Collapse or co-existence: Choice is ours!

Published On: June 8, 2021 12:38 PM NPT By: Damodar Kanel

We already have warning signs from Chure and it’s now our choice - whether we want our society and civilization to collapse through inexorable exploitation of the environment or manage resources for co-existence and win-win.

Exploitation, degradation, and destruction of the environment and natural resources has gone unabated in Nepal; not through public encroachment and action but because of rent seeking, policy corruption, and impunity. The fate of Chure is a living example of how an unaccountable state and kleptocrats extract natural resources to sustain their cronies, appease hegemons, and acquire individual gains. It is not that Chure’s exploitation is an entirely new issue. In fact, it has continued relentlessly for years under political protection, muscle, and money, and now the government’s decision on sand querying and export has stoked the debate and it has become an issue of public concern. The government’s plan to bridge the trade gap through sand and pebble export has now polarized the actors, allies, and their narratives- conservation, management, and consumerism. No doubt, natural resources should support human survival, development, and existence. However, their excessive use, degradation, and destruction will not only cause ecological disasters but will also threaten the survival of humankind and collapse of societies and civilizations. 

Jared Diamond, an American geographer and historian, in his famous book ‘Collapse’ has illustrated how civilizations in the past collapsed because of environmental damage, climate change, cooperation/hostility of neighbors, and society’s decisions/choice to deal with these factors. As Diamond has concluded, collapse can and will happen again, even in seemingly-blessed nations, unless we recognize the warning signs and choose to act responsibly. Here, we already have warning signs from Chure and it’s now our choice - whether we want our society and civilization to collapse through inexorable exploitation of the environment or manage resources for co-existence and win-win.

Chure is an extremely fragile ecological region, yet it continues providing lifesaving environmental services and livelihoods for millions of populations in the foothills and Tarai region of Nepal. With climate variability and uncertainty coupled with human imprint, the region’s resource base has significantly eroded and its morphology severely damaged. The effects are already apparent - surface run-offs, landslides, downstream flash floods and siltation, agricultural drought etc. The societal impacts of these phenomena are pervasive and far-flung. The government’s decision on sand querying and export will, no doubt, cause irreversible destruction of Chure, its services, and civilization. A rational government would have adopted what they call a ‘precautionary approach’ for the management of theChure region. 

The Precautionary Principle recognizes that delaying action until there is compelling evidence of harm will often mean that it is then too costly or impossible to avert the threat. The use of the principle promotes actions to avert risks of serious or irreversible harm to the environment. In our case, the necessity of action for risk aversion in Chure is already evident and hence the so-called environmental impact assessment provision is nothing but a disguised provision to legitimize exploitation of Chure and nurturing the cronies. We have seen ample studies/assessments maneuvered to fit the purpose.

Land, water, and forest are our biggest endowments and livelihood assets. However, these have been historically exploited to fulfill the vested interest of a handful of rulers and elites. The Ranas, to appease British India for their political survival, cleared large tracts of Nepal’s terai forest to support India’s railway network expansion and development of cities in northern India. This concession/appeasement continues, be it to support India’s irrigation and water needs (eg, the Mahakali Treaty) or through supporting India’s rapidly growing construction sector by supplying sand, pebbles, and boulders. The interest is twofold - in addition to appeasing the southern neighbor, it is also one of the biggest sources of political financing. As witnessed historically, these kleptomaniacs turn to natural resources to fulfill their ever-increasing greed for wealth, political concession, and power. Kleptocracy in Nepal has sustained through a nexus of political, private, public, and criminal spheres, and it thrives on the embezzlement of public resources, rent seeking, and impunity and sustains crony capitalism. 

As Paulo Coelho has said, ‘When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it’. It seems like the government is desperately after devouring Chure and we are seemingly and collectively supporting this conspiracy and contributing to Chure’s desertification. A mere silence on our part is also supporting this conspiracy! So, as Jared Diamond has rightly said, the choice is ours - whether we want a collapse or a co-existence!



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