Looking at ChureThe central interventions can do more harm than good in the absence of local authority
The degradation of the Chure region has become a critical environmental challenge in Nepal, with downstream consequences across the Tarai and even in parts of North India. Land degradation is a widespread problem in the Tarai due to the rapid expansion of riverbeds and siltation of farmland, leading to a decline in production. Half of the Tarai districts are not self-sufficient in food production.
Chure’s environmental problem has now turned into a contested political issue because of contradictory and overlapping interests of different players—politically powerful groups, businesspersons and racketeers, landless people, land grabbers, and marginal farmers. Poor governance with a lack of a context-specific approach has made it difficult to reconcile the interests of different groups.
Many of the contestations around the Chure region are linked to a number of misconceptions. Before developing any approach to manage the Chure landscape, it is important to pay heed to the specific realities of this region in terms of its geo-ecology, socio-economic and livelihood structures, and trans-boundary influences.
Unlike other ecological regions in Nepal, Chure is a complex region. Politically, one can argue whether this region is part of the Tarai or mountains, but Chure is certainly different from both the Tarai and the rest of the mountains. Covering 27 percent of the land area of the country across 36 districts, it is an extremely diverse region. We find at least five sub-ecological units making the Chure complex—hill slopes, narrow river valleys, inner Tarai, Bhabhar (foothills accommodating fans and aprons arising from the hill slopes and consisting of boulders, cobbles and pebbles so that water flows underneath), and Tarai. As Chure hills are relatively new compared to other hills, erosion activities are more endemic here.
Demographically, Chure region is also under pressure due to rising population growth. One study revealed that in the decade from 1991 to 2001, Chure’s population increased by 31 percent. Most of the people living in the region have small land holdings. Settlements are scattered and fragmented. Moreover, about 70 percent of households have unregistered land, making their lives very uncertain and risky. The main livelihood strategy of the Chure communities, which is based on livestock, is often seen as detrimental to forest conservation.
Ecologically, Chure is a forest-rich region and it would be too costly for the country to overlook the economic potential of its high value Sal trees and non-timber forest products. As compared to other regions of the country, Chure is still heavily forested—about 72 percent of the region is still forest. Of course, this forest is under constant degradation. In the period of 15 years from 1995-2010, 38,051 hactares of forest have been cleared—about 0.2 percent loss of forest area every year. There is also regional variation in the rate of forest loss—forest in the western part of the country is relatively well conserved, where the local forest stewards have put hard work to reforest it where necessary and then protect it.
The protectionist approach that the government is following is not giving proper incentives for local stewards like community forestry organisations and farmers. This approach is not conducive to fulfilling the human-security needs of these local stewards either. Unless these needs are fulfilled by managing resources in the Chure region, it is unlikely that the government’s role alone can bring any positive change. In this case, Chure will continue to be degraded much to the woes of the whole inner Tarai, Chure hills, and Tarai. Government approach has been uniform, not taking notice of the good conservation measures that many of the grassroots organisations like community forest user groups have been taking. The people involved in these organisations now have the perception that the government will take back their forests.
Given the highly contested nature of the problem, with high stakes of the poor as well as the powerful, a ‘human security’ approach needs to be the key to the conservation of Chure. Among others, this points to the need for resolving the conflicting and inter-spatial interests within the country (like Chure, inner valleys, hill slops and Tarai) and trans-boundary issues. Conservation of the landscape and the protection of livelihoods of the poor must go hand in hand. By strengthening all livelihood capitals like food, income, education, health, environment, and physical security, it is possible to improve the management of the landscape in an integrated way. Besides, it is important to empower landscape level management authority—such as local governments or their networks created through some regulatory mechanism—which can consider both conservation and livelihood concerns at its scale of decision-making. Such decentralised approach is particularly beneficial for the marginalised groups as there is a possibility to reconcile their livelihood needs with conservation goals.
The conservation programmes in Chure like the President Chure-Tarai Conservation Development Programme and the recent Chure Conservation Directive are not informed by the analysis of links between human security, livelihoods, and conservation. That said, the sensitivity shown by the government is praiseworthy, but it is doubtful whether this good intention will lead to the conservation of Chure, as it has failed to decentralise governance and empower the poor. Given this, it is not surprising that the people and their grassroots organisations are questioning the government programmes. Moreover, the absence of elected authority means that the core agency of the Chure management at the local level is missing. The central interventions can do more harm than good in absence of locally accountable authority.
Adhikari is a social scientist; Ojha is a public policy expert