- Nepal has been without an environment minister even after the current coalition government took office on Dec. 25, 2022.
- Community groups and analysts say this vacuum is a setback for various issues, from community forestry to climate adaptation funding.
- However, others say it signals Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s recognition of the importance of the post, and hence his reluctance to appoint just anyone to lead the ministry.
- A senior coalition member says it’s possible a new environment minister may be appointed following by-elections next week that could see more parties join the coalition.
KATHMANDU — Nepal hasn’t had an environment minister since October last year — a vacuum that could be either good or bad, depending on how one looks at it.
The position had become vacant after then Minister Pradeep Yadav was sacked by then Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba in October. The current coalition government took office on Dec. 25, 2022, and while Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal has expanded his cabinet several times since then, he still hasn’t appointed anyone to lead the Ministry of Forest and Environment.
“We don’t have anyone to present our demands to and get them addressed,” said Thakur Bhandari, secretary of the Federation of Community Forestry Users, Nepal (Fecofun).
Fecofun has been protesting recent amendments to Nepal’s forest laws and regulations. Its members are pushing for changes to the how timber volumes are calculated and how forest user groups may set up small-scale enterprises. To this end, Bhandari and other Fecofun leaders have been demanding talks with the government — which in this case would be represented by the environment minister.
The absence of a minister has also been ominous for people across Nepal as they reel from large-scale forest fires and deteriorating air quality in major cities. Kathmandu was recently ranked the world’s most polluted city in terms of air quality, but life goes on as usual in the city with no authority to advise the government on action to reduce people’s exposure to pollutants and to cut down on emissions from garbage burning, brick kilns and motor vehicles.
Analysts also say that the absence of an environment minister doesn’t send a positive message to the international community as Nepal makes its case for being in need of climate adaptation finance as one of the countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Nepal has expressed commitments at the international stage to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2045, but the environment ministry has not yet come up with a detailed blueprint to achieve the target.
However, Indigenous rights and climate change activist Tunga Sampang Rai said the prime minister’s reluctance to appoint an environment minister highlights the importance of the position.
“While at the surface, it may seem that the prime minister hasn’t given priority to the ministry, it might be the case that he is looking for the right person for the important job,” he said.
The new minister will have their work cut out for them. Nepal is juggling multiple major environmental as well as political issues, such as the construction of a new airport in the south of the country and the implementation of a controversial wildlife farming legislation that needs to be addressed at the ministerial level. Media reports also note that controversial plans to build cable car lines, hotels and resorts inside protected areas and biodiversity hotspots are awaiting the minister’s consideration.
“With so much at stake, the prime minister doesn’t want to let go of the position that easily,” an analyst, who asked not to be named, told Mongabay. “It is likely that the prime minister will appoint one of his confidants to the position unless other coalition partners press him not to.”
Bhandari, from the community forestry federation, acknowledged that the absence of an environment minister could signal the importance of the posting.
“This shows that the political parties in power are least concerned about the forest and the environment,” he said.
A senior politician from the ruling coalition, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Mongabay that the coalition partners are yet to decide on who gets the environment ministry portfolio. The politician added that the prime minister is holding off on awarding the position in the view that some parties currently outside the coalition may join the government following the results of by-elections next week.
“We might get a minister then,” the senior politician said.
Dahal, a former leader of the communist insurgency that gripped Nepal from 1996-2006, was appointed prime minister after receiving the backing of 169 members of the 275-member House of Representatives following the 2022 elections. While his party is only the third-largest in Nepal’s lower chamber, Dahal, who first allied with the second-largest political party, the CPN-UML, to form a coalition government, recently switched sides to the largest party, the Nepali Congress, to remain in power. In his less than five months in office he has shuffled his cabinet repeatedly to meet the demands of his coalition partners, but is yet to appoint an environment minister.
Banner image: The absence of a minister has also been ominous for people across Nepal as they reel from large-scale forest fires and deteriorating air quality in major cities. Image by Mark Horrell via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
Abhaya Raj Joshi is a staff writer for Nepal at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter @arj272.
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