What Environmental Justice Means for Indigenous Peoples of Nepal

The Tharus are one of the 59 Indigenous communities in southern Nepal who have been socially, culturally and economically dependent on natural resources for generations. This article tells the story of the community in the Surkhet district who have been deprived of their right to self-determination as acknowledged by UNDRIP, which the country has ratified. The Tharus have historically depended on fishing and ghungi (water snails) for food, but newly introduced laws and policies intended to revive the lake in order to foster tourism in the region have barred them from entering Bulbule lake.

In Surkhet, a district located about 600 kilometres away from Kathmandu, 38-year-old Dilmaya Tharu’s daily routine begins under the scorching sun by wading through Bulbule Lake, fishing and cultivating ghungi—water snails.

For generations, the Tharu people have been fishing and collecting snails from this lake. It’s their way of life and how they have celebrated their culture for centuries. As Dilmaya recalls, the fish and ghungi population have declined over the years, and they now spend hours collecting a meagre handful of snails.

‘I grew up seeing my family living in close proximity with forests, lakes, and water sources, but if it happens it is unfortunate that the next generation will barely be able to live with this reality,’

Dilmaya

However, The Greater Bulbule Area Expansion Project, implemented to develop the lake as a tourist hub, has barred people from fishing. ‘For now, we have restricted community people from conducting any activity in the lake,’ says Ward-10 Chairperson Dil Bahadur Rakhal.

‘Once the project is completed, we are planning to operate boats and restrict fishing or collecting ghungi as a move to foster tourism.’

For Dilmaya, this means a generational loss of culture and daily consumption. ‘I grew up seeing my family living in close proximity with forests, lakes, and water sources, but if it happens it is unfortunate that the next generation will barely be able to live with this reality,’ she said.

Bulbule Lake, which is set to be expanded to more than double its original size (12,000 square metres), is actually a wetland. Ecologists and researchers deem the project an unprogressive move to commercialise resources that are natural and required to foster biodiversity. Wetlands have an intricate in-built ecosystem that is both diverse and fragile.

‘In many expansion projects that we have seen in the past, it is common that the natural resource systems are invaded artificially, and in case of any degradation occurring, the concept of wetland restoration is completely neglected,’ says Lila Nath Sharma, ecologist and researcher at Forest Action Nepal. ‘This practice was evident in Halkhoria Daha of Bara district and Chimdi Lake of Sunsari.’

For generations, the Tharu people have been fishing and collecting snails in the lake. It’s their way of life and how they have celebrated their culture for centuries.

In 2021, a similar instance occurred in Ramechhap district. Protesters from the indigenous Majhi (fisherman) community took to the streets to campaign for the cancellation of the Sunkoshi 2 Hydropower Project. The project was estimated to submerge the majority of settlements along the banks of Sunkoshi and Tamakoshi rivers and displace close to 6000 households.

In all cases, indigenous communities who have traditionally depended on natural sources are highly impacted. A recent study conducted by the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) found that indigenous peoples have an important role within the local environment, serving as guardians of natural resources which contribute to climate action and mitigation. Even though Nepal has ratified International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169 on indigenous and tribal peoples, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) Outcome Document, there still remain major gaps in implementing these agreements.

Despite the sense of legal immunity provided by international conventions, Nepal’s legal systems have not addressed the customary rights to lands and resources aligning with indigenous people’s values, customs, and traditions. ‘Nepal ratifying international laws with regards to indigenous rights is a progressive gesture, however, it is only limited to documents,’ says advocate Shankar Limbu, Secretary at Lawyer’s Association for Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous Peoples.

‘What value does community right hold when the means to exercise them are revolutionary?’

It is international talks and negotiations which help to mount pressure to implement legal instruments and amplify the voices of indigenous and climate-vulnerable groups. Last year, the Conference of Parties (COP26) summit was criticised for having minimal participation of indigenous groups, despite being heralded as the most inclusive COP ever.

Last year’s flood in the Melamchi and Helambu region of Sindhupalchok District killed 25 people and displaced thousands. A majority of the people impacted by the disaster belonged to indigenous and marginalised communities of the upper region, who spent months in makeshift tents without receiving any compensation from the government.

‘In many expansion projects that we have seen in the past, it is common that the natural resource systems are invaded artificially, and in case of any degradation occurring, the concept of wetland restoration is completely neglected,’ says Lila Nath Sharma, ecologist and researcher at Forest Action Nepal.

Aligning with the demands made by developing countries, Nepal has also prioritised financial support for climate-induced loss and damage. The government has submitted its second Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) ahead of last year’s summit and pledged to go net zero by 2045. In order to address climate risk and vulnerability in development, planning, and implementation, the National Adaptation Plan (NAP 2021–2050) was introduced to set out short-term, medium-term, and long-term priority action plans. Moreover, the Nepal government signed an agreement with the Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest Finance (LEAF) Coalition at the last summit, under which the country would stand to earn $30 million by 2025 for protecting its forests.

‘For the next summit, we are planning to sum up the work updates since last year’s negotiation. Among others, our priority shall remain on proposing finance for loss and damage to the climate-vulnerable communities,’ says Raju Sapkota, Under Secretary, Climate Change Division at the Ministry of Forests and Environment.

Global climate talks and negotiations hold much significance for Nepal, a nation that is vulnerable to climate crises and hazards. Limbu believes that negotiations are necessary to put indigenous peoples and their issues at the forefront and hold the government responsible for the safeguarding of their rights. ‘Moreover, it is deemed highly important for such communities to come at the forefront, share indigenous knowledge on natural resources and its utilisation, and seek nature-based solutions to major environmental crises that we are facing globally.’

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ArtIQulate is a publication associated with the Adenauer Fellowship, a scholarship programme by the Media Programme Asia, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Ltd.
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Sonam Lama Hyolmo

Sonam Lama is a Kathmandu-based freelance multimedia journalist writing at the intersection of environment, indigenous rights, research, and science.

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