Gigantic enclaves are not a solutionResource-rich lands are being fenced off from those who need them most
This is the third in a series of eight articles that will be published on a fortnightly basis. The series is largely based on a recent study conducted by the author in and around the national parks in Banke and Bardiya.
Meena Pariyar (name changed) lives with her extended family on the banks of the Rapti near Banke National Park. Her husband is a tailor. As he can’t afford to set up a tailoring shop, he goes from house to house offering his services. In August last year, the massive flood that swept across the Tarai swallowed their hut and their meagre belongings. The family barely managed to escape alive. After the waters receded, they cobbled together a flimsy one-room shack in the same flood-prone area. As the shack is tiny, most of the family members sleep outside, exposed to the elements and the risk of wildlife attacks.
“If we could collect some wood from over there, we could have built a small house by now,” says Pariyar, pointing towards the nearby forest. But the forest belongs to Banke National Park, which was established in 2010 amid fierce opposition from local forest user groups. “The park has made life more difficult for us,” she says. “In the past we were free to collect grass, fuelwood, branches and wild vegetables. Sometimes we fished in the river for our meals. Now, if we are seen fishing or collecting grass, the army will arrest us. But we still go steal fallen branches when we can, what else can we do?”
Certain sections of our society are positioned to face assault from just about every direction. The Pariyar family is one example. Centuries of systemic discrimination have left them poor, landless and socially vulnerable. Decades of “development” have passed them by. When a natural disaster strikes, they are hit the hardest. They may survive the flood or earthquake if lucky, but they cannot hope to achieve what is called “recovery”, for their only options are to seek refuge on public land and be labelled “encroachers” and “steal” branches from a forest at the risk of punishment. They do not reap the benefits of our mega development projects. And they are precisely the ones to be shut out of our green enclaves.
Protection for whom?
Nearly one fourth of the total area of Nepal falls under the ‘protected’ category. It includes ten national parks, three wildlife reserves, one hunting reserve, six conservation areas, and 12 buffer zones. These areas contain productive lands, forests and water sources to which local populations have limited or no access.
Other types of protected areas have been created in recent years. In July 2014 the government declared the Chure region a conservation area in accordance with the Environment Protection Act 1997. Although the decision was made to control the degradation of the Chure region, several scholars criticised the move for being top-down and apathetic to the needs of local communities. The programme has so far failed to achieve its goal. It subjected the local forest users to increased bureaucratic surveillance and curtailed their access to resources, but the crusher industries that are primarily responsible for denuding the Chure hills continue their business with strong political protection.
It is easy to see who still controls land, forests and rivers in Nepal. The powerful are stealing sand and stones from the river, destroying valuable forests, bulldozing historic neighbourhoods, and blasting tunnels through fragile mountains. The poor and weak are being displaced from their ancestral lands, robbed of their livelihood and community, and being blamed for deforestation and degradation. It is a bitter irony that those who have long been excluded from development are now paying the heaviest price for development. And those who are least responsible for ecological crisis are being told to give up fuel wood, fodder, wild edibles and grazing pastures.
Big conservation organisations have the money and scientific-technical wherewithal to shape environmental decision making at every level. They have the power to classify and demarcate the natural world and determine who can access it and under what conditions.
Some scholars argue that big organisations are increasingly creating the terrain for expropriating land and resources across the globe in the name of conservation. As part of this process, sometimes referred to as “green grabbing,” large, resource-rich areas are cordoned off and given new types of economic value—through ecotourism, for instance, or finance mechanisms like REDD+, and the global carbon market. These enclosures can then be harnessed to serve the interests of transnational and national elites, often at the expense of local rural populations. The continuing expansion of protected areas in Nepal can be understood as part of this broader phenomenon.
Over the last two decades, sprawling forested landscapes in the Tarai have been demarcated as conservation zones. The currently popular “landscape-level conservation” encompasses areas that extend across national boundaries (and not just specific sites within a country). Its main goal is to protect forests on a much larger scale, expand wildlife habitat and increase wildlife population. Needless to say, there is a lot of money involved. Initiated in 2001, the Tarai Arc Landscape is WWF’s biggest landscape-level conservation project in Nepal. The project covers 24,710 sq.km spread across 18 districts. A large stretch of land between Bardiya National Park and India’s Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary has been reclassified as a “wildlife corridor” under this project. Incidents of wildlife attacks on crops, livestock, property and humans have increased since the establishment of the corridor.
“We need protected areas, but do they need to cover such large territories?” says Bhola Khatiwada, a community forestry activist. “We should also think about how to harness forest resources to improve the lives of poor and marginalised people. But conservation organisations are always trying to keep people out of the forests.”
Giganticism is no solution
Around 68 percent of Nepal’s population still depends on agriculture for livelihood. They rely on forests to meet their daily needs. More than a million households are landless. Over 80 percent of them live in or near forests and depend on agriculture or forest-based livelihoods. A large number of people from marginalised groups such as Tharu, Sonaha, Bote, Majhi, Kumal and Dalits are living on ailani land (unregistered government land) in the vicinity of the national parks. The poorest among them live on the riverbanks and are vulnerable to yearly flooding.
The noted Indian environmental historian Ramachandra Guha writes that “two axioms” of American “wilderness thinking” have shaped protected area management in the Third World—“giganticism”, or the belief that wilderness has to be extensive and continuous; and “hands off nature”, or the notion that all human activity harms biodiversity. Although often couched in scientific jargon, these axioms arise from deeply held prejudices against forest-dependent people. Such “anti-human” conservation approaches cannot work in countries where most people depend on forest resources for their livelihood. Guha advocates for a network of small, locally controlled, protected areas rather than massive enclaves controlled by a central authority.
There is no denying that climate change and biodiversity loss are real and serious threats. But as more and more areas get fenced off to ostensibly address these problems, it is important to ask who is paying the price for such projects and why. In a country where the majority of people depends on agriculture, and over a million people do not own land, is it justified that such vast swathes of resource-rich land are off-limits to those who need them most? Have urban elites, whose lifestyles demand much greater consumption of energy and resources, been asked to make any sacrifices?
Ghale, a former op-ed editor at the Kathmandu Post, is a freelance writer