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Knowledge for change in Nepal

An indigenous leader from the Chitwan National Park area of central Nepal tells the story of his community’s struggle and how human rights training of park officials and the indigenous population has begun a significant process of change.

Human rights training for national park officials in Nepal held in June 2009 in Chitwan © OHCHR-Nepal“Indigenous peoples are not educated and we are socially marginalized. We don’t know our own rights,” says Padam Gurung, who took part in a human rights training organized by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Nepal (OHCHR-Nepal) last October.

Today, some five thousand people from different indigenous communities live in the Chitwan district, where the first of Nepal’s ten wildlife conservation parks was established in 1973. Their livelihood depends on subsistence farming and natural resources. Many live in poverty and are illiterate, making them vulnerable to middlemen who try to draw them into illegal poaching.

Frequently entering the Park to collect grass or herbal medicine, they are often accused of poaching, arrested, beaten to confess and jailed. Reports reveal a pattern of widespread human rights violations against the local indigenous communities, in particular arbitrary detention and torture in custody.

The OHCHR-Nepal training seeks to strengthen park officials’ ability to tackle poaching and wildlife crimes while fully respecting human rights. A park official who took part in training last June openly admitted beating up detainees to get a confession. “Tigers and rhinoceros don’t speak; the one who has to talk is human. So we beat them so that they speak.”

“We have no legal training, no human rights training. I didn’t know that torture is a crime under article 26 of the interim constitution. Now I know,” said the same official.

The power to arrest, investigate and adjudicate poaching cases rests with the National Park Administration. The Chief Warden enjoys quasi-judicial power to make a verdict and sentence poachers for up to 15 years in prison. OHCHR-Nepal has raised concerns with the Government about these powers being inconsistent with international human rights standards. Before the intervention of OHCHR-Nepal, few of the park officials had any form of training and no legal training.

The training programme adopts a holistic approach in bridging the knowledge and communication gap between the park administration and the indigenous communities. It covers issues such as indigenous peoples’ rights to development, non-discrimination, effective participation and consultation, land and natural resources, and their role in wildlife conservation. It also strengthens the knowledge and capacity of park officials to respect and protect human rights.

“The training has developed my confidence. From now on I will contact park officials directly and we will be actively participating in the buffer zone committees,” says Gurung, who also heads the Chitwan district chapter of the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN), a nationwide umbrella organization of indigenous communities.

The initiative, which brings together NEFIN, the International Labour Organization and the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal (NHRC), seeks to increase the dialogue and cooperation between indigenous peoples and district authorities. It also includes a member of the Constituent Assembly, who works towards the inclusion of the rights of indigenous peoples, in particular indigenous women, in the country’s constitution.

“Nepal is a land of indigenous peoples. There are so many tribes. One can’t do any programme without their participation. The project with OHCHR is having a positive impact on the situation,” says Bed Prasad Bhattarai, NHRC Director of Law, Investigation and Monitoring.

“When I was Regional Director of NHRC in Nepalgunj, we had a monthly coordination meeting with OHCHR and NGOs,” he says.

OHCHR-Nepal and NHRC have been asked by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Reserve to do the same training for officials of all national parks across the country. Further trainings will be carried out on administration of justice and human rights-friendly investigation techniques.

9 August 2010