Fight or FlightAfter 7 years and 3 prime ministers, Nepal is preparing to log Nijgad Forest to build another unwanted airport
Few ‘development’ projects have been as controversial in recent years as the proposed Nijgad International Airport (NIA), set to be built by logging thousands of hectares of forest.
Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli as Prime Minister revived the project in 2017 as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to catapult Nepal’s economic development. Experts, researchers and activists who questioned the destruction of a valuable transboundary ecology were trolled on social media as being ‘anti-development’.
In the years since, Nepal has been rocked by a never-ending series of corruption scandals involving top politicians and corporate houses. Two much-hyped new international airports in Bhairawa and Pokhara built at great cost were inaugurated amidst much fanfare, and have turned out to be white elephants.
At a time when Nepal’s economy is in crisis, the NIA project has been exposed as being a multi-billion dollar heist by a cross-party alliance. Despite increasingly vocal public opposition to the project, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal has said ‘site clearance’, which means logging the forest, will be completed this fiscal year. Tourism Minister Sudan Kirati is following through.
Nepal was never supposed to build the NIA on its own. It was designed as a BOOT (Build, Own, Operate, and Transfer) model, in which an international group would manage it for 25 years before transferring it to Nepal.
Earlier government efforts at site clearance had been halted by the Supreme Court until an agreement with a developer was secured. In 2020, the tourism minister under the UML, Yogesh Bhattarai, announced that such a developer had been secured.
However, this was a boldfaced lie that was exposed in an exclusive report in this paper. The minister was confronted about who was to build the airport, but there was no answer. Nepal’s political establishment then declared that the government would build it on its own, and committed $3.5 billion to a ghost airport.
A litigation around the project’s Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), which turned out to be a copy and paste job from a hydro power project, lingered.
Nijgad is not an airport project, it is a scam to log thousands of hectares of hardwood forests. Even as an airport, it presents risks to the economy, ecology, food and water security.
Nepal’s bickering politicians are all united in this delusional project, and the basis for them to do so rests on a May 2022 Supreme Court decision on a public interest litigation on the EIA. The Court voided all previous plans and instructed the government to start the process anew, re-examine where the airport should be built, and conduct a new EIA.
Prime Minister Deuba’s government immediately hosted a high profile event in Nijgad to reaffirm commitment to NIA and commissioned a panel to study where the airport should be built. The panel immediately concluded it should be built as originally planned in Nijgad Forest.
How did the committee come to that conclusion so fast? Not surprisingly, the panel was led by Birendra Bahadur Deoja, author of a 2019 paper ‘Need for Nijgadh International Airport for Accelerated Development of Nepal’.
The panel’s development planning expert was Surya Raj Acharya, a longtime vigorous advocate for NIA. Rameshore Khanal, the influential former finance secretary, had tweeted after the initial Court ruling: ‘No matter how much we argue, building of Nijgad Airport is the only (satisfactory) ending’.
The panel did not have any expert on wildlife biology, Tarai and sal forest ecology, food and water security. Yet it quickly concluded Nijgad should be logged out with consequences for the ecology of the entire floodplain farm and forest region, and the last remaining native forest of the eastern Tarai be destroyed for an airport with no developer, financier or planned user.
The Deuba government used the Supreme Court decision to create a pro-Nijgad panel and give the impression it was following due process.
- Based on explicit bias and lack of expertise, the panel and its findings must be voided. Nepal’s development partners must challenge the government in meetings, by public interest litigation in court, and civil society in media and on other public platforms. The new EIA must be made public.
- Two brand new international airports are barely functioning. The government must provide the public and Parliament a cost benefit analysis of NIA that meets the highest levels of international scrutiny. It must list the committed developers, financiers and users, and prove Nepal’s right to use neighbouring airspace. Site clearance cannot begin until this process is complete.
- In 2021, a statement demanding accountability on NIA was drafted and signed by 11 of Nepal’s development partners: Asian Development Bank, the United Nations, the World Bank and the Australian, British, Finnish, French and German Embassies. These organisations must now revisit their statement and find pressure points to compel the government to rethink its effort to bulldoze the project through. After all, they have committed $3.2 billion to Nepal’s Green, Resilient and Inclusive Development (GRID) initiative. Now, the Americans must join the call since it is in line with the Biden White House’s position and the work of its Climate Envoy John Kerry. The US Embassy and USAID have invested in Nepal’s conservation, accountability, and food security. Considering this is a transboundary ecological issue, it is also time for ICIMOD to engage.
- Nepal has signed many international commitments on conservation, climate and sustainable development. These must be examined to assess the ecological implications of logging Nijgad Forest. Nepal has already disregarded NIA’s impact on the Tarai Arc Landscape under the World Bank’s REDD Emission Reductions Program. Violations to these agreements must inform public policy and the international funding discourse.
- The proposal to make Nijgad a conservation area that I proposed in this paper last year must become a part of the public and policy discourse. Hemanta Mishra, Nepal’s pioneer conservationist said of that proposal: ‘The implementation of this concept would create a solid and continuous belt of a very high ecological and environment significance ecological site and a continuous belt of indigenous forest (and a carbon sink) all the way from Bara to Parsa and Chitwan to the Northern Banks and the Islands of Narayani in Nawalpur.’ It would also help Nepal’s economy while offering construction contracts for research facilities and wildlife crossings. Resettling the Tangiya Basti community, promised for a long time by state, should happen regardless of NIA.
For 7 years, Nepal’s political establishment has ignored activists, experts, media and the Supreme Court in a single-minded pursuit to log a pristine jungle for a project of dubious economic viability.
It has ignored an unprecedented statement signed by a large and important bloc of the international community. This defiance is a direct result of Nepal’s culture of impunity in which top politicians face no personal or political consequences for abuse of authority.
Nepal is on the verge of witnessing its greatest organised eco-crime led by the highest political powers in the land. The implications will reverberate beyond Nepal’s borders. Pushing this economically and ecologically suicidal plan during a climate emergency and economic crisis will push Nepal towards a failed state.
Sadly, Nepal’s rulers are not on Nepal’s side.
Kashish Das Shrestha is a 2019 National Geographic Explorer, and an environmental activist campaigning against NIA.