Nepali Times
State Of The State
Bring back the trees


It is not a coincidence that the frantic chopping down of trees in Kathmandu Valley first started after October 2002. This appalling wholesale slaughter of greenery which began on the Bhaktapur road and then spread to Battisputali, Baluwatar and now to Pulchok is being justified on security grounds.

It's not just us who see the tree as a metaphor for democracy. It looks like the royal regime just can't tolerate a single standing tree because the logging that started in 2002 has suddenly intensified since February. Simultaneous with a ban on protests, stately trees lining the city's streets are being indiscriminately chopped and quartered.

Authoritarian regimes are never green. The old Soviet Union had an atrocious environmental record. According to the World Resources Institute, there is a direct correlation between democracy and conservation.

Like autocrats everywhere our rulers after 1960 were cavalier about natural resources. Massive deforestation during Panchayat provided cleared land and slush funds to reward loyalists and buy out opposition. The deterioration of the Bagmati into an open sewer and a sand mining site is the direct result of land-grab in the 1980s. Avarice of influence peddlers resulted in the scarring of hillsides in Godavari, Chandragiri, Halchok and Chobar.

In its intolerance of all activities of the political opposition, state authorities routinely uprooted seedlings planted by Nepali Congress activists throughout the 80s. Environmentalism as mainstream activism in Nepal is a post-1990 phenomenon.

Barring the deforestation of the tarai during the interim government, democratic regimes post-1990 have been more effective in protecting the environment. Himal Cement was forced to acquire dust filters for its stack and ultimately closed down. Greening of Godavari was a result of public interest litigation to keep quarrying environment-friendly. A safe landfill site was been identified and developed to take care of solid waste.

A scheme to replace old-style brick-kilns with a less polluting version was introduced in the Valley. Not much happened for cleaning of watercourses as such but even here effluent treatment cleaned up the disgrace that was Bagmati at Pashupati. A vibrant press fulfilled a watchdog role in highlighting polluters and loggers. The spread of rural electrification and biogas on soft credit reduced the pressure on forests.

To their credit, the Maoists initially didn't interfere in forestry-perhaps because they had more places to hide. But every official became suspect after 4 October 2002. And now, the suspension of donor support to forestry and environment programs in the wake of February First has jeopardised the success of community forestry. Increase in poaching and the sharp decline in the rhino population in Chitwan may not be directly attributable to non-democratic governance but the absence of parliament is definitely the reason it hasn't been hotly debated in public.

Democracy is a necessity, though admittedly not a sufficient condition for environmental protection. Civil liberties, a free press, rule of law and economic growth are other factors that help conservation efforts. It's easy to spot a fully democratic country. There is a spring in the steps of free people. Authoritarian and totalitarian regimes share fundamental characteristics- an extremely powerful chief executive, suppressed or restricted political parties, a state-controlled press and a cowed judiciary perpetually under the shadow of the security.

In such repressive regimes the docile masses walk with their heads down, wear blank expressions and grow accustomed to a sense of studied indifference and helplessness. Environmentalism has little resonance in societies that lack pluralism and liberty. This year's theme for World Environment Day, being celebrated all over the world on 5 June is Green Cities with the slogan 'Plan for the Planet'. Environmentalism in Nepal must begin with activism for restoration of constitutional rule.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)