Empowering Nepalis during Covid-19 crisis

Dev Narayan Mandal, pictured here with a tree sapling. All Photos: DEV NARAYAN MANDAL

What started out as a wildlife conservation initiative in the Tarai has repurposed itself during Nepal’s wildfire and pandemic crises, setting an example for other communities on ways to bounce back.

While most development projects in Nepal ground to a halt during the lockdown, the Dhanushadham Protected Forest (DPF) generates employment for the most under-served groups by providing work instead of relief. With catalytic help, it has moved beyond just saving trees to upgrading health services, local schools, and creating jobs.

Just as in last year’s lockdown, the DPF is mobilising the local community in Dhanusha during the second wave to pit, irrigate and prepare 32 hectares of the local Bhatighari forest for planting saplings before the monsoon. In the process, families get income at a time when many have lost their jobs during the lockdown.

The District Forest Office provided saplings of 22 native species, and the community offered jobs to the Dom, Dalit and Musahar families. As in last year’s crisis, nearly 30,000 people are expected to benefit from temporary employment in preparing degraded land for afforestation.

“The marginalised castes generally lack permanent homes and proof of citizenship, so they are  deprived of government relief which is based on voter registration lists,” explains activist Dev Narayan Mandal of the Mithila Wildlife Trust in Dhanusha District who leads the program. “Our reforestation program aims to help them with income during the crisis.”

During the wildfire season in March-April, locals mobilised themselves in emergency fire-fighting, dousing the flames to protect the 360 hectares of the DPF. Mandal’s long-term hope after the pandemic is to turn the conservation area into an eco-tourism destination for some of the thousands of pilgrims who throng to Janakpur, and provide sustainable income for the families living on the margins.

Since the forests were restored, many of the migratory species of birds like Siberian white cranes have returned, as have wild elephants, sloth bears, hyenas, wild dogs, blue bulls, tortoises, snakes, spotted leopards.

Mandal has a post-graduate degree in Environment and Sustainable Development and returned to Nepal in 2012 after working for ten years in Delhi, and was shocked to see that the dense hardwood forests along the Chure foothills that he remembered from his childhood were all gone. With it, the wildlife had disappeared, there was water scarcity and other environmental problems.

Mandal set up the Mithila Wildlife Trust and adopted the Dhanushadham forest to prove that protecting nature can also uplift the socio-economic status of communities suffering exclusion due to caste, and empower them with self-sufficiency and dignity.

Mandal used his reputation as Nepal’s first snake rescuer to garner attention in the media, raise money through interaction programs for this plans to protect Dhanushadham not just to restore nature but to help communities traditionally neglected by society.

“When I returned from India, the forest was so thin I could see through the trees to the other side,” Mandal recalls. “There was encroachment from north and south, illegal logging, wildlife poaching, overgrazing.”

Mandal was able to convince local communities about the long-term benefits of conservation, and they excitedly rallied behind his Mithila Wildlife Trust, helping DPF become free from illegal felling and open grazing. The Trust set up a micro-finance scheme to support families who had till then relied on timber poaching.

“In over seven years we have not even had a single branch cut,” says Mandal proudly. “All this was done hundred percent by the locals, who were not paid anything. While timber smuggling benefitted only 3% of the local population, sustainable development rewards everyone equally. This got the locals on board.”

However, the pandemic threw the eco-tourism prospects in doubt, and local communities needed immediate help to cope with job losses. Mandal raised money from the UK-based Gemma and Chris McGough Charitable Foundation and The Pipal Tree non-profit for a Covid Disaster and Food Relief Challenge to restore another 32 hectares of forests starting June and provide income for those affected by the Covid-19 second wave.

The Department of Forestry chipped in with 29,000 saplings, and with help from the Community Forest User Group (CFUG), the results were so encouraging that the McGough Foundation pledged more money to protect another 12 hectares of forest. Locals are paid for scrub clearance, pitting, planting and irrigating saplings. And the same communities that sprang into action when forest fires swept through the Chure in early April, and they saved the recently reforested areas.

The Mithila Wildlife Trust has come a long way, and has moved far beyond protecting wildlife to help with the education of the local Muslim and Dalit communities. The CFUG Chair is now also heading the local school management community to upgrade classrooms to keep in step with remote learning until schools reopen again.

The success of the Dhanushadham Protected Forest cannot just be measured in money, the regenerated area now serves as an important wildlife corridor between the Tarai, the Chure foothills and beyond. Species displaced by human-animal conflict, like wild elephants, can now return to their original habitats.

Mandal says it gives him a sense of fulfilment to see how just the act of saving trees has had such a wide ripple effect on society. He says, “As the communities become more self-reliant and educated, they are more empowered, and the child marriage rate, school dropout rate, alcoholism, domestic violence, have all fallen sharply.”

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