Two more recent incidents suggest these abuses are not just a thing of the past. In July 2020, 24-year-old Raj Kumar Chepang was beaten to death by a park soldier for collecting snails in the national park. That same month, a park warden and employees destroyed 10 illegal Chepang houses in a park buffer zone in Madi, leaving the families homeless during the monsoon rains. There must be better ways to enforce conservation policies.
The WWF Independent Panel notes that some allegations against WWF are unfounded, based more on rumour and conspiracy thinking than fact. And it also notes that WWF has adopted robust safeguards for indigenous groups, at least on paper, and that in recent years WWF has provided human rights training for Nepali wardens, rangers, and army personnel.
But the Panel’s report also points to persistent problems. WWF does no routine review to see if its social safeguard policies are actually implemented. WWF, the report says, doesn’t know “what is happening on the ground where it works.”
The Panel calls for WWF to establish an independent mechanism for reviewing complaints against Park soldiers and staff, particularly regarding indigenous peoples and their access to local resources. In addition, it stressed, WWF should create “red lines” – clear standards – that if crossed by national park and government officials would trigger the withdrawal of all WWF support.
The human rights abuses in Chitwan also plague other militarised protected areas in Nepal, from Kosi Tappu to Bardia and Suklaphanta. There have been repeated calls to devise less militarised models for protecting Nepal’s wildlife. Noting that communities dwelling near Nepal’s protected areas “live in constant fear of wild animals and the security forces,” Dhirendra Nalbo has pushed for rethinking the military model. “It is time to begin thinking about a radically different conservation practice, that serves not just the few, but everyone, especially local communities, who remain economically marginalised and politically disempowered.”
A second problem that the WWF Independent Panel stressed is the poverty of Tharu and other marginalised groups near the Park and their relative powerlessness in buffer zone committees. Established in the 1990s to share the benefits of the Park with nearby villagers, buffer zone committees often control access to natural resources and significant tourism dollars.
Historically, Chitwan’s buffer zone committees have been dominated by higher caste non-indigenous migrants. And even today, 20 of the 22 committees are run by non-indigenous people, whereas Tharu and other indigenous groups make up about a third of the communities near the Park. And the closer to the Park, the higher the portion of the indigenous becomes.
In other words, non-indigenous migrants have captured the bulk of the buffer zone benefits, while Tharu and other indigenous groups get little to nothing.
“Most committee members are political party leaders or hill migrants,” Birendra Mahato explains. “The Tharu and other groups have little pull in powerful, political circles.”
The independent panel notes these governance problems but calls only for unspecified “reforms.”
Mahato wants WWF to do more, to push the government to create new subcommittees for indigenous people as part of buffer zone committees. He wants better monitoring of where the money goes, and specific funds designated for indigenous groups.
Clearly, the power dynamics within buffer zones need to be better accounted for. A local election doesn’t automatically mean all local people get their fair share. New ways should be devised to ensure that benefits flow to indigenous communities too.
A third problem is human-wildlife conflict. In Chitwan and near other protected areas, park animals– elephants, tigers, rhinos and wild boars – routinely cause big trouble in nearby communities. Rhinos and boars eat crops, elephants knock over structures, even people’s houses, and tigers maul unsuspecting villagers.
As journalist Peter Gill has carefully documented, Chitwan’s system for compensating victims of human wildlife conflict is deeply flawed. Compensation rates for killed buffalo often fall below market rates and the claims process is long and bureaucratic, discouraging many villagers from even reporting losses. Indigenous groups find the compensation process particularly onerous and unfair. In 2018-19, Gill notes, 96 of the 100 people who received compensation payments in Chitwan were non-indigenous; only four came from Tharu and other groups. Something is very wrong here.
Worse, Gill found a serious undercounting and underreporting of deaths from wildlife encounters. Official park reports show that, between 2015 and 2019, wildlife killed 44 people. But these reports count only people whose deaths were compensated by the Park. They don’t include those killed while illegally in the Park or buffer zones, whose families are not compensated. In one buffer zone that Gill visited, only three of nine total deaths were officially reported. In most of the other areas, nobody knows the real number.
Let’s try to look at the whole picture from the eyes of Tharu and indigenous people near the Park. Many Tharu see the land that their parents and grandparents used to farm and graze has been turned over to animals that wealthy foreigners and Nepali tourists love to photograph. Their anguish is particularly acute at harvest time, when they see these animals eating and trampling the crops they’ve sweated for months to grow.
Of course, some indigenous have benefited from the Park. But other groups have gained much more. Tharu and others see lodges run by migrants that bring those outsiders cash to send their children to flashy private schools, while Tharu, Bote and Darai children mostly attend poorly resourced government schools. They see park offices full of staff making good salaries. And they see soldiers who throw their weight around and are empowered by law to shoot on sight.
Looking at the full picture, no Tharu, Darai or Bote could be blamed for voicing bitterness toward the national park and its animals. And yet, most indigenous people I know harbour little of that ill will toward the Park’s larger mission.
Here’s Birendra Mahato again: “We Tharu also care about protecting the forest, the water, and the animals. We have done so for centuries.”
Mahato and other indigenous near the part want to be partners, not misunderstood, pushed aside, and last considered. “Conservation works best with strong community partners,” he says, “We want to work with the WWF to find win-win solutions for conservation and indigenous communities.”
Tom Robertson is a historian who writes about international development and environmental change in Nepal. His article “DDT and the Cold War Jungle: American Environmental and Social Engineering in the Rapti Valley of Nepal” appeared in the March 2018 Journal of American History.