Kathmandu: Finance Minister Bishnu Prasad Paudel on May 29 presented the government’s fiscal budget through an ordinance. Discussion around the “distributive and populist” budget are ongoing but one particular issue has received perhaps the most attention: the government’s plan to revoke the ban on export of mineral-based construction material to “minimize trade deficit”.
The decision has been roundly condemned by a wide cross-section of environmentalists and the opposition. The decision comes alongside another plan to grant a customs waiver on construction materials used to build ropeways that will connect mining areas to depositories.
The long-standing tug-of-war between the lobby of the mining-construction industry and environmental conservation activists has further intensified after the decision.
Although the decision to revoke the ban affects the entire country, the Chure region is bound to be affected the most owing to the rampant mining and extraction already happening in the region.
In its defense, the Finance Ministry in a June 2 press release said that it is “committed” to conserving the Chure region and that it is aware of its duty to prevent ecological damage in the region. The press release further states that mining will take place in areas determined through a research conducted by the Department of Mines and Geology, adhering to Environmental Impact Assessment reports, and that the Chure/Bhavar/Siwalik region will be excluded in such undertakings.
But environmentalists and the agitating parties remain unconvinced.
Shristi Shrestha, an animal and environmental rights activist, says that there is a lack of trust when it comes to the government’s promises to protect the region. “Even if the Chure region isn’t mined for export of its raw materials, it is already in a state of continuous degradation,” Shrestha said.
A brief history of the tug-of-war
In a ruling on a writ petition in August 2010, the Supreme Court instructed the government to prepare a policy where natural resources will only be used for the “common benefit” of all Nepali citizens. It also ordered for necessary arrangements that would ensure that no adverse effects would be inflicted on the environment when mining natural resources.
But the mining industry fought back against the guidelines adopted after the ruling, employing tactics such as lobbying, street protests and halting all operations across the country. The protest was backed by, among others, the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FNCCI).
In the ensuing months, there was a lack of institutional presence when it came to exclusively dealing with the degradation in the Chure region.
The Chure hills are the youngest in the Himalayan system. This makes them fragile and prone to soil erosion. Mining and extraction in the area for raw construction materials cause significant harm to its ecosystem.
Then in July 2014, the government formed a committee focused on preserving the Chure—the President Chure Conservation Board. The board was tasked with mitigating damage by coordinating with bodies undertaking development projects in the region and developing necessary policy and strategy to conserve the region. A week after the board’s formation, the government announced a ban on the export of riverbed material outside the country.
Understanding the Chure
The Chure region stretches across Nepal’s latitude covering about 13 percent of the country’s total area. The region is home to 14 percent of Nepal’s population and about 26 percent of the country’s total vegetation. The Chure hills are the youngest in the Himalayan system. This makes them fragile and prone to soil erosion. Mining and extraction in the area for raw construction materials cause significant harm to its ecosystem.
Encroachment in the region by a large number of landless people adds to the harm. Phenomena such as shifting cultivation sites after they lose their fertility and open grazing further multiply the rate at which Chure and the lower areas are being desertified. Every passing year, they lead to an increase in disasters such as landslides and annual monsoon flooding, and widening of rivers and siltation.
The problems are exacerbated by rapid urbanization in the areas that are attracting an increase in construction projects.
Chandra Kishore, a journalist and political commentator based in Sarlahi, says that he is deeply concerned about the state’s lack of accountability in the degradation happening in Chure. He added that the degradation in the Chure hills has tangible effects in the lower Terai districts, including in the one where he lives.
“Why has the water level in my area been steadily declining over the last 20 years?” he said. “Why are my rivers drying up, and why are there more annual floods? We want answers and accountability from the federal and provincial governments. But they are scarce.”
The political-commercial nexus
Shrestha, the environmental activist, attributes the government’s recent announcement to the “political-commercial nexus gripping policy-making” in the country.
More than 300 construction company owners were elected in the local-level elections of 2018, according to the Federation of Contractors’ Associations of Nepal. Mining and construction operations are hugely lucrative and operate under political clout and continue unabated.
The grisly murder of Dilip Mahato, a 24-year-old protester against illegal mining in the Aurahi riverbed in Mithila Municipality, Dhanusha district, serves as a reminder that activism, too, no matter how minor in scale, can be deadly.
Shrestha said that while on a visit to Province 2 for a research project, she found NGOs and conservationists involved in Chure fragmented in terms of communication and partnership.
“A lack of cooperation among conservationists benefits only the political-commercial nexus,” she said.
The continuing destruction of the Chure can also be ascribed to the lack of implementation of court decisions on the subject, argues Sanjay Adhikari, a lawyer and environmental rights activist.
“The Supreme Court has ruled on a number of Chure-related cases but the Judgement Execution Directorate does not take a proactive approach in ensuring that such decisions are executed,” said Adhikari.
Adhikari also pointed towards the problems with Environment Impact Assessment reports in projects throughout the country, one of the reasons being widespread plagiarism in the reports: “We discovered instances where the same reports were almost identically copied and pasted in multiple unrelated projects.”
The lack of rigorous analysis in such reports is coupled with their inaccessibility, Adhikari adds. “The Nijgadh Airport project’s EIA report is a reflection of lack of in-depth study into the environmental implications of developmental undertakings,” he said.
The Chure region consists of stakeholders consisting of the government, donors, forest user-based federations and networks, civil society organizations, political parties/leaders, local communities, and the private sector. In a report published in 2018, disputes in the region between these stakeholders were found to be centered on maintaining their “power-relationships” rather than solving the problem of degradation.
The Chure crisis is a problem without a single breakthrough solution, at least not yet. Chandra Kishore, the Madhes-based journalist, says that Chure’s problem requires a “guardian”, if not to solve it entirely, to explain it.
“The problems faced by the common man due to the degradation of the Chure have neither been understood by the leaders of the Hills, nor Terai,” he said. “The common man wants a guardian who will give him answers to why the ecosystem around him has been degrading in the last 20 years.”