604As seen on Thomson Reuters Foundation

At People’s Rights Conference, Nepali communities affirm their rights to resources in a recently declared conservation zone

The hall burst into applause as the final declaration was read out. The audience, composed of community forestry user groups from Nepal’s Chure region, Indigenous Peoples, women’s rights groups, Dalit advocates, and youth vowed to continue the movement that had brought them together over the course of the past seven months.

Echoing in the hall was the demand to start including Chure’s people in determining the policies that govern the fate of the forests, land, and water they have depended upon for generations in the Himalayan country.

In June 2014, the Government of Nepal declared the geologically-fragile area of Chure a conservation area without prior consultation with the nearly five million people that live there. The decision set off an uproar in Nepal’s thriving community forestry movement, as well as amongst Indigenous Peoples and residents of the region who were effectively deemed squatters.

In response, 20 civil society organizations came together to launch a vibrant campaign, mobilizing up to a million people, demanding that the government rescind its declaration. Following a series of mass protests, rallies, and dialogues to ensure community rights over natural resources in Chure, activists, scholars, and government representatives gathered this month in Kathmandu for the Chure Conservation People’s Rights Conference. The goal of the event, held on February 19 and 20 and attended by 400 people, was to convince the government to annul the Chure Environmental Conservation Declaration.

Over the two days, the movement leaders at the conference made impassioned pleas for development and conservation measures to be conducted in a consultative manner that works in the interests of local people. Rigorous evidence-based research was presented countering the traditional narrative of environmental degradation caused by community use.

“Community forestry is the main driver of positive change in Chure’s forest cover. Compared to the Government and private forest regimes, the community forestry regime has performed better than other regimes in terms of reducing the rate of deforestation, good governance practice and environmental protection,” explained Bharat Pokharel, Nepal Country Director for Helvetas-Swiss Intercooperation.

Data presented at the conference showed that Nepal’s overall deforestation rate has significantly reduced since the 1990s, and that the forest cover in Chure increased during the period of 1992-2014. According to a 2014 Helvetas study, remote sensing and government statistics show that a total of 42,000 hectares of dense forest actually increased in Chure, raising serious questions on the need for an exclusionary conservation area as opposed to relying on the traditional guardians of the land.

The history of exclusionary conservation areas, or as it is often called, “fortress conservation,” originates from the dominant model of protected areas in North America. This history is one of violent colonization and expropriation of Indigenous lands. In developing countries where this model is now being blindly followed, sanctuaries, national parks and conservation zones have often evicted local inhabitants or curtailed their rights. Such practices turn local communities into enemies of forests and wildlife.

In fact, strong evidence exists indicating that local communities and Indigenous Peoples are the best guarantors of conservation and wildlife protection as compared to national governments. In Nepal, Helvetas-Swiss Intercooperation says deforestation rates outside of community forests are 60 percent higher compared to within community forests.

Community-based conservation also combats deforestation and climate change. A recent RRI and World Resources Institute report shows that in areas where community forests enjoy both legal rights and the support of national governments, deforestation and carbon emissions are significantly lower.

Chure is a geologically-sensitive region, with a large amount of biodiversity manifested through timber, non-timber forest products, minerals, and wildlife. The increasing demand for resources, often driven by rapid construction and development demands in neighboring India, drives extraction of building materials such as sand, stone, and gravel. Resource extraction and deforestation certainly pose legitimate threats to the ecology of the region, but the Chure Environmental Conservation Declaration represents equally grave threats to local communities’ ability to access—and maintain—their traditional land, forests, and livelihoods.

Restricting access could mean that people would be criminalized for harvesting from the very forests that have sustained them for generations. Already, 196 people have charges filed against Chure’s communities in court for illegal logging for accessing their traditional forests.

“If the conservation area goes through the Environmental Protection Act, we will have to take permission to pluck every leaf from the forest. We will have no rights for our future generations,” says Majiulla Khan, a resident of Bardiya District in Chure.

In December 2014, in response to protests by Chure’s people, the Government agreed to set up an official group made up of government officials and civil society actors, including FECOFUN, the largest federation of community forestry user groups in Nepal, to discuss a new law on Chure. Public commitments have been made to allow communities to be involved in conservation efforts, but no concrete decision has been reached.

With a new constitution in process of being drafted, securing community property rights to customary land and its resources will be crucial for Nepal’s future. Will it follow the examples of colonial regimes of the past by declaring vast swaths of land as protected areas and risk marginalizing its citizens? Or will it instead recognize her strengths amongst her own people and pursue a path of community-based conservation?

The Chure Conservation People’s Rights Conference was attended by the Deputy Prime Minister of Nepal, government officials, around 200 community members from the Chure region, Constituent Assembly members, leading representatives from Nepal’s main political parties, and civil society representatives. The event was organized by the Chure Conservation Joint Committee Movement, a coalition of 20 civil society organizations representing community forestry user groups, Indigenous Peoples, Women’s rights groups, and Dalit advocacy groups.

Original article – An Opportunity to Get Conservation Right