In part 1, I described the fantastic time we had on our jungle excursions. In this part, the focus is on the surroundings – the villagers, their livelihoods and interactions with the national park.
Wood enough for another day; an elderly woman on the way back home from the forest.
We arrived at our hotel (The Hermitage) by the river in Sauhara at about 1.00pm and after a bit of time to get settled, set off for a visit to the elephant breeding centre, with a tour of a local, tribal village, en route . I have to say that I didn’t expect much from the tribal visit, but the histories described by our guide, the ever patient Mara who acted as our jungle guide the following day (see part 1) made it a bit special.
Cattle being driven home in the evening, to the safety of the village.
Villagers ploughing the rice paddies by hand, ready for the rains – the distant hut a nighttime lookout for marauding rhinos.
Drawing water from a household pump.
Buildings in the village – note the transition from mud, dung and thatch, to concrete block and tin roof. Sad, one might think, but the thatch has to be replaced every year and mud-walls rebuilt every three – a tough job.
Before the 1950s, the Chitwan wilderness spread across a vastly larger area; home to tribal forest people who are collectively known as Tharus. With a peculiar genetic resistance to malaria and other insect borne diseases, they claimed virtually exclusive rights over this part of the Terai (the Nepalese lowlands). Here, for centuries, they maintained a physically demanding but independent life based on a shifting cultivation of rice and other grain crops, supplemented by hunting, fishing and gathering the fruits of the forest, right up to the 1950s. However, elsewhere in Nepal, since the 19th Century, as non-Hindu tribals, the entire Tharu nation was consigned to low-caste exploitation by the ruling Nepalese in Kathmandu. They lost land and other rights to become a source of bonded labour, a practice only outlawed in 2000. In the meantime, in the 1950s, the Nepalese government embarked on a campaign to eradicate malaria from the area. Though Mara is only in his mid-30’s, as a Tharu himself, he vividly described how the government sent in inspectors to spray the area every two weeks for over ten years. Though we could not use such insecticides today, the fact is that the Chitwan has been malaria free since the 1960s.
two month’s supply for cooking, gathered by hand, the old way.
A replacement for forest-wood? Gas from manure deposited in the covered pit in the foreground, is piped into the houses for cooking through the year.
But that, of course, has cost the Tharu dear. No longer threatened by this mosquito born disease, and attracted by the fertile soils of this wide valley area, hundreds of thousands of Nepalese and Indian peasants flooded into the area, converting much of the former wilderness into productive farm-land. Given their low-caste status, many more Tharu were pushed out of their old villages in this process and became increasingly marginalised in a fast evolving society.
Happily, since the turn of this century and the end of the civil war, Tharu rights have been improved and the survival of their village culture in places like the Chitwan has at least been respected in managing the park. Thus, while the villagers are no longer allowed to hunt in the park on the scale they once did, some individuals retain grazing rights for cattle and buffalo, while others are still permitted an annual quota of wood for firewood, at least for now. Hopefully, the flow of tourist dollars and government grants will continue, allowing the Tharu to move to more Chitwan friendly fuel supplies (either electricity or the natural gas production referred to in my picture) and to better paid activities in the burgeoning tourist industry.
River, man, fish – a 10,000 year old story.
Which reminds me of something which my host, Norden, in Kalimpong said, concerning his own conservation efforts. “We started out wanting to preserve this unique habitat [the Teesta river and surrounding hills and mountains] but after a while we realised that we couldn’t solve the environmental issues, if we didn’t solve the people issues, first”. And chief amongst those issues is overpopulation and its effects. For the moment, the Chitwan is being maintained by a close cooperation between the government and the local community, both aided by tourist and overseas dollars. But stories we heard from locals suggest that other areas in both Nepal and India are still suffering rapid loss of habitat to the pressures of population and farming. Nepal has one of the highest population growth rates in the world. Yet, this remains the least discussed issue on the environmental agenda; the one that no one seems to dare talk about. The Chitwan and the traditional ways of the Tharu seem safe for now, but for how long?