Monday, May 12, 2014

A string of pearls

By Sanjib Chaudhary and C. W. Norris-Brown

February is a time of transition in the Terai. Fog covers the area in the morning, bringing an unexpected chill that dissipates as the sun burns through later in the morning. It is dry and dusty. A grey-brown colour seems to permeate where there are no crops planted. As the afternoon sun rises, you can feel the approaching hot season, which even the local Tharus face with dread. The Terai will be scorching in another month or so, and it will seem like forever before the first rains liberate the region from the dryness.

The Terai has always been known for its harshness. Before the 1950s, it was notorious for its malarial jungles and, as such, it formed a buffer region separating the hills region from the storm of events that characterised India’s history in the “plains” to the south. The inhospitality of the Terai (at least before DDT was used to control malaria in the 1950s) was well-known. British records from the 1850s, for example, called the area that “inhospitable region” and all efforts were taken to avoid it at any cost; an area described as “extremely difficult, almost beyond conception”.  With its extremes of heat, dust and bugs when it is hot and a landscape turned into unrecognisable layers of water -- muddy and slippery -- flooding with snakes and mosquitoes when it rains, the Terai is not exactly a place for the common tourist. But it is for this reason that, in spite of deforestation after 1960, it has been able to harbour jungles and wildlife.

Today both India and Nepal’s Terai region are home to a row of reserves, buffer zones, and
corridors that stretch like a string of pearls almost the whole length of the Terai. The well-known Corbett Reserve is India’s oldest, established in 1937. Pilibhit, India’s newest, established in 2008. Chitwan was established in Nepal in 1973, and Banke was recently declared youngest national park in Nepal. From Rajaji and Corbett in India to Shuklaphanta and Bardia in Nepal’s west and neighboring Dudhwa/ Kishanpur and Katerniaghat in India to Chitwan/Parsa, south of Kathmandu in Nepal, and Sohagi Barwa, Valmikinagar, and Sonanadi in India, the harsh Terai jungles that have survived have been transformed into protected areas that have retained the original feeling of the Terai and have been havens for many endangered species. Like a real string of pearls, these reserves, and their buffer zones and forest corridors, are deservingly the pride of the people who have worked so hard over the years to protect them.

What will preserve or break the string of pearls is the human encroachment on the natural system. While the Terai Arc Landscape has earned many laurels as a conservation model, this honour would never have been achieved without the cooperation of the people who live in the Terai. And although this honour has been rightfully claimed by the efforts of many of Nepal’s people, it could never be maintained without including those whose hearts have beaten along with the ebb and flow of the forests: the Tharus. At least until the 1960s, this was their domain -- one they shared with the many animals that inhabited the jungles.

The assimilation of the newly settled people with the local people like Tharus residing in the area for ages has posed challenges to conservation efforts. The Tharus and other indigenous people have been driven out of their original settlements and even the prestigious posts of conservation representatives have been captured by the relatively clever new settlers. With the initiation of conservation efforts like the Terai Arc Landscape, the local people are being woven into a common garland and are being offered opportunities to participate in these initiatives. And yet, as if by a falsity of vision, honours are bestowed without the realisation that the Terai has always been inhabited by Tharus who have been synonymous with the Terai, its jungles, and its animals. As if a cloud lifted, there, where many thought was a need for outside intervention alone, no matter how deservingly, like the frosting on a cake, the indigenous Tharu people float like beautiful butterflies along its surface, keeping up the small but rich farmland that sustains them in their small scattered villages.

It is time for the Tharus to reclaim their role as the hearth and home of the Terai. This will be the
final level in how to focus on conservation when we all, as one community holding Nature in our
hands, realise just how important the Tharus are as the guardians of the pearls.

Dr C.W.Norris Brown is Adjunct Professor with University of Vermont and can be reached at

No comments:

Post a Comment