous blue suit, and the traditional cap known as the dhaka topi. “Hello, namaste,” he said as he bowed, hands clasped. “Welcome to Nepal.” He looked tired, as if ours was not his first—or last—meeting of the day. “I have not been taking rest,” he said. “You know, in Nepal, there is no holiday for politicians.” He gave us a knowing smile before refocusing his attention on the matter at hand. “Our Himalayan glaciers are disappearing,” he said. “Out of the 11 highest peaks in the world, eight lie in Nepal. The whole of our ecosystem, all of our natural laws have been affected. You can feel how even in December, in the plains, the temperature levels are going up. Even in Kathmandu. Ten years before, this was not the case.”

Since leaving office in 2011, M. K. Nepal has remained an important figure in politics. His voice carries weight, especially when it comes to climate change. In 2009, he convened a group of 24 government ministers at the base camp of Mount Everest, formally announcing to the world, with dramatic effect, that the Himalayas were rapidly transforming because of climate change. “All the people were talking about the problems of island countries, the problems of coastal countries,” he said. “But no one was mentioning anything about the high mountainous countries, even if all the problems start from there. All the water from the glaciers flows down, down, down to the plain areas, down to huge populous areas of India and Bangladesh, affecting millions and millions of people. And then it goes down to meet the seas. When the level of the sea rises up, the end result is, the island countries face collapse. But the problem starts in the high mountains.”

He held the meeting at Everest base camp for this very reason. The day turned out to be sunny and brilliant, and though doctors had issued warnings about the dangers of not acclimatizing before heading for high altitudes, the gathering lasted two hours before the attendees were finally transported down by helicopter. The event garnered considerable media attention, which continued during climate negotiations at the United Nations later that year. “That gave a signal to the world,” M. K. Nepal said. “Look: the mountains are gradually, gradually facing big problems.”

I talked about the issue of personhood, describing to the former prime minister the rights-of-nature legislation being enacted around the world. He listened patiently, shifting in his seat from time to time, gently nodding at one example and then another, signaling his silent affirmation. “In my opinion,” Sharma added, “the constitution is still not sufficient to address adverse effects of climate change over the Himalayas. It is our duty to protect these natural resources for our offspring.”

Through the open windows, I could hear the occasional honk of a taxi, and I could see the sun cresting on the horizon, with evening ready to descend upon the city. The former prime minister discussed his hopes for the immediate future, including his desire that populations be resettled from the very highest elevations to lower regions, to prevent further encroachment on the most fragile natural areas. He talked about the urgent need for reforestation and clean drinking water, about problems related to irrigation and drought mitigation. He spoke about using less petroleum, and developing clean and renewable energies, especially hydroelectric power—a huge untapped potential. And he acknowledged that existing national and international policies had not yet been effective in slowing carbon emissions in China and India. The economy, he said, was crucial: “If the country became more prosperous, we could do a lot of things. But we need peace and stability in Nepal. That is necessary for economic development and prosperity.” After some time, he took a deep breath. “So,” he said, “we need to give attention through the constitution with a legal provision that recognizes the high mountains.”

With this pronouncement, M. K. Nepal said that his schedule required us to adjourn.

Outside, the street was quiet: a few passing cars, dogs barking, children playing in the last rays of daylight. In the distance, the Himalayas took a deep breath.  So we need to give attention through the constitution with a legal provision that recognizes the high mountains. A simple enough statement and hardly anything earth shattering, but Sharma had not even expected him to concede that much. Our conversation had ended before we could discuss the specifics of implementation, but for Sharma, the meeting had been a breakthrough.

“Mr. Nepal is very serious about the threat to the mountains,” Sharma said as he hailed a taxi. “About the threat to the rivers. About the threat to the planet.”

At the end of a long day, Sharma didn’t appear tired. He was relaxed and confident, just as he had been when striding into M. K. Nepal’s foyer. When I asked him if his pursuit of personhood for the Himalayas ever wore him down, he simply stressed the importance of persistence. “I am doing this work on my own,” he said. “Every day, I usually meet one, two, sometimes three persons from political parties. Sometimes parliamentarians, sometimes party leaders, sometimes political parties.” Occasionally he travels great distances on his motorcycle to meet with politicians in far-off districts, and with political tenure in Nepal so brief, the job can seem never-ending. “Many new members in the parliament will come, and I think that we will again need to educate them, to work with them,” he said. As for the need to keep M. K. Nepal as a valuable ally, Sharma said, “He is still waiting for another time to become prime minister. And probably he will be.”

In Buddhism, death is not considered the end of life. It is merely a transition from one state to another; the soul is reborn time and time again until it is relieved from this cycle of reincarnation and reaches a state of enlightenment. After Sharma and I parted ways, I walked into the heart of Kathmandu. Five kilometers from M. K. Nepal’s house, I watched a throng of devotees slowly orbiting the great Boudhanath stupa—one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the world—in an act of spiritual devotion, necessary steps on the path to enlightenment. The concept of reincarnation is central to Nepal’s Hindus, as well, and I spent many Kathmandu evenings walking in the vicinity of the Hindu Pashupatinath Temple, where cremations are held nearly every day. A series of concrete platform steps led down to the ghats along the Bagmati River, and grieving families would assemble there, surrounded by bright orange and yellow flowers and piles of wood for the funerary pyres. Monkeys performed acrobatics along the steps and railings, and the holy sadhus, with painted faces, unkempt hair, and formidable beards, walked around the site, happy to pose for a picture with any westerner willing to pay a price. Watching this spectacle unfold, I was reminded of an apparent contradiction: the surety with which the Nepali people believe in the life to come, while looming over them in the very great distance are the commanding peaks that may not experience Samsāra, the ultimate and supreme liberation.

In recent months, Sharma and I have continued our conversations online, and our discussions have covered a range of topics. We have talked about our souls, about mountains, about death. Not long ago, I asked him whether he believed that mountains could physically die. “In biological terms,” he said, “when the last breath leaves a life, that is death. But in spiritual terms, death is not the end of life. It is the course of a new life. But yes, mountains can die, and the Himalayas are dying. They will be black rock, with no snow.” To Sharma, the only way to prevent that fate is to take dramatic measures today. Yes, the mountains will endure long after we are gone. But without snow, they would exist as an expanse of black rock unable to sustain the kind of biological life—including human life—we know today. That is hardly a state of enlightenment. It’s really no existence at all.

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