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Environmental Stress and Demographic Change: Underlying Conditions and Nepal's Instability

November 01, 2006 // 11:00am1:00pm
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Nepal is at a crossroads. The recently signed peace accord between the new multi-party government and the Maoist insurgents offers an opportunity for the country to begin to heal the wounds inflicted by a decade of civil war. Yet addressing Nepal's problems will require a closer look at the factors that initially drove the unrest, said Bishnu Raj Upreti, regional coordinator of the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research (Kathmandu), at an event co-sponsored by the Environmental Change and Security Program on November 1, 2006. Providing an in-depth analysis of the country's history and current situation, Upreti discussed the ways in which efforts to resolve the country's demographic and environmental problems could reduce conflict, alleviate poverty, and provide a pathway to peace.

Civil War in Nepal

In 1996, the newly formed Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) used the general population's discontent with the constitutional monarchy to launch its "Peoples' War." As the guerilla campaign gained support, King Gyanendra took drastic steps to prosecute the insurgency, including granting the Royal Nepalese Army, formerly a ceremonial institution, unprecedented funding and decision-making authority. But these steps were highly controversial, leading to the formation of a new political party: on one side, the Monarchists supported the king and his measures to combat the Maoists; and on the other, the Seven Parties Alliance (SPA) opposed the monarchy's reversal of progressive reforms achieved earlier in the decade.

By 2005, with 13,000 dead, 200,000 internally displaced, and 75 percent of the country under Maoist control, support for the king evaporated. The SPA and the CPN united to peacefully overthrow the king, leading to a ceasefire in April 2006. The king stepped down and reinstated formerly abolished democratic institutions including the House of Representatives and the National Council. After months of intense negotiation, the parties signed a landmark peace accord to end the decade-old insurgency on November 21.

Causes and Consequences of Conflict

Upreti identified nearly a dozen causes for the rise and success of the insurgency, including poverty, unemployment, discrimination (ethnic, socio-economic, and geographic), corruption, and failures in governance. Yet, he noted, the critical factor contributing to conflict was lack of access to natural resources. Painting a stark picture of natural resource exclusion in Nepalese society, Upreti noted that only 20 percent of Nepal's land is arable, but 78 percent of the population depends on agriculture for subsistence. The wealthiest 5 percent of the population own 37 percent of the land, while the poorest 47 percent own less than 15 percent of the land. Compounding the problem, the Nepalese population grew five-fold in the last century. As a result, Upreti said, the people most dependent on natural resources had the most difficulty acquiring them. The Maoists were able to harness the people's frustration over lack of natural resources and their resentment of the ruling elite into support for their insurgency.

Nepal's environmental record during the conflict was mixed, Upreti pointed out. From 1995 to 2004, protected land in Nepal increased three-fold as the government pushed natural resource conservation. However, enforcement was ineffective due to corrupt wardens and illegal poaching. Furthermore, the limited reach of the central government created a vacuum that allowed the insurgency to assert authority over natural resources. Upreti indicated that a "two regime system" with "two rules, two court systems, and two armies" arose. This split was most evident in the management of agriculture, forests, and water. The government favored landlord ownership of agricultural land, forest conservation, and developing water infrastructure. The Maoists actively challenged those policies by redistributing land, opening protected forests to gain local favor, and extorting money from hydro-development projects.

Demographically, significant problems lie ahead for Nepal. The median age in Nepal is 20.1 (compared to a global median of 26) with 40 percent of the population under the age of 15. Also, the civil war left few resources for the education sector, resulting in a 45.2 percent literacy rate. Furthermore, rapid population growth—the current fertility rate is 4.1 children per woman—has pushed many Nepalese to migrate from the mountain highlands into the fertile lowlands. Nearly one-half of the population now lives in the lowlands, which comprise only 17 percent of the country's landmass, taxing their human carrying capacity. The civil war left a large pool of undereducated and underemployed youth with a history of conflict and little prospects for the future. Although the ceasefire and peace accord are major accomplishments, post-conflict Nepal remains fragile.

Moving Forward From Civil War

"[The] success of the peace process mainly depends upon the willingness of major political parties to fundamentally restructure the feudal, top-down, exclusionary state into a modern, inclusive one," Upreti said, noting that post-conflict reconstruction must provide people with basic needs and access to natural resources, while also promoting conservation and protecting the environment. He recommended that the central government concentrate on developing critical infrastructure such as roads, electricity, and water supplies. At the same time, local governments should implement a community-based sustainable development strategy to support and encourage sustainable agricultural and resource extraction practices. Equitable access to natural resources, combined with environmental conservation, he said, will create a sustainable and peaceful path for development in post-conflict Nepal.

Drafted by Craig Marcus.

 
Event Speakers List: 
  • Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research, Katmandu, Nepal
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