Baseline Information of Nepal

Indigenous Peoples, Forest and REDD in Nepal

The total population of Nepal is 22.7 million, and over one hundred castes/ethnic and religious groups, and ninety-two mother tongues were listed in the Census of 2001.14 Indigenous peoples, often referred as “indigenous nationalities” (Adivasi Janajati) comprised 8.4 million, or 38 % of the total population. However, indigenous peoples’ organizations claim they have been under represented in the census, and their actual populations comprise more than 50%. Indigenous peoples are recognized constitutionally15 as well as legally. They are officially called “Adivasi Janajati” (indigenous nationalities), with 59 indigenous nationalities legally enlisted in the National Foundation for Development of Indigenous Nationalities (NFDIN) Act of 2002.16 The Act defines Adivasi Janajati as a group or community with own mother tongue and traditional customary practices, distinct cultural identity, social structure and oral or written history.

Indigenous peoples are highly marginalized, and have been excluded from the nation building process, which has been largely in then hands of the non-indigenous Hindu Bahun and Chetri castes, who still hold dominant positions in political, economical and social life of the country. Indigenous peoples are among the poorest of the poor, and their marginalization has been the reason for the broad support, which the Maoist Party enjoyed during the 12 years long armed conflict. The inclusion of hitherto excluded groups like indigenous peoples in the process of restructuring the state was an important agenda of the Twelve-point Agreement between the government and Maoists, which changed the political landscape in late 2005, and paved the way for the Comprehensive peace Agreement of November 2006. It has been consistently reflected in subsequent agreements as well as in the Interim Constitution of 2007.

The State’s position regarding the recognition of indigenous peoples and their rights

Indigenous peoples have the right of Social justice thus they have a right of proportional representation in the State Structure. Until 1990 indigenous peoples’ separate identities and concerns had been completely denied by government. The government’s policy was to assimilate indigenous peoples into the dominant Hindu hierarchical caste system. This position changed in the wake of the political change of 1990, when multi-party democracy was introduced. For the first time in Nepali history, the Constitution of 1991 recognized the diverse nature of the state,19and provided rights to language, culture and religion. 20 Importantly, the Constitutional provision for equal protection gave avenue to have special measures for the protection and educational, economic and social development of marginalized groups, which was considered to be applicable to indigenous peoples. However, these provisions were never really implemented.

Recently, the government's position on the recognition of indigenous peoples and their rights has moved in a positive direction due to relentless pressure by the organized indigenous peoples’ movement. A Twenty Point Agreement was made between indigenous peoples and the government in 2007, which emphasized the inclusion of indigenous peoples in the process of restructuring the state. At present, Nepal is in the process of writing a new Constitution after holding the Constituent Assembly election in April 2008. As part of this process, an Interim Constitution was promulgated in 2007. The Interim Constitution recognizes indigenous peoples and their rights to some extent. It guarantees the right to social justice, including the right to participate in the state structure on the basis of the principle of social inclusion21. Poverty among indigenous peoples is supposed to be addressed by special measures, including reservations in education and employment for a certain time period.

The National Foundation for Development of Indigenous Nationalities (NFDIN) Act 2002 is the only national law that specifically deals with indigenous development issues. The Act, however, neither stipulates the rights of indigenous peoples nor has the NEFDIN been given a sole and clear mandate to work in the development sector. As a semi-governmental institution the Foundation is bound by and dependant on the government. Indigenous peoples’ organizations are demanding to convert the foundation into a commission with the provision of overseeing the implementation of laws on indigenous peoples’ rights. The Self-Governance Act 1998 triggered the passing of the NFDIN Act. For the first time a law recognized that indigenous peoples are excluded and need to be brought into the national mainstream (Preamble). There are provisions for indigenous peoples’ representation in Village, Municipal and District Development Councils (local government institutions). However, these bodies had been non-functional which lead to the demand by indigenous organizations for a specific law, resulting in the passing of the NFDIN Act.

The law with the severest negative consequence for indigenous communities is the Land Reform Act 1964 and Land Maintenance Act of 1963. They abolished traditional communal land rights and as a consequence displaced indigenous communities from their lands as they were taken over by members of the dominant Hindus of the Bahun and Chetri castes. Nepal is a signatory to a number of international instruments and conventions including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1966, International Convention on the Elimination of All Form of Racial Discrimination 1969, UN Convention on the Rights of Child 1989, and the Convention on Biological Diversity 1992. In 2007, the Nepal parliament ratified ILO Convention No. 169 “concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries”, and Nepal voted in favour of the passing of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the UN General Assembly on 13 September 2007.

Forest and indigenous peoples in Nepal

72% of those who live below the poverty line in Nepal (31 % of the total population) are forest- dwellers, most of whom are indigenous. The forest these people use has the highest potential to be included in the REDD mechanism. The forest administration in Nepal has an almost two-decades long history of decentralization, with Community Forest User Groups having a high level of control with the management of forest areas. 20% of the country’s forest land is under community management, and studies show that forest degradation in community-managed forests is much lower than in government-managed forests.

The community-based forest management system of the country is often used in international fora as a show-case of successful decentralization and empowerment of local communities. Many indigenous peoples, however, are critical towards the community forest management system, because the highly hierarchical nature of Nepali society makes it difficult for them to have a real influence in many of the Community Forest User Groups. Their generally marginalized position in society is replicated in the local governance of forests, with more powerful groups taking the lead. Indigenous peoples’ access to and control of forest resources they have traditionally used, is thus undermined. In the case of indigenous communities who practice a nomadic lifestyle, some with very long migration patterns (which means that they do not necessarily return to the same forest areas for years), the problem is even bigger. Some of these peoples do not belong to any Community Forest User Groups, since they do not belong to a settled community. Therefore, they do not have any forest areas they can call their own. On the contrary, they are denied access to forest areas controlled by the Community Forest User Groups, with no regard to the fact that these same areas fall within their traditional migration routes. Whereas Community Forest User groups manage large forest areas in the mid-hills, most of the forests in the Terai low-land are under government control. A significant part of these low-land forests are zoned as protected areas, where indigenous peoples have very limited access to resources.