Devastated Nepal Cuts Funds for Environment

By Sanjaya Dhakal

KATHMANDU, Nepal, February 13, 2003 (ENS) - Although seven years of insurgency have destroyed Nepal's environment, triggering massive deforestation and a spurt in timber smuggling and rhino poaching, the cash strapped Nepalese government has slashed this year's environment budget by 14 percent.

Environment has been put on the back burner by the government in the fragile Himalayan nation. "Recently, the government made environment a low priority sector," said Purushottam Prasad Tiwari, spokesperson at the Ministry of Population and Environment (MOPE). According to him, the government had decided to stop financing new environment programs, diverting the budget originally earmarked for environment to worker salaries and other overhead costs.

This year's total budget allocation to MOPE is approximately US$670,087 - down by 14 percent from last year. Less than half of the funds are slotted for environment conservation programs in the region. The bulk of the funds will be utilized for population control.


One-horned rhino in Royal Chitwan National Park (Photo credit unknown)
Although no formal assessment has been made linking the direct impact of insurgency on environmental degradation, examples abound. Apart from deforestation, timber smuggling and poaching of the endangered one-horned rhino, rampant exploitation of herbal resources and the diversion of personnel from environment protection to security operations are some of the fallouts of the prolonged conflict.

In the last couple of years, thousands of officials and workers of the forest department - rangers, foresters and others - have ceased patrolling due to the fear of encountering the rebels. Dr. Tirtha Man Maskey, spokesperson for the Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation, said, "It is true that many rangers and foresters abandoned their fields to migrate to district headquarters or city areas out of fear."

With most rebel hideouts based in forests, forest officials were forced to flee, leaving precious natural resources to their fate. "This vacuum was fully exploited by smugglers and some unscrupulous local residents," confessed a forest department official.

The devastation of natural resources was unimaginable. According to Maskey, Maoists have destroyed 271 offices of the forest department including district level offices, area posts and training centers, apart from nine offices of national parks. Scores of rangers and other officials survived physical threats from rebels, while there was a sharp rise in deforestation in the past two years.


Ranger patrols Royal Chitwan National Park, 1994. (Photo by Rainer Stalvik)
"It's only natural that deforestation and rampant axing of forests has accelerated due to the inability of forest officials to travel in the field," said Megh Nath Kaphley, a ranger working at a district office in Nepal's central Lalitpur district, adjoining the capital Kathmandu. Kaphley expressed his helplessness in guarding 12,000 hectares of forests here.

The situation in remote regions where the Maoists hold sway is anybody's guess.

"Exploiting the lax security, smugglers too have stepped up their activities," said Kaphley, blaming this on the fact that "the system of registering complaints and launching investigations has been severely hampered by the troubled situation."

In the first week of February, there were reports of massive tree felling in forests surrounding Durbani in the east Nepal district of Bara. Matters worsened to the extent that the Maoists themselves began battling smugglers.

In the remote Dhorpatan hunting reserve in west Nepal, which straddles three districts, one of which was the hub of Maoist activities, rebels destroyed the office, forcing officials to flee to the district headquarters.

Officials said the activities of smugglers have multiplied manifold since security forces evacuated the reserve.


Hammer and sickle marks the end of Maoist territory between Dhorpatan and Sahartara. (Photo by James Milne)
The Dhorpatan reserve is famed for precious herbal resources like Yarsa gumba, known for its aphrodisiac qualities, among other medicinal plants. It is also home to endangered animals like the snow leopard, musk deer and red bear.

It is reported that the celebrated one-horned rhino, pride of the famous Royal Chitwan National Park in western Nepal, has fallen prey to poachers since the Nepal government's declaration of emergency in 2001.

Reports said the rise in poaching could be blamed on the reduction in Army forces earlier stationed in the park. But Colonel Deepak Gurung, director of public relations in the Royal Nepalese Army, said the number of Army posts within the RCNP has dived from 40 to 10. Denying this had resulted in an increase in poaching, he said, "Eighteen rhinos have died since April/March 2002, but most died of natural causes, with only nine falling prey to poachers."

According to a security official, Maoists are using the impenetrable forest as cover for training sessions and other activities. "Many groups of Maoists live in the forests, so they often cut down trees to light fires, and end up polluting water sources of nearby villages as well," complained an environmentalist.

The prolonged insurgency has indirectly impacted the environment as well. According to the nongovernmental organization Clean Energy Nepal, Bhushan Tuladhar, the migration from villages to cities of rural residents who leave their fields uncultivated and barren, has triggered uncontrolled soil erosion. "These locals were, in a sense, guardians of the environment, managing and protecting natural resources," the group says.

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