While scrolling through Instagram, I found a post on the famous "Routine of Nepal Banda" page that captured Nepal's 'trending' rural crisis. On January 29, 2024, the Ward-19 office of Lamachaur, Pokhara, issued a plea, requesting the felling of trees to address the havoc caused by monkeys. The office sought permission for the removal of trees as a measure to combat the issues. The post, reflecting deep-seated agricultural distress, ignited a debate among netizens. Comments ranged from equating the plea to an overreaction akin to burning a house to rid it of a mouse, calling for more trees in the fight against climate change, and critiquing harming natural habitats under the guise of self-preservation.
Amidst this digital back-and-forth, Nepal's Community Forestry (CF) is a critical element in this narrative. Nepal's CF is a globally acclaimed model characterised by advanced tenure types. It grants Community Forest User Group (CFUG) members perpetual rights to access, use, and manage forest resources under an approved management plan. As of 2020, the Department of Forests and Soil Conservation shows an impressive network of 22,266 CFUGs managing 2.24 million hectares, accounting for 35 per cent of Nepal's total forest resources. These groups encompass about 2.91 million households, or roughly 33 per cent of the total population, actively participating in forest management. Its success in reviving forests and fostering resilience amidst political and natural crises is noteworthy and commendable. Yet, this green revival has inadvertently intensified human-wildlife conflicts, particularly crop raiding by monkeys, or "monkey terrorism," as referred to by the locals in many villages across the country.
But behind these online debates lies a grim reality I witnessed during my field visits to Pyuthan, Salyan, Kaski, and Kavre districts between April and July 2023. While collecting data for my doctoral research, I personally witnessed Nepali farmers grappling with a dilemma: monkeys and other wildlife were relentlessly raiding their crops. These raids aren't just an inconvenience; they threaten Nepal's agrarian fabric, pushing the country's food security to the brink. Farmers, once the pride of Nepal's identity, are now abandoning their lands, a decision that looms like a shadow over the nation's future.
This crisis extends beyond mere inconvenience; it represents a critical intersection of poverty and conservation challenges. The devastation of a farmer's crops by wildlife, particularly in impoverished communities, is not just a loss of food but a threat to their livelihood. Such incidents often incite significant outrage, potentially reducing conservation efforts for the entire species involved. These conflicts, if left unaddressed, risk escalating into a persecution of whole species, overshadowing the need for sustainable solutions. The key to mitigating these conflicts lies in a balanced approach that benefits wildlife and the affected human communities, ensuring coexistence.
A farmer from Salyan articulated this desperation, expressing a forbidden wish to harm the monkeys, a move that could lead to fines or jail time. His words echo the sentiment that the government prioritises wildlife over people's livelihoods. Despite not wanting to harm the animals, farmers like him feel abandoned, with local governments offering little to no solutions.
So, what can be done? The answer certainly isn't in cutting down the trees. This would be counterproductive and unravel the progress made in forest conservation. Instead, the focus should shift to sustainable solutions involving community forestry (CF) and its associated bodies like the Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal (FECOFUN).
Effective mitigation strategies are essential in areas where human and wildlife habitats intersect. Techniques like physical barriers, innovative farming practices, and traditional methods such as using smoke or noise to repel animals are vital. However, these mitigation efforts must consider the wildlife's unique behaviours, the local communities' socio-ecological dynamics, and the need for sustainable long-term solutions. Monkeys, known for their intelligence and social structures, present unique challenges, as deterrents effective against other animals may not suffice. The growing monkey population in Nepal, exacerbated by a lack of natural predators and proximity to human settlements, calls for reevaluating current strategies. Studies from regions like Himachal Pradesh, India, suggest that trapping and population control may be necessary. Yet, such measures must be considered carefully, respecting local customs, ecological balance, and ethical standards.
The situation demands a 'Cognitive Fix' or an educational approach, moving beyond mere deterrents to addressing the root causes of these conflicts. Moreover, raising public awareness is crucial, especially among the urban populace. The disconnect between the realities of rural life and the urban perspective on environmental issues must be bridged. The urban audience needs to understand the complexity of human-wildlife conflicts and their impact on rural farmers' lives. Furthermore, the fix includes land preservation and the creation of buffer zones, essential steps in maintaining a healthy balance between human settlements and wildlife habitats. Drawing from experiences in Bolivia, Uganda, and Wisconsin (USA), a co-management strategy involving local stakeholders, such as CFUGs, is crucial. These partnerships can facilitate the development of context-specific strategies, respecting each region's cultural and ecological uniqueness. This approach not only aims to mitigate conflicts but also to enhance community involvement in conservation efforts.
Traditionally, human responses to wildlife conflict involved direct retaliation against animals, a practice now often illegal or socially frowned upon. This shift in attitude turns a straightforward competitive relationship into a complex socio-political conflict, requiring nuanced and informed solutions. Additionally, there's a need for policy reform. The government must address the gaps in wildlife management and human-wildlife conflict resolution. This includes strengthening the enforcement of conservation laws, improving habitat management, and ensuring that the voices of rural communities are heard and acted upon in policy discourse.
In conclusion, while community forestry has been a boon for Nepal's forests, it has inadvertently fueled a crisis threatening the livelihoods of rural communities. The path forward requires a collaborative approach involving CFUGs, FECOFUN, local governments, policymakers, and conservation bodies. The situation in Lamachaur and across Nepal, where "monkey terrorism" looms large, is a stark reminder of the delicate balance between conservation and human livelihoods.
(The author is pursuing a Ph.D. at the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, North Caroline State University, USA.)