Nijgadh and Nepal’s livable future

Kashish Das Shrestha

  • Read Time 3 min.

The fate of Nijgadh forest will define the future of Nepal’s sustainability or failure.

It is hard to imagine a country literally on fire, but this April, Nepal came very close to living that experience. Forest fires burnt across the nation’s southern plains to mid-hills and northern mountain regions, from the east to the west, in an unprecedented scale. Unsurprisingly, the country’s leadership and authorities were caught off guard. Today, as the world acknowledges climate crisis and its impacts as the new normal, Nepal’s political class has established criminal collusion to profit at the cost of ecology as the new normal. Like the forest fires, these tendencies are not new, but it is wildly unprecedented and unchecked in scale and audacity. No single agenda demonstrates this as the plot to deforest Nijgadh for a ghost airport.

The government’s promised international airport has already been established as a flimsy cover to urgently exploit Nijgadh forest’s trees, worth an estimated $500,000,000 in the timber market. Timber aside, countless other government tenders worth many millions more are attached to the plan. What the Nijgadh International Airport agenda amounts to is perhaps the largest organized ecological crime scheme of our times in Nepal, by a cartel that stretches from local brokers to powerful businessmen, all the way up to the Prime Minister’s office. The scheme to deforest Nijgahd is not random; it is a confident culmination of years of successfully engaging in illegal natural resource exploitation across Nepal without facing any personal consequences besides profits and strengthened political relationships.

Traveling across Nepal, by land and air, for field research over the last decade has been to witness the country being increasingly mined, bulldozed, and extracted with disregard for regulations, leaving behind deeply scarred landscapes primed for making natural disasters worse. There was a time in the last decade when illegal natural resource extraction operations would be at least temporarily closed down by local authorities if media reported them, reopening again with the help of their respective political patrons. Today, individuals with natural resource extraction interests have used their money to join political parties and become lawmakers, as have individuals and gangsters with extensive criminal backgrounds. When 24-year-old Dilip Kumar Mahato, an environment activist protesting against local illegal mining, was murdered in January 2020, no one was held accountable. Law enforcement has become questionable as enforcement officials show partisanships and the line between lawbreakers and lawmakers have been erased. Pro-public regulations have become an afterthought as those wishing to deregulate industries have become policy makers shaping policies for their personal interests. All of it for one singular purpose: power for profits, at any cost.

The cost on ecology, however, is not one that Nepal can afford. We know addressing the climate crisis needs wide-ranging urgent efforts, and protecting our ecology is at the heart of it. Yet, a decade ago, it could honestly be said Nepal is at a crossroad on the model of development it wants to choose, with hope bet on sustainability. Not any more. In the last several years, the scale of political corruption to enable natural resources exploitation has put Nepal on a path where droughts, floods, desertification, landslides, crop failures and toxic air pollution will all worsen and make it near impossible to manage. Even without climate change, the current trajectory is enough to ensure Nepal edges ever more to being a failed state. But Nepal is also among the world’s top most climate vulnerable countries.

While the natural ecology is collapsing at the hands of profiteers, the political criminal ecosystem it fuels is thriving: the wealthy are becoming politically powerful, and the politically powerful are becoming wealthier. This cycle must end. It is why Nijgadh’s fate is so defining for Nepal’s future, for the next forest fire season, the next monsoon flood, the next plantation and harvest seasons, for social justice and inter-generational equity in the country. To allow Nijgadh to be squandered so openly now would set in motion the next phase of other mega ecological crimes, just as years of smaller illegal operations set the stage for Nijgadh’s deforestation. To save Nijgadh is to send a much-needed signal about accountability, commitment of sustainability and hope for Nepal’s livable future.

Kashish Das Shrestha, a 2019 National Geographic Explorer, started the @SaveNijgadh campaign this year. He has previously advised the Parliament’s Natural Resources and Means Committee. He tweets at @kashishds.