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Year : 2005  |  Volume : 3  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 323-353

Nature's Discontents in Nepal

Department of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester, Roscoe Building, Brunswick Street, Manchester M13 9PL, United Kingdom

Correspondence Address:
Ben Campbell
Department of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester, Roscoe Building, Brunswick Street, Manchester M13 9PL
United Kingdom
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Date of Web Publication11-Jul-2009


In the last two decades, nature conservation has adapted to new demands for social inclusion, and people-friendly protected area manage­ment. This article examines how participatory conservation has introduced such ideas in the form of buffer zones and policies to make conservation more amenable to local people's interests in Nepal. It looks at contrasting institu­tional situations of an old national park under reform (Langtang), a new na­tional park combined with a conservation area (Makalu-Barun), and a conservation area of high tourist interest (Annapurna). The article draws on extensive ethnographic knowledge in the first case, and discusses the experi­ence of interactions with local villagers during treks in the other cases, to question the responsiveness of participatory conservation to local people's needs, and their perceptions of changed relationships to their environments under these different regulatory regimes. It argues that the framework in which material incentives are provided for villagers to forego traditional en­vironmental entitlements, fails to recognise the cultural transformation en­tailed in constituting the environment as an object (for protection), external to people's varied kinds of interactive practice. The aim of integrating indige­nous knowledge with conservation goals is shown to be elusive when culture is seen as a resource for conservation, rather than a view on environmental relationships.

Keywords: Nepal, Langtang National Park, participatory conservation, indigenous knowledge

How to cite this article:
Campbell B. Nature's Discontents in Nepal. Conservat Soc 2005;3:323-53

How to cite this URL:
Campbell B. Nature's Discontents in Nepal. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2005 [cited 2022 Oct 5];3:323-53. Available from: https://www.conservationandsociety.org.in//text.asp?2005/3/2/323/49316

   Introduction Top

NARRATIVES OF THE RELATIONSHIP between the Himalayan peasantry and the environments they live in can seem strikingly polarised. On the one hand there are the nature-protective tree-huggers of the Chipko movement sponta­neously taking responsibility for guarding forests against commercial spoliation. On the other hand there are the environmentally profligate and increasingly numerous marginal cultivators whose deteriorating poverty pushes them to turn forests into precariously perched fields, and to keep more livestock than the grazing can sustain. Both of these representations have been revealed as unsatisfactorily simplistic characterisations (Guha 1989; Ives and Messerli 1989), but both narratives are products of seeing particular relationships of marginal agricultural communities to the processes of development through the filter of modernist conceptions of nature. In the first case, the tree-huggers in effect protest the reduction of nature to a utilitarian resource that supplies raw materials for industry and development. The Chipko activists are seen to derive ecological legitimacy by identifying themselves and their livelihoods with respectful and close relationships with sustainable natural bounty. In the second case, the scape-goating of Himalayan farmers as responsible for defor­estation and soil erosion has been taken to justify state intervention in imposing protected areas for the sake of biodiversity. Threatened nature can then be al­lowed to regenerate under regimes that regulate processes of human-induced environmental degradation. This article is concerned with ethnographic examina­tion of ways in which Nepalese cultivators and herders respond to projects of environmental conservation. It deals with the effects of imposing protected areas, where nature becomes objectified as a domain of the non-human, and people's action on it are limited for the purpose of restoring its integrity. Con­cern for nature's apparently fragmenting autonomy in modernity is given pri­ority over people's relationships with nature, yet since voices of discontent with exclusionary protection surfaced in the 1980s, a re-working of conservation policy to include the needs of people affected by environmental protection has introduced a blurring of the simplistic natural/social dichotomy.

The argument I take is that the narrative filters of modernist conceptions of nature which construct it as a material context for development, or as an autono­mous domain of the non-human world, are flawed on conceptual grounds (Latour 1993; Ingold 2000), and in terms of their practicability when operationalised as policy intervention (Ghimire and Pimbert 1997; Stevens 1997; Brechin et al. 2002). In the comparison of three protected areas in Nepal, I describe vari­ous encounters and conversations with people confronted by the arrival of in­stitutionalised nature. Each area has had a different history and context for the creation of protected area status, which is important given the ahistorical and de-politicised framing of nature as the non-human. In these protected areas, attempts are being made to negotiate social legitimacy for conservation. Here, the themes of culturally constructed human agency in the environment that Ingold (1992; 2000) critiques theoretically are being acted out in the flesh, in dispute on the ground. Nature as an object of symbolic construction has been imposed on dwelt environments, whereby people's direct relationships with what the environment affords them have been regulated, classified and valued according to externally designed conservation priorities, that now include the mobilisation of local consent for environmental protection. Instead of under­standing people's environmental relations through attending to their practices of engagement, in the way Ingold argues for, human agency in the bio­physical world is imagined by the language of conservation policy to be de­termined by cultural constructions towards biotic resources. Conservation phi­losophy and other modernist approaches to ecology see the environment 'out there' and culture 'in peoples' heads', rather than being interactionally consti­tuted. Such thinking makes the human component amenable to modification via substituting alternative resources for livelihoods, and the environment available to be protected as an external object in regimes of devolved, grass­roots responsibility. Conservation makes disparate elements of interaction into an objectified entity with the humans separated out, even if present in the background as managers or custodians.

A wholesale narrative transfer of semantic linkages conjured up by the western concept of nature (Williams 1976; Thomas 1983) is not at issue here. As Pigg (1992) has argued for the appropriation of development discourse in Nepal, the entire symbolic package of nature is not simply devolved, but finds points of articulation in the life projects of people, and becomes to some de­gree domesticated as a mode of understanding local social change. However, in contrast to Pigg's analysis of how development discourse became popular­ised and made local, the argument and evidence presented here is that envi­ronmental protection discourse, in the guise of protected areas, has fallen on less compatible cultural and political soil. There are fewer people whose life pro­jects and understandings of socio-cultural change are receptive to the agenda of non-human nature, as compared to development. The agents of environ­mental protection are networks of donors, institutions, officials and social groups, who have very different sorts of identifications with the conservation agenda. These range from former elite hunters turned wildlife enthusiasts (Tucker 1991), to promoters of environmental justice for the poor and mar­ginalised.

Partly as a result of movements such as Chipko for defending biodiversity 'from below', changes occurred from the mid 1980s that re-incarnated con­servation policy in a more people-friendly, participatory approach (Brandon and Wells 1992), recognising the pragmatic ineffectiveness of coercive con­servation in areas surrounded by poverty. Contributions to the policy debate by anthropologists and cultural geographers have also highlighted more posi­tive advantages of translating conservation goals into local frameworks of meaning and accountability (Stevens 1997). [1] However, seeking to address de velopment needs along with conservation goals, brings with it conflicting pri­orities as compared to nature protection pure and simple (Dobson 2000). This was reflected in the IUCN's functional gradations of protected area categories in 1994, and their implications for traditional conservation targets. [2] Despite the promotion of participatory language, and the highlighting of terms such as 'inclusion', 'flexibility' and 'innovation', [3] when viewed on the ground, pro­tected areas are revealed as sites for practices of power, negotiations of inter­est and value, and the messy compromises of life in remote places. In this article, I present accounts of the problems experienced by people affected by nature protection, which suggest that the mutuality of people and their envi­ronments in protected areas has been inadequately problematised in the recent rhetoric of participatory conservation, designed to overcome the original shortcomings of top-down conservation models that depended on human ex­clusion. The cases deal with a traditional national park's attempts to become inclusive, a 'new paradigm' national park with an inclusive 'conservation area', and a conservation area dispensing with national park status altogether. They show how protected areas generate contested frontlines, and discontinui­ties of communication and exchange in the social landscape of power rela­tions. They indicate how people's strategies of livelihood, senses of relationship to place, and understandings of environmental justice engage with the global environmental discourse that has opened the door to admit social dimensions of conservation, within generically managerialised constraints.

Protected Areas in Nepal

The Langtang National Park of north-central Nepal was established in 1976 in the first flush of creating protected areas in Nepal [Figure 1]. The conception of the park was broadly that of the 'Yellowstone' model (Stevens 1997) advo­cating 'minimum human interference' within its borders (Borradaile et al. 1977). Apart from conserving a representative area of biodiversity in central Nepal, ranging from sub-tropical to alpine conditions, where rare stands of trees such as the Himalayan larch, and the red panda are found, the park was considered valuable to protect the watershed catchment of a hydro-electric plant, and to regulate tourist access to the trans-Himalayan valley of Langtang (Borradaile et al. 1977). The Langtang National Park is the most heavily populated of the parks in Nepal (figures given in official park literature suggest for its area of 1710 km 2 , a population of 3450 in 1993, which I presume to be an underestimate of actual numbers at any given time), and covers sections of two administrative districts. In Rasuwa District, most of its predominantly Tamang-speaking population practise extensive transhumant agro-pastoralism, and moreover, not being grain-sufficient were historically used to exchanging and bartering forest produce for lowland villagers' grain (especially woven products of temperate bamboo, herbal medicines, and forest foods such as ferns and mushrooms). The impact of park regulations on villagers' subsis­tence was hard felt. Their most common complaints are of being prevented from managing shrub and weed growth on rough land through burning, not being permitted to hunt the animals that invade crop areas (Campbell 2000), having to pay large sums of money for house-timber licences, not being per­mitted to barter bamboo products beyond Village Development Committee borders, having to cease occasional swidden clearings (mrangshing pheeba), and finally, occasional mistreatment (including extortion and sexual harass­ment) by military guards. Officials working for park authorities tend to be high-caste lowlanders whose perception of the Tamang population is as rough, undeveloped, jangali people. Urban, educated, Hindu government officials posted to Rasuwa commonly describe the place, that for them is an environ­ment devoid of recognisable Hindu civilisation, as a 'wilderness'.

In the face of growing realisation, internationally and in Nepal, that coer­cive, top-down conservation models had not built adequate consensus for en­vironmental protection, a revamping of the minimal human interference principle was initiated in Nepalese parks by the mid-1990s. The buffer zone concept had been piloted in Africa (Stevens 1997: 55), and was intended to give park residents legitimate access to specified areas for limited subsistence needs. In principle, it converges with changing approaches in development thinking to promote bottom-up initiatives, participation of non-government organisations (NGOs) and civil society, empowerment of the disadvantaged, and appreciation of the value of indigenous knowledge for sustainable devel­opment. The national parks of Nepal's lowland Terai area were the first to be given buffer zone projects, supported by the UNDP People and Parks project. Efforts to extend the idea to mountain parks followed thereafter. In November 1997, I visited a project intended to introduce the buffer zone idea in demon­stration plots in two villages of Langtang National Park, Thulo and Sano Bharku. The park had agreed to let an NGO organise the fencing off with stone walls of two sites of about one hectare each for planting tree crops, and some vegetables for the benefit of the village demonstration plot committees. However, rather than plant valued tree and shrub species occurring locally such as bamboos, walnut, and wild fruit and fodder trees, it was mostly unfa­miliar, more lowland-suited species such as citrus that had been planted. Though the villagers had been paid wages for constructing the walls, it was evident that weeding had been unsatisfactory since the plantings. Domestic livestock had also clearly broken through the walls several times, and the plots appeared to have received minimal attention.

Discussing the situation with the NGO worker and villagers, it emerged that the villagers were primarily interested in getting as much money as possible out of the NGO in the duration of its presence, and they did not take the plots as meaningfully theirs', because the park authorities had refused to discuss the villagers' main agenda, which was whether the land title to the plots would be granted to them. Without proper ownership they considered looking after the plots a very low priority in their expenditure of time and effort, and thought that the park would probably reclaim the areas after the short lifetime of the NGO's involvement. Uncertainty as to future funding of the project cast an atmosphere of temporariness over relationships with NGO workers, and over expectations of future direct benefit to villagers through employment. For their part, the NGO workers appeared very constrained by the specific goals for the implementation of the buffer zone project. Their overall objectives were to help villagers establish more confident positions in relationships with park authorities, but the very fact of belonging to a Kathmandu-based organi­sation and being tied in to park decision-making made a gulf that was hard to cross. Even when I spoke to these workers about issues like indigenous envi­ronmental knowledge, there was a response of some bemusement about the idea that village people could know anything of conservation value, though after reflection and revealing the privilege in which education is held, I was advised to talk with local Buddhist lamas, for at least they were seen to use books in their knowledge system. The indigenous knowledge of shamanic healers and other oral knowledge practitioners was generally considered with disdain as mere superstition.

What was interesting in how the Bharku villagers contested the land title is­sues to do with the demonstration plot, was that they sought to counter the en­vironmental and land-ownership authority of the park by arguing for the constitution of the proposed buffer zone management committee to be regis­tered not with the national park, but instead with the Chief District Officer. The latter was seen as more accountable to democratic processes of local gov­ernment. (I found this confident stance surprising compared to the less skillful dealings with authorities in another village of the area). Hence, they attempted to make use of the fact that conservation authorities are only one organ of the state among others, many of which have not only quite contradictory projects for developing village communities in the mountains, but have very different structures and agendas for local participation in these projects. There was ul­timately no alternative to registering the management committee with the park warden, as the committee's central purpose was to facilitate villagers to ac­cess 30-50% of park income, following a standard model applied in other buffer zones around the world. [4]

Talking with a regional elder statesman who had defended the principle of the park since its inception, he said the villagers had from the beginning only perceived the inconveniences of park regulations affecting subsistence activi­ties of wood and fodder collection, rather than see advantages such as the re­striction of outsiders from using natural resources of the village. The balance of park impact for livelihoods was one of loss rather than gain in their eyes, and the statesman did not in fact try to persuade me otherwise. On our parting he also gave me a packet of prickly pepper seeds (Zanthoxylum armatum) har­vested from the wild, and showed me how to slip it in an inside coat pocket to avoid detection at the park checkpost.

Introducing this article, I referred to the way aspects of development dis­course have been domesticated to the contexts of Nepali society. An example of this in terms of the cultural translation of environmental protection with a human face, is the way that villagers' complaints about the burgeoning num­bers of crop-seeking wildlife are dealt with. No monetary compensation is available for the considerable losses that befall households without the labour power for constant nocturnal guarding of fields, but government hunters from the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation are sent periodi­cally, and yet their aim is only to cull the wild boar population. Speaking with these hunters I asked did they not also need to shoot monkeys, bears and leop­ards? The answer I received was 'would you eat monkey?' When boars are shot, choice portions of the animals are dispatched to park headquarters and the Department in Kathmandu, with the hunters and villagers getting a share too. The impact on the total situation of crop damage is thus very limited, and the hunters have to be fed by the host village. The boar cull is the major ac­tion taken by the park to address crop damage. It does not address the problem systematically, but reproduces culturally embedded, ritualised relations of pa ternalism in the distribution of game meat, that make a show of hierarchical social accountability.

Visiting the Department of National Parks in the capital to enquire about the further development of the buffer zone concept for villages inside the Langtang park's boundaries, I saw a map indicating where the buffer zone was to be implemented. It merely covered the southern boundary of the park, and was therefore of relevance to communities outside and adjacent to the park, but ignored completely the residents inside. The model of boundary edge buffer had simply been transposed from the plains parks where much stricter human exclusion had been originally instituted in Bardia and Chitwan (Muller-BOker 1995). In 1998, the buffer zone for Langtang national park was officially declared, covering an area of 420 km 2 . The complex transhumant use of forests and pastures in vertical seasonality, and the actual interactions of park residents with varied habitats and species diversity found no represen­tation in the topology of the map, with its territorialisation of zones of author­ity and permissible activity. Tamang villagers' relationships to place are not simply about resource access, but stem from the life-enabling networks and motivations of extensive kinship and clan alliance, of ritual peregrinations in the landscape, and the mythical locatedness of human health and welfare in pathways of movement between the ecological contrasts of the high and the low (Campbell n.d.).

With the unlikelihood of the park ever ceding land title over de facto areas used by villagers, or that the concepts of buffer zone and, related to it, that of 'facility zone', can ever effectively cover the entirety of villagers' sites of significant environmental engagement, it seems that a continuing tension will exist between designed classifications of where nature and society find their proper places, and the everyday and largely unseen practices of local people's procurements. The Tamang phrasing for this activity is 'amrangnale yo laba' ('invisible stealing'). During my years of fieldwork in the Langtang National Park, it has been very rare to ever encounter a park official on forest paths. Even when villagers do procure forest produce like timber legitimately through licences, and suggest to park officials possible specimens for felling, the officials are likely to say I'm not going up there!' and select instead a tree with closer access. The politics and places of environmental engagement are thus negotiated and enacted through socially selective administrations of visi­bility, silence and agency. This kind of compromise between perspectives in everyday exchanges over use rights contrasts with McNeely's exaggerated characterisation of an administrative void in protected area management:

'By...establishing national parks that have no management, the author­ity of governments tends to be spurious. While many governments have claimed power over resources, they lacked the capacity to implement their responsibilities, thereby creating among indigenous peoples a lack of confidence in the capacity of either state or local institutions to regulate access to local resources.' (McNeely 1997: 178-179).

'Invisible stealing' is unfortunately a contemporary skilled practice of envi­ronmental engagement, that involves a level of self-conscious reflexivity [5] . I was witness to a scene of public embarrassment when an infringer of wood cutting regulations was caught in a chance encounter and held by a park ranger. The culprit had come from a village outside the park and was unfamil­iar with skills of concealment necessary to park-dwellers. He turned out to be the hired animal keeper of the brother-in-law of a lodge owner who also acted as the main contractor for supplying the park administration's kitchens with stores of food and vegetables. After two days of negotiation among the ranger, the warden, the contractor and the brother-in-law, the wood cutter was repri­manded by all of them and set free with a token payment, and business as usual resumed. (His employer pointed out the branch he had lopped should have been axed into unremarkable logs.) The letter of the law had to take sec­ond place to the fragile pragmatic network of relationships sustaining the so­cial and economic conditions necessary for the park's institutional survival.

A revisit to the area in 2005 revealed that despite the Maoist insurgency that has escalated in Nepal in the intervening years, the buffer zone projects of Langtang national park have extended in villages where the army and national park officers maintain some presence. 'User groups' (samuha) based on set­tlement areas have succeeded in drawing on funds from park income (from li­cences, fines and tourist fees) to organise a variety of projects, such as rotational credit schemes, small-scale cheese factories, toilet construction to attract tourists, and fencing of school grounds to facilitate tree nurseries. Vil­lage representatives are thereby able to demonstrate competence in interac­tions with state authorities, and if some of the projects themselves tend to conform to what the authorities consider beneficial and worthwhile, rather than spontaneously emerging from villagers' own agendas, at least a channel for communication of villagers' interests with the park administration is visi­ble, and reciprocal interaction with the park has tempered the stark one­sidedness of power in people-park relations that was characteristic of the early 1990s.

Experiencing 'Participatory' Conservation in Nepal

For a comparative look at how a relatively new national park had managed in getting over its message of people-friendly biodiversity protection, I went for a 17-day trek to the east of Nepal in May 1998. The Makalu-Barun National Park and Conservation Area was set up in 1989 with the intention to be 'par­ticipatory' in its approach.

Information posters about the Makalu-Barun Conservation Project (MBCP) were widely distributed in offices and lodges announcing: 'The purpose of the MBCP is to involve the local communities of Makalu-Barun National Park and Conservation Area as partners, to develop a greater stake in biodiversity protection through the use of traditional and new management capabilities for improved community development, biodiversity protection, and natural re­sources management.'

The motivation for this new protected area had come primarily from the prospect of dramatic socio-economic and cultural change anticipated from the construction of the Arun III hydro-electric dam. A decision was made to cre­ate a separate administrative structure rather than extend the neighbouring Sa­garmatha (Everest) National Park, in order to implement from the outset a participatory conservation policy, rather than add to a reforming, but older generation national park (Shrestha et al. 1990). Apart from the many dam pro­ject workers who were expected to move into the area on a new road infra­structure, the area's potential as a tourist destination was predicted to attract many thousand foreign visitors every year (Shrestha et al. 1990). The man­agement plan contained an ambitious set of goals to attend not only to biodi­versity preservation within its 2330 km 2 , but also to cultural conservation. It further aimed to provide sympathetic treatment of issues such as the sustain­ability and tenurial security of swidden cultivation, and the continuing impor­tance of collective land rights (kipat) for resource management in the area (Shrestha et al. 1990).

Compared to the experience of long term ethnographic fieldwork of the kind I have from Rasuwa District and the Langtang National Park, I had to adapt my ethnographic techniques and enquiry to the conditions of a trek. The value of a Himalayan trek as a rapid fieldwork method is both insightful and partial, relying on direct encounters with people and places. Interactions with people are often momentary encounters while pausing for rest, or sharing a stretch of a pathway. The pedestrian linearity of movement through the land­scape induces an awareness of the invisibility of places to each side. One al­ways has the sense of walking along one path rather than another, of being a visitor at a particular season rather than another. The push towards the day's destination is enhanced by the insistent pace of the people who are walking the paths for an economic rationale of carrying so many kilos of rice in so many days between the market and the hungry mouths back home. The social encounters one makes are also experienced as chance convergences; a wed­ding party, a schoolteacher, a woman prodding a buffalo along. Most will stop and talk, and exchange questions, but there is always the thought that the in­formation one gathers could be so different on another day. One sees a field of some crop, a feature of the landscape, an inscription on a stone by a resting place, and if you are lucky someone might come by and answer your query.

So it was in Makalu-Barun I had a list of questions to begin finding out about the park's activities and policies. As chance would have it, at the par ticular time I walked the trek, all the key park personnel had left the area for training and meetings in Kathmandu. Some questions were not going to be an­swered. Comparisons and contrasts with the Langtang National Park stood out, and enhanced the sense of a mountain to climb in moving from participa­tory rhetoric to inclusive practice.

One of the topics that people spoke about with regularity was khoriya, slash-and-burn agriculture. In the Langtang national park, this had been a rather minor source of grievance, but in eastern Nepal it has had a much stronger historical role in subsistence repertoires (Schmidt-Vogt 2003). Be­fore even arriving in the park boundaries, I heard that a man of Hatiya village had been caught in this illegal activity. 'All the village' had gone to defend him at the court case. The same day I had passed through an area of extensive khoriya. When I asked a 60-year-old Sherpa about these fields he replied sim­ply 'You have to eat' (khanu parcha). The imperative realism of this response was to promise throughout the trek a frequent dissonance with the sentiment made by the invocation 'Let's protect the environment' painted on signs along the way in English and Nepali. Instead of the joint enterprise of the first per­son plural I heard stern articulations of us and them, pitting subsistence priori­ties against the park's proscriptions, and its professed adherence to 'a participatory model of land management that balances the needs of local peo­ple with protection of the environment' (Shrestha et al. 1990: 10).

On the fourth day of walking from the small airstrip at Tumlingtar, I de­scended to the gushing Arun river and crossed the bridge into the park's terri­tory. Three hours later I was nearing the park headquarters in a final, steep, wooded ascent. I asked directions for the best path to take from an old wiry­bodied, bare-foot Brahmin farmer carrying a sack of rice, and we continued together. We stopped to get our breath back, and he instructed me to drink the clean water spouting from a source beside the path. He informed me he had come from the last little farm enclave on the other side of the river where I had noticed finger-millet sprouting up in patches of recent khoriya. He was seventy years old and was delivering the sack of rice to a son. In a long, con­sidered tone he told me 'This park is no good. They don't let you cut wood, they don't allow you to make spaces for paddy seed-beds, [6] they don't permit doing khoriya'.

He then pointed up to a few patches of green finger-millet about a quarter of a mile away, saying those places had been prepared for sowing by burning at night, so no-one would see. He said the park takes money for everything and also spends much on buildings, staff, etc. He wanted to know how much it cost me for the permission to enter. He repeated ramro chaina ('it is not good'). I thought here is an old Brahmin complaining of rheumatic knees and intestinal pains, carrying 6 pathi (24 kg) of rice barefoot 3000 ft up, and he hadn't one good word to say about the park. Brahmins of course constitute the priesthood of Nepali society, and were instrumental in spreading the Hindu state's reach in the east of Nepal two hundred years ago (Caplan 1970; Sagant 1976; Gaenszle 1991). The immigrant high castes brought this remote area of Kirat [ 7] into the unified kingdom of Nepal by an agricultural and political colo­nisation. They introduced comparatively advanced technologies of paddy cul­tivation, and the language of the ruling class. How could this old man, whose history is so tied up with furthering the hold of the Nepali state, and its social hierarchy, be so disaffected with this new park promising community devel­opment and environmental protection? The mission of his ancestors had been to bring this periphery into civilisation by turning forest into productive fields and integrating the area into tax regimes. Now the state's environmental agenda turned him from civiliser to criminal.

The next day, having learnt that the senior personnel of the park were all away, I persuaded the local sector officer at Seduwa to give me a short inter­view. He confirmed to me that within the park, slash-and-burn was only al­lowed on private land, not in community or government forests, and fires had to be prevented from spreading. [8] I asked about crop predations from wild animals, having researched the seriousness of this issue in Langtang National Park, but he said that in Makalu-Barun, this was not a big problem. However, if boars did come into people's fields, the farmers would not be allowed to kill them, nor would they receive compensation. I asked about monitoring of economically important ecological events such as the flowering of bamboo, and he replied though there was no overall scientific monitoring, but commu­nity forestry groups reported on such matters. The running of the park and conservation area depended to a large degree on the functioning of community forestry groups, though in several Village Development Committee areas these had not yet been set up, eight years after the establishment of the park.

The sector officer mentioned that only 600 tourist trekkers passed through the park each year. This was a hundred times less than the numbers which at the time went to see the wildlife of Nepal's Royal Chitwan National Park. The paucity of tourist numbers was a matter of deep local concern, as it is through tourist income that most of the parks stay financially afloat, and the local residents are promised economic development through the prospect of attract­ing larger numbers of tourists as an explicit benefit of protected area status, compensating for diminished resource access. The chairman of the main Vil­lage Development Committee informed me on this issue that the lodge keep­ers, guides and porters were extremely frustrated by the recent trend for mountaineering groups to Mount Makalu (the fifth highest peak in the world) to be transported by helicopters. These land just below the base camp, by­passing the need to spend time and money accessing the peak via cash­expectant villages on the lower approaches. The VDC chairman told me vil­lagers were preparing for a 'movement' (andolan) [9] to ambush the helicopters and pelt them with stones.

Further on at Tashigaon, the main Sherpa village catering to tourists before the trail to the base camp, I was chased by lodge keepers for my custom. The next day, I took on a young man to carry my pack and show me the way over a pass to the next valley. He told me he needed to get back later that day to look after his sheep, as a leopard could kill up to five of them at one time. He left me by early afternoon with Sherpa cousins in a hamlet of three houses and some fields. Exhausted by the walk, I managed some conversation with my new hosts. 'Did the national park do good work?' 'They do not do good' came the answer, mentioning specifically the cost of building a house. For the sort they had, made with beaten bamboo matting for walls and roofs, the licence cost about Rs 1500 (£15). For a more substantial house it would cost at least Rs 5000 for the timber alone. Asked about crop damage, the man of the house seemed to confirm what the sector officer had told me that wild boars were not a big problem, as my host replied that the boars did not descend this far down from the higher forest (we were at an altitude that just supported wild banana trees). But most other animals certainly did come to eat crops, includ­ing bears, barking deer and monkeys, all of which they are not allowed to kill.

Turning into the next valley of the Apsuwa Khola along which was my goal of Khenpalung cave, I lost the main path and scrambled up over flights of field terraces and scrub pasture. Eventually the sound came from above of Radio Nepal's hourly jingle, which promised the likelihood of the main path through this Rai village of Maksuwa. I sat down beside the radio's owner to catch my breath. After only a couple of introductory formalities, it was he who asked me 'tapai ko vicar ma nikunja ramro cha ki chaina?' ('In your opinion is the park a good thing or not?'). I tried to avoid giving my opinion straight out, in the interests of non-directive information collecting. But he in­sisted again, what was my opinion? I answered that I thought people found hardship from the park, to which he intoned agreement and gave the usual list of complaints, not being allowed to cut wood, not to make khoriya, and not being allowed to protect crops. 'That is how it is in our Nepal' he sighed, and rolled off the national environmental slogan 'Hariyo ban, Nepal ko dhan' ('Green forest is the wealth of Nepal'). I sensed that his use of 'Nepal' here had a familiarly ambiguous connotation. Nepal could be taken as meaning the state in Kathmandu as opposed to the villagers, whose former ownership of the forest has been supplanted by the authorities of the national park.

Clearly very few trekkers indeed came this way, but I was told of one house on this side of the valley, that would put me up for the night. Here at Chirk­hang, a 19 year-old Jimi Rai, son-in-law, of the house agreed to act as porter­guide and take me the next two days along the path up to Khenpalung cave. As with most of my encounters on the trek, the fact that I spoke Nepali led people initially to think I was undoubtedly working for the park. The next day the son-in-law told me his story of having applied for a job with the park. He said that he had passed an interview, being capably literate, but then the job was given to a Sherpa who had not given a strong interview. The Sherpa was appointed because of having 'aphno manche' ('one's own people') on the in side. A few days later I met a young Rai woman who complained also of be­ing turned down from a national park job even though she had a School Leav­ing Certificate, in favour of someone without an SLC, who was supported 'from inside'.

Crossing the Apsuwa Khola on the flimsiest of seasonal bridges, and as­cending the other side, we joined a much more substantial trail and learned this had been built by the park to improve access to the Khenpalung pilgrim­age cave. Looking back across the other side of the valley, my companion spontaneously pointed out several patches where forest had been cut down but not fired. He told me these intended khoriya sites had not been agreed to by the park authorities. It seemed the notion of legitimate clearing for cultivation was still assumed until official intervention prevented further action. He said in the days of his grandfathers, people simply cleared at will, and marked field boundaries with stones to claim cultivation rights. Also if you made a goth (animal shelter) somewhere, that was your kharka (pasture). He indicated an area of forest on the far side where he had spent several years keeping a flock of sheep, and that a bear had once killed six of them, smashing the lambs against the rocks. The care devoted to livestock is more than an eco­nomic relation, and I learned later the tending of sheep formed part of the myth connected to the Khenpalung cave. It is said a shepherd was puzzled as to where one particular animal of his kept disappearing to. Following it, he discovered the cave where Guru Rimpoche (the culture hero of the Buddhist Himalaya) had supposedly hidden to avoid his enemies. This cave is looked after by Sherpa lamas whose ancestors migrated from the Everest area of Solu-Khumbu. It is linked in a sacred landscape complex with a higher lake that is also a pilgrimage site (Ramble and Chapagain 1990; Diemberger 1993; 1996).

Over another 10,000 ft pass, I reached Tamku, a major village with a weekly market and a national park sector office. I heard further accounts here of how the Mewahang Rais till the 1960s held land in common title (kipat). Talking to a septegenarian veteran of the Gurkhas' Burma campaign, he said in the old days as much land as you could cultivate would be yours. Not all the ethnic groups in this area held kipat rights, however. I heard there was a community of Tamangs above the main settlement of Tamku and went to in­vestigate. I learned from two of their elders that the Tamangs had been invited here generations ago, and had been given land to settle by the Rai headman (jimmiwal) in return for mining iron. They did not practise the transhumant agro-pastoralism of the Tamangs I knew in central Nepal, but clearly had con­siderably relied on khoriya till the establishment of the park. I was told that since the park was established, numbers of Himalayan chamois (tahr) had in­creased dramatically, barking deer come 'like flocks of sheep and goats', and many bears come and eat maize. Porcupines also come with increasing fre­quency and all these animals are not permitted to be killed by the farmers. I asked an octagenarian Tamang lama if he thought the park was good. 'Chaina' ('It is not') he replied with an emphatic stop, and then listed the usual complaints: no khoriya, no wood cutting, and no bamboo collection in the way these livelihood supports had been available in the past. The message about people-friendly, participatory conservation had not got through to this level of critical elders.

One afternoon in Tamku a huddle of people were looking at a metal spring­trap snare that a teenager was carrying home. I was told it was for catching jackals (which steal chickens) and porcupines. Asking whether this was per­mitted by the park they told me you have to put it out at night so no-one sees. Among this group was a government agricultural extension worker, who did not denounce the practice, but said such technology was to be used out of the park's gaze.

Making efforts to find expressions of the park's point of view on its relation to the local population, I visited the sector office in Tamku. The assistant warden was away, but I found there was a one-time research assistant for an American anthropologist. A Rai of another valley in the region, he had ini­tially worked on one of the more innovative aspects of the Makalu-Barun park's design, namely 'cultural conservation'. This aspect of the park's work had now been relegated to a very low priority due to budget cuts, and he him­self had been moved into simply doing administration. He expressed some dissatisfaction with how the whole context of the Makalu-Barun Conservation Project (MBCP) had evolved. One of the original motives for setting up the park had been to mitigate the likely effects of the development of the hydroe­lectric project, Arun III. After widespread criticism of inappropriate mega­dam projects, the World Bank had withdrawn support, and the plan was shelved in 1995. He saw his district remaining a remote and infrastructurally detached backwater. It was 'disaster' for the area. The park was having an ex­tremely hard time attracting tourists and their income, as it did not have the attractions of rhinoceros and elephants that lowland parks offer. He confirmed the long-term aim of the park was to hand over running the conservation area from government responsibility to local and NGO control.

The MBCP appears as a case of an idea designed with foresight to prevent the damaging effects of regional economic transformation that was to have been expected by the construction of the Arun III dam. With the connecting road infrastucture not being built, and the tourist numbers not materialising, its original economic and environmental rationale has disappeared. This one­off visit to MBCP of two and a half weeks duration, is of course a partial ac­count, and the particular timing of the visit probably contributed to my inter­pretation of the impact of this protected area. On leaving the park, the image I carried was of a remote local farming population which had lost all its paddy crop in 1997 due to unseasonal rains in November, and was having to pay high prices for portering-in rice, or try to extend khoriya into areas for culti vation deemed illegitimate by the park. The park management plan had rec­ognised that 73% of households surveyed in the area had food deficits, lasting up to as much as nine months (Shrestha et al. 1990), and in the conditions as they were during my visit, it appeared the pressure to intensify production was meeting an unresponsive policy on opening lands to swidden. The inability of the park to address acute subsistence needs in the short term had not con­vinced the local population of its participatory intent.

Meeting a Sherpa from the Khenpalung settlement in 2005 in Kathmandu, I learnt that since the Maoist insurgency had taken hold in the Makalu-Barun area, the park administration had retreated to Khandbari, outside the park lim­its, and that Tamku in particular had become a rebel stronghold. A US em­bassy communication in 2005 has highlighted the threat to conservation of the insurgency, warning of 'serious ecological damage' as a result of the conflict, and the abandonment of protected areas to 'environmental criminals' includ­ing poachers, and increased rates of deforestation. [10] From the limited evidence of my visit, it is not wholly surprising that the local population of Makalu­Barun may have become a recruiting ground for the people's war. [11]


The Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) has been heralded since its inception in 1986 as an exceptional attempt to redirect policy for nature conservation. It represented a move away from culturally inappropriate Yel­lowstone-type models of pure nature and minimum human interference, to constitute 'a multiple land use principle of resource management that com­bines environmental protection with sustainable community development' (ACAP brochure 1998). In the information centre of Ghandruk on the ap­proach to the Annapurna base camp, a poster stated 'neither the people nor the natural resources of this area need suffer for the sake of the other'. ACAP's world renown as an innovative, people-friendly protected area was reflected on in its first decade report (Adhikari and Lama 1996), and is celebrated in comparative academic discussions of participatory conservation (Stevens 1997; Igoe 2004).

On a brief four day trek in the lower reaches of ACAP (it covers an area of 7629 km 2 ), I went with my family in 1998 in search of flowering rhododen­drons and conversation about the project. Just an hour's walk from the road­side start I pointed out to my daughter a troop of rhesus macaques scrambling through the understorey of woods above the path. A village woman obviously tired of tourists' fascination with these mundane and bothersome creatures asked me why I was so interested in them, 'do you like the red monkey?' (tapailai rato Bandar man parcha?) she inquired with disdain.

Of all Nepal's mountain trekking destinations the Annapurna area is the most popular. Some 50,000 foreigners went trekking here each year by the late 1990s, even attracting European royalty and rock stars. At 1000 rupees (approximately UK£10) per entry permit, this amounts to a huge income, and unlike those national parks which spend around 75% of their budgets on mili­tary enforcement of park regulations, ACAP does not depend on the army. It decentralises responsibility for much forest control to village conservation management committees. Speaking with a woman lodge owner in the Magar ethnic group village of Ulleri I heard some dissatisfaction with this arrange­ment: 'ACAP is not very good for us. We have to buy firewood from our own forest to cook food. We have to pay money. People of the village [manage­ment committee] eat this money. The people from here eat the money from the wood. It has not been good.'

The next day, after walking along a north-facing forested ridge where months before a storm had blown down a large number of snow-laden trees, a tea shop owner explained he had only been allowed to take wood from the fallen trees that actually obstructed the path. All the rest had to be left on the order of ACAP. He was clearly not well disposed to this policy. Later he joked with a couple of porters passing through that he would report them for having collected some high-value edible fungi.

Lodge owners who build premises outside villages on the trekking routes are required to pay Rs 1500 per year for the site rent. One owner on the trail complained ACAP does not do anything in return for this money, and grum­bled about not being allowed to cut firewood. However, he insisted ACAP in itself was a good idea, and the fact that soldiers were not used to police it made a massive difference compared to the national parks. It should do more for the lodge keepers though. He told me anyone caught hunting was fined Rs 100,000 (£1000). Further on I heard that if anyone is caught taking timber for house construction without prior permission a similar fine is imposed, whereas if agreement is sought the permit would cost around Rs 1000.

Speaking with a Gurung woman in ACAP's office in Ghandruk she con­fessed that there was indeed 'back-biting' among the village management committees, but her key positive experience was that ACAP had succeeded in getting a considerable number of women actively involved in meetings. At first they had been shy, but they have now been emboldened to make forceful demands themselves.

One Nepali environmental consultant's advice for the further project devel­opment of ACAP's participatory approach was that ACAP should tell the people exactly how much money they have. This advice was rejected but it highlights a problem in the notion of participation. Just how far does the shar­ing of goals and information extend? There is little doubt that when it comes to the crunch, what ACAP says goes. How far participation in reality extends beyond rhetorical reinvention and limited inclusion of those disadvantaged by more conventional conservation needs to be considered. Sacareau's (2003) de­tailed and perceptive study of a valley within the Annapurna area highlights the project's continuing ideological reliance on the theory of Malthusian overpopulation to explain causes of deforestation. She provides an analysis of change over the last fifty years, to suggest most of the broad changes claimed by the project (substitution of dependence on local resources by alternative livelihood strategies) had already been initiated by village organisations prior to the project's existence (Sacareau 2003). Sacareau further critiques ACAP's reliance and focus on the sites of greater tourist presence for the success of its works, to the detriment of less-frequented villages in more need, and notes the project's lack of anticipation of how tourism could be likely to transform away from trekking models, towards for instance activity centres, which would affect the mechanisms for benefit distribution to the population as a whole. She concludes ACAP 'has only followed pre-existing dynamics, with­out however reducing the inequalities between touristic villages and those that are not' ( Sacareau 2003: 445, my translation).

By 2005, most ACAP posts had been abandoned by its officials faced with the escalating insurgency. These included the model site office village of Ghandruk. ACAP's patronage by Prince Gyanendra (after 2001, King Gy­anendra), through his chairmanship of the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation during the 1980s and 90s, provided too close an identification of ACAP with the regime to avoid coming under attack. It has been noticed however by a number of observers [12] that many of the community forest com­mittees set up under ACAP, and indeed by the wider community forestry pro­grammes in Nepal, have continued to operate when either protected area authorities or Forest Department officers have retreated from the scene due to rebel threats. It appears that through this most unintended set of circum­stances, the community groups' organisational sustainability has ironically been shown to have been effectively devolved, and their grassroots value demonstrated in the absence of central direction.

   Discussion Top

Negative responses to the introduction of protected areas are often portrayed as knee-jerk peasant conservatism. In contrast to this, I would suggest there are two sorts of reasons why nature conservation is not highly popular in Ne­pal. The first is quite straightforward and has to do with reducing people's en­vironmental relationships to a reordered rural economy of costs and benefits, though this alone is not sufficient to explain the depth of resistance. For all that the designation of protected nature might seem to imply removing pres­sures of human production from a certain area and diminishing the direct in­fluence of market values on it, commodification is not removed but rather reconfigured. As Escobar (1995) describes it, there is a 're-capitalisation of nature' at work in the guise of sustainable eco-development discourse. At the ground level there are sets of agreements or deals about use and exchange: li censing, restricted group memberships for resource access, and promised fu­ture benefits from the protected area. On the more 'global' level, there is clearly an expectation that continuing environmental degradation outside pro­tected areas will enhance the relative value of the ever-scarcer bio-wealth they contain: both in terms of a 'bank' of resources for nation states and biotech­nology research, and in terms of world heritage stakes (Hay-Edie 2000). Im­poverished nations are very aware of the value added to their international symbolic capital, and tourism potential, by a profile of having many protected areas. From the villagers' side, one of the few resident women I met who sup­ported the Langtang National Park said quite plainly the main perceived ad­vantage in protecting wildlife and forests was that they attracted tourists. [13]

The objectification of nature as a cultural process of re-viewing the world, even when in the guise of wilderness, is then significantly linked to concomi­tant processes of commodification. The history and future of national parks and protected areas in Nepal is bound up with the conversion of once freely obtained materials into prohibited or licensed goods, and the funding of the system of administrative control by the marketing of nature to foreign tourist consumers. The creation of enclaves considered to be of global environmental value can simultaneously be represented as a sacralisation of nature, where the progressive extraction of planetary surplus value is held at bay. The tour­ists visiting these areas experience profound sensations of getting-away-from­it-all, primarily due to having to walk, but also to the incredible cheapness of food, lodging and human porterage. [14] From the perspective of people living under the regimes of 'ghetto'-ised nature, however, they experience their lives as subjected to distorted exchange values. Nature protection in populated ar­eas involves making demarcations of places, where certain activities are deemed un-natural, and assigning measures to charge for use and punish transgressions. The veneer of modernist nature sacralisation does not perco­late down to meet a participation from below. Meanwhile, severe pressures of poverty on ecosystems become relocated away from protected areas to inten­sify in the most fragile sites of biodiversity which are not protected (Ripert et al. 2003).15In the three cases of protected areas discussed here, we have seen that un­certainties surrounding particular project funding cycles (the buffer zone in Langtang National Park) scenarios for infrastructural development (Makalu­Barun and the Arun III dam), and transparency of funds (ACAP) have inhib­ited prospects for long-term relationships of participation between communi­ties and protected area authorities. Other policy attempts to mobilise community consent for conservation have depended strongly on prospects of tourist income compensating for diminished access to forest resources, yet several examples show how tourism is a very partial and unreliable means of distributing benefits from the creation of protected areas. My conversations revealed a further constituency beyond discontented cultivators and lodge keepers; one of aggrieved educated people in the Makalu-Barun Conservation Project. Local literate young adults were not finding openings for careers with the park. The park was seen as controlled by interest groups extending patron­age among their own people. The possibilities for promoting participation and having local people identify with its aims encounter difficulties when em­ployment and recruitment practices for protected area administration entail winners and losers, who recognise that access to favour is as scarce a resource as cultivable land. In MBCP, a participatory knowledge agenda may have been intended by original programmes of research into khoriya and cultural conservation, but these had been shelved, leaving an implementation deficit in key areas where local interests could have been engaged. The main evident priority instead is the promotion of 'eco-tourism' favoured by the interna­tional donor organisation for MBCP, the Mountain Institute. The planned am­bushing of helicopters indicated how desperate the local people were to keep what little tourist income came their way, and to have some say in the economic topology of this traffic. [16] Even in the tourist hotspot of Annapurna, Sacareau (2003) has identified ACAP's ineffectiveness at addressing the inequalities of its outreach to villagers that are less visited by tourists. Participatory design for conservation may be an improvement on traditional national parks, allow­ing at least a principle of some local control, but as Baviskar has written on the Great Himalayan National Park of Himachal Pradesh, the notion carries with it a whiff of paternalism. 'Participation is seen as purely instrumental here, as something that promotes programme implementation rather than a right that villagers have as interested parties to the changes being contem­plated by the state' (Baviskar 2000: 113). [17]

Coming to Terms with Place

Taking the cost-benefit line, many of the problems discussed could be re­duced simply to a bad deal for locals. The costs have been too immediate and are getting worse in impact, whereas the benefits have been too few, too un­evenly distributed, too slow in coming, or remain vague promises made with little conviction. Land title to the buffer zone plots in Langtang National Park was unlikely to be conceded, devolved institutions for participatory resource control in ACAP have not escaped being seen as presenting some people with opportunities for un-participatory self-advantage, and the tourist numbers vis­iting MBCP remain disappointingly low. This failure to deliver tangible bene­fit would not alone be adequate explanation for the extent of discontent. I would argue that the ontology of politics, culture, history and identity plays a part in what is the second basis for discontent towards nature conservation. This is not to suggest that all bases for discontent are similar, and that the three areas discussed here share the same conditions for antipathy to certain kinds of restriction. Very different dynamics of ethnic groups, and of relation ships to the state, to patterns of trade and agriculture, to land tax systems, and to the global economy have characterised the three mountain regions dis­cussed here. There is not the space to enter into systematic comparison, and my point is rather that the treatment of conservation as an issue to be resolved primarily by putting participatory structures of management in place creates silences in what is at issue, when people's relations with their lived environ­ments are transformed.

Analysts of environmental 'governmentality' (see introduction) such as Agrawal (2005) have produced sophisticated accounts of how the logic of forest protection by local stakeholders can be effectively decentralised in certain po­litical circumstances, thus making the tensions of local-state relations pursued in this paper seem inappropriate. From an anthropological perspective, however, a qualitative shift is involved in moving from villagers' self-understanding of their homelands as places of practical intimacy, ancestral settlement, and of supernatural and species-rich conviviality, to seeing forests as 'an entity discrete from humans' (Agrawal 2005: 201). This is a leap that needs careful reflec­tion, 'cultural' problematisation and an attendance to the qualities of people's environmentally interactive experience in the round, that Agrawal's definition of environmental 'subjectivity' leaves virtually untouched. Recent arguments within environmental anthropology for recognising people's sociality with the non-human world are especially at odds with the notion of an objectified non­human domain (Descola 1996; Milton 1996; Ingold 2000).

What all participatory conservation initiatives have in common is the recon­figuring of environmental relationships in terms of scarce resource manage­ment. Agrawal takes this as the major achievement of colonial foresters in Kumaon, to the West of Nepal, in the 1920s. While his account accords little explanatory value to issues of culture, in ACAP's decennial review it 'has considered culture as a resource as it contains a body of knowledge that is useful for coping with the environment' (Adhikari and Lama 1996: 15). This framing of culture attempts to contain and assign a place within the scheme of things to religious practice and ethno-linguistic difference, fixing up temples and sponsoring rituals. It does not recognise culture ontologically in the envi­ronmental practices of marginalised communities. Protected Areas, whatever their participatory design, have rarely acknowledged their effects on resident peoples' ways of interacting with their environments, whereby fundamental formations of collective identity and self-hood are produced through conjunc­tures of property systems and relationships to the state. Writing of the Lim­bus' of East Nepal Caplan argued:

'The state has assisted-whether inadvertently or not-the dominant peasant groups to acquire tribal lands through a concerted legislative programme which transformed the way in which these indigenous groups held land, historically regarded as the possession of the collective, and thus as inalienable... [T]raditional customs which regulated the alloca­tion, use and transfer of land among tribal people have been superseded by state laws which led to the loss of this land.' (Caplan 1991: 306).

While the terminology of 'tribes' now looks antiquated (both in Nepal, see Gellner et al. 1997; and elsewhere in Asia, Li 2000), it is this historical context in which protected areas become a further factor in the erosion of villagers' livelihood base and local social agency, involving a transfer of control over productive resources, that resident people cannot ignore when confronted by exhortations to protect the environment. Other accounts from east Nepal such as Forbes (1999) stress the deep sense of collective self-reliance and genera­tional continuity that come from practices of cultivation which are far from simply instrumental resource management, and that through activity make the social and physical landscape one and the same. [18]

At the same time, the effective reach of state promulgations into far-flung regions can be over-estimated. Centrally made decisions over village property regimes can have very slight impact. In their report to MBCP on cultural di­mensions of conservation, Ramble and Chapagain comment on the effect of the 1964 Lands Act on the indigenous system of resource allocation in several villages of the Makalu-Barun area as having been 'practically none' (1990: 15). The introduction of a park, however, constitutes a different order of state intervention. These authors continue 'when the matter of a rastriya nikunj- national park-was raised ...[it generated] antipathy towards what they sus­pected would be an infringement of hereditary rights by the government' (Ramble and Chapagain 1990: 24). How villagers respond in such circum­stances to regulatory surveillance, does introduce an important aspect for eth­nographic research into new skills of negotiation (Pottier 2003) with diverse state and other presences, that create positions of brokership and translation. At the same time, new learned practices of concealment of activities may en­able some continuity with provisioning in ways done before.

The second phase of protected area policy in Nepal since the late 1980s, characterised by adjustments to the 'Yellowstone' model to include buffer zones and participatory conservation, has not transformed the relationships of difference between conservation enforcers and rural populations. [19] There was evidence of a new reflexive pragmatism in the case of a United Nations De­velopment Program project in Langtang National Park, that wanted to address environmental issues, but avoided all reference to 'environment' in its public presentation, and stressed tourism as its focus in order to attract local interest rather than antagonism (Chandra Gurung pers. comm.). In MBCP, the relega­tion of 'cultural conservation' down the agenda appeared as a case of losing ground for building common interest in the goals of conservation. Behind this loss of priority could be seen a centrist neglect for the issue of local knowl­edge, that was brought up in the Langtang example where Lamas' texts were given more credibility by the NGO than oral sources. In ACAP headquarters, my enquiries about whether research had been conducted into cultural aspects of conservation elicited the response that only a few foreigners may have done something in this regard, who had cultivated close sympathies with local sha­mans (a path of enquiry clearly spoken of as suitably trivial for foreigners to indulge in!). [20]

Since the people's war took hold in Nepal at the end of the 1990s, the pro­tected areas have operated in restricted circumstances. To think that all con­servation initiatives cannot survive the insurgency would be to suggest no effective devolution of environmental control had taken place under participa­tory initiatives. Anecdotal evidence mentioned above contradicts this fear, but in the meantime autonomous regions are under discussion between the Maoist command and representatives of the ethnically diverse (Janajati) rural popula­tion where protected areas are located. A new articulation (Li 2000) of cul­tural politics and environmental interests could be under consideration, that would shift the previously imagined kinds of connection between culture and conservation, to take cognisance of historical injustices done to Nepal's ethnic minorities, of which carrying the burdens of protected area regulations were a recent manifestation.

   Conclusion Top

It remains in doubt whether radical perspectives on indigenous knowledge can be taken on board as relevant to Nepal's nature conservation within main­stream approaches. These have been heavily reliant on the language of capac­ity building, social capital and creating a good impression for visitors, [21] where folkloric culture and ethnic handicrafts appear as a window-dressing optional appendage, rather than attending to people's environmental relations beyond resource object utility. Escobar is sceptical about eco-development's appro­priation of local knowledge.

'This new capitalization of nature does not only rely on the semiotic conquest of territories (in terms of biodiversity reserves and new schemes for land ownership and control) and communities (as 'stew­ards' of nature); it also requires the semiotic conquest of local knowl­edges, to the extent that 'saving nature' demands the valuation of local knowledges of sustaining nature... Local knowledge is not seen as a complex cultural construction, involving not objects but movements and events that are profoundly historical and relational. These forms of knowledge usually have entirely different modes of operation and re­lations to social and cultural fields'. (Escobar 1995: 204)

The way out from spreading discontent could require dismantling the edifice and artifice of 'pure' nature, which as a non-human domain consequently re quires re-integration with the social for effective environmental projects that people can identify with, rather than simply comply with. For Latour, nature is a purification, that is inadequate for the task of understanding how things actually operate, in hybrid interchange. Latour claims that transcendent modern nature is made distinct from the fabric of society, 'thus contrary to the con­tinuous connection between the natural order found among the premoderns' (Latour 1993: 139). In the current state of relations between protected areas and local populations in Nepal, the networks of continuous connection have yet to come out of hiding, beyond the one-sided pronouncements of participa­tory conservation that profess concern for, and need to work with, local inter­ests. Of course, beyond policy rhetoric, protected area conservation relies on many kinds of compromises and tacit acceptance of less than ideal practice, that defy the ring-fencing of nature. Being seen to defend pure nature has to be done for funding, but its administration by real people involves achieving modus vivendi in local terms to create the conditions of pragmatic institutional survival (of which the woodcutter's infringement in the Langtang national park is an example). Alternative modernist ideological ways of thinking about the networks of connection reclaim biodiversity for rural people, 'tribals' and women, against patriarchal and scientistic tendencies of development policy and discourse (Shiva 1989) though essentialist constructions of women and indigenous people's relationship with nature are all too easy to confound when faced with local ethnographic complexities. The danger would be of re­placing one modernist version of purified nature with another. The role of an­thropologists should be to contest strategic purifications of nature and culture to reveal connections (biological, social, commercial, political and ideational), that brings insight to the analysis of human-environmental relations rather than assist in reproducing isolated domains generated for political, administra­tive or scientific convenience.

'Nature' as produced by protected area status generates discontent because of disrupted patterns of organic connection, [22] exchange and reciprocity, or 'media­tion' as Latour puts it, in lived worlds. The productive, ongoing engagement with processes of growth and species interactivity constitute a fundamental subsistence ontology of belonging and agency for many people, who have to live with the effects of modern worldviews that categorise nature as a domain distinct from the human. Regulations limiting areas for swidden farming, crop damage inflicted by increasing numbers of unrestrained wildlife, or prohibi­tions on collection of forest products, are consequences of protection which both destabilise the fragile viability of marginal livelihoods and the hold people have on an understanding of the interactive world of real presences, entities and non-human sentient beings, that they do not see as necessarily polarised between nature and society. Participatory approaches to conservation have in­troduced a limited reflexivity over environmental policy for protected areas, but the challenge is to move beyond mechanical models of integrating social and natural concerns that offer material inducements for local inclusivity to better understand how people's environmental relations are as intimately so­cial as are the discourses of biodiversity under threat from people, and the in­stitutions that seek legitimacy from this tension.


This research was supported by an award from ESRC (R000237061). I thank the villagers and protected area authorities of Langtang, Makalu-Barun, and An­napurna for their time and cooperation, the Department of Social Anthropology, Manchester for discussion and support, and the editors and reviewers of Conser­vation and Society for critical appreciation.[51]

   References Top

1.Adhikari, J. and T.T. Lama. 1996. Annapurna Conservation Area Project: A New Approach in Protected Area Management. King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation, Kathmandu.  Back to cited text no. 1    
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