Nepal must save Nijgad Forest to receive climate funds

As the 4th most vulnerable country in the world to the impact of the climate crisis, Nepal has emerged as a bellwether at international climate and conservation events.

Outside of the poles, the Himalaya is the largest storehouse of fresh water, and the mountains are one of the most biologically-diverse regions on Earth.

Nepal is a compelling story for international development partners who have invested vast resources into its conservation effort for decades, and not without some success.

But how accountable are these partners if their resources are awarded to the very actors perpetuating the ecological disasters that their funds are meant to prevent?

Nepal entered 2021 with a winter drought that resulted in barren mountains and raging wildfires. In February it saw high profile donor-funded events, including a visit by the British MP and President of COP26, Alok Sharma, who announced a combined $7.4 billion Green Recovery Support package for Nepal.

However, none of the donors seemed concerned that the  government plans to clear-cut Nijgad Forest, the last remaining tract of native hardwood jungle in Nepal’s eastern plains.

The forest is a corridor for nature areas in India and Nepal and is home to tigers, rhinos, elephants and pangolins. To understand the importance of Nijgad Forest, one simply has to read the detailed documents Nepal has submitted to agencies like UKAid, USAID and World Bank to qualify for funding that goes into protecting forests and endangered species.

The government and the international community already agree that destroying Nijgad Forest would be devastating for Nepal.

Yet, as Nepal’s political leadership openly pushes plans to clear-cut Nijgad, the international community is set to award it with additional billions of dollars and a massive green-washing opportunity.

It is to address this devastating contradiction that today I am launching the campaign, and demand that Nepal’s development partners condition conservation aid on the government’s commitment to protecting Nijgad Forest by the time COP26 Climate Summit takes place in Glasgow in November.

The Nepal government's plan to build an international airport by logging Nijgad's trees amounts to perhaps the largest organised ecological crime in the country in recent times. It is enormous in scale, audacity and the amount of money that will change hands.

For most of 2020, Nepal’s Cabinet cited an agreement with Zurich Airport International as the justification to start chopping down trees worth millions of dollars even though no such agreement existed. (See 18 September, 2020).

In May, the former Minister of Civil Aviation and Tourism Yogesh Bhattarai invoked that imaginary agreement to defy a standing Supreme Court order that barred cutting of any trees for the project. He ordered the felling of 4,000 trees, and in September announced plans to cut down tens of thousands more by end-2020.

At the same time, Prime Minister Oli was boasting about his government’s commitment to forest conservation to world leaders at the UN General Assembly. Nepal will make similar declarations at COP26.

The $3.5 billion airport has never had a financier, developer or an airline that plans to use it. What the erstwhile Nepal Communist Party was steadfast on, instead, was to expedite the logging of more than two million trees estimated to be worth over $500 million, and ignoring all local protests, experts, court orders, and the government’s own regulations in doing so.

The issue of accountability also touches the country offices and headquarters of Nepal’s development partners, as well as taxpayers back home whose funds are going to projects led by bad actors dishonest in their intentions.

Why is Nepal being given unconditional financial assistance to conserve the Tarai Arc Landscape (TAL) and Chure regions while the country's political leadership is actively working to destroy both the TAL and Chure?

How did the World Bank sign an agreement to make $45 million available to Nepal till 2025 for Emission Reduction based on TAL, when the government is planning to clear over 8,000 hectares of forest in the Tarai? Additionally, all of TAL is open indefinitely for petroleum exploration, and China is already drilling there.

International funding needs to be accountable, otherwise it is not only futile but also reckless. Even without a global climate crisis, deforesting Nijgad would unleash ecological havoc in the region.

Deforestation of this fragile landscape will make floods deadlier, affect water resources, increase human-wildlife conflict, harm the TAL and Chure conservation areas, disrupt trans-boundary ecosystem services, cause inter-generational climate injustice, disregard social equity, and remove a major carbon sink.

In short, it would result in the exact opposite of Nepal’s commitments in writing and in proclamations at past international climate and conservation conferences for which it is receiving billions of dollars.

Nepal’s political leaders know from experience they can ignore local opposition without consequences for ecological crimes. Receiving a $7.4 billion ‘green fund’ from the international community without having to prove accountability would embolden these leaders, and give them the confidence that they can also get away with it internationally.

The US and UK embassies in Kathmandu, the World Bank and World Wildlife Fund must demonstrate and demand accountability, and work to save Nijgad before COP26 as proof of their shared commitment.

Join in making this demand.

Kashish Das Shrestha is heading the Save Nijgad by COP26 campaign at @SaveNijgadh. He is a 2019 National Geographic Explorer and a former adviser to Parliament’s Natural Resources and Means Committee and Water and Energy Committee.