Mati Mahato (name changed) is a landless woman who lives in the buffer zone of Chitwan National Park. Her husband, a former haruwa-charuwa (bonded farm laborer), is paralysed on one side of the body. They have two daughters. Mahato often collects wild vegetables from the forest and fish from the Rapti River to feed her family. On May 12, 2012 around 5 pm, she was cutting grass in a community forest near the national park. Three girls from her village were also with her. Suddenly some uniformed army personnel from Nanda Baks Battalion came charging towards them. One of them stamped his boot on the hand with which she was cutting grass, then snatched her hasiya and threw it away. Then he dragged her behind a bush, stripped her and tried to assault her. She screamed and fought back. The soldier picked up a bamboo pole and beat her till she lost consciousness. Some people saw the scene from across the Rapti and started screaming. The army personnel fled. Mahato’s young companions dragged her away and carried her across the river. When her eldest daughter arrived at the riverbank, she found her mother bruised, broken and half naked.

“When I said ‘mother’, she couldn’t speak,” her daughter said. “Tears streamed down her face…All night she cried in pain. Her cries tormented me. On top of that I was scared the army might come again. They sometimes get drunk and hang around in our village till late at night.”

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Krishna Bote belongs to a highly marginalized indigenous fisher community. His people have lived in the forests of Chitwan for generations. In 2014 Bote was arrested by an army patrol on the charge of killing a vulture. A court case was filed against him even though he claimed the bird was dead and starting to decompose when he found it. Thereafter every month he had to report to the army post in Kasara. The case hadn’t even been settled when, months later, the army arrested him again. Three of his neighbours, also from the Bote community, were arrested with him. Their crime: they were collecting kusum and tama in a buffer zone forest across the Rapti. The two court cases, pending indefinitely, have brought Krishna Bote’s life to a halt. He feels trapped and hopeless. His plans to migrate abroad for work have fallen apart.

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On April 25, 2015 a wild boar went on a rampage injuring seven people before barging into a local’s house in Beltadi. They called the national park authorities for help. Park personnel arrived only hours later despite being a few miles away. They showed no sense of urgency and made vain and clumsy attempts to trap the animal. The terror-struck family stayed outside till midnight. The community couldn’t go about their daily work. The next day, far from apologizing for their inept response, a park official yelled at the locals, “Why did you try to drive the boar away? If anything had happened to it, we’d have taken action against you.” A few weeks later, 30-year-old Sukumaya Bote of Rajahar, Nawalparasi was collecting niuro (fiddlehead fern) in a buffer zone community forest when a tiger pounced on her, dragged her behind a bush and killed her. Bote’s two children were orphaned. Her community lost a valued member. They remembered her as a woman with an independent spirit, one who refused to bow to men and spoke up on behalf of other women. Her husband, a fisherman, had no money to cover her funeral expenses, so the buffer zone users committee gave him NPR 15,000. The community provided him support in cash and kind. But he did not receive the NPR 1 lakh guaranteed to the families of those killed by wild animals.

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The above anecdotes are taken from Samrakshit Chhetra ka Dwanda (Conflicts in Protected Areas), a recent book by Chhabilal Neupane and Chitra Bahadur Majhi, activists from Chitwan and Nawalparasi respectively. The subject of the book itself is not new. Past studies have amply shown what the indigenous and local people of Chitwan and Nawalparasi have been through since their home territory was declared a national park. Forced evictions, loss of land and livelihood, harassment and sexual assault by armed guards, heavy fines, arrests, torture and lengthy jail sentences – such is the price they have paid for the national park. The book reminds us that their situation has not changed much despite some improvements in the legislation. At a time when debates on state restructuring and inclusion are taking place, the authors urge us to ask: “Who are the main beneficiaries of such top-down, centralized and militarized conservation efforts? Who will control our forests, land and rivers in the coming days?”

For centuries the ruling elite saw the forests in the Tarai as their private property. They held hunting orgies in the forest, sent timber to India to strengthen their ties with the British, cleared the forests to dole out land to supporters. Many still recall how quickly the Panchayat-era slogan hariyo ban Nepal ko dhan (green forests, Nepal’s wealth) turned into hariyo ban Mahendra sarkar ko dhan (green forests, King Mahendra’s wealth). Or how the government destroyed forests to fund the Panchayat campaign during the 1980 referendum.

Neupane and Majhi suggest that the elite’s hold over forest resources has not ended in the democratic era. “The elites see the forest as a source of profit for the tourism industry, a source of recreation and a peaceful getaway for foreigners and wealthy Nepalis, a research site for environmentalists and academics. But for local and indigenous communities like the Bote, Majhi, Musahar and Kumal, the forest is a source of life. Their lives are intertwined with the forest ecosystem.” Today people whose very survival and identity is linked to nature, and who consume the least amount of resources, are blamed for the environmental degradation. The Majhi fisherman who catches fish using a hand-woven net. The Dalit woman who collects thatch and fuel wood from the forest. The subsistence farmer who grazes his livestock on open grassland.

Meanwhile, all over the country nature is rampantly being turned into profit. Construction companies are extracting sand from the rivers amid the risk of erosion. Hydropower projects are fragmenting and dewatering large stretches of rivers. Hotels and factories have occupied lakes, forests and grasslands. Politicians and smugglers are earning fortunes selling forest products. Can we prevent ecological crisis without reining them in? But it is the poor who are asked to make the biggest sacrifices for conservation.

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Threats of eviction

The book draws attention to the most pressing concerns of the poor and marginalized communities around Chitwan National Park, one of Nepal’s most popular tourist destinations. One of the biggest threats they face is wildlife attack. Every year wild animals from the park raid their crops, destroy infrastructure, eat their livestock and kill people. At least eight people were killed in the past nine months alone. “Farmers who leave with their oxen and plough in the morning do not know whether they’ll return alive in the evening,” Neupane and Majhi write. But the park administration doesn’t acknowledge the gravity of the problem. “They don’t realize the amount of labor and resources farmers invest in producing a crop, that farmers depend on their harvest for survival.” Farmers are legally entitled to crop damage compensation of up to NPR 10,000. But the authors show, through a detailed calculation, that the average cost of producing paddy in 1 bigha of land is NPR 76,100. The compensation usually covers only a fraction of the damage costs. Even this paltry sum is hard to come by as claimants have to produce excessive paperwork and go through tedious procedures. “Park officials are rude, domineering and lack experience or understanding of the local context,” the authors write. “They use their position to intimidate the locals.”

Landlessness in Nepal is a complex, deep-rooted and widespread problem. It is inseparable from the history of exclusion and dispossession of large sections of the population. Neupane and Majhi argue that people who live on public land around the national park, or lack land certificates for various reasons, should not be conveniently labeled “encroachers.” The national parks department has listed many areas inhabited by indigenous fishing communities as “encroached territories.” Tamaspur in Naya Belhani VDC in Nawalparasi is one example. Majhi and Bote families have been living in Tamaspur since before the park was established, but many of them don’t have land certificates. About two years ago, the parliament had decided to allow them to register the land in their name. But the national parks department invoked conservation laws to overrule the decision. The locals fear they might be evicted and rendered homeless any moment. They could even face a two-year jail term and a fine of NPR 10,000 as per the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act.

More than 700 poor, landless families have been living on public land in Bandarjhula, Ayodhyapuri VDC since the early 1990s. In September 2016, a local reporter had asked Ram Chandra Kandel, the chief conservation officer of Chitwan National Park, where they could be resettled. “Our job is to enforce regulations,” said Kandel. “Our policy is to prevent encroachment and remove encroachers. We strictly adhere to our policy. Providing alternative housing is not in our mandate.” This sums up the park authorities’ attitude towards those who do not own land.

 

Indispensable to understand conflict in protected areas.

Autocratic laws

Nepal may have become a federal republic, write Neupane and Majhi, but the protected area legislation harks back to the era of autocratic kings. The government can declare protected areas and buffer zones in any territory, with no obligation to consult the local and indigenous inhabitants of that territory. One of the most problematic aspects of the legislation is the disproportionate power vested in the chief warden. The warden is a bureaucrat, a second-class officer of the government, but he (it’s always a he) can arrest anyone without a warrant, detain the suspect, probe the case, impose fines and put the suspect in jail for up to 15 years. The warden can abuse his power to frame innocent people and let real offenders go off the hook.

Even the buffer zone management committee, the elected body representing people around the park, has to operate in the shadow of the warden. It is a curious law that allows a bureaucrat to remove people’s representatives from their posts and dissolve a people’s elected body at will. The power relationship is so skewed the buffer zone committee members end up acting like the “henchmen” of the warden. The committee’s decisions (on how to spend the buffer zone budget, for example) are influenced more by the warden than by the community members. “Buffer zone committee heads are only interested in pleasing the park administration. They don’t care about the people,” says Indira Bote, chair of the buffer zone women rights forum. The quasi-judicial power of the warden has reduced the idea of “participatory management” to a farce. The entire process is “driven by experts and bureaucrats, centralized, exclusionary, and unrepresentative of people’s voices,” write Neupane and Majhi.

It is often said that the establishment of buffer zone institutions has improved park-people relations. But Majhi and Neupane assert that this is far from true. Buffer zone institutions have failed to address the concerns of those who are most affected by park regulations – indigenous communities, Dalits, landless people and women. Many women who enter the forest to collect wood and grass have faced sexual abuse by army personnel deployed in the park. Army personnel have “married” local women and made them pregnant only to leave them at the end of their two-year posting. According to Neupane, there are at least 177 children born to women who were either raped or “married” by army personnel in 10 VDCs of Chitwan. The majority of them are women from indigenous communities. As unmarried single mothers from vulnerable communities, they have faced all the inevitable consequences, from social stigma, lifelong insecurity and economic hardship to the denial of the right to pass their citizenship to their children.

Although the park regulations affect women in serious and particular ways, they have no say in park management. The number of women in the buffer zone management committee is “shameful,” that is, zero. Nor does the committee have a Majhi, Musahar, or Bote representative. Their key concerns – crop damage compensation, land registration, and access to resources – are not reflected in buffer zone plans and programmes.

One of the few organizations working for the most vulnerable communities around the park is the Majhi Musahar Bote Kalyan Sewa Samiti. Some members of these communities registered the Samiti in 1994 amid fierce opposition from local elites. Against all odds, the Samiti campaigned for the rights of fishing communities and even achieved a few small victories. The book contains brief reflections by the founders and leaders of the Samiti. Lal Bahadur Bote, the chairperson, describes the national park as a “parallel government” that rules over their lives. Amar Bahadur Majhi, founder and former chairperson, refutes the accusation that the poor who depend on forests and rivers for survival threaten the environment – a notion propagated by the government and influential conservation NGOs. Don’t blame the subsistence users of resources for the declining number of fish in the Narayani, he writes, blame the Bhrikuti Paper Mill, Gorkha Brewery, Gill Mary Distillery. “To protect the fish and grasslands, control the pollution caused by these industries.” He also asks authorities to stop casting Bote and Majhi people as thieves and smugglers of forest products. “If we were smugglers, we’d have built houses in Narayanghat like many others. Why would we be struggling to make ends meet on the banks of the Narayani?”

The most vulnerable communities around the national park have largely had to fend for themselves. Sukram Majhi, former chairperson of the Samiti, writes: “Some NGOs have used our photos and collected money in our name but  done nothing for us. So here’s our request to donors: If you are really concerned about us, you should come visit our communities, try to understand our problems, and give the funds directly to our organization. We have our own organization and we have been working for our people. We know what kind of work is needed in our community and are capable of doing it.”

The authors’ message to the government is clear: Strengthen the buffer zone committee as a body with executive power; limit the warden’s role to providing technical support and advice; allow forest and river-dependent indigenous and local communities to make park management decisions; provide land to the landless; end the bullying and intimidation of locals by the army and park authorities; and above all respect people’s right to practice their way of life, because denying fisher people the right to fish in the river, or barring the poor from collecting grass and wood from the forest is not an effective way of promoting biodiversity conservation.

The book also helps us understand the conflicts in other protected areas in the Tarai. The Tharu, Sonaha and Dalits around Bardia National Park, Madhesi Muslims and Dalits around Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve, and the Tharu and Dalits around Shuklaphanta National Park share the plight of people in Chitwan. Like many other excellent sources on Nepal, the book suffers from poor packaging and poor editing. That doesn’t make it any less indispensable. Majhi and Neupane remind us how deeply protected area governance is linked to the lives and livelihoods of women and marginalized communities. It shows us how the rhetoric of conservation is sometimes used to enclose land, forest and water for the wealthy and push the poor further into the margins.

Cover photo: Chitwan National Park by Antonio Cinotti.