Home News Balancing Indigenous rights and nature conservation in Nepal

Balancing Indigenous rights and nature conservation in Nepal

The enactment of Nepal’s policy on “Construction of Physical Infrastructure Inside Protected Areas” has ignited a lot of controversy, with stakeholders, especially Indigenous Peoples’ organizations, expressing strong opposition.

This amendment, initiated by Nepal’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC) and published in the national gazette of Nepal on January 4, has drawn sharp criticism for its potential to displace Indigenous communities from their ancestral lands.

The policy prioritizes profit over environmental conservation and Indigenous rights by allowing businesses to initiate large-scale projects such as hydropower plants and tourist resorts within national parks and protected areas.

The debate surrounding this policy amendment underscores the delicate balance between economic development and environmental concerns and calls for a rights-based approach to conservation in Nepal.

In September 2023, over two dozen conservationists submitted feedback to the draft amendment to the Ministry of Forest and Environment advocating for the inclusion of Indigenous Peoples’ issues through a common position paper. However, these recommendations were not significantly accommodated in the final document.

Wildlife conservation legislation for whom?

As per Ajay Karki, the deputy director-general of DNPWC, the amendment consolidates 12 regulations from the 1974 National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act in Nepal into a single “umbrella regulation.” This regulation allows the construction of large-scale hydropower plants, dams, hotels, and tourist resorts within national parks and protected areas.

Several hydro projects are already under construction within the Langtang National Park area in north central Nepal and this amendment will open the floodgates to initiating more hydropower projects in protected areas.

Kaligandaki hydropower plant in the Syangja District of Nepal. Image via Wikipedia by Milan GC. (CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED).
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Another significant impact of the new amendment is the reopening of national parks to tourism activities, including establishing hotels, which raises environmental concerns. From 2009 to 2012, seven hotels in Chitwan National Park were closed down by the authorities due to alleged poaching and ecological concerns.

Nepal can boast 12 national parks, one wildlife reserve, a hunting reserve, six conservation areas, and 13 buffer zones. Indigenous communities living in or around these protected areas already face numerous threats, including deforestation, pollution, climate change, and unsustainable resource extraction.

Moving toward a rights-based model

Though Indigenous communities voice grievances against conservation strategies, their concerns often go unheard as the overarching strategy of conservation is heavily influenced by American environmentalism.

This approach, commonly referred to as the “fortress model,” has proven inadequate, failing to fully acknowledge the worldviews of Indigenous Peoples and exacerbating their marginalization in decision-making processes and equitable benefit-sharing. Globally, Indigenous communities face mounting challenges, including a lack of recognition of their collective land rights, discrimination, and poverty. Free access to their ancestral territories and forests is crucial for their self-determination, governance systems, and preservation of their way of life, including their knowledge systems.

Unless this biodiversity conservation model embraces sustainable practices aligned with Indigenous peoples’ conservation methods, these communities will continue to face heightened risks of losing their resource rights and unjust marginalisation.

Donor agencies and UN bodies such as the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Rights and Resource Initiative (RRI), and the entire Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) have emphasized the need to rethink and redesign conservation approaches to prioritize a “Rights-Based approach in Conservation agenda.” Following numerous incidents of human rights violations in the name of conservation, rights-based conservation has become a major focus for donor and implementing organizations.

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), since its inception in 1992, has specifically recognized the role of Indigenous peoples through articles 8(j) and 10(c), which legally obligate governments to respect, protect, and promote traditional knowledge, practices, and customary uses of biological resources by Indigenous groups. Despite these clear policies within conventions, Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) have largely been marginalized from the halls of power at the UN. This lack of recognition extends to the lack of rights of Indigenous women in the constitution of Nepal and the general absence of acknowledgment of Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination.

The rights of Indigenous peoples

In Nepal, Indigenous knowledge, beliefs and traditional practices have profoundly influenced land-use practices, sustainable resource management, and biodiversity conservation. For instance, the Chepang people revere plants, animals, rivers, and mountains as home to holy spirits, guiding them to extract resources sustainably, in accordance with strict traditions.

People tending to livestock grazing in Rapti Municipality-1, Photo By Biswash Chepang, used with permission.

It is imperative to rethink, redefine, and redesign Nepal’s existing conservation model to prioritize rights-based conservation. The governments must ensure that eviction processes do not render anyone homeless or vulnerable to human rights violations. Indigenous peoples and local communities should be able to protect and sustainably manage lands, territories, and natural resources based on their ancestral knowledge and livelihood practices.

One example of creating an enabling environment for safeguarding Indigenous Peoples’ legal rights in Nepal is the recognition of the Shagya Acts in Tsum Nubri Rural Municipality. These customary Indigenous practices regulate activities such as hunting, harvesting, and trading to preserve biodiversity. Local legislation should be enacted to enforce these acts, benefiting communities that safeguard language, tradition, and culture, and maintain a harmonious relationship with nature.

Various academic studies underscore the significance of expanding the legal recognition of Indigenous peoples and local communities’ territories as an effective means to protect biodiversity and prevent historical human rights violations associated with traditional conservation strategies. A rights-based approach is important in achieving positive conservation outcomes, affirming the correlation between robust Indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ land rights and biodiversity conservation.

Target 21 of the Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) advocates for equitable participation in biodiversity decision-making by Indigenous peoples and local communities, alongside respect for their rights over lands, territories, and resources, including women, girls, and youth. Upholding Indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior, and informed consent is essential for any project impacting their traditional lands or livelihoods.

It is imperative to prioritize Indigenous peoples’ rights, including self-determination and the strengthening of their traditional knowledge and governance systems. Conservation institutions must ensure that conservation efforts do not result in rights violations, abuse, or marginalization of the people.

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