Kamala Sonaha is from Patabhar of Rajapur in Bardia. Although Patabhar is famous for rice production, there is hardly any land for farming here.
Kamala’s family depends on the Karnali River for their livelihood.
“We don’t have a house. All we have is one kattha plot. What can we grow on this small plot of land?” she says as she sifts the sands on the riverbanks.
Besides Kamala, there are some 1,200 other people called Sonahas in Rajapur who eke out their living by collecting gold particles from the sands or fishing in the Karnali River.
“A few generations ago, the Sonahas [“gold” people] were considered nomads who lived near rivers abundant with fish and gold dust. Now times have changed. The places where they used to move around freely are now fenced for conservation, which is putting their very existence into a crisis,” says Sudeep Jaan, a doctoral researcher. “It would be wrong to have a notion of biodiversity conservation by keeping them off from their natural habitats as they don’t consider themselves separate from nature.”
Nowadays, their brooks and forest areas have either been brought into the territory of the designated national parks or community forests. Boundaries have been fixed and these areas are governed by strict regulations.
“Earlier, we used to spend most of our time in the river. Now we’re afraid of the national parks. We hear there are rules to follow and that the rules keep on changing. We don’t even know what they are,” says Kamala.
The Sonahas, who depend heavily on rivers and forests, are barred from entering these very areas. Mahendra Sonaha of Gola Gaon says the forests have turned ‘dangerous’ for them. “I was born and grew up on these riverbanks. How are we going to survive if we’re barred from going to the river?” he questions.
With things getting increasingly difficult, the Sonahas have started looking for alternative means of making their living. Kamala’s husband works in India. She says it has become a compulsion for Sonahas to take up other jobs.
“The river where we used to go fishing is now the property of the national park. We can’t survive if we don’t find other jobs.”
The Sonahas live with very little income. Kamala’s family, for example, has four persons who can work for a living. But even if all of them go to work they can hardly collect gold particles worth Rs 300. So the family can only make Rs 3,000 a month.
There are rivers where they can find more gold and fish than in Karnali. But these rivers too are restricted. If they are found inside, they will be arrested by the national park authorities.
Last year, Khum Lal Sonaha’s brother was arrested while fishing inside the Bardia National Park and was detained for a month. Additionally, he had to pay a fine of Rs 5,000, an amount his family had never seen or earned at one time.
“It was very hard for us to arrange such a big amount of money. We borrowed money from neighbors and paid it to the national park,” recounts Khum Lal.
The Sonahas leave the sand as it is after sifting the gold particles and the sand heaps come to their previous form on the banks, causing no harm to the natural course of the river. Mahendra Sonaha complains that the national park and the community forest authorities have never considered their point. “We only sift the sand. We don’t take it with us.”
The only possessions of the Sonahas are the tools they use for sifting sand to collect gold, fishing nets and wooden boats.
“The indigenous people have never destroyed nature. The Sonahas have been living in the jungle for a very long time, but they were never found making homes in the forest areas,” Jaan’s research says.
The regulations introduced by the national parks do not address them. Advocate Raj Kumar Chaudhary says such regulations have encroached upon their rights.
“Rules and regulations that make things difficult for people who traditionally depend on forests, land or rivers for a living should be changed,” he says.
In his view, such problems need to be addressed now as Nepal has become a party to the ILO treaty four years ago which guarantees the rights of indigenous nationalities.
“The Nepal government has an obligation to implement this treaty, which clearly states that the indigenous communities who depend on forests, water and land shall not be displaced from their original places. But the Sonahas have been restricted from fishing or sifting the sand to collect gold [in their own native lands],” Chaudhary says.
The Sonahas did convey their concerns to the national park officials, who provided licenses to allow them to collect gold and go fishing only during the day. But once somebody from the Sonaha community was caught assisting rhino poachers by the park authorities, their licenses haven’t been renewed since then.
“A villager got caught. We heard that the other two arrested were soldiers. We don’t know what happened to them, but none of us got our licenses renewed. What kind of rule is this?” asks Khum Lal. “We don’t have anybody to speak for our rights.”
Some of the rules introduced by the authorities for conservation of biodiversity have made things difficult for so many indigenous communities. Their cultures and traditions are getting lost because of these interventions. The Sonahas are obviously going to be one of them if things continue like this.
The writer is associated with Nepal Forum of Environmental Journalists (NEFEJ) and is production member of Aankhijhyal, an acclaimed TV magazine program on environment.