All over the world, hunter-gatherer societies are disappearing and a similar fate awaits Nepal's Raute.
As with other hunter-gatherers, the Raute are also divided about preserving their old ways or assimilating into mainstream society. And it has been a subject of much debate among the Raute ever since the first anthropological study on the tribe was done more than 30 years ago.
"We would rather die than give up our nomadic way of life," says Bir Bahadur Shahi, one of the three Raute mukhiyas. What is surprising is that the Raute have actually managed to survive and preserve their way of life despite inroads made by modernity into remote Nepal where they live.
In his 1974 seminal study, anthropologist Johan Reinhard says the reason is the Raute's early decision to avoid contact with outsiders which was founded on unshakeable religious beliefs. Reinhard also credits the communal hunting technique for the survival of the Raute culture.
According to the 2001 census, the Raute totalled just 658. They live in the forest, hunt with nets and axes, forage for tubers and fruits, and barter or sell woodenwares that they make in their villages in exchange for food-grains and tools, among other materials.
The Raute hunt in groups, they share all their food and property evenly. They follow their unique religion, rituals, belief systems and uphold political, social and cultural institutions, including leadership structures and knowledge systems. The closed society that the tribe is to outsiders, they limit socialisation just enough to fulfil their material needs.
As the last of the hunting-gathering community in Nepal, the tribe is proud of its heritage. "We don't want the burden of agriculture, we don't wish to settle down. We want to continue our nomadic way of life. We wish to travel freely and want no harassment in community or government controlled forests," says Shahi.
These were in fact some of the demands that Shahi and other Raute put before the ministers of Home and Local Development in Kathmandu recently.
"The Raute demand is that they should be able to exploit the forest resources free of interference because they have been doing so since time immemorial," says Sarina Gurung, coordinator of the exposure visit which was organised by the National Foundation for the Development of Indigenous Nationalities (NFDIN) for the 10 endangered ethnic groups, including the Raute.
The Raute's nomadic lifestyle and shifting agriculture is sustainable and never over-exploits the forest, leaving time for regeneration. But it goes against the forestry regulations of the modern Nepali state which hasn't taken into account the needs of indigenous groups.
Some Raute families have been permanently settled in Jogbudha in Dadeldhura but many are not happy there. Anthropologists like Jana Fortier point out that if more of the Raute are forcibly settled, it will lead to the collapse of the most democratic sub-culture in Nepal.
"To settle or not to settle the Rautes is a big question. One has to look carefully at the pros and cons," says Professor Santa Bahadur Gurung of NFDIN, "how long can the Raute remain as they are is a big question."
For his part, Main Bahadur is convinced that he wouldn't change his lifestyle for the world. He tells us: "We are happy just the way we are."
"The sirs who fly helicopters should be more careful"
Main Bahadur Shahi, 52, is the most influential among the three Raute mukhiyas. He told Nepali Times he is confident that his nomadic tribe can continue to survive if allowed to practice its traditional lifestyle.
Nepali Times : You met ministers in Kathmandu, what did you tell them?
Main Bahadur Shahi: We told them we need the forest and only the forest. We don\'t want agriculture, farmlands and houses. We are happy with our way
Why don\'t you want to settle down?
We like to move about, we aren\'t happy if we have to live in one place permanently. It would be against our kul dharma . Besides if we get sick and die, we would have to burn everything and move on. We don\'t need to learn farming, raise and graze animals. We don\'t need to collect fodder. We make koshi , aari , madhus, khat (woodenwares) sell them and support ourselves.
Has the conflict affected you?
Yes. The sirs who fly the gaadi (helicopters) should be careful. What if we Rautes are completely wiped out when they are trying to kill Maoists? However, the CDO has assured us that our areas won\'t be bombed. Just to be sure, when a helicopter flies overhead we wave our turbans to notify the sirs
that we are not Maoists but Raute and to leave us in peace.
What are the challenges to uphold your customs? What about the newer generations?
Our lifestyle, customs, clothes, nothing has changed. Even the youngsters will lead the life that we have lived. For, like your children are taught to read and write, we teach our children all the means of livelihood. So our way of life won\'t change.
As a mukhiya aren\'t you worried that the up and coming generation will deviate from the hunting-gathering way of life?
I don\'t think so. I\'m certain this way of life will continue.