FOO CHEE CHANG
In all the talk about the high Himalaya, the Mahabharat Range and the Tarai, the Chure Hills always fall between the cracks. These first wrinkles of the mighty Himalaya stretch from Mechi to Mahakali, they are a treasure trove of biodiversity, and have an environmental importance that few are aware of.
The Chure Hills are made of soft material, sand, sediment, and boulders, uplifted relatively recently in geological time as part of the formation of the Himalayan mountains. Because of their composition, the hills are much more sensitive to the loss of vegetation and other human activity, the impact of which can be felt downstream in the Nepal Tarai and down to India. This is why President Ram Baran Yadav has made saving the Chure Hills one of his priorities.
The biodiversity of the Chure forests is much greater than other parts of Nepal, and it is under severe threat. During the Rana era, the majestic hardwood timber from the sal forests of the Chure were exported to India to be turned into railway ties. Today, the Chure is being indiscriminately mined for sand, stones, and aggregates for the construction of India's highways, irrigation canals, and cities. The tragedy of it is that this is making the plains of India and Nepal prone to disastrous floods.
When the Chure loses its forests and huge gashes are opened up on its slopes by quarries, the monsoon rains can wash down the whole mountain. In Jhapa, the Ratuwa Khola used to flow under a bridge, now the sediment washed down from the Chure has buried the bridge itself.
The Chure is being desertified, and the forests have lost their indigenous King Cobra, and the world's largest flying bird, the stork. The pythons here are also threatened because of habitat loss, as is the pygmy hog. Naturalist Karna Shakya did his research on the pygmy hog decades ago. Shakya is still around, but the pygmy hog can't be found anywhere, anymore.
What protected the forests of the Chure and the inner Tarai for centuries was malaria. But after the advent of DDT and the eradication of the malaria mosquito, the area became habitable. There was encroachment of the Chure from both the south and the north, entire villages were translocated from the mountains and these fragile hills didn't stand a chance.
King Mahendra's plan was to settle people south of the East-West Highway and preserve the jungles to the north of the road. But that policy was never properly implemented, and the forests on the slopes of the Chure started balding. Now that the trees are gone, the next to go are the boulders, sand, and stones.
Nepal's soil, sand, stones, and boulders are being taken out of the country without revenue, without permission, in a wanton destruction of our natural heritage. They say Nepal is 'landlocked', it looks these days more like a country without 'locks'. But the politicians in Kathmandu with their power-addled brains have no time to think about this frightening destruction that will have far-reaching impact on the economy, livelihood, and future existence of our nation.
The politicians have slogans for state restructuring, but the Chure range that stretches from east to west doesn't register in anyone's consciousness. We are not worried about the indigenous inhabitants of the Chure like the Tharu, Chepang, Danuwar, Muhasar, and others. Neither are we worried about what the environmental destruction of the Chure will do to downstream plains with long-term consequences to Nepal's Pahad-Tarai and India's Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
Enough words, let's act now to save the Chure Hills.
Tirtha Bahadur Shrestha, PhD, is a noted Nepali botanist, who has extensively studied Nepal's endemic plantlife.
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