Nepali Times
The more things change...


Nepal Airlines, the Nepal Army and our embassies abroad were stripped of their 'royal' prefixes after April 2006. Even the conservation group, King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation, was not spared. It had 'King Mahendra' lopped off last year.

But the change is not just in the name. The Maoists have replaced the Trust's former royal patrons and turned Nepal's best-known conservation foundation into a recruitment centre. Instead of crown prince Paras, the Trust is now headed by the prime minister with the Maoist Minister of Forest and Soil Conservation, Matrika Yadav, as ex-officio chair.

After the Maoists joined the government, they bargained hard to keep Yadav as forest minister. He appointed a new governing board in which almost no one has any conservation experience to oversee pioneering eco-tourism initiatives like the Annapurna Area Conservation Project.

Maoist-appointed member secretary Bimal Kumar Baniya says the new board is more inclusive. "We have members representing women, Madhes and indigenous communities," Baniya told Nepali Times.

Manu Humagain, one of the women trustees is a Maoist actually contesting the elections from Kathmandu-3. She is also in a probe committee set up by Yadav to investigate Trust's financial irregularities during its royal days.

Capt Man Bahadur Gurung and Karma Gurung represent indigenous people, but no one in the environment field has heard of them. Dharmendra Karn, a media representative in the board, is not even known in journalist circles. Only Basundhara Bhattarai is a conservationist.

Baniya says re-staffing was carried out to "enhance efficiency". But he admitted some of those hired were children of "martyrs" and Dalits. He said there is continuity in the Trust's work and it has reopened offices in the Annapurna and Manaslu areas that were closed during the war.

But former employees say field staff in Bhujung, Sikles, Ghandruk in the Annapurnas are Maoist cadre. Staff are demoralised because they have been appointed over people with years of conservation experience. There is no one from the technical management team to look after forestry and ecology, sections that earlier had seven staff. There is no conservation officer in the Manaslu conservation area after a dedicated officer was replaced with someone his junior.

All this has impacted on the Trust's funding. Only three previously funded projects are left: a rhino conservation scheme under the Darwin Initiative of the Zoological Society of London, a Bagmati River Ecosystem Conservation Project funded by UNEP and the Regional Rangeland Program in Upper Mustang supported by ICIMOD.

The Trust's chapters in Japan and Germany did not participate in two successive board meetings, while the Germans have officially withdrawn partnership. The Canadians were planning to support an integrated conservation project, but have lost interest.

But Baniya doesn't seem to be bothered. "I am not in the least worried about finding donors, they will come," he told us.

Some insiders say the reason for Baniya's confidence comes from the Chinese who see Maoist control over the Trust as a way to monitor the activities of American groups involved in restoring monasteries in sensitive regions like Mustang.

Royals did it too


A secret internal report has listed numerous instances of lavish spending on foreign travel, expensive parties and unaccounted spending in the past 10 years when the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation was headed by Gyanendra and his son Paras.

The exhaustive report goes into meticulous details like, for example, how Rs 5.8 million worth of computers, cars, and other Trust equipment are still being used by the palace. The Trust spent Rs 1.35 million just on alcohol in the period between 1998-2005, made undocumented transfers to banks in Singapore and unauthorised credit card expenses.

"The Trust earned a name in conservation work, but we found that it also spent a lot of money on entertainment for palace cronies," said Ekraj Bhandari, a lawyer in the probe committee. The inquiry is chaired by the Trust's new Maoist-installed member of the board of governors, Muna Humagain.

In addition, millions were advanced to the royal family for, among others, trips to England for Queen Komal's check-up, Gyanendra's foreign visits and Paras' trips to Austria and France where there are said to be no proper accounts.

Bhandari says more worrying than the financial irregularities are the fact that laws were flouted and the Trust was treated like a private fiefdom of the royal family.

Kiran Nepal

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)