No excuses for Nepal

Forest and Farm in Surkhet, western Nepal. Photo: Kashish Das Shrestha.

Forest and Farm in Surkhet, western Nepal. Photo: Kashish Das Shrestha.

It’s been sometime since the World Environment Day was established on June 5, 1972. For many in Nepal, a more recent environment mega event maybe the COP15 Climate Conference of 2009.

The lead-up to that conference created a renaissance of sorts for the green movement in many ways – media coverage, a new crop of passionate youth army, way too much donor funds, and a series of events. But COP15 came to a sputtering end with no real consensus.

Then came Cancun in Mexico last year, and next week a meeting in Bonn, Germany, in the lead-up to the talks in Durban, South Africa, in December.

The world, as we know it, may decide to wait some more, but I’m pretty sure Planet Earth, as it is, can’t afford to. After all, CO2 emissions levels are up, and some reports indicate investment in renewable clean energy might slump, if not stagnate, at current levels while more crude oil and natural gas gets pumped out of this earth in the coming decades.

If there’s a takeaway here, it’s that waiting on an international accord of some sort to take action is a futile effort.

Not just because developed western nations can’t get their act together, which they seemingly can’t, placing politics and business over science. And not entirely because developing countries themselves have different positions on the matter, which we do.

It’s also high time that we ended the ‘development’ versus ‘conservation’ debate. In 2008, I asked Dr. Baburam Bhattarai (CPN-Maoist), at the time Nepal’s finance minister, about this and he expressed a similar view, going as far as to describe climate change as an “imperialistic, anti-development” agenda.

In 2009, I listened to Members of Parliament from various political parties who sat in on a Parliamentary Hearing on Climate Change express similar concerns.

In 2010, when I interviewed the Energy Minister Prakash Sharan Mahat (Nepali Congress), he argued that environmental laws needed to be relaxed in order to develop transmission infrastructure through national parks, a situation unfolding in the Chitwan National Park area, as we spoke.

He also questioned the impact climate change would have on Nepal’s rivers and their hydropower generating capacity.

Maybe Minister Bhattarai, dressed in a fine suit, felt the need to express his ideology as he sat in the Nepali Ambassador’s residence in Washington DC after meeting his counterparts from all over the world, as well as at least one major private investor in hydropower privately.

Maybe the Parliamentarians in Kathmandu were just uncertain about the subject. Maybe Minister Mahat, whose job description involved selling hydropower projects, was just covering his base. Maybe these are just excuses I’m making on behalf of people who had vested interests in what they were saying publicly.

On World Environment Day 2009, Parliamentarian Gagan Thapa (Nepali Congress,), who is also a member of the Constituent Assembly’s Fundamental Rights Committee, and I had co-authored an essay in which we wrote, “With the Constitution as the legal framework, Nepal must work towards sustainable socio-economic development agendas.

Climate change is an intergenerational problem and our constitution an intergenerational guideline. If we draft a constitution that fails to address the most pressing problems of the coming decades, we will all have failed in our task.”

We went on to propose: “Domestically, we require a renewed and urgent sense of understanding of the relationship between social justice, development and environmental sustainability. Multilaterally, we need an unflinching commitment from countries that have actually contributed the most to creating this problem to help us deal with it.”

That may have been written two years ago but they resonate as clearly today as they did at the time of its original publication.

Blaming the world isn’t enough:
The Himalayan glaciers are absolutely melting because of global warming with which Nepal might have had very little to do with. But it isn’t the industrialized world’s fault that we continue, to this day, to sign international treaties and make deals with foreign parties who consistently erode our control over our river water management.

Yes, farmers all over the world are increasingly suffering because weather patterns are being affected by climate change, and we risk entering an era of perpetual food crisis. This will only make things worse for Nepal’s predominantly subsistence farmers whose primary source of irrigation remains rain.

But who allowed expired chemical fertilizers to penetrate the market, then our farmlands and food? Under whose watch did Nepali farmers end up with Genetically Modified (GM) corn seeds that produced no corn? Who helped plot yesterday’s rice fields into tomorrow’s gated communities?

Forest-Nature at Your Service: 
Today, nowhere is Nepal’s self induced unsustainability more visible than perhaps in our forests.

Traveling through parts of western Nepal with the Parliamentary Committee on Natural Resources and Mean’s Sub Committee on Forest last year, it was revealing to witness and hear about the profound degree of shared corruption between government officials and Community Forest User Groups, and realize that we had hacked away decades of conservation efforts in matter of years.

At what cost? Experts are already worried that deforestation in Nepal could lead to vast erosion´s deadlier flood effects, depletion of ground water tables, drying up of wetlands.

The industrial revolution of the developed countries, or China and India’s greenhouse gas emissions, are not responsible for this domestic climate catastrophe in the making.

This one’s all ours, too. The Forest is very much nature at our service, and we very much at nature’s disservice.

So it is time we edit the narrative in Nepal. This isn’t about development versus conservation. This is certainly beyond paying the price for the deeds of the developed world and asking them to pay back now.

This is very much about Nepal needing to take the initiative for its own sake if nothing else, regardless of what international policies and politics about climate change may be. There are no excuses for Nepal’s inaction, no cloaks of international disaccord to hide under. The Nepali people cannot afford anything less than urgent committed action.

Originally published (June 3, 2011) in the author’s column Of This Earth in Republica national daily’s weekend edition, The Week.