7-13 June 2013 #659

The economy needs oxygen

Recent history shows that authoritarians have been the main enemies of the environment

World Environment Day this week was marked by various officials giving officious speeches, there was lots of energy expended to declare that we should use less energy. Every year on 5 June, we are told that it’s too late for words and time for action.

This year’s environment day came and went with the continued plunder of the Chure Hills, the boulevard of stately jacarandas on the Ring Road, the mining of sand and boulders from the Indrawati and Trisuli rivers to feed Kathmandu’s voracious appetite for construction material, and far away from the media spotlight poor border villagers from Taplejung, Rasuwa to Gorkha continued to axe forests to take timber to Tibet and barter it for liquor.

The poor who are given no other choice pose a danger to the global environment, but a much greater threat comes from the wasteful extravagance of the rich. The shifting cultivator in Olangchungola burns forests and sells timber across the border to survive. But it is the unsustainable lifestyle of urbanites that has a greater impact on the environment. Add to that greed and graft that drive illegal logging, river sand mining, the plunder of boulders from rivers, the wholesale destruction of the Siwalik range, and Earth doesn’t stand a chance.

As we have said on previous environment days in this space, ecology dovetails with economy which in turn is determined by politics. The mismanagement of hydropower in this country, the growing addiction to fossil fuels, the loot of our natural resources by the rich and powerful are all indications of rotting politics. The air, water, and soil are ravaged when politics loses its way, governance fails, and there is neither rule of law or accountability.

It is not surprising that Nepal lost most of its forest cover under dictatorship. The hardwood jungles of the Tarai were decimated to finance a referendum in 1980, the results of which were used to smother democracy and perpetuate an authoritarian monarchy. It was under decentralised local self-governance post-1990 that Nepal’s community forests thrived. Is it perhaps something to do with the election symbol of the Nepali Congress being a tree that successive authoritarians have been so intolerant of greenery?

Kathmandu’s street eucalyptuses were mowed down in 2006 for security reasons, but that didn’t save king Gyanendra. After the strict censorship that followed the royal-military coup d’etat on 1 February 2005, we wrote a metaphorical editorial lamenting the chopping down of trees in the capital, linking it to the dismemberment of democracy and open society. And it is now, under an unelected “technocratic” government that by its own admission is “answerable to no one but the people who installed it in office”, that the trees along the Ring Road are being needlessly cut in the name of road-widening.

But what happens in Kathmandu is just the visible tip of the proverbial iceberg. With no local elections and grassroots democracy and no obligation to the public interest, many forest user groups have been infiltrated by criminalised politicians. In the Tarai and now increasingly in the hills, forests that took communities a generation to protect and nurture are being mercilessly cut.

The Tarai forests are nearly all gone except for what remains within national parks and the rot is spreading to the Chure hills along the Himalayan arc from Jhapa to Kanchanpur. The Chure is different from the Mahabharat range, it is the first wrinkle of the Himalaya and is made up of sand and boulders with very little top soil. Once its Shorea robusta forest cover is gone, the Chure literally dissolves during the monsoon. This has enormous implications for sedimentation, floods, and water supply in the plains directly below.

Reforestation on World Environment Day will help, replanting jacarandas on the Ring Road will restore a ravaged urban landscape. But ultimately, for green growth and long-term equitable prosperity, the only path is accountable, democratic governance.

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