Resilience, mind and matter

From The Kathmandu Post (06 December, 2013)

In cultural, political and economic sphere, the ability to bide time is the singular ability of Nepal’s people

There is an ongoing phenomenon in the regenerating forests around Kathmandu, in Nagarjun, Phulchoki, Shivapuri and Chandragiri, which is a matter for good cheer in more ways than one. The indigenous broad-leaf species of the mid-hills are making a return, in so doing steadily marginalising the pines that invaded the landscape in the 1970s. Where there were hillsides created by monoculture environmentalism, today, individual pines are being surrounded and isolated by an abundance of undergrowth and a profusion of chestnut, alder, schima (chilaunay), rhododendron and several species of indigenous oak.

This pine pushback is proof of the inherent ecological buoyancy of our subtropical landscape, a capability also visible in the economic and human sphere. We see this in how the people adjust to foisted realities, biding their time without abandoning their values, waiting and working for a better tomorrow. If resilience is to be defined as tenacity of mind and body, an unwillingness to surrender even while bending like the bamboo to temporary winds of destruction, then the Nepali polity and landscape are both that—resilient.

Pining for broadleaf

The destruction of the mid-hill woodlands began in earnest after the nationalisation of the forests in 1957. The ability of Nepal’s peasantry to manage the commons, highlighted by Nobel economic laureate Elinor Ostrom, was destroyed in a fit of copycat colonial-era forestry policy. The state was quite unprepared to tackle the bureaucratic corruption that overtook the commons, even as community control was decimated.

In some places, the plantation of pine in the 1970s was logical. The soil on the hillsides had been so degraded by firewood demand, charcoal manufacture and monsoonal runoff that pine was the only species that could strike root, even if outside its own naturally occurring zone.

The 1970s was also when the ‘Himalayan degradation theory’ made its mark internationally—including the false notion that the rapacious hill peasantry was responsible for floods in the Ganga plains. In response to international censure, the Kathmandu authorities started planting pine everywhere and chir was best because it grew fast and the resulting plantation ‘looked’ like a forest. The anchaladhis and other administrators in the zones and districts naturally opted for pine, in the hope that king Birendra flying about on his helicopter would notice their good work.

Sadly, the pines were next to useless for the local folk, other than some sap (khot) collection. Pine groves do not provide tree fodder and discourage undergrowth shrubs and grasses. Ground covered with pine needles helps surface runoff rather than groundwater recharge. During a forest fire, the pine survives while everything else goes up in smoke. While grazing livestock munch at anything within reach and lately have even taken a liking to the Latin American banmara weed (adenophorum euphatorium), they leave the pine saplings alone.

All in all, the pine forest is not very functional, which is why the villagers protested even as the Australian Forestry Project introduced pine in Sindhupalchok. And the pine plantations marched on, mainly on the southern slopes, from the hillsides from Dhankuta to the Kali Gandaki valley. Until two factors halted the advance—the rise of community forestry (introduced in the late Panchayat era with strong legal underpinnings, coming into its own after the 1990 democratic opening) and the inherent fight-back capacity of the mid-hill ecology of the central Himalaya.

The environment proved capable of pushing back, capable of battling pine monoculture. “The mixed broadleaf ‘climax forest’ is found in this subtropical region in its most evolved and stable state,” says the great botanist and litterateur Tirtha Bahadur Shrestha. “Thankfully, in the mid-hills we are now seeing a comeback of the raithaney (local) trees—chilaune, khasro, phanlat, baanjh and gurans.”

Open society

The hardy Nepali spirit is seen beyond the ecology and in myriad other arena as well, from the tenacity of cultural identity to demands for accountability for war crimes, from the faith in local government institutions to the possibilities of tourism as an industry to generate material wealth. To speak of the last sector, the ten years of war and subsequent ‘transition period’ kept tourism from keeping its promise.

But no one was going to take the Himalaya or the durbar squares away from us. And even as we lost so much through urban sprawl, rushed modernisation, inter-community tensions and bad publicity of a country at war with itself, the people on the ground remained more or less the same. While the historical and natural wonders are assets, without our demographic diversity and resultant open society, tourism would have been an economic sideshow.

The open and inclusive nature of Nepal’s population is certainly not a genetic trait; instead, it is the result of having built a cultural ethos around the fact that the micro-communities had to collaborate for economic survival. This has generated an open and trusting personality overall, which even survived the years when prejudicial notions and opportunistic demagogues sought to divide the communities. In the end, as we can see proven before our eyes, the people turned out more resilient than the opportunists.

Once again, Nepal is back in the running as an ace tourism destination, evident in the markers of revival visible everywhere, from the trail up to Ghandrung to the Swotha neighbourhood of Patan’s inner city. And now, TripAdvisor, a global travel search engine which tracks tourist behaviour in terms of “where travellers are actually planning and going, instead of just intent”, reports that Kathmandu is the third ‘destination on the rise’ globally. Kathmandu stands for all Nepal and we come only after Havana and Costa Rica on the worldwide scale, and far ahead of even Jerusalem and Cuzco (Peru), Jaipur, Siem Reap, Kota Kinabalu and Macau.

Public personality

The November 19 elections brought the country on the rails of necessarily messy democracy, which, if we are able to protect it, will get us back to the trajectory of economic growth and participatory development. This advance has been possible due to the maturity and good sense of the citizenry, a resilience that incorporates the qualities of forbearance, patience, recall, justice and activism. This was the same citizenry, after all, which rose up against royal autocracy and the violent politics of the Maoists with the Janaandolan of 2006 to bring about regime change through sheer force of peaceable public personality.

The people knew that the way to social inclusion and social justice was through representative democracy and they kept their own counsel through the years of transition, when the marauders faked democratic transformation, stole the elections of April 2008 and did everything possible to weaken the structures of the Nepali state.

The ‘wait, watch and act when the time is right’ attitude succeeded with the November 19 polls. The demagogues were put in their place with flabbergasting calibration—just enough to democratise them in the days ahead but without the ability to destroy the work towards a democratic constitution.

The credit for this turnaround—of subduing the UCPN (Maoist) and the vainglorious from among the Madhesbadi leaders—goes to the general voters and not to the political leaders of the Nepali Congress and CPN-UML. And the civil society ‘stalwarts’ need not try to take credit for defending the centre-left politics of Nepal—it was the people of the himal, pahad and Tarai/Madhes who managed it.

The full circle success of the people living and working at the grassroots, with their fortitude and good cheer amidst relentless adversities, will be achieved when we are able to organise local government elections in Spring 2014. Then, we will fully be on the path to normalisation.

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