Print Edition - 2014-07-28  |  Interview

Mahesh Acharya

  • We need to consider the fragility of Chure ecosystem
Mahesh Acharya

Jul 27, 2014-In 2010, upon witnessing the devastation of the Chure of his boyhood, President Ram Baran Yadav took assertive steps to establish the President's Chure Conservation Programme. Four years later, despite having spent over a billion rupees, the plunder of the Chure hills continued unabated. It took a decisive new forest minister, Mahesh Acharya, to initiate a new programme of action that would look into the various cross-sectoral aspects of Chure conservation and work towards halting and eventually reversing the damage. A new Chure Tarai-Madhes Conservation Committee, led by seasoned bureaucrat Rameshwor Khanal, was constituted and the entire Chure region declared a conservation area. The government also instituted a ban on the export of raw materials from the Chure. While these steps have been hailed in various quarters, local stakeholders have complained of a lack of representation and consultation. Pranaya SJB Rana spoke to Minister Acharya about the initiatives the new Committee will undertake, how the government will address local grievances and the continuing confusion over the state's responsibility to the ILO 169 convention.

What will the new Chure Tarai-Madhes Conservation Committee do differently so that it does not go the way of the President’s Chure Conservation Programme?

There has been a lot of debate on the Chure’s problems and the ways with which to resolve those problems. Various programmes have been initiated and are continuing. The President’s Trust was established under the understanding that the devastation of the Chure had reached a critical point. The Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation conducted programmes but they were all in a formative stage. In the past three years or so, much progress might not have been visible but the orientation was established. The new Committee was formed because there are a great many issues to Chure conservation—soil conversation, biodiversity, watershed management, human settlement and so on. There are also downstream problems with the Chure rivers, which are eroding their riverbanks at a yearly rate of almost 25-27 hectares; the river spans are getting wider; and the productivity of the soil is decreasing. So an integrated approach is necessary. We realised the need for a specialised Committee to coordinate and mobilise all the concerned multi-sectoral agencies. The Committee will build on the work of the old Trust and expand on it. It will conduct a thorough study on the scale of the devastation and will engage experts to find solutions. It will also look into seeking the participation of all stakeholders in the Chure region, especially the communities that live there.

Many local communities have complained about their lack of representation in the Committee and the government’s failure to consult with them before taking decisions. How will you address their grievances?

It is not that all stakeholders have grievances. It is only some specific groups, like Fecofun (Federation of Community Forests Users Nepal), who have raised issues. Their first worry was that the work community forest user groups have been doing for long will now be put on hold. I have assured them that this will not happen. We will work according to the existing Forest Act, the Environment Conservation Act and National Parks Act. As far as consultations go, we would like to continue with discussions and debates. Instead of closing off discussions, this Committee will open up a space for consultations. We must remember that Fecofun is not the only stakeholder here. We are also talking about the many rivers in the region and all of the communities that live alongside those rivers. These rivers go into the Tarai-Madhes, into no-man’s-land and into India. There are many squatters demanding rights to land, the impoverished, the disaster-affected and those in the Madhes-Tarai facing water shortages. All of these downstream communities will be affected so they too must be consulted. We will work together towards stopping and reversing the destruction of the Chure. But the fear is that perhaps we have already crossed a critical point and that the devastation will continue naturally now.

The Committee, however, has yet to take full shape. Membership in the Committee seems to be targeted at experts, rather than locals.

The core issue is that of conservation, not the representation of a few organisations. After all, there are just four seats on the Committee. We are not just looking at conservation experts but also those people who have dedicated their lives to conservation. The Committee needs the representation of an entire ecosystem. This will require the representation of people who are involved in the conservation of forests, water and wildlife, agriculture and land productivity and biodiversity conservation. We will form the Committee to represent the interests of all these diverse stakeholders in an aggregate manner. But it might not be possible to give everyone a seat. Still, we recognise that groups like Fecofun are vital parts of the conservation effort and we will make sure to consult with them and learn from their decades of experience.

The government took the recent step of declaring the entirety of the Chure region a conservation area, putting the brakes on developmental activities. At a time when the latest budget has set up a Constituency Development Fund, what does this mean for development?

All development works will definitely not stop. But we need to consider the fragility of the Chure ecosystem. The understanding is that we pursue Chure-friendly development. Already there are community forests, public forests and all kinds of conservation areas in the Chure region. Developmental activities will continue in accordance with prevailing acts and laws but with an eye on the Chure’s sensitive ecosystem. This means the judicious and scientific use of forest resources. The millions of people living in the Chure region need roads and connections to the Madhes-Tarai and the Mahabharat hills. So development cannot stop but it will have to be sustainable. Development will have to progress with the assent and participation of local communities; it will have to provide them with alternate means of livelihood and build their capacity. Furthermore, instead of plundering the Chure for raw materials for development, perhaps the government could look into an alternate area of supply.  

The devastation of the Chure also concerns India, given that most of the resources extracted are going to feed the construction boom in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. These states are also most at risk since they are downstream. Has there been any outreach with India concerning Chure conservation?

These issues have been raised in government. We have all seen the cross-border impact of natural disasters like floods. No doubt, Chure has trans-boundary implications. And many nations have expressed an interest in helping conserve the Chure, whether they be European nations, Japan or India. Parts of the Chure range are even on the Unesco World Heritage list so it is an issue of international concern. India too understands this and has expressed a desire to help during meetings. Concerning raw materials for development, we must be sensitive to our internal needs. But even here, we have to think sustainably and take into account the Chure’s fragility. As of now, the government has put a halt to resource export.

On a final note, Nepal is signatory to the ILO 169 convention, which gives indigenous local communities certain rights over natural resources. How will the Chure Committee go about incorporating the ILO convention?

The basic spirit of ILO 169 is that whenever natural resources are concerned, the benefits should first go to the local communities. This does not mean that local communities can use natural resources as they please. The state will make use of the resources but in this benefit sharing, local stakeholders will get first priority. This is a very natural and democratic thing as locals will be the most vulnerable to the adverse effects of resource harvesting. So we will work on institutionalising this. Much of our natural resources are not renewable and once they are gone, they are gone forever. So their use must be judicious and must be spread across vulnerable marginalised communities like Madhesis, Dalits, women and Janajatis. Whenever we look at natural resources, we should also think about inter-generational equity and if we will be able to pass on to our future generations the resources we have inherited.  The state must take this dialogue into the communities. In 2015 BS, BP Koirala had proclaimed that local communities themselves, and not the Army or Police, would have the responsibility of managing their forests. The Congress government institutionalised this in 2048 BS through the Forest Act. So while we have a historical commitment to local communities, we are not saying that only locals should benefit from the nation’s resources. It is about equitable resource sharing. ILO 169 is about taking consent from local communities, involving them in conservation, enhancing their capability and sharing the benefits.

Published: 28-07-2014 09:17

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