High hopes

Conservation area projects in Nepal prove that people and protected areas need not be mutually exclusive

Published: Friday 15 June 2001

High hopes

-- Tucked away between the Indian state of Sikkim on the east and the high mountains of the Makalu Barun range in the west, the Kanchenjunga area shares its northern boundary with that of Tibet. Hinduism and Buddhism, tropical and alpine, all meet and merge giving rise to a rich biodiversity and a variety of cultures of numerous ethnic groups and communities. This is an ancient land that cradles an ancient cultural heritage. Remoteness has in many ways disadvantaged the people though. Taplejung, now the district headquarters, has only in 2000 been connected by road to the rest of the world. Traditionally, this was the point of exchange in trading routes between India and Tibet. Today, the modern world has arrived via buses and trucks bringing an influx of foreign goods and people into this remote area.

The pressure on this stunningly beautiful and varied land that is the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area is increasing today as soil degradation causes food production to fall and trekking tourism leads to deforestation and garbage pollution. Since 1990, foreign tourists have been allowed into the region. Currently, compared to the more popular trekking route of the Annapoorna Conservation Area Project (acap ) in central Nepal (see box: All that glitters gold ), which receives over 50,000 tourists per season, the Kanchenjunga area recieves less than 1,000 foreign trekkers a year. Obviously all these changes are bringing in new demands and throwing up a host of development challenges. Recognising the need to address these challenges and to conserve the biological and cultural wealth of the region and drawing inspiration from the success of acap the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area Project ( kcap ) was concieved. Since 1997, kcap is being jointly implemented by the World Wide Fund for Nature ( wwf ) Nepal, in collaboration with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation ( dnpwc ) of His Majesty's Government ( hmg ) of Nepal.

Like India, Nepal too has followed a western model of protected area mangement, designating affected areas as national parks with strict enforcement by law. There are 16 protected areas covering 15.7 per cent of the land. Encroachment by local people has elicited stern action while no compensation was paid when wildlife damaged crops and killed cattle. While the most popular areas in Nepal are the lowland Terai and the middle hills. The fragile ecosystems of higher elevation are not immune to intensive exploitation. The Kanchenjunga area is no exception, and almost all members of local communities rely extensively on surrounding forest and pastureland.

Says Chandra Prasad Gurung the country representative of wwf Nepal programme, who was also instrumental in the creation of the participatory Annapoorna model in the 1980s, "For any conservation strategy to succeed the livelihood strategies must be incorporated into the management plan. acap addresses the problem of maintaining a crucial link between economic development and environmental conservation. Long term maintenance of biodiversity cannot be achieved without improving the economic conditions of the indigenous people. This approach calls for giving people responsibility in conserving biodiversity while empowering them to utilise the resources in a sustainable manner." kcap seeks to further explore and develop this participatory model of conservation.

Thus in 1998 a field station with a staff of 14 members was set up in the sherpa village of Lelep. With the repressive and iron-fisted management style of National Parks creating an atmosphere of fear and mistrust amongst Nepalis , the kcap team had a tough time initially. Facing the suspicion and hostility were Langkpa Sherpa and Lata Paudel the two young enthusiastic women community mobilisers from Lelep and Sunil Bhandari the administration officer. Convincing people about the role and meaning of the project proved to be more difficult than they imagined. "We had a tough time when we began. People were openly hostile as they were convinced that the area was going to be made into a National Park. People were scared that their access to forests would be stopped" says Langkpa.

If the local communities were openly hostile then jealous local government officials and other development agencies were not exactly helpful either. "At meetings with district level officials we had to face sarcastic comments like "You people don't need any help from us, you have your project money..." recounts Langkpa. Adds Sunil "Before we came in there were atleast 60 other ngo s working in this district. A hotbed of politics. Initially they were suspicious of wwf as a new entrant and reacted cautiously, either guarding their turfs or sought personal benefit". People of this impoverished land have traditionally been supporters of Left parties. The heat of local politics that often takes a violent turn forced kcap to withdraw for a while. Local district officials complain that they have not been informed about the plans. A meeting with Vijayraj Thebe the President of the district development committee reveals a lack of understanding of the projects objectives and a conflicting official approach to development plans for the region. "I have not been adequately informed about kcap activities" says he, while going on to add grandly "I think the area of the project should be increased. What we need is to build a large modern airport to increase capacity. That will help the economy of the region to grow".

Rangers and field programme officers are appointed by hmg . Having worked in other National Parks they bring with them their feudal attitudes. With a wry smile Sunil says "I must say they have certainly changed after being posted here." Working with communities has been a novel experience for them. "They admit defeat when dealing with ticklish, complex social problems of communities" chuckles Sunil. Even appearances are important and had to be changed. Bedbahadur Kharka, a ranger, confesses "I have begun wearing a printed shirt and not my green battle fatigues, something that people associate with National Park staff and the army." Agrees Bhim Bahadur Limbu the Village Development chairman of Tapethok a village within the conservation area. "Bringing the army here is a bad idea. Of course you always have thieves amongst us but to stop them only locals can do anything, right?".

Along with locals the wwf organised a clean up drive at the Kanchenjunga base camp. Eight rubbish pits were made to dispose off nearly 3,000 kilogrammes of garbage accumulated over 10 years. What could be burnt was incinerated on the spot, the rest of the non-biodegradable stuff was brought down. Sagarmatha (Everest) is the highest rubbish pit in the world. I hope Kanchenjunga doesn't become the third highest" comments Jenny Gurung a field officer with kcap .

The success of a participatory people based approach to any conservation management plan depends on the role of communities. The staff at kcap have their task cut out. Remote and isolated, this is a land where poverty and ecological and cultural decay, have taken their toll on people. Given a choice most would want to migrate. Many already have.
To encourage people an award was even constituted for the best conservation efforts by an individual. Numerous self help initiatives have been introduced by the project staff. Creating mothers groups, income generating activities, micro-credit schemes, reconstructing monasterys, building trails and improving bridges have been some such efforts. These efforts besides garnering support were also targetted to get people to understand that unlike National Parks this is a participatory project with a balancing of conservation and development priorities.

Yet, the kcap region faces a host of challenges. Largescale poverty, subsistence farming, large but ecologically fragile areas, lack of alternative sources of energy, overgrazing, high population growth, have complicated environmental issues. A slash-and-burn farming method with a diminishing rate of return has destroyed seed banks of high altitude forests. As it is these forests are difficult to regenerate. Villages at colder and higher elevations consume remarkable amounts of fuelwood. In Walangchung Gola roughly 40 kilogrammes of wood is consumed per day per household. Increased cardamom farming in this area, a recent phenomenon, has resulted in increased use of firewood used to dry the pods. Being avid trappers and hunters, hunting of wildlife by locals and outsiders goes on, though kcap staff believe that incidents of poaching have reduced because of their presence.

Kanchenjunga is at a crossroads today. Explains Chandra Prasad Gurung, of wwf Nepal, in the context of the acap experience "Politicians in Nepal need more conservation education otherwise short-term development gains might jeopardise long-term conservation issues. On the other hand ngo s alone cannot run a system. Their role is to strengthen the government.

In kcap the chief warden is appointed by His Majesty's Government ( hmg ). He is the boss and he is in charge. The dwnpc is in the driving seat, we are only playing a supporting role. This is a crucial experiment wherein for the first time hmg is implementing a protected area management strategy without using the military. It is a very challenging task. I am very excited about this and quite optimistic."

The unfolding kcap experiment will be a test case in protected area management between the state, civil society and local communities. In its success will lie lessons for all concerned with the question of ecological security of the subcontinent.

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