Nijgad’s green runwayThe path is open to declare a national park in the native forest where the airport would have been
In a landmark decision last week, the Supreme Court annulled the government’s dubious plan to build an airport by destroying Nijgad’s primary forest.
The written verdict is still due, but the ruling has opened a path to plot a green runway on which inter-generational equity, and new economic opportunities can take flight in Madhes Province.
Read also: Aborted landing in Nijgad, Editorial
Here is the path forward:
Tangiya Basti spreads over 1,000-hectares in Nijgad’s old-growth forest where families were temporarily settled in 1974-75. Its residents now span four generations, and are still waiting for the government to resettle them. In this wait, the settlement had transitioned from subsistence farming to full-fledged commercial agriculture. Some of the young men from here have become migrant workers in Korea. But the nearly 1,500 households, with a population of over 7,000, are still considered squatters on land that was going to be an airport.
Residents felt the airport project was their ticket out, and now think the Supreme Court's decision means the government may not feel the need to finally relocate them.
However, Tangiya Basti was settled 20 years before the first plan to locate the airport here was even made in 1995. The promise of resettlement was never tied to this, or any other project. Cancellation of the airport should therefore have no bearing on their resettlement. It would simply be the right thing to do, and in an election year it may even be a politically prudent one.
Once Tangiya Basti’s inhabitants are resettled, the land can be annexed back into the larger Nijgad forest that it was always a part of. This should be a planned undertaking, allowing the government and its conservation partners to address issues like protection of the wildlife corridors, the need for watering holes and wetlands, as well as mounds for flood protection.
Nepal has signed the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, unlocking up to $45 million to support the expansion of carbon sinks by increasing forest cover. Turning Tangiya Basti back into forest may also give Nepal the chance to tap into that fund before it expires in 2025, while exploring similar financial benefits from other emission reduction programs.
There should then be a parallel program to design and build multiple wildlife crossings over and under the East-West Highway that goes through Nijgad forest. A multi-year construction project of this kind would give the local economy a boost and reduce road kill.
Habitat fragmentation has become one of the leading causes of wildlife deaths along Nepal’s highways, and includes endangered species we have worked so hard to protect.
Bordering Parsa National Park and the Chure and Mahabharat Ranges, Nijgad is home to tigers, rhinos, pangolins, and an important regional migratory corridor for wild elephants and other animals. The wildlife crossings can serve as safe bio-corridors as well as a model for other conservation areas in the country.
Establishing a wildlife conservation and ecology research centre would also allow domestic and international conservationists and scholars to engage in Nijgad for fieldwork, as well as bring additional jobs and resources to locals.
The case can be made that Nijgad already qualifies to be a national park since it shares the same ecological qualities as adjoining Parsa. In fact, without one, it would be difficult to protect what remains of the forest. The case for a national park will be bolstered with the resettlement of Tangiya Basti, and building wildlife crossings.
Rhino deaths due to poaching have gone down in Nepal, but their deaths due to territorial fights have been increasing at an alarming rate. Rhino calves have also come under fatal attacks from the growing tiger population.
Territorial fights in crowded national parks, habitat fragmentation and toxic water sources are now among the leading causes of ‘natural’ deaths of endangered wildlife in Nepal. A Nijgad National Park with translocated rhinos would offer much needed new protection and territory for Nepal’s conservation efforts and sustainable development.
The controversy around the airport has worked to advertise Nijgad’s rich biodiversity, creating a growing interest among urban youth to explore the area. With a planned effort that involves reforestation, building of wildlife crossings, and a national park designation, Nijgad can easily become a popular eco-tourism destination that is as easily accessible as Chitwan through the Kathmandu-Tarai expressway.
Because the area is not yet prepared for this, we have a chance to build proper eco-tourism infrastructure and a service sector. The rise of Nijgad as a tourism destination would also have positive implications for the local real estate market, a matter of particular interest to the proponents of the airport project.
Making funds available to get work started should not be a problem. The government recently allocated a large budget for Nijgad airport. Since the airport will now not be built, those funds can surely help get work started to turn Nijgad into a national park, and put it firmly on the tourist map.
Development partners have already expressed keen interest to assist in this. Exactly a year ago on 3 June 2021, the Asian Development Bank, Australian Embassy, British Embassy, European Union, Finnish Embassy, French Embassy, German Embassy, United Nations and World Bank in Nepal issued a joint statement reiterating their commitment of up to $7.4 billion for Nepal’s ‘Green, Resilient and Inclusive Development’.
They raised pointed questions about the Nijgad airport plan, and wrote: ‘Forests are also the source of valuable natural resources and wildlife that support job creation and economic development in the forestry and tourism sectors.’
Thanks to the Supreme Court order, Madhes Province has an opportunity to pursue a path towards green growth, and set a new benchmark for Nepal’s development, conservation and economic growth.
Kashish Das Shrestha is a 2019 National Geographic Explorer and a sustainable development policy advocate. A version of this op-ed was presented to the Environment Minister Ramsahay Prasad Yadav this week by the youth environment group HarinNepal.