Saturday, December 7, 2013

Keeping it in the community

Published on 4th Dec 2013 on Kathmandu Post - a popular English daily in Nepal.

In the recently concluded Constituent Assembly election, we witnessed the public rising against all odds to vote. The outcome was a historic, record high turnout. A great lesson to be learned indeed, and we have seen this time and again—when people come together with a strong sense of duty and ownership, nothing is beyond reach. Meanwhile, a similar scenario, but on a smaller scale and in the field of conservation, is taking place in Nawalparasi. 
Imagine hunting a near threatened animal as a traditional practice for food and realising one fine day that the practice is wrong. This is what happened in a few VDCs of Nawalparasi district: Deurali, Naram, Ruchang, Dhaubadi and Hupsekot. Communities came together and decided to protect the Himalayan goral (Nemorhedus goral), demonstrating strong local stewardship and engagement in conserving a vulnerable species. The Himalayan goral is popularly called ghoral in Nepali. It is a goat-antelope, with a short tail, backward-pointing horns and a grey coloured coat with a white bib. The shy natured goral can be found foraging and sheltering on the rocky faces of mountains. The goral population has been notably declining due to hunting and habitat loss; it is listed as a near threatened species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) National Red List.
Protecting gorals
The Magar communities in these Nawalparasi villages have been hunting goral for a long time. Jhabilal Ranamager, a local from Dhaubadi VDC, says, “When we hunted goral, the studier ones always got away and those that got killed were the pregnant, sick and old goral. What moved us was to find an infant inside the carcass almost all the time. It made us feel guilty and cold-blooded.” This realisation motivated the villagers of Dhaubadi VDC to call a meeting with the elders. What came out of this meeting was a decision to protect the goral and motivate surrounding VDCs to join their cause. It has been almost five years now since the five VDCs in Nawalparasi came together to form a committee to conserve goral and their habitat. The villagers now want to establish the five VDCs, including key goral habitats, as a community-based goral conservation area.

Since there has been no thorough study on the goral population in Nepal, the exact population status is hard to determine. However, a population of around 100 goral is estimated to be in the Mahabharat lekh (high land) of Nawalparasi and Palpa districts. A recent study commissioned by the USAID-funded Hariyo Ban Program in the Chitwan Annapurna Landscape identifies the Nawalparasi area and adjoining VDCs in Palpa district as playing a crucial role in maintaining forest connectivity between Chitwan National Park in the lowland Tarai and the Annapurna Conservation Area in the hill region to the north. The area is connected to Chitwan National Park through forest corridors from the south (Pithauli forests), in the east through contiguous forest (up to Gaidakot in the east) and in the west (Daunne forest area). Protecting goral will involve conserving their habitat, and thereby, benefitting other animal species as well as by maintaining the north-south forest connectivity. Safeguarding forest connectivity is particularly important in the context of increasing temperatures and environmental change. Such forest linkages will play a crucial role in long-term biodiversity conservation and build resilience to climate change in Nepal.
Bottom-up conservation
The traditional conservation approach in Nepal was to establish a protected area, often relocating local people outside the park boundaries. However, now, there are a wider variety of approaches, as demonstrated by Nepal’s conservation areas and community forests. If these VDCs of Nawalparasi are established as community-based conservation area then a large swathe of land will be protected with local stewardship, integrating social and environmental priorities. Current community managed conservation can be seen in the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area, which was handed over by the Government of Nepal to the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area Management Council in August 2006. However, in the Kanchenjunga case, a policy was first outlined before the handover, while the five VDCs in Nawalparasi, if declared a community-based conservation area, will be Nepal’s first initiative that started from the ground-up, leading to policy formulation.

Biodiversity expert Shant Raj Jnawali says, “There is no provision for community managed conservation areas in Nepal’s policy where the community has a full stake. Given the livelihood options in this area, if this is recognised as a community-based goral conservation area, then it can be promoted as an eco-tourism site. Chitwan attracts half a million visitors a year; if this area can attract even a small portion of that number, it will have a positive impact on local livelihoods.”
History has proven time and again that people have great power and this stays true for conservation. Prior conservation efforts were successful because of the involvement of communities. Thakur Bhandari, National Committee member of the Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal (FECOFUN), says, “The provision of community conservation areas in Nepal needs to ensure that the full right to conservation, management and utilisation of the resources are with the communities. And, it should not be declared a community conservation area against people’s wish.”

The initiative taken by the people of Nawalparasi came from sentiment and a new sensibility to contribute to conservation. It is important to note that it was self-initiated and without any external help. Such efforts to establish community conservation areas could provide solutions to many conservation problems in Nepal today. They could help build functional links between livelihood security and conservation, and help bring communities into the mainstream of conservation. In a time of globalisation, this needs to be acknowledged and prioritised in government conservation policies. If a supportive environment is created for such initiatives, taking small steps one at a time, it can perhaps develop into a massive community-based conservation movement in the country.

The views expressed here are personal.


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