Chure is not just environment, but a political issue, experts sayDegradation of the hills, a crucial zone balancing Nepal’s fragile ecosystem, should be a top political agenda, as it can have a profound impact on the generations to come.
The Chure region once again is at the centre of the national debate.
The sudden surge in conversation on Chure, an ecological zone significant for its environmental services, comes on the heels of a government decision to allow export of sand, pebbles and stones.
Point 199 of the fiscal budget presented by Finance Minister Bishnu Poudel on May 29 says: “Based on environmental impact assessment, mine-based stones, pebbles and sand can be exported to minimise trade deficit.”
The discourse currently involves how the government’s new decision would cause huge environmental degradation and the impact it can have on biodiversity and ecosystem, ultimately affecting the livelihoods of the people.
The question, however, arises what actually led to such a decision by the government of the day and why there was no continuous debate on the issue, even though Chure and other environment service providers have been under attack for decades.
Experts say Chure so far has been seen only from the environmental point of view whereas the environment itself is a big political issue.
Many say statements from political parties, except the one that belongs to Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, criticising the government’s decision smacks of double-standard, as they too did little to make the environment a political issue.
“There should have been a larger political debate on Chure conservation, our future development trajectories through environmental-friendly pathways and how to make our development sustainable,” says Uttam Babu Shrestha, an environmentalist and director at the Global Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies, a think tank based in Kathmandu.
The Chure region, which covers about 12.78 percent of the country’s total area and on which nearly 60 percent of the country's population is, directly and indirectly, dependent for its services, has by and large remained out of political discourse.
Despite catering to such a huge constituency and spanning 36 districts of the Chure belt, the value of the region is still discussed only through an ecological perspective, not the political lens, say experts.
According to Chandrakishore, a socio-political commentator who closely follows political and environmental issues from the Tarai, the impact of Chure degradation has remained limited to individual experiences so far.
“Issues like drying up of water resources and other social and financial difficulties due to Chure exploitation are discussed by individuals or families. This feeling is not socialised as yet. As a result, it has failed to gain political traction,” says Chandrakishore. “Everyone said ‘conservation, conservation’, but the Chure area failed to gain the commitment that was required at the political level.”
According to Chandrakishore, who is also a journalist, none of the parties in Nepal took up the Chure conservation as their political agenda.
For a large chunk of politicians in Nepal, environment is a non-issue and they consider it something to be dealt with by environmentalists.
“When we talk about Chure, it’s not a segregated piece of land. It should be seen as a whole landscape including Chure and the Tarai and Madhes area which is home to nearly 50 percent of the population,” says Shrestha. “Besides, it is a habitat for endangered wildlife like tigers, one-horned rhinos and elephants among others as well as other valuable species.”
When Ram Baran Yadav, the first President of Nepal, made protection of Chure hills one of his priorities, it was for the first time it looked like the environment would soon become a significant part of political discourse as well.
Rampant exploitation of the Chure range for its resources, mainly sand, pebbles and stones, drew the attention of Yadav, who then directed the government about the urgent need for Chure conservation. Subsequently, the government came up with the President Chure Conservation Programme and declared the region “Chure Environmental Protection Area” under the Environmental Protection Act (1997) in 2014.
For its extensive conservation, a powerful “President Chure-Tarai Madhesh Conservation Development Board, was formed. In June 2016, the Board came up with a 20-year Chure-Tarai Madhesh Conservation and Management Master Plan for protecting the Chure from further degradation.
However, the Board, envisioned to conserve Chure, maintained an eerie silence on the government decision to export sand, pebbles and aggregates.
Instead, after a hullabaloo, it came up with a statement endorsing the government decision.
Organising a press conference on Sunday, eight days after the budget, the Board hit out at journalists and environmentalists for making a mountain of a molehill, completely downplaying how Chure hills exploitation can have an overarching impact on the environment and the people.
The Board maintained that the government's plan to extract and export construction materials will not affect the Chure region, which many say is a mere assumption.
Experts say the fundamental problem in Nepal is people in power and authorities often tend to trivialise environmental concerns.
Parties instead of making Chure a strong political issue and instead of lobbying for its protection found in it a huge source for their own personal gains.
In Nepal, where extractive politics is thriving for the past few decades, the client-patron relationship has emerged as a new cottage industry. There is no dearth of people who are politicians-turned-contractors or vice-versa.
Experts say unless politicians realise the loss of Chure could impact not only a group of people living downstream but also the entire country, it’s conservation would be a tall ask.
Environmentalists say Nepali politicians’ concept of development is so flawed that they have been encouraging bulldozers to raze through the hills and forests.
That the government wants to export natural products to “minimise the trade deficit” is just but ludicrous and needs to be rejected outright, experts say. Everyone needs to understand why Chure constitutes an important part of the country’s environment conservation, according to them.
If Chure loses its forests and sand, boulders, pebbles and aggregates are extracted, the rains and floods triggered subsequently could wipe out the entire mountain. This will not only mean losing biodiversity but also putting the lives of people living downstream in peril.
Deterioration of the range has even left bigger impacts on the people living downstream in Tarai districts where effects have percolated to their day-to-day lives.
They are battling a severe water crisis, annual flooding and loss of alluvial farmlands to sedimentation.
“The digging up of rivers for sand and stones has disturbed the groundwater in the Tarai region,” says Vijay Singh Danuwar, an environmentalist who has championed the cause of Chure conservation for years. “It’s not just as simple as saying losing the environment; the impacts on the people are immense.”
Shrestha agrees that when discussions are taking place for Chure conservation for its biodiversity and resources, the population that is dependent on the region should be at the centre.
“While we are discussing Chure’s degradation and potential damage due to the extraction of construction materials, no one is talking about what could be alternative construction materials instead of sand and stone,” says Shrestha. “We see the same kind of houses built across the country with cement, which also have environmental impacts.”
According to Shrestha, yet another problem is–everyone is talking but no one is listening.
“Decisions are being made on an ad-hoc basis. It’s not just about sand and stones,” says Shrestha. “There are hardly any studies on how much deposits of these materials we have and how much we need for our future development aspirations like building highways, hydropower and airports. There is no broader discussion on how we can make development sustainable and environment-sensitive.”
Environmentalists are unanimous on the fact that the country’s natural resources and environment have for decades bearing the brunt of short-sighted decisions and collusion between politicians and interest groups, who enjoy an easy access to the corridors of power .
“There is a huge nexus–a syndicate–of people… contractors, bureaucrats and politicians and at times also some who claim to represent the local media,” says Chandrakishore. “This group of people is reaping the benefits of Chure degradation, while putting not only today’s generation but also the future generations at risk.”
According to Chandrakishore, the exploitation of Chure for personal benefits only got worse in the last 10 to 15 years, although it had faced degradation for a long time.
“The Panchayat system destroyed the Charkoshe jhadi forests whereas massive exploitation of the Chure range started after the multiparty system was restored in 1990,” says Chandrakishore. “However, plundering of Chure in an organised and syndicated way began about a decade or so ago. Even today, Chure is merely treated as a site for natural resources while ignoring its important role in the lives of people and generations.”
And now the state is bent on selling it, he says.
“One can make a huge amount of money by investing little in Chure extraction. Besides, loans for buying trucks and excavators are easily available,” said Chandrakishore. “These sand and aggregate contractors have also won elections and made it to the decision-making levels in government.”
After all politicians and political parties need funds for elections, says Danuwar.
How powerful these groups involved in the extraction of riverbed materials are can be understood from the fact that no one can enter their area, according to him.
“Politicians and contractors have been working in cahoots to exploit Chure and other regions for decades,” he says. Contractors are so powerful that they can change chief district officers, ministers and even police personnel. How is this possible without the backing of some powerful politicians?”