Print Edition - 2015-04-18  |  On Saturday

Between a rock and a hard place

  • To wean villagers who live around the Chitwan National Park from their involvement in poaching rackets will require much effort from both the government and locals
- Roshan Sedhai
Between a rock and a hard place

Apr 17, 2015-Like everyone else in Kalikhola, an impoverished village in Korak VDC, Chitwan, inhabited predominantly by Chepangs, Shantamaya Praja is awaiting this season’s rains with great anticipation. For Praja’s family, delayed rains would mean a decline in corn production. If that were to happen, Shantamaya’s seven-member family would probably have to go hungry for a few months, until the next harvest, as farming is their primary source of livelihood.

The family lives in an old house in the middle of the jungle, an hour’s uphill walk from the nearest area accessible to four-wheelers. Kalikhola is one of the few places in Chitwan that stills remains cut off from road networks.

Shantamaya’s daughter needs to walk an hour to get to school, which is located in the next village. Shantamaya’s father-in-law, Deuman, even at the age of 70, still ploughs the land with oxen every day.  And Shantamaya, in the absence of young male members in the family, works every season in a neighbour’s fields in return for a small portion of their harvests.

Shantamaya is the wife of Raj Kumar Praja, a notorious villager who was recently arrested in Malaysia by the Interpol for killing dozens of one-horned rhinos back home in Nepal. Raj Kumar, who has been handed a 15-year imprisonment term by the Chitwan district court for his involvement in six poaching cases, has allegedly confessed to killing 20 rhinos and faces charges in a few other cases as well. At least a dozen of Raj Kumar’s relatives, including a brother and his son, a maternal uncle and his son, a brother-in-law and a nephew, have been doing jail terms on similar charges.

One would think that Raj Kumar and his family members would have minted millions from their involvement in the rhino-parts trade. But their living in a house made from earth and wooden slats, and their lives as subsistence farmers, tell a different story.

“If we don’t till the land, we’ll have no food to eat,” says Shantamaya, whose husband was called the “kingpin” of poaching in Nepal by the police when they made him public in the Capital a few months ago. Raj Kumar had sent home up to Rs 20,000 on a few occasions, and a Sony mobile since he left for Malaysia five years ago.

“Because the police were after him, he wouldn’t come home from Malaysia. And it was this land that helped us meet our needs,” says Shantamaya, pointing to the few ropanis of government land besides the house that the family has been living in for decades.

For all the poaching activities that Raj Kumar has been involved in, there is little to show in the way of financial gains. Like him, there are other villagers who were lured into a life of crime, without there being much to show for it. Today, there are apparently hundreds of poor and illiterate people in the villages near the Chitwan National Park who work for poaching rings that are controlled by people who live far away from the forests—in Kathmandu, India, Malaysia, China and other places around the globe.

Many families have paid the ultimate price for getting into the business. Shanti Darai was still a teen when her husband was mistakenly shot by his friends while they were on a rhino’s trail.

Bifala Darai, her husband, was once a day labourer. The couple was married at a very young age, and after they got married, they used to work in the fields.  But one day,  Bifala Darai decided to give it all up and join a poaching racket.

“He told me he was going to go to one of our relative’s places. That was the last I saw him,” says Shanti.

A hard place

The buffer zones and the adjoining villages of the Chitwan National Park are home to hundreds of thousands of people. Many of them belong to highly marginalised and excluded ethnic communities, such as the Chhepangs, Tharus, Botes, Kumals, Darasis and Danuwars, and many live in abject poverty.

A large segment of the population depends on sustenance farming, selling firewood, fishing and doing menial labour. They know the forests very well because they have lived in and been dependent on them for ages. It’s because of their knowledge, say the local police, that the organised poacher rings approach them, promising lots of money in exchange for their help.

According to the data with the Chitwan National Park, 304 individuals were arrested in 2067/68 BS; 141 in 2068/69 BS; and 118 in 2069/70 BS on poaching charges. Of them 55, 68 and 10 people respectively were charged with having been involved in rhino poaching. Most of the arrestees include people living in the buffer zones and the nearby villages. In some cases, several members of a single family were arrested.

Many of the villagers also engage in other unlawful activities, like smuggling firewood and timbre from the forest, while some villages in Chitwan and Dhading have been witnessing a surge in the cultivation of marijuana, and even opium, owing to the good returns they fetch.

Several factors, including poverty, illiteracy, lack of job options, inadequate farmlands and a shrinking income source are great challenges for the people living near the Chitwan National Park.

Many of them who were previously dependent on the forests are now barred access to it and substantial numbers cannot make the transition to a rapidly urbanising culture and its consumerism. Today, they need to have cash to survive, which is impossible to earn through subsistence farming. And most cannot get into commercial farming because even though their communities have lived here for centuries, they have little or no land to their name.

“It’s a sad reality that most of our investigations so far have been able to trace mostly those working on the ground, the locals, but not those who control things from the top,” says Maheshwor Dhakal, a conservationist and spokesperson at the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation.

In need of a rethink

Local stakeholders say that unless the government comes up with alternative means for the villagers to make a living, quite a few of them will continue to work with the poaching rings. They say that the government should share the resources from the forests with the poorer families. Although the government is said to have used a large chunk of the revenue collected from the national park and millions of dollars in donor aid in the development of the villages, help has not trickled down to the poorer sections.

The communities, who now remain cut off from the forests, are getting little or no benefits from them, says Krishna Bhakta Pokharel, a CA member whose constituency mainly compromises people living in the buffer zones.

Pokharel says that the current conservation efforts, despite having brought about positive outcomes for the national park, have not benefited the locals much. He says the government must promote ownership of the forest among the people.

“It must not be forgotten that many people living in the nearby villages fish in the rivers here, make use of the grass from the forests, would prefer to graze their animals in the area, and could make a living selling the forests’ fruits and wild vegetables. We asked them to stop using the forests, but we never provided alternatives,” says Pokharel, who was a buffer zone committee member for 15 years.  He says investigations should be conducted into how all the money made by the national park is used. The government currently ploughs 50 percent of the park’s income into the buffer zones.    

Dhakal thinks there is a need to envision alternative livelihood programmes not just for the people in the buffer zones but also for those living in adjacent villages. Under the current provision, the buffer zones lie under the jurisdiction of the national park, while the district forest office has jurisdiction over the rest of the forests and other areas.

“Coming up with alternative livelihood options could help transform VDCs like Korak and Shaktikhor, where up to three generations from a single family have been found to have been involved in poaching,” he says.

But while conceding that the poor people should be provided with alternative sources of living, Kamal Jung Kunwar, a warden of the Chitwan National Park, thinks it is completely wrong of the villagers to appeal to poverty and illiteracy as an excuse for engaging in criminal activities. He says that such activities are merely products of the “criminal mentality” of the people.

“There are poor people who work in stone quarries or do odd jobs to earn a living. It does not mean you have to engage in crime just because you are poor,” says Kunwar, who has also authored a book on Nepali rhinos, Gaida Sanga Char Barsha.

Kunwar says that poverty, illiteracy and ethnic backgrounds are only excuses that politicians make use of to release their cadres who have been nabbed for poaching.

“We are asked to do what the law says, and the law doesn’t say that some specific people are free to conduct crimes.  Why make laws if they are not implemented?” says Kunwar.

Published: 18-04-2015 08:38

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