Environment conservation has been the talk of the 21st century, with conservation successes hailed across the globe. Afterall, environment conservation in one part of the world benefits the humanity’s march towards a sustainable future. Most importantly, environment conservation is what gives us the best hope for a sustainable future. However, in many instances environment conservation comes at a heavy cost for the locals and especially indigenous people living in the area- a dark side of environment conservation and sustainable future efforts often overshadowed by the [overall] benefits of such policies. As a result, environmental conservation efforts do not achieve their intended goals and rather end up creating unsustainable way of life for the local communities.
Protected areas have been central in conservation efforts since the 19th century. However, when the government decides to establish a protected area, aka a fortress, the people who lived there and/or considered the area indispensable for their livelihood lose their way of living all at once. While human rights and conservation do not necessarily need to oppose, the failure to make and implement appropriate laws and policies push them to the opposite ends. This also results in a lack of appetite for conservation among such communities and thus a continued conflictual relationship between human rights and environment conservation. In some instances, the conservation efforts even face resentment by the people displaced for its establishment because they lost their homes, land and/or livelihood. This stands in complete opposite end of the government’s ‘indispensable for environmental conservation’ understanding. This different understanding resulting from the loss of quality of life of the people living near or once inside the now conserved area is a formidable barrier for such conservation efforts to get their desired results- that of humanity’s sustainable future. But, wait a minute how can conservation result sustainable future if the lives of the very people it connects in a daily basis is not? The establishment of conservation areas forces the local community to poverty and thus adopt unsustainable measures to support their life.
The case of Shuklaphata National Park is an emblematic case of the violation of human rights in the name of conservation in Nepal. The people of Shuklaphata, displaced when Shuklaphata was a Wildlife Reserve, are still living in temporary settlements even after more than 2 decades of being forcefully evicted from their homes in 2002. Even though the decision to expand the Reserve by 155 sq. km was made in 1994, the actual implementation of the expansion and thus the forced eviction happened in 2002 under the then warden Surya Bahadur Pandey. During the forceful eviction, elephants were deployed to destroy homes, armies set homes and harvests on fire, people were beaten and those who dared to speak were threatened to be labelled as Maoist as the civil war was in its peak.
The ‘fortress’ of Shuklaphata, like all other National Parks, is no longer home to these people, neither it is accessible for their livelihood. The solution? People sneak in and try to continue their livelihood, including cattle grazing, firewood and fodder collection, grass cutting for roofs, fishing and even poaching for economic benefits, even if the laws prohibit and even punishes such activities. Kanchanpur, the home to Shuklaphata National Park has relatively lesser problems with poaching. It might be because of the fact that it is historically a Tharu inhabited area and Tharu seem to be less involved in poaching as they are traditionally fishermen rather than hunters. However, the indigenous people like Chepang’s (the issue with Chitwan National Park) way of life is hunting and foraging the forests. Though Chepang community coexisted with the forests since time immemorial, the forest is no longer their ‘home’- they are no longer the steward of the land therefore these people do not see a need to protect the forest and the biodiversity within. Today the forest for them is rather ‘a heavily militarized fortress’ from which the people should sneak in and take as much benefits for themselves, even if it is unsustainable. This is manifested from the large number of involvement of Chepang people in poaching in Chitwan National Park. This has resulted in the failure to achieve the very goal the National Parks are created- to preserve nature and biodiversity for a sustainable future. Afterall, humans do not have a sustainable future without the protection of biodiversity. However, in doing so, the State is also in continuous violation of its international obligation on biodiversity as well as human rights protection- as it has continuously failed to uphold both.
Putting a fence around a protected area excluding the local communities is seldom a long term solution to the underlying conflictual relationship that exists in the area, no matter how scientifically and ethically justified it might be. No matter how militarized a protected area becomes, as the local communities do not get benefitted from the establishment of the Park but rather lose their livelihood, the human instinct of survival will always overpower the overarching arguments of sustainability. Afterall, survival is an animal instinct and even more for people who are living in constant fear of human-animal conflict and sometimes even forced eviction, such as is the case of Shuklaphata National Park.
Sustainable future is a boat in which all humans have to sync for us to sail to the other end. A boat in which people are not given enough incentives to row it harder only makes the sail difficult. The people who are indispensable for lending us the boat today i.e. the communities where there still are natural forests and biodiversity are the ones whom we are forcing rather than negotiating and offering them something in return for their loss of livelihood. This relation of coercion only results in resentment and decrease in quality of life of people in close contact with the protected areas hindering our march towards sustainable future. Therefore, this relation with the local community should be one of give and take, one of mutual benefit, co-existence and co-management, such that the community feels the ownership and thus withhold their generational stewardess of the land.