July 27,2016 couple of days to Global Tigers Day celebration and I was talking about the need of tiger conservation, underlying facts to a group of children in a primary government school, 15 KM south of the Narayangarh, right by the river Rapti and the Chitwan National Park, the oldest in Nepal . Among the group of shy, not so clean boys was a boy, Prem Botey, timid, lean body, large forehead, short hair, fallen teeth and with bright brown eyes. Botey referring to his heritage of fisherman mother, who for generations have lived by the shore of river Rapti, fishing for dinner and the name “Prem” in Nepali meaning love but the boy was adrift from the love of the society or that of his father, an army officer assigned on the Chitwan National Park Conservation, who left his mother, before he was even born. His father who abandoned his family would face no consequence and likely was already married before marrying Prem’s mother or will marry another girl at another place and abandon likewise. The fact that marriage in Nepal, more so in traditional communities are socially binding, hardly legally bound. Since, that army had no social pressure and the tendency of army to protect their own, allows him to take pride in the fact that he basically prostituted the women for few years then left her for society to look down upon, at god’s mercy. This is not an isolated incident, and there have been numerous reports of rape, physical and mental torture by army to these marginalized people with limited means like Botey, Tharu, Moshar, Majhi caste for firewood collection, foraging wild fruits, vegetables, fishing and other activities. There are also numerous cases where army captured, and made them clean their barracks, run chores inside barracks, seized their sickles, raped and even made people return to their villages naked.
This is by no means an attack to the conservation efforts of Nepalese army and their contribution towards preventing poaching of endangered species. There is no denying that conservation is needed but at whose cost? Who benefits from militarized conservation and autocratic conservation laws?
Indigenous communities living near national park say they are virtually living under the shadow government of park authorities and army who can evict, torture, assault, fine them, charge them at will, reminding them of the monarchs, Kathmandu elites of the past who used to use national park for hunting and vacation. People had to bow to these elites and now they bow to the park authorities. On paper the establishment of buffer community with elected representatives is there but that elected body hardly comprises of people from aforementioned caste and this elected body can hardly dictate terms, rather power is concentrated on a chief warden who can dissolve the elected body at will. Communities whose survival and identity, for generations, have been linked with forest are blamed for forest degradation while the real forest mafia, smugglers and corrupt politicians exploit the forest resources, also bagging huge chunk of revenue generated from tourism industry.
Local fisherman community have been banned from fishing, limited fishing license system was implemented for a while which didn’t pan out too well. Even now, off the record, few fishermen in good graces of park officials are allowed to fish provided they give them a certain portion of their harvest. Lives and Crops are lost by animals from park coming into the fields and villages. The compensation isn’t adequate and is hardly paid in full, on top of that it takes years to process the claims and the process is a bureaucratic nightmare for illiterate people. On top of that many NGOS/INGOs too have exploited these people by raising funds, accepting grants on their name and hardly doing anything to their cause. However not all is gloomy, infrastructures like road, communication, electricity, internet has grown, investments have been increasing creating more local jobs, locals are betting on tourism industry big time, also indigenous Tharu community have started homestay program for sustainable tourism, which generates cash empowering them financially and also an opportunity to show case their culture, customs to the larger world, keeping it intact for future generations.
Nepal has become a republic, all is well on paper and the conservation efforts have shown praise worthy results but it is still a far journey away from a time in future, when local indigenous people, buffer zone community can participate, in real sense, in planning projects, policy implementation, business activities & conservation efforts. Sharda Ghale, a journalist, is absolutely right to question, why the poorest are asked to make the biggest sacrifice for conservation. As I ponder, Prem feels like a personification of all the pains of autocratic conservation, one who is roaming freely, oblivious to the struggles that lay ahead of him, while the bastards of conservation-the corrupt politicians, bureaucrats & smugglers roam without consequence.