7 MIN READ
The longstanding ‘park-people’ conflict surrounding Chitwan National Park, which includes instances of gross human rights violations against the Tharu community, is a story that is often buried in the garb of conservation.
When the Chitwan National Park was established in 1973, under the orders of King Mahendra, it was welcomed by everyone. Mass migration trends and rampant poaching were destroying forests of the Tarai and the closing of 932 sq. km of forests as a ‘protected zone' was a relief to many nature conservationists.
And over the years, the national park has been able to increase its population of endangered species and has been recognised as a World Heritage Site due to its 'outstanding universal value' in providing significant natural habitat to endangered species. The Chitwan National Park’s narrative has been one of success. But what is often lost in this narrative is that this success has been achieved at the expense of the marginalization and displacement of the local indigenous Tharu population that had been residing within and around the 'protected zone' for hundreds of years.
Before the establishment of the Chitwan National Park (CPN), the Tharu people were the native inhabitants of Chitwan, and other areas along the Tarai, who lived a semi-nomadic life in the dense forests of the Chitwan district through the practice of shifting cultivation. The word Tharu itself means 'person of the forest'. As per the 2011 Census data, the Tharu population residing in Chitwan comprises 63, 359 individuals.
The Tharu community, through years of residence in the forests of Chitwan, has maintained a strong spiritual, economic and cultural link to the forest and largely relies on it for their subsistence. Their livelihood largely depends on the collection of forest resources such as timber, fodder, wild fruits, and medicinal plants. They also engage in hunting and fishing, grazing wild animals, and growing crops in the forests of Chitwan.
When the Nepali government set up an enclosure figuratively overnight to create a special zone to protect wildlife, it forcibly removed the Tharus from their home, leaving them to fend for themselves. Without any planned relocation and compensation for their loss of land and livelihood, the Tharus were denied access to the resources of the area. Intrinsic parts of their everyday activities, including collecting forest resources and grazing cattle, suddenly became illegal overnight. To add to their plight, any attempt to access their own land was “trespassing” and met with stern actions from authorities who resorted to harassment, abuse, fines, and even killings. Consequently, around 30,000 Tharus were pushed to the margins and completely deprived of any means for their subsistence.
Thus, the longstanding ‘park-people’ conflict at the CNP, which includes instances of gross human rights violations against the Tharu community, is a story that is often buried in the garb of conservation.
The legal basis for displacement
The National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act, 1973 is the central Act that governs matters related to the establishment of national parks in Nepal. The autocratic provisions under the Act have stood the test of time despite Nepal's transition to a democratic country in 2008. Without substantial amendments to the Act, the enforcement of the provisions continues to discriminate against the indigenous groups residing within the boundaries of the national park.
Section 3(1) of the Act gives power to the government to declare any area within the territory of Nepal a national park or a conservation area. The only requirement under Section 3 to successfully set up a national park is to publish such notification of the declaration of a protected area in the official gazette. By merely publishing a notification in the gazette, a national park can be set up without even consulting with the local and indigenous inhabitants of the area. There is no requirement of providing compensation and relocation either. Thus, the law operates in a manner in which the government holds the power to forcefully evict the people living in the forest at any given time without having to recompense them for their loss.
Further, Section 5 of the Act contains a list of prohibited activities within a national park. This non-exhaustive list prohibits activities like occupying a territory, cultivating it, and building any structure on it. Grazing of animals, collecting fodder and timber, and hunting animals without a permit are also prohibited. These activities are crucial to the livelihood of the Tharus residing in the CNP. By prohibiting the everyday activities of the Tharus, the government ended up wiping out their traditional ways of life overnight. Similar restrictions have been implemented in Rule 6 of the Chitwan National Park Regulations, 1974.
Further, Section 26 of the Act deems the commission of any prohibited activities under the Act to be a criminal offense, which is punishable by heavy fines and lengthy imprisonments. The effect of this law is such that even for a "violation" as small as collecting fodder and timber, a person could face imprisonment for up to two years and be made to pay a fine up to Rs 10,000. In addition, the Act and the CNP Regulation give wide and unregulated powers to the warden. In particular, the warden is given the power to make arrests without a warrant, even on mere suspicion that someone might have committed an illegal offense. This arbitrary power vested in the warden has become a tool of harassment, with the Tharus routinely targeted for trying to access the resources that they were so connected with and deeply dependent on.
The plight of the marginalized
The operation of the law made it easy for the state to displace Tharu inhabitants within the national park. Through the Act, it became possible for the government to suddenly enclose an area without taking any cognizance of the people living within this ‘protected area’.
The Nepali government's adaptation of the American conservation model of national parks completely neglected, and decades later, still neglects, the existence of the Tharu community. However, unlike areas like the Yosemite National Park, which were actual areas without human residence, the CNP was never devoid of human existence to be termed 'wilderness.'
The use of the forest and its resources, which is crucial for the subsistence of the Tharu community, has been made inaccessible and even criminalized. The draconian powers of the wardens allow them to abuse their authorities by making an arrest even for a small 'miscreant activity' and sentencing them to jail for committing offenses under Section 5 of the Act. There have been heart-wrenching instances when wardens have used their power to order the burning down of Tharu settlements within the CNP boundary, thereby forcing them out of the territory. In the absence of any grievance redressal mechanism in an autocratic system, the Tharus are powerless in an unequal battle with the state.
However, the government has still managed to make space for capitalistic interests despite the need for conservation. The government allows permits for setting up jungle safari resorts within the CNP itself to bolster the country’s tourism economy. The government's siding with corporate over indigenous interests can also be seen in the provisions of the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Regulations, 1973. The National Park Regulation has detailed provisions on the procedural aspects of obtaining licenses for hunting and permits for setting up safari resorts. Similarly, the CNP Regulation, under Schedule -1, has a comprehensive table that lists the requisite fees for undertaking economic activities. However, nowhere do we find mentions of the Tharu community and how to safeguard their rights and interests. The consequence of the government siding with corporate interests is the forceful displacement and threat to the survival of the Tharu people.
The precarious situation of the Tharu population, now pushed to the periphery of the park boundary, remained invisible to the government for over two decades. Only after the change of throne did a more sympathetic ruler, i.e., King Birendra, give the suffering of the Tharu people any attention.
Through the Buffer Zone Management Regulation, 1996, introduced by Birendra, a 'Buffer Zone' was created around the park area in the hope of mitigating the ‘park-people’ conflict. The buffer zones were to act as designated areas where the government allocated specific areas of land to the displaced Tharu families and eased restrictions so that they could get limited access to the forest and its resources.
While the Buffer Zone Community initiative came as a relief for the landless Tharus, it was not enough to restore the damage caused from over twenty years of slow violence and injustice. Despite certain positives, the operation of the law continues to discriminate against the Tharus. For example, the buffer zone management committee was started to include the Tharus in participatory conservation efforts around the CNP. And although the committee does include Tharu locals, the committee operates under the discretion of the warden. This means that any decision taken by the committee is implemented only after the approval of the warden. Therefore, the skewed power relationship between the warden and the local communities ensures that most of the decisions benefit the warden, and as a result, the Nepali government and corporate players, more than the Tharus.
The rights of the Tharu population living in the buffer zone were first made by way of legislative amendments only in 2016, after the promulgation of the Constitution of Nepal. The recent amendments to the Act include provisions of compensation and recognize the right of the Tharus to collect forest resources within an allocated time. They also mandate certain funds collected by the CNP to be invested in the development of the Tharu community. Further, in response to the forest officials regularly burning down Tharu houses to force them out, a single judge bench of the Supreme Court has issued an order to the government to refrain from evicting squatters from within the buffer zone.
While the legal recognition of rights is definitely praiseworthy, it is not enough. The current legal framework is insufficient to redress the violence and marginalization faced by the Tharu community for over half a century. Despite safeguards provided by the legislature and the judiciary, the implementation of their rights seldom happens, with stories of forced evictions, killing, and rape continuing to surface.
In the shadows, the story of Chitwan National Park is a heart-wrenching account of the violation of human rights of the Tharu people in the name of environment conservation. For a world that is being constantly consumed by human interests, wildlife and nature conservation efforts are extremely important, but such efforts should not be a mechanism to enclose land for those in power to push the weak to the margins.
The present conservation model of the CNP should be rethought and recalibrated to take into account the concerns of the indigenous Tharu population and fully restore their inextricable relationship with the forest and its resources. Because as much as environmental conservation is important, so is the protection of the rights of indigenous people.
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