15 June, 2012

Nepal: Local resources being exploited by corporate interests

In Nepal, the government has supported a community forestry model that has been very successful in giving rights to local communities to manage their own forests. This, however, doesn’t protect the community from private companies, especially giant Indian companies which sell herbal medicines, from entering their forests and simply picking and leaving with kilograms of precious herbs and medicinal botanical materials which they are not compensated for. “People come and pick jari-buti (medicinal herbs) in the forests and leave with basketloads-we have no idea what they are taking,” one woman told me.

The other trend has been for private companies to enter communities and offer a token amount of money, for which the community then sells its entire forest for timber, or for furniture industries. A case like this was reported from the Terai, in Southern Nepal, which is close to the Indian border and whose forests have decreased severely in the past  decade due to rapacious exploitation by private Indian companies.

When the exchange rates between different countries are so unequal, it is impossible for poorer communities to hold on to their resources with any degree of long term stability, especially in a rapidly globalizing world where money reigns supreme. In Kathmandu, for instance, where there were very few landless people in the past, the trend for farmers to sell their land to big land developers is on the rise. Once the land is sold, however, most people end up landless and in poverty, trying to eke out a living from small jobs like taxi-driving which often do not meet their daily needs.

Water is another resource being exploited by giant companies.In 1998, I went to Lele to make a documentary about water. Lele is a community close to Kathmandu, and people there were selling their spring water to a water bottling company for a paltry fee of Rs.1000 (around $15). This sort of unequal exchange shows the ways in which local communities are not able to negotiate a fair price for their resources, even when they know that they are getting a bad deal.  A strong community, governed by more than a few elite individuals, is necessary in order to forestall such unequal sales of resources.

In order to protect communities from the temptation of selling their entire land, water and other resource to one big buyer,  it is important for governments to set restrictions on what  can and cannot be sold. In addition, there has to be fair prices set on everything from water, forestry products, to land. And in addition, governments of small countries like Nepal (and small countries in Africa, which are seeing similar issues)  must have restrictions which stop private businesses to come in and speculate in land and water. The sale of forestry products must be regulated by the government and local communities, and cannot surpass an unsustainable and unrenewable threshold.