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Razing of Indigenous hamlet highlights Nepal’s conservation challenge

Nepal Chepan Community house razed
  • On March 27, Nepali authorities evicted about 100 members of the Indigenous Chepang community living in Chitwan National Park and set fire to their huts.
  • They allege the community members are encroaching on national park land, famous for its rhinos and tigers, and building new settlements despite warnings and resettlement plans rolled out by the government.
  • However, community members say that only providing shelter, and not land for subsistence farming and their traditional livelihoods, does not solve the community’s problems.
  • Stringent policing of parks like Chitwan has been credited with helping Nepal boost its populations of iconic species like rhinos and tigers, but has come at the expense of the Indigenous communities who once occupied those areas.

KATHMANDU — On the evening of March 27, as residents of the settlement of Kusum Khola, on the fringes of Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, were preparing dinner, they heard footsteps crunch past fallen leaves, disturbing the quiet of the night.

As the footsteps drew closer, the residents realized they were under attack — not by the park’s world-famous rhinos or tigers, but by officials from the park, backed by soldiers. The officers ordered the people to vacate the area and set fire to their huts. The reason? Their community was encroaching on land belonging to the park.

“Around 100 members of the Chepang community living in around 20 huts were displaced that night,” said former parliamentarian Gobinda Ram Chepang of the opposition CPN-UML party.

“The officials didn’t even allow them to secure their vital documents and clothes,” said Gobinda Ram, who is a member of another Indigenous Chepang community in neighboring Makwanpur district. He spoke following a visit to the Kusum Khola site after the incident was widely reported in the media.

This is the second time in the space of three years that officials have razed Indigenous settlements in Kusum Khola on the grounds that they were illegal. In 2021, officials set two houses ablaze and destroyed eight others. They also used trained elephants to drive out Chepang families.

That incident sparked an international uproar, with human rights organizations condemning the government’s actions. This was followed by a Supreme Court order for the government to halt evictions using violence.

Household items the Chepang managed to scour after their huts were set ablaze. Photo courtesy Gobinda Ram Chepang

“But that doesn’t seem to have deterred the government,” said Gyan Basnet, a researcher in international human rights and constitutional law and an advocate in the Supreme Court of Nepal.

“The state should protect, fulfill and promote human rights. It should not use violence against its own people,” he added. “As a party to seven of the nine core U.N. human rights [instruments] and the [International Labour Organization’s] Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, the government should provide alternative housing to the Chepang [people] before asking them to leave a place where they shouldn’t be living.”

Continuous displacement and resettlement

Members of Indigenous communities, including the Chepang, Bote and Majhi peoples, were first evicted from their homes in this region of Nepal to make way for Chitwan National Park when it was established in 1973. Park authorities, backed by the Nepali army, have since barred Indigenous communities from practicing their traditional livelihoods such as fishing, foraging, and cutting of trees of firewood and timber.

According to park officials, these restrictions have helped them keep in check the poaching of threatened and iconic wildlife such as tigers and rhinos. The latest census shows the population of Nepal’s greater one-horned rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis) went up by 107 in four protected areas since 2015. The country, which shares borders with China and India — major markets for the world’s illicit wildlife products — has received international praise for its conservation efforts.

The Indigenous people once residing in the park have had to take up alternative livelihoods, such as running homestays for tourists and providing services such as home repairs and driving.

“We Chepangs have particularly borne the brunt of living next to protected areas,” Gobinda Ram said. Plagued by poverty and hundreds of years of marginalization due to state policies of neglect, their culture and language have also been reported to be under threat.

A few months ago, the local municipality built a separate settlement near the park for Chepang families, most of whom had been affected by floods. Each family was allotted a two-room hut in the buffer zone of the park, where neither agricultural activities nor the felling of trees is permitted. The new settlement was inaugurated by former prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal only three days before the March 27 incident in Kusum Khola. Dahal, better known as Prachanda, had led Nepal’s decade-long Maoist insurgency, whose stated aim until it ended in 2004 was to fight for the downtrodden and the oppressed. A total of 41 households were set up in the settlement, which lies within Dahal’s parliamentary constituency.

However, Chepang leaders say these housing units provided by the government don’t address their problems.

“The first thing is it’s not adequate for all households,” Gobinda Ram said. “The second … what about our livelihoods and subsistence? We are denied entry to the forests, our source of traditional livelihoods because they now fall under the protected area. So what do we eat and what fuel do we use to cook?”

He added the community had no other option but to return to Kusum Khola.

Controversies around land ownership

Government officials, however, say the Chepang people have access to alternative livelihoods such as tourism to help them to earn a decent living. Instead, they allege, the people are trying to claim ownership of land belonging to the park.

Chepang people living on the banks of Kusumkhola in Nepal’s Chitwan are forced to live in sheds like these after their huts were razed. Image courtesy Gobinda Ram Chepang

The issue of land ownership has historically been a controversial one in Nepal, where productive land has long been concentrated in the hands of a few. Several policies such as ceilings on land ownership and tenancy rights have been populist moves enacted by the government.

Two years ago, the government formed a land reform commission to look into the issue. The commission asked landless people occupying land that doesn’t belong to them to get themselves registered and eventually claim ownership of the land based on their current tenancy. That’s why the Chepang people are returning to Kusum Khola, government officials say.

“According to our report, members of 160 households were [previously] living in the area for the last few decades. But all of them, except for one household, was resettled elsewhere,” Ganesh Prasad Tiwari, information officer at Chitwan National Park, told Mongabay by phone. “We saw that new huts were built in the area even after we warned them not to do so. We had no option but to order them to leave. We, however, didn’t take any action against the one household that was yet to be resettled.”

Gobinda Ram, however, dismissed the allegation. “The Chepang have nowhere to go to find food for themselves, but officials don’t understand this,” he said.

The evicted Chepang have announced that they will organize protest rallies and marches demanding that they be provided land to grow food.

Conservationist Kumar Paudel from the NGO Greenhood Nepal said this particular case shouldn’t be looked at in isolation.

“Government officials say they evicted people who were encroaching on [the] park’s land and they are duty bound to do so,” he said. “However, if we look at a bigger time scale, we will understand how the relationship between the Indigenous people and the forest was severed for conservation.

“Incidents like these show that making conservation inclusive is a challenge for the model we have adopted.”

Banner Image: A Chepang woman scours the ruins of her hut for valuables after officials set the settlement on fire. Image courtesy Gobinda Ram Chepang

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