Thursday, November 26, 2015

The regulations of Chitwan National Park have reversed the traditional rights of the Tharus – Prof. Dr. Ulrike Mueller-Boeker

Prof. Dr. Ulrike Mueller-Boeker (c) Thomas Entzeroth. Used with permission.

Prof. Dr. Ulrike Mueller-Boeker heads the Human Geography Unit at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. Focused on development-related research, her fields of competence include the analysis of institutional dimensions of livelihood strategies; the impact of globalisation processes; local resource-use conflicts (i.e., concerning land, forests and water), labour migration patterns; nature conservation, and development and participation processes focusing on South Asia, Central Asia and Switzerland.

Her book The Chitwan Tharus in Southern Nepal: An Ethnoecological Approach, published in 1999, documents the knowledge of Chitwan Tharus about their natural environment.

Sanjib Chaudhary from Voice of Tharus spoke to her about her research and her opinion about the marginalisation of Tharus in Chitwan. Here’s the excerpt of the interview: 

Voice of Tharus (VOT): Welcome to Voice of Tharus. Your book The Chitwan Tharus in Southern Nepal: An Ethnoecological Approach details the lifestyle of the Tharus living in Chitwan and how they have been marginalised in their own land. Can you tell our readers about the book and how you compiled it?

Ulrike Mueller-Boeker (UMB): The focus of the publication was on the knowledge of the Chitwan Tharus about their natural environment. The attempt was made to see the environment through the eyes of those who live and act within a very specific environment. And I wanted to document how Tharus make use of the natural resources. The beauty of their material culture fascinated me. But I realised that their practices were conflicting with the Chitwan National Park. I tried to show how the autochthonous population was cut off from the natural resources of their territory, and how the regulations of the national park have reversed their traditional rights. Finally, I wanted to gather and document the history and the social fabric of the Tharu community.  I also aimed to document oral knowledge for future generations.

For the book I did several months fieldwork in Chitwan, supported by an excellent team of informants and field assistants. We went together into the forest to collect useful plants; we took semi-structured interviews in several villages (including Padampur – today grassland and part of the Chitwan National Park), I participated in festivals and so on. I really enjoyed this time and the kindness and honesty of the people.

VOT: The spraying of DDT and migration of hill people to Chitwan have led to the dwindling presence of Tharus in Chitwan. Can you elaborate a bit about it?

UMB: Chitwan – once the thinly settled, malaria-infested refuge of the Tharus – has developed within less than half a century into a wide-open region for immigrants and colonizers. Oral history and old travel reports reveal that the Tharus lived relatively undisturbed in this malaria affected lowland region. This undisturbed past was termed satjugi and frequently the statement rang out: “Satjugi, everything had been better”.

It was only in the 1950s that the malaria eradication and resettlement programmes of the government were implemented and immigrants from the hills came in a large number. Following Nepal’s opening to the outside world, Chitwan’s function as a buffer zone lost its significance. Chitwan was promoted into a development region with the aim of easing pressure on the thickly populated hill regions and providing new productive tracts of farmland for the growing population.

Tharus frequently expressed (in the 1980s) that they feel pained by the confrontation with these predominant immigrants. The general consensus - even among the wealthy Tharu landlords - was: "The Pahariyas look down upon us, they are doing much better than we are!" At the same time, Tharu elite families started to adopt typical Hindu religious practices. Nevertheless, they pointed out that they could never correspond to the Hindu ideal. The Tharus' attitude towards the Bahuns and Chhetris, as the representatives of Hinduism, was thus extremely ambivalent. On the one hand, they were collectively regarded as bloodsuckers of the poor, while, on the other hand, they were collectively idealised as the more pure and the more competent people that can cope better with a modern way of life. The intra-ethnical hierarchies and economic differences were completely ignored.

Today, many Tharus have changed their livelihood strategies; some have been able to get income alternative opportunities in tourism or as migrant workers. And the Tharu ethnicity became channelled into a Tharu movement!

VOT: In your view, did the amalgamation of different culture benefit the Tharus of Chitwan? Do you think it had more demerits than benefits?

UMB: First of all, within the Tharu community a pronounced intra-ethnical hierarchy exists; and different people had different means to cope with change. Landless Tharus (partly “enslaved” by Tharu landlords) may give different answers than small-scale farmers or jamindars. It would be interesting to ask different economic Tharu groups, what has changed in their lives in the last 30 years.  Without any doubt, “development” came to Chitwan and also Tharus benefit from better infrastructures and income opportunities.

VOT: You are from Germany but can you tell us how you became interested in researching about the Tharus?

UMB: Yes, I am from Germany, but I am living in Switzerland (and being a migrant worker) since many years. It was in 1976 that I visited Chitwan the first time. I felt attracted by the beauty of the Tharu villages and the amiability of the people. At the same time, I was shocked about how ruthlessly the national park was implemented. It needed some years that I was able to realise my wish to do research there.

VOT: Can you highlight any interesting incident during your research in Chitwan?
UMB: Once I hired a Tharuni as speaker of Tharu terms. It was an extreme hot evening, and I offered her a (warm) soft drink. But she did not drink it and explained, that she will give it to her children. In the meanwhile her husband joined us. I felt a bit puzzled and asked him what he wants. Slowly it became clear that both were urgently waiting for the payment in order to purchase food for the family dinner. I realised what a hand-to-mouth existence means. 

VOT: How did you come with the idea of writing the book The Chitwan Tharus in Southern Nepal? Have you written more about the Tharus based on the research?

UMB: It was a coincidence of theoretical interests, feeling attracted by a region and people, and last but not least a political statement (against state policies – not the migrants - and especially the national park). In addition to the book, I published several articles in scientific journals or edited books.

VOT: What are your personal views about the Tharu? Do you have any advice for the young generation?

UMB: Judge others based on their competences, behavior and credibility. It does not matter to which ethnicity or caste they belong.

VOT: Are you continuing with your research and writing? Can you share with us your future plans?

UMB: After the Tharu research, I did research in Kanchenjunga area and Far West Nepal on conservation issues, people’s livelihoods, migration etc. The last 15 years I was steering a huge international project (NCCR North-South) and was heavily engaged in capacity building and supervision. Recently I did a small research on recruitment agencies in Nepal and now – together with a Nepalese colleague on state restructuring.

I invest also time in the documentation of my work and material, and perhaps come-up with a photo book.  But I guess that this will happen after my retirement (in three years).  

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