Contested ChureGovernment should not have declared 13 percent of the country’s surface as ‘environment conservation area’ in haste
During former President Ram Baran Yadav’s tenure, a special President Chure Programme was launched in 2010/11. This was followed by a full-fledged Chure Tarai Madhes Conservation Directive issued by the government in 2014. These efforts have undoubtedly demonstrated the state’s response to a major environmental concern, but at the same time they have sparked controversies.
“In some areas in the community forest, we have small heaps of boulders with mature trees standing on them. If we do not remove such fully grown trees soon, they can easily crush the fragile Chure hills, resulting in the erosion and sedimentation downstream,” said a community leader in Nawalparasi. He explained that the recent Chure Conservation Directive issued by the government has prohibited his Community Forest User Group to remove such hazardous trees, despite their plans to do so.
Local communities are just one group among many affected by the Chure regulations. District forest officers are also perplexed with the dizzying array of regulations they have to reconcile with while implementing them in the field and they say that the Chure Directive has definitely added complexity and confusion to forest management.
Studies show that 0.04 percent of forests have disappeared in the Tarai from 1991 to 2010. Together with biodiversity loss, forest degradation has been the main concern in the Chure conservation debates. But these debates have been too alarmist, often supporting centralisation of management, which has often worked against the forest-dependent poor.
Forest-Chure degradation thesis is much more complex than assumed by the government’s Chure policy. It should be noted that much of the cultivation, considered to be a key driver of Chure degradation, is on gentle slopes. Some studies have shown that hills in Chure have even seen improvements in forest cover.
The Chure environment comprises not only forest but also rivers, and fragile slopes, each facing a different kind of degradation, driven by various political and economic factors. Another important narrative of risk is about the possible downstream effects of Chure degradation—not just the small stream of Chure but also the bigger river system, eventually affecting the entire Tarai and even northern India. Indeed, over the past decade, many of the ephemeral rivers have increased flood risks in the Tarai as their bed levels rise consistently.
There is strong experiential evidence that degradation of Chure hills can lead to flooding downstream, with the risk of desertifying the fertile Tarai land. However, the attribution lacks any scientific evidence, thus complicating decisions about integrating upstream and downstream management of watersheds. The Chure authority also lacks exact definition of degradation though the crisis narrative is strong. Though Chure conservation has now become a key Madhes agenda, there is no evidence of systematic articulation and concrete policy narrative, beyond the narrative of risk.
At the time of declaring the Chure Directive, solutions to this crisis could have been explored in more scientifically robust and politically correct ways. But the hasty decision to declare 13 percent of the country’s surface as ‘environment conservation area’ has further aggravated the tension, as it restricts human activities in the area. With the recent change in the government, officials of the Chure committee have resigned, harbouring party politics in the conservation agenda. As a result, the problems of conservation and management persist, and now with the increased demand for timber, the Chure challenges have become even more complicated.
The Directive has defined Chure as not only the “hills chain”, but also “the system of rivers flowing through it up to the Tarai Madhes region and the watershed areas”. This is not unreasonable, but the institutional arrangement put in place does not correspond with the Chure boundaries. The primacy of ‘conservation through restriction’ is problematic. It is also not clear whether it is the conservation area or catchment area needing management. The Chure declaration highlights multiple forms of environmental risks, but fails to integrate livelihood and economic opportunities for the forest users.
Moreover, Chure declaration has created a de facto institutional vacuum as the jurisdiction of 36 District Forest Offices and nearly 3000 Community Forestry User Groups have been legally constrained across the region. The decision involves the Ministry of Population and Environment, which does not have adequate organisational and human resource capacity to enforce Environmental Protection Act that governs ‘environmental conservation area’.
More importantly, the Directive does not recognise the role local democracy can play and has only emphasised implementation by the government line agencies.
Chure is a site where we can see the problem but it can not be delimited as a region of intervention. A nation-wide framework does not work; nor is community scale management adequate. Community groups should be involved in small-scale resource conservation and management, but emphasis should be on watershed- and landscape-based approaches. There is a need to think beyond the current institutional boxes, and empower local democratic spaces across the Chure landscapes.
With federal states and local democracy being the emerging agendas in the political discourse, Chure management cannot remain a technical or an administrative issue for long. A balance needs to be made between direct use of resources by the people residing in the Chure region and the use of ecosystem services by downstream communities in the Tarai through flood control, water recharge and soil fertility retention. An economic opportunity of sustainable timber harvest from the region cannot be forgone. Holding local government elections and then formalising inter-local government councils that enable local executives, community groups and technical specialists to work together should be a priority.
Ojha is a public policy expert; Dhungana is a forestry specialist and vice-chairperson of Nepal Foresters’ Association