Tag Archives: Nepal

‘Himalayan Viagra’ taking its toll on Nepal

Published by CNN.


Dolpa, Nepal (CNN) — Ram Bahadur Jafra and his two brothers crouch on a field, picking through blades of grass and staring at the soil. They have traveled five days by foot to a Himalayan meadow at a 4,300 meter elevation deep inside Nepal’s Dolpa district. They came, as tens of thousands do each year, to harvest a highly valuable commodity from the high-altitude soil: the Himalayan caterpillar fungus — also known as Himalayan Viagra.

Caterpillar fungus, or as it’s called in Tibetan, “yartsa gunbu,” meaning “summer grass, winter worm,” is a specimen created when a parasitic fungus infects caterpillars underground which, were they not forestalled by the fungus, would produce ghost moths.

After the fungus mummifies the caterpillar underground, it thrusts out of the soil. It’s this tiny protuberance that the harvesters spend weeks each spring searching for.

A hundred or so people crawl across the field in a mulled silence until a sole searcher lets out an excited cry. Dozens rush over to witness, Jafra is the first to arrive.

The woman who has discovered the specimen uses an ice pick to prod the earth and dig a hole about six inches in diameter. She then lifts a clump of earth up and sifts out the specimen. The crowd gossips about its value — “it’s small, only 300 rupees!” (about $3). A middle man will offer her that amount, then walk it to a market in Tibet and sell it for three times the price.

We’ve been here for nearly a week. We haven’t found anything, because we don’t know what they look like.
Ram Bahadur Jafra, harvester

Jafra explains: “We pay attention when other people find them. This is our first time coming for the harvest. We’ve been here for nearly a week. We haven’t found anything, because we don’t know what they look like — we don’t know what we’re looking for.”

See also: Himalayan glaciers ‘buck melting trend’

Like many others, Ram and his brothers traveled for the harvest betting on hope alone. “People in our village talked about the money to be earned, so we came,” he says.

The rumors of riches are not baseless. According to experts, the market value of yartsa gunbu has increased by 900% between 1997 and 2008.

One study says 500 grams of top quality yartsa gunbu can sell for up to $13,000 in Lhasa, Tibet, or up to $26,000 in Shanghai. Average annual income in Nepal’s rural mid-and-far-western hills, where many harvesters live, is just $283, according to the government.

Police in Dolpa expect 40,000 people to migrate to the district this year. The influx of migrant harvesters speaks volumes to the increasing global commodification of yartsa gunbu. Prized in traditional Tibetan and Chinese medicinal practices for its power as an elixir or an aphrodisiac, in recent years commercial dubbing of the product as “Himalayan Viagra” has driven up both demand and market value around the world.

But the unprecedented flood of harvesters has observers concerned about the environmental impacts of this informal economic boom.

Look at the hills. They’re all torn up from people digging. By next year they’ll be deserts.
Gyalpo Thandin, student

“Look at the hills,” says Gyalpo Thandin, a student in Dolpa, “they’re all torn up from people digging. By next year they’ll be deserts.”

Thandin, who was visiting home for the harvest, remembers when the yartsa gunbu season meant local bounty, not commercial competition. “Just five years ago the numbers were lower,” he says. “Every year we see more people come and more grasslands get damaged. People who come hack at the land with tools and leave it to dry out.”

He says his family’s yaks have died in recent winters due to depleted grass caused by the harvest.

Environmental protection measures offer some hope. Six years ago, a committee of community leaders in Dolpa instituted a taxation system on harvesters in an effort to control numbers and ensure the local community remained resilient amidst environmental changes.

The committee charges locals 1,000 rupees ($11) and outsiders 3,000 rupees ($33) to join the harvest. The system is intended to spend the money on environmental protection measures and to subsidize food for villages in the district.

Similar systems exist in harvest areas across the Himalayas. However, some worry the measure is ineffective.

A former committee member who spoke on the condition of anonymity suggests that charging admission to the harvest has only made it seem even more valuable, and as a result, drawn more harvesters. “The goal of the system was to charge people and therefore limit the number who would want to come for the harvest, but putting a price on the entry might actually be encouraging more people,” he says.

Knowledge of fungal reproduction … might allow for sufficient spore dispersal to guarantee sustainability.
Daniel Winkler, ecologist and geographer

A leading expert on Himalayan caterpillar fungus, ecologist and geographer Daniel Winkler, believes the future of the harvests is contingent on many factors — collection intensity, rainfall, and climate change among them.

“Centuries of collection indicate that caterpillar fungus is a relatively resilient resource,” he says.

But his research suggests that over-harvesting is contributing to fewer fungal spores being around for the next season. Winkler believes education is the key element to promoting sustainable resource conservation.

“Knowledge of fungal reproduction … and (establishing) an end-date to the collection season might allow for sufficient spore dispersal to guarantee sustainability,” he adds.

As communities in Nepal, one of the world’s poorest countries, cope with the economic need and the increasing desire for high-value commodities like yartsa gunbu, conservation efforts will require cooperation between leaders at village, district, and national levels. There is no question this Himalayan “gold rush” buoys rural economies. Keeping it around for future generations will be the challenge.


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Nepal forms caretaker government pending new elections

Published in the Los Angeles Times. With Mark Magnier. 



KATMANDU, Nepal — Nepal announced the formation of a caretaker government Tuesday and settled into a tense calm after a weekend constitutional crisis led the prime minister to call elections, some four years and several shaky governments after the country set out to write its crucial, if elusive, national blueprint.

But it wasn’t clear whether the caretaker government would survive until the Nov. 22 election, after three allies left the ruling coalition Monday amid calls for Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai’s resignation.

The political crisis was sparked when the deadline to draft a new constitution passed Sunday as parties battled over whether to divide states along ethnic lines under a federalist system, an issue that has led to violent protests in recent weeks.

Many minorities feel their interests have been undermined for centuries by a cabal in and around the Katmandu Valley and see the constitution as their best opportunity to right perceived wrongs.

Nepal, wedged between India and China, abolished its Hindu monarchy and became a republic in 2006 after a decade of armed conflict but has lurched from one political crisis to the next ever since.

“If the constitution is delivered without ethnic federalism, I’m sure it will result in conflict,” said Ram Devkota, 32, a member of the elite priest caste from Katmandu, the capital. “I am Brahmin, but I understand that the ethnic minorities must have some rights now. They have been historically oppressed and enslaved. That’s why they are angry.”

Others say the idea of dividing states along ethnic lines is unworkable given that different groups migrated to different areas — notably Nepal’s southern Terai region — at different times bearing different claims.

“I don’t know how you set boundaries in a population that’s so mixed up,” said Smruti Pattanaik, a research fellow at New Delhi’s Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, a think tank. “But the issue has become intense. Every group feels this is their last chance.”

Though a November election could help break the impasse and lead to a consensus on the thorny federalism issue, it’s more likely the stalemate will drag on, analysts said. They note the deep-seated divisions between low and high caste communities, ethnic groups, poor farmers and wealthy Katmandu residents, and Maoists and those sympathetic to the former monarchy.

“On principal, a fresh election is a good thing,” said Hari Phuyal, a Katmandu-based lawyer and host of a public affairs TV program. “But the reality could be very ugly.”

Most hurt by the political muddle — and among the most disenchanted — are Nepal’s poorest citizens, as local government slows to a crawl, economic development is delayed, and disputes are settled by political thugs rather than courts.

“What will this constitution do for me?” asked a farmer from Nepal’s mid-western Bardiya district who asked not to be identified. “Will it dig my fields? Will it cook my rice?”

Though Bhattarai’s ruling Maoist party has gotten much of the blame for the latest crisis — for, among other things, failing to consult with other parties before calling the elections and for dissolving the Constituent Assembly charged with writing the constitution — there’s more than enough blame to go around, some say.

“All the major parties are at fault,” said S. Chandrasekharan, New Delhi-based director of the South Asia Analysis Group. “It’s been a total failure.”

That said, there are modest signs of progress on Nepal’s winding road to democracy. Former Maoist guerrillas have been largely disarmed and integrated into the armed forces, another hugely contentious issue. And weeks of protests, strikes and violence surrounding the ethnicity debate seem to have eased, at least temporarily, said Sarah Levit-Shore, the Atlanta-based Carter Center’s representative in Nepal, although this may be out of collective exhaustion.

Ultimately, however, the same politicians embroiled in endless power struggles could be Nepal’s best hope for resolving the crisis.

“The credibility of the parties is seriously damaged,” said Anagha Neelakantan, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group in Katmandu, “but they are the ones who have to revive this process. They need to demonstrate commitment and work together, and give people a reason to trust them again.”

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Squatter settlement evictions begin today in Kathmandu

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Are human rights in Nepal a thing of the past?

Published on Radio Netherlands Worldwide.



This week it was revealed that Nepal has quietly passed a new law that may indicate a bleak future for human rights in the fledgling Himalayan democracy. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Act, which was signed into law by President Ram Baran Yadav in January, contains changes to the structure of the commission.

“The new act is regressive,” says Kathmandu lawyer Om Aryal, who reviewed the legislation.

Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission was established in 2000. Its brief: “to undertake or cause to be undertaken research in the field of human rights, and evaluate the existing human rights situation of the country.”

Six years after the end of a decade-long internal armed conflict, and in the process of drafting a new constitution, Nepal has struggled to deliver on accountability for human rights violations that took place during the conflict – including killings and enforced disappearances of civilians.

Strong message

The establishment of an independent commission during the thick of the conflict sent a strong message about Nepal’s commitment to progress on human rights.

“Activists in Nepal fought hard to get the commission established,” explains Mandira Sharma, chair of Advocacy Forum, Nepal’s leading human rights NGO.

“At the beginning, its presence made a big difference in our work – it gave us a partner with a lot of power, a place to go with our cases,” Sharma says.

Uncertain future
With the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) officially ending substantive operations in Nepal this month, increasingly the burden of human rights monitoring will shift to the NHRC. However with changes to the fundamental functions of the rights commission, observers are questioning whether it will remain a meaningful institution in the future.

Among the deletions from the previous NHRC Act is the provision that the commission can be housed in a separate building, away from other government agencies and ministries. Some argue that this change symbolizes a much broader erosion of the commission’s independence.

“Under the new act, a troubling amount of control of the commission is yielded to the executive branch,” explains Pema Abrahams, programme associate at the Asia Foundation and author of a recent opinion article that identified several items of concern, including new policies that all commission expenses must be approved by the government.

Stronger commission


Chairman of the NHRC, Gauri Pradhan, says he doesn’t believe the new act weakens the commission significantly, but that it could have been written better.

“The commission has already asked the government and parliament to ensure our independence, just like it ensures the Election Commission’s independence,” he says.

Pradhan also asserts that there are elements of the new act that strengthen the commission: “Under the new Act, if the Government of Nepal doesn’t follow NHRC recommendations on holding human rights violators accountable, the commission has the right to publish the violators’ names.”

However activists disagree, and claim that the act might be motivated by the Maoist-led government’s desires to decree a blanket amnesty for crimes committed during the conflict.

Impact on foreign institutions
In addition to these new restraints on the internal functions of the NHRC, Aryal believes, the new act will – contrary to the interim constitution – impact on foreign institutions’ work on human rights in Nepal. “If foreign institutions come to Nepal to work on human rights, the NHRC has to give approval for their activities,” he explains.

Activists hold up the government-ordered departure of OHCHR as an example of unwillingness to engage with international organizations on human rights.

Six months
And in perhaps the hardest blow against Nepal’s citizens reconciling grave acts committed during the conflict, under the new act all violations must be reported within six months of their occurrence.

Nepal’s geography can make travel difficult and expensive. Seasonal rains often wash away lengths of road, making transport impossible for prolonged periods. In the world’s seventeenth poorest country, travel expenses to file a case in Kathmandu might require victims to save money for extended periods of time.

What is more, the trauma of reporting a violation may also slow the speed with which it can be filed.

Of this statute of limitations, the Asia Foundation’s Pema Abrahams commented: “It is widely recognized that it takes time before victims of human rights abuses are psychologically capable of moving forward to file complaints and provide accounts of abuse.”

“There are many factors determining how soon a survivor will share his or her story or experience of violence,” explain counsellors at Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO-Nepal). “Some survivors can take years to build rapport, gain confidence, and tell their stories.”

Advocacy Forum reports that they have several cases pending that have not been filed for years because the victims are not ready to undertake the process.

Public concern
While the new act went relatively unnoticed until last week, public concern is brewing.

“When the government arm of the human rights movement is weaker, lacks independence, and can’t work on actual issues in a realistic way, people will lose trust in the system,” worries Aryal.

Activists report they are discussing taking a case to the Supreme Court to challenge the act in the near future.

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Waiting in Fear: Bagmati evictions mired in confusion

Published in Republica.



Champa Kamal sits in front of her home, holding her children. She won’t let them go to school – she’s afraid the bulldozers might come while they are away and they would get separated.

With constant threats to raze the homes along Kathmandu’s Bagmati River where Kamal lives, she sits day after day with her children in her lap, waiting.

As part of urban development plans, the demolition of squatter settlements in and around Kathmandu has been debated for years.

The Bagmati Action Plan, developed in 2009 with the aim to clean and develop the river basin, advocates for relocation of squatter settlements, and reports that millions of Rupees have been allocated for such an effort – but mentions no plan for its execution.

On November 27 of last year, the government formed a taskforce specifically charged with razing the settlements along the Bagmati. In an unexpected turn, all three major political parties agreed to the move.

On December 11, an Appellate Court, petitioned by an alliance of five squatter organizations, ordered a 35-day stay order on demolitions.

As the stay drew to a close, no clear message had been delivered to the residents. Instead, they relied on rumors and news reports to learn about their future.

Kamal has been living in her current home – a structure made of corrugated aluminum sheets and scrap wood – for five years.

Originally from a small village outside Barabise, her husband migrated to Qatar for work six years ago. He never came home, and eventually his money transfers stopped as well.

For a year, she waded through life in the village carrying the stigma of an abandoned wife. Then, exhausted, she took the small amount of money she had saved, gathered her children and a few belongings, and took a bus to Kathmandu.

“Maoist cadres in the village had mentioned that anyone who wanted to live on free land could move to the river in Kathmandu,” she recalls. “So when I arrived in the city with my children, I came to the Bagmati.”

Her story is not unique.

A 48-year-old woman who lives with her daughter and four grandchildren explains how she trusted the government representatives who approached her after she lost her job in a carpet factory four years ago.

“Without work, we couldn’t pay rent, so we were going to be homeless – and with the government saying this place was open, it seemed like the best option,” she says.

Once settled, many residents work as domestic workers and day laborers. At 32, Kamal explains that “with the daycare here, we can take work when we get it, and we know the children will be safe.”

Services such as free daycare and schools – some run by government agencies, some by NGOs – have been critical to the survival of people living in the settlements.

“Our kids get free midday meals at the school the Koreans built,” explains Kamal’s neighbor, a mother of three. If the settlement is razed, she fears, the burden to feed four more mouths will strain her meager salary, which she earns as a part-time housekeeper at a hotel.

A 2008 report by Lumanti, an NGO dedicated to the alleviation of urban poverty in Nepal, puts the population of the settlements along the Bagmati just shy of 4,000, and 1,600 of them are of school age.

And while a constellation of services has developed over the years to support children and families in the settlements, the fear of the demolitions has rendered some of these programs ineffective in recent weeks.

NGOs running schools in the Bagmati settlements report record low attendance. Parents, hearing rumors of imminent demolitions, are keeping their kids at home.

“I haven’t received any letters or visits from the government, so I don’t know what the truth is,” says Ram, 59, who has lived in the Teku settlement for 32 years. He has heard a range of rumors, but the one he most strongly believes is that the demolitions will take place in the middle of the night. “They will bring the Armed Police, I heard that on the radio,” he says, “and they’ll ruin our houses and we’ll have to walk to another place. I don’t know what we’ll do.”

Kathmandu newspapers and radio programs have reported multiple brief stays on the demolitions while, in the same breath, discuss plans to use nearly 3,000 police troops to enforce the process.

Taking note of the chaos, Human Rights Watch wrote to the government last week, urging them to adhere to international standards in the eviction process – including informing the settlers of the plans to remove them.

“If the government wants to evict the squatters, they owe them notice substantially in advance. They need to relocate them within a reasonable distance of the current settlement, and they need to carry out the evictions humanely,” explains Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch. “These are international standards – the government has an obligation to follow them,” Adams adds.

Addressees of the letter, representatives from the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of Physical Planning and Works, and the Ministry of Land Reforms and Management denied direct involvement in or knowledge of the eviction process and directed questions to Mahesh Bahadur Basnet, Chair of the High Powered Committee for Integrated Development of the Bagmati Civilization. “

We only provide security for the process by sending the Police,” explained Shankar Koirala, spokesperson for the Ministry of Home Affairs.

SSP Ravi Raj Shrestha, spokesperson at the Metropolitan Police Commissioner’s Office, explains that the Police forces are waiting for orders as well. “We don’t have any instructions right now,” he says, “so we too are waiting to hear from the Bagmati Committee and the government.”

According to him, the Police are charged with providing security, but also might take part in demolishing the structures, depending on what the Committee order instructs.

Gajendra Kumar Thakur, the committee’s program manager, claims they have no responsibility in the demolitions, and that they are charged only with beautifying the river. “When the demolitions happen, it must come from a Cabinet decision,” he explains. “It was the government which made the announcement, and it is the government which will carry out the evictions.”

In the past, relocations have been carried out successfully. In 2009, Kathmandu Metropolitan City, the Department of Urban Development and Building Construction, UN-Habitat, and slum dweller NGOs all supported the successful relocation of residents living along the banks of the Bishnumati River to an area in Kirtipur.

However, the government also has a history of manipulating residents of squatter settlements into powerful voting blocks. Just as Kamal was encouraged by Maoist cadres to leave her village for free land along the Bagmati, for 20 years ephemeral powers have encouraged people to move from the countryside to the city, occupy such land, and, to return the favor, vote the party line.

“The Maoists told us to move here and then asked us for our votes, so we gave it because they gave us land,” explains Bishnu, age 48, who moved here during the Conflict when his village was attacked.

He is not alone in his frustration: “Whenever the government needs votes, they come, but whenever they don’t and they are powerful and fine, they forget about us,” says Kamal. “Now they remember us but in a different way – now they want to destroy us.”

But the common experience and location has given the residents power in numbers.

Observers have argued that as a result of many parties manipulating the residents over time to swell their voter base, the political clout of the population has grown so strong that no government would dare evict them.

Research protocols to determine “genuine squatters” and weed out those in the settlements who own land elsewhere have been caught in a bureaucratic skein for years and have been implemented inconsistently.

And as the current Maoist-led government moves to widen roads around the city – destroying private property in neighborhoods across socioeconomic strata – it would seem some of that fear of the voting block has eroded.

Elsewhere in Kathmandu, reactions to the government’s urban development plans have touched on the experience of the settlement residents. In the Baluwatar neighborhood in early December, a stone’s throw from the Prime Minister’s residence, hundreds of armed Metropolitan Police were called in to enforce road widening demolitions.

“We were given no notice, no compensation, nothing,” laments one resident of the affluent neighborhood as she surveys the rubble in front of her house.

And while the legal status of the land being taken for public road widening and that of clearing out squatter settlements differ, the frustration with the processes mirror one another: “If they treat us like this,” asks the Baluwatar resident, “how are they going to treat poorer, weaker people of this city as they destroy property in the name of development?”

Preliminary data from the 2011 census shows that Nepal is urbanizing: ten years ago, 14 percent of Nepal’s population lived in urban areas. Today, it has increased to 17 percent. Kathmandu is now home to over 1.7 million people.

“The irony in all of this is that if the government wants to develop and beautify this city, they need labor,” explains the Programs Manager of Compassion for Migrant Children, an organization working with children in migrant settlements across Asia, including the Bagmati squatter settlements. “And labor,” she continues, “is often provided by people who live in settlements like the ones they’re threatening in Kathmandu.”

Residents of the settlements have come to the city, faithfully following the advice of political operatives, or in the hopes of a new life. They build homes, raise families, and contribute to the economy of one of South Asia’s fastest growing cities.

For decades, these people have been shifted around in the name of politics. However, this shift away from the settlements might have an impact beyond what city developers are envisioning.

That it’s being carried out in the name of development neglects the fact that the residents of these settlements play an important role in how Kathmandu will develop.

As officials wait for orders, and the sclerotic bureaucracy figures out how to implement their plan and move these people away, residents like Champa Kamal have no choice but to wait.

“If they take us away,” Kamal explains, “it won’t be a long time before they realize that the city needs us, too.”

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