Nepali Times
End of the road for Rautes?


The fact that the Raute, the last hunter-gatherers of Nepal, have survived into this century is truly remarkable in our current age of diminishing cultural diversity.

Today, only a handful of societies around the world still practise full-time hunting-gathering. The Raute are even more special because they hunt with nets and axes rather than guns or bows and arrows. Based on this communal hunting technique, Raute share all of their food and other property equally among each other. Politically, they have created the most democratic sub-culture in Nepal. Those of us living in highly stratified societies could learn much from one of them.

For this reason alone, Raute society should be protected and regarded as a precious national treasure of Nepal. Sadly, without any understanding or appreciation for the basic social rules of the Raute\'s nomadic foraging society, international development agencies and the Nepali government continue to assimilate the Raute in the name of social improvement.

In March the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that it would provide aid for the "upliftment of the nomadic Raute tribe". Even though the Raute have repeatedly said that they do not "stick to one place", WHO plans to settle the Raute in Surkhet District.

Since the Raute will then be unable to hunt monkeys, their main protein source they hunt several times a week, or gather food from the jungle they will need unsustainable food rations. And since the Raute will be unable to collect the forest materials necessary to build and maintain their traditional tents, pine needles for flooring, softwood for tent poles, special leaves for wind screens and tent covering, Raute will have to be "provided" tenting material.

There have been news reports that the Raute have refused to let their children take the polio vaccine, saying that it runs counter to their beliefs. One Raute was quoted as stating: "There is no need for us to live like you."

Yet the Raute are no match against the wishes of international agencies. WHO\'s goal is to eradicate polio throughout the world by the year 2003. And in order to accomplish this, WHO will have to \'domesticate\' the Raute before vaccinating them.

Another international agency, CARE-Nepal, lumps the Raute into a grab bag of cultural groups it calls "Disadvantaged Groups (DAG)". CARE-Nepal has determined that DAGs are disadvantaged because of "extreme poverty and illiteracy". While CARE\'s assumptions about illiteracy are accurate for people living in writing-literate societies, this assumption is highly inappropriate for "orally literate" societies such as the Raute.

Knowledge of how to live successfully in Raute society is passed on through stories and oral histories. If the Raute were to attend school they would have to give up their continual foraging and hunting that is the core of their social life.

A sedentary lifestyle represents an abomination to Raute cultural life, as voice to me by Man Bahadur Raskoti, a Raute elder: "We can\'t marry in the village. We can\'t own land. We shouldn\'t marry with people in the village. I can\'t marry you (speaking to a Nepali woman). If I married you I\'d have to go to Kathmandu. I would have to begin farming. Then we\'d have to be landowners. My elder son should therefore get married within our group. Otherwise, we\'d have to cut grass (for livestock), we\'d have to give service (to the government and others), we\'d have to study in schools. We love our own people."

Raute must maintain their hunting-gathering lifestyle and any change in their nomadic life, which would come about by attending schools or settling into villages, would mean the cultural collapse of their society.

The carrying capacity of Nepali forests can only support the Raute for about one month which is exactly why the Raute are continuous nomads. Nomadic foraging societies such as the Raute rely on continual movement to successfully exploit-but not overexploit- their forest resources.

If the Raute are forcibly settled, within less than a year they will have exhausted all nearby forest resources. This could lead to tensions with nearby villagers who also make use of the forest.

Also within less than a year, they will have bartered their woodenware with every possible household in the vicinity. With the market thus "saturated" for the only commodity they have to offer a market society, the only option left will be to join the poorest, the most exploited underclass of Nepali society.

Around the world, there have been tragic outcomes of forcibly settling hunter-gatherers. Native Americans and Australian Aborigines are now fighting poverty, alcoholism, and other social problems as a result of being coerced into assimilation. The Raute too is not likely to successfully adapt to a farming lifestyle. As Raute youth said, "We would kill ourselves than take up farming."

Like their neighbouring relatives the Raji-Raute and the Chepang who are now part-time foragers/part-time farmers, the Raute too will become part of Nepal\'s landless sukumbasi.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)