Ecology and democracy

  • Efforts to create a more inclusive society will fail if a greener political agenda is not adopted immediately
- Gérard Toffin
Ecology and democracy

Sep 18, 2014-

The Himalayas, one of the world’s richest biodiversity zones, constitute a particularly threatened ecosystem. As the massive landslide in Sindhupalchok district on the Sunkoshi River in August 2014 reminds us, the Nepali Himalayas are, geologically speaking, young and fragile. What is more, this whole mountainous zone is vulnerable to even insignificant changes in the climatic system.

Although Nepal produces small amounts of greenhouse gases, temperatures here have increased faster (almost three times more) than in any other part of the globe. This warming has a direct impact on wildlife, the growing pattern of plants and on glacier melting. A number of glaciers have been retreating at the rate of two to 100 metres per year. A joint study led by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (Icimod), shows that Himalayan glaciers have retreated by approximately one kilometre since the Little Ice Age [from 1350 to 1900] and those in Nepal have shrunk by 21 percent over the last 30 years. This situation is likely to cause major geohazards, glacier-lake outburst floods for instance.

A green problem

Similarly, rapid deforestation in the Tarai and elsewhere engenders floods, soil erosion, a decrease in groundwater reserves and stagnant agricultural yields. It makes the mountain slopes fragile and seriously affects individual livelihoods. Today, forests cover less than 25 percent of Nepal’s total surface area (45 per cent in 1964) according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). As far as Kathmandu Valley is concerned, the gases emitted by all sorts of vehicles have resulted in massive air pollution which compromises public health. In fact, the number of cars is spiralling out of control. If nothing is done to address these matters soon, pessimist forecasts circulating among experts about the habitability of whole regions of the southern Himalayan slopes, as well as of others parts of South Asia may prove to be true.

The dangers have become more acute over the two last decades with the expansion of economic globalisation. Despite this alarming state of affairs, ecopolitics at the national level is still in its infancy. Major political party programmes deal with the environment rather superficially. Since 1951, Nepal has been striving to meet the basic social objectives of eradicating poverty, inequality, malnutrition, and other socio-economic deprivations, often to the detriment of ecological issues. Environmental issues have been acknowledged and addressed but inchoately and with mitigated success. During Panchayat Raj, King Mahendra’s slogan Hariyo Ban Nepaloko Dhan (green forests are Nepal’s wealth) was lampooned by some as Hariyo Ban Mahendra Sarkarko Dhan (green forests are King Mahendra’s wealth), though not in a convincing way. In addition, it is a well-known fact that the policies concerning national parks are highly contested by local populations. Contrary to Europe, there is no large political party at the national level that is fully devoted to these causes and to sustainable ecology. The Green Nepal Party (Hariyali Nepal Party) obtained 241 votes at the November 2013 elections out of over 9.4 million votes!

Absent state

In Nepal, ecology has so far mainly been dealt with either by scientific experts from specialised institutions, such as Icimod and FAO, or by local initiatives, informal volunteer groups and NGOs at a grassroots level. The state is often absent from the debate. This is unfortunate because local projects in the country’s remote districts have proved to be rather successful. Yet they can hardly fight against smuggling and bribes within a corrupt ‘forestocracy’, which for instance allows wood to be cut illegally and be sold to India (since the demand for timber has soared on the other side of the border). At the same time, sustainable development is gradually becoming a major issue. It is no longer a mere luxury for a poor country to worry about the environment, but a sine qua non. Uncontrolled development causes a drop in yields, depletes resources and increases pollution. My long-term study of the Kathmandu Valley clearly shows such deterioration.

I am pleasantly surprised to observe that in various places in Nepal, a new awareness has emerged among different groups of citizens. Local associations have won battles against destructive development and the misuse of chemical manure. Despite some difficulties, they are now setting up organic farms and protecting the environment. There is huge potential for this throughout the country. But at the central level, a more committed form of political governance prioritising an ecologically and culturally defined landscape is required. Environmental problems must be actively tackled and a sustainable relationship with nature needs to be restored. Ecological concerns have to be formulated and programme objectives achieved in a structured manner. The rights of citizens over consumer preferences have to be protected.

Change of ways

The relationship between democracy and ecology is notoriously difficult all over the planet. Tension exists between the necessary development of any country and the preservation of its environment. But there is also a real danger of a day by day type of democracy that does not care about the future. The long term has to be integrated in political decisions for the benefit of the economy. Ecotourism, for instance, can generate new resources and take over conventional forms of tourism which sometimes harm the environment. In addition, measures in favour of a more inclusive society, with fewer inequalities, will dramatically fail or never be achieved if a greener political agenda respecting the natural world is not adopted forthwith. New modes of governance, less top-down than before and more decentralised, need to be tested. Of course, it is a  global and a regional fight (India is the world’s third biggest emitter of carbon dioxide after China and the US), but national environmental polices are still crucial. Excluding NGOs from decisions about the environment is not a solution. It is time to restore the economy to one that is more in tune with nature. With its rich biodiversity and vast areas of wilderness, Nepal could indeed be a model for South Asia.

Toffin is Director of Research at the National Centre for Scientific Research, France                                      

Published: 19-09-2014 09:35

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