SANKATIGHAT, (Bardiya) July 8: Janaki Sonaha gave out a long exasperated sigh of disappointment as she hopelessly searched for the last specks of gold in sand with a wooden plate on the bank of Karnali River here one recent afternoon. Janaki, her husband Ram Singh and their daughter Jyoti had already spent five hours winnowing sand under sweltering heat for little gain (one lal) of gold.
“This won’t even fetch us Rs 500. It’s becoming harder to find gold these days,” Janaki, 45, said as she removed covers from a brass cup to show us the specks of the precious yellow metal they had extracted that day.
Janaki, as her last name suggests, is from the indigenous Sonaha community, a dying group of traditional gold miners who have for generations lived on the banks of the Karnali River.
Sonaha people identify themselves as a distinct ethnic group even as they share food, culture and, to some extent, language with the Tharu community, the largest ethnic group of the tarai plain.
As her husband started loading the tools they had brought with them in a boat, Janaki talked about the time not long ago when gold mining used to be an easy but rewarding affair. Back in the days when she was a teen, the mighty Karnali used to flow in its natural course often changing beds, leaving ample of gold for the miners to extract from the sand grains without any hassles. At times, they would fetch up to five lals of gold. Gold traders from Rajapur would flock to her village to buy the raw gold.
“These days, there are restrictions everywhere. We aren’t even allowed to search for gold on the river banks. People behave as if we are thieves stealing gold,” Janaki said.
The Sonahas first started to face restrictions on mining with the inception of Bardiya National Park in 1988. They were first barred from accessing the river banks within the national park area. As time passed by, it became difficult for them to enter into the buffer zone and eventually into the community forest. The Nepal Army and other security personnel in charge of the national park would often arrest, harass and fine them besides confiscating their fishing nets, boats and other equipment. These days, they only have access to a certain section of the river.
Janaki fears that she might be forced to completely give up her traditional occupation once the ongoing Karnali embankment project gets shape.
Started in February 2015, the Karnali River Control Project plans to build around 43-km long embankment along the largest river in the country. The project is expected to save millions of people, let alone protect thousands of hectares of farmland in Bardiya and Kailali, two districts in mid and far western Nepal that are prone to floods.
The project has brought particularly bigger joys among the people living in Rajapur, the business hub of a vast delta formed by the Karnali River. People said that the embankment would not only save lives and farmland but also make the region prosperous.
But in the neighboring Daulatpur, Janaki and her neighbors appear apprehensive about their future and the future of their children. The forceful evictions of some households living along the river banks without offering any alternative means of living have made them further suspicious of the government’s intention.
Unlike their Tharu and hill community neighbors, most of the Sonahas do not have farmlands to grow crops. As a result, a majority of around 3,000 Sonaha families are primarily dependent on money generated from gold mining to meet their daily needs. “There are some Sonahas who have land but most of us earn living by gold mining and fishing. It has always been like this,” said Rita Sonaha, 37, of Murgauwa, a village situated on the bank of the Karnali River.
Rita said that it has been harder for them to find river beds, which are considered suitable for gold mining after the dyke was built on one side of the river. The river is likely to be further narrowed down once the dyke is built along both sides of the river.
“This means there will be no place left for gold mining,” she said, adding that many people from the Sonaha community as well as some Tharus who used to mine gold in the river have started working as daily wage laborers in the embankment project.
Underneath the Sonahas’ story runs a larger story of indigenous people whose lives have been turned upside down due to the state’s misguided plans and policies on conservation of natural resources. For ages, the livelihoods of the indigenous people had been closely tied with natural resources like land, forests and rivers. But this relation has undergone marked change with shortsighted conservation measures taken by the government especially post 1990.
Their stories also tell how haphazard development works that are being carried out by development partners are hurting more than helping their intended beneficiaries: the indigenous and poor people. The story of the gold miners is similar to the stories of the Tharus of the western region forced into slavery due to rights over land and Chepangs of the central hills who are forced to poach wildlife to meet their daily needs.
The restriction on Sonahas to carry on their traditional occupation is pushing a growing number of families into poverty in Bardiya, Kailali and Kanchanpur districts. The districts are already home to thousands of former slaves who have been struggling to survive in the absence of land and livelihood support from the government.
Members of the Sonaha community say that they are not against development or conservation efforts. But they say that the government should either provide them with alternative means of livelihood or access to natural resources to carry on with their traditional occupation.
“We consider the river as our land. Gold mining and fishing are the only works most of us know. By denying us access to river, the government is telling us to die,” said Jyoti.