Nepal’s wildlife and nature conservation “success stories” come at the cost of forest-dependent Indigenous people: Report

While Nepal's conservation efforts are lauded around the world, and as wildlife numbers increase, some human communities are 'disproportionately impacted'.

Sketch: Amnesty International

NL Today

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Kathmandu: Amnesty International Nepal held a discussion session with conservationists and journalists on Sunday, August 8, to launch a report on human rights violations in the name of conservation, with the indigenous people being the most affected. The report was created in collaboration with the Community Self Reliance Centre, a social organization that advocates for agrarian reform and working farmers’ and tillers’ land rights. The report concentrated on two national parks in Nepal: Chitwan National Park and Bardia National Park.

In the session, Nirajan Thapaliya, Section Director of Amnesty International Nepal, highlighted the fact that access to land has frequently been a source of contention in most conflict-torn countries. He mentioned that the indigenous and Janajati people, as well as their access to land, were discussed in the report, as the people living on the outskirts of these national parks were almost entirely made up of communities such as Tharu, Chepang, Kumal, Majhi, Danuwar, Darai, and Sonahar.

In an attempt to highlight a contradiction, he stated that while Nepal’s conservation efforts are lauded around the world, and as wildlife numbers increase, some human communities are disproportionately impacted. “At what human cost are we achieving these conservation milestones?” he asked. “Natural disasters like floods further exemplify the effects on the livelihood and dignity of these communities living on the outskirts of these national parks and conservation areas.”

The report took two years to prepare, according to Jagat Basnet, executive director of Community Self-Reliance Center, who was part of the research team that visited the parks. He also stated that local researchers from these communities were trained and used in the research, and that international experts in their respective fields were consulted for analysis of these problems and legal complexities.

He noted that Chitwan National Park is Nepal’s largest and most profitable national park. He recalled an incident that occurred while the research team was passing through the Geruwa Rural Municipality in the Bardia district, Ward 7, in which a 45-year-old man was recently killed by the park’s elephant. He also stated that the ward chairperson informed them that at least one person is killed by elephants in the park every month.

According to Basnet, the issue of indigenous people being displaced from their own land is very common and frequently goes unreported. He used the example of Sundar Raj Tharu, who owned several acres of land in the area before the great floods of 1984 and 1989 changed the course of the river, causing all of his land to become part of the park’s premise. Sundar Raj Tharu, according to Banset, is now working as a laborer on other people’s land. “These kinds of stories are neither new nor uncommon,” he says.

He further said that when the research team met with the wardens of these parks, they encountered primarily two issues. The first is that these lands were not registered by the Tharu community, and the second is that the park does not have enough income to compensate in these cases. However, according to Basnet, the Tharu community did not traditionally register their land.

“The western boundary of the Geruwa river is the park’s boundary,” he said. “But the river changed its course and ate up land along the way. Everyone knows this, but park officials won’t even let the owners take sand from their land.”

He stated that laws must be amended to address these issues. He claimed that land is not only a source of food for indigenous people, but also a source of culture. “Indigenous people in these areas are routinely displaced and forced to enter the labor market,” he said.

The audio recordings of representatives from the affected communities were also played during the discussion session. Chanda Gurung of Geruwa Rural Municipality, Ward 7, stated that he has been paying tax on his land that has been eaten up by the river since 1984 but has received no compensation.

One of the major components of the recommendation was the need to amend Nepal’s existing legal framework to bring it in line with its human rights obligations as outlined in its constitution

Mahadev Tharu of the same location expressed his dissatisfaction with the park’s relief compensation when wild animals from the park destroyed the locals’ crops. “When animals cross the border and eat our crops, we get 3000 rupees as compensation, but it’s a one-time deal,” he said. “If our crops are destroyed again, we will not be compensated.”

Dinushika Dissanayake, Amnesty International’s Deputy South Asia Director of Research, made recommendations to the government on behalf of Amnesty International Nepal and the Community Self-Reliance Center. “Nepal is a party to ILO Convention No. 169 and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This imposes an international human rights obligation on Nepal,” he said.

She stated that the two organizations had categorized their recommendations into accountability, protection, consultation, and reparation. She stated that the report included recommendations for the government, the Ministry of Forests, the Department of National Parks (as well as park officers), the National Human Rights Commission, and the (now defunct) Land Reform Commission.

“We are aware that the land reform commission has been defunct, but its stance is that it needs to be revived to address the issues raised in our report,” she said.

One of the major components of the recommendation was the need to amend Nepal’s existing legal framework to bring it in line with its human rights obligations as outlined in its constitution, as well as the ILO Convention No. 169 and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

She emphasized the importance of consulting indigenous peoples to ensure access to land, adequate alternative housing and land, and reparations in the form of compensation. She also highlighted the importance of reforming buffer zone laws and the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act.

“Laws must be harmonized in terms of people’s housing rights,” she said. “Investigations must be conducted as soon as possible, and park officials, as well as army officials, must be held accountable.”

She cited the National Human Rights Commission’s 2019 finding that Nepal was still not in full compliance with ILO Convention No. 169. It also meant, she said, that the NHRC was required to investigate human rights violations in and around conservation areas.

She stated that they were aware that the land reform commission had recently been disbanded, but that there is a need for such a commission to verify and identify criteria in terms of indigenous people who have lost their land due to river changes.

“It is critical, above all, that communities are represented in any decision-making bodies dealing with their human rights,” she said.