If you ask someone about the representation of Nepal’s Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) in the 15th meeting of the Conference of Parties of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD), popularly known as biodiversity COP15, currently underway in Montreal, Canada, perhaps the first thing they would say is that the number of IPLC representatives is higher than that of the government delegates.
The government has sent a four-member delegation (but no ministers) to the event whereas six Nepalis representing IPLCs have arrived in Montreal. They are participating in different platforms and events, explaining how their ancestors saved the earth from devastation in the past and lobbying for their unrestricted rights to natural resources in the future.
This is encouraging, given that the World Bank says Indigenous peoples steward 80 percent of global biodiversity although they comprise less than five percent of the world’s population.
As IPLCs’ rights regarding natural resources (and their digital sequence information) is a key issue at the current COP, government delegates and observers both have appreciated the active roles played by the Nepali Indigenous leaders calling on world leaders to recognize that the fate of nature, climate and humanity are interlinked. But, it is unclear whether their voices will make an immediate impact at the national level.
So, what is blocking the Indigenous peoples and local communities in Nepal from obtaining and exercising their rights as far as biodiversity conservation is concerned?
The hopeless past
Over 250 representatives from Indigenous peoples and local communities across the world have gathered in Montreal to press the parties to ensure their rights are safeguarded in the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework that the COP is expected to adopt by its conclusion on Monday next week.
The current draft of the framework mentions Indigenous peoples and local communities in nine of the 22 proposed targets, but many of them are in brackets, meaning the parties are yet to forge an agreement. The Indigenous leaders including those from Nepal want all clauses about their rights unbracketed.
One of the key concerns for the IPLCs has been access and benefit sharing (ABS). The Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity has already ensured the indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ access to genetic and biological resources and benefits from them derived from the use of their traditional knowledge; the IPLCs in general want the new framework to be even more progressive. Access and benefit sharing is a major point of contention at the biodiversity COP15 as it also involves conflicting academic and business interests, and an agreement looks challenging.
While Nepal officially supports the draft provisions related to access and benefit sharing including IPLCs’ share in them, the Indigenous leaders are not convinced, given their past experience.
In 2019, Nepal reported to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity Secretariat that it had drafted a bill to ensure the rights of the Indigenous peoples and local communities regarding biological/genetic resources as per the Nagoya Protocol. But, the parliament has not approved it yet.
Nepal’s delegation leader to the biodiversity COP15, Megh Nath Kafle, the Biodiversity Division chief at the Ministry of Forests and Environment, says the cabinet returned the draft bill submitted by the ministry owing to procedural issues and it has been stuck since then. “But, we are moving towards solving the issues and the revised bill will be sent to the cabinet soon.”
“It has been 28 years since Nepal ratified the convention, meaning all the rights ensured to Indigenous peoples and local communities by the convention would be guaranteed in the country,” Indigenous rights activist Kamal Rai says, “But, we are still fighting for that.”
Yasso Kanti Bhattachan, the vice-president of the National Indigenous Women Forum (NIWF) says the government signing the deal and not implementing it has angered them. “If they had thought they could not implement a particular provision, they should have opted to register their reservations about particular clauses,” she says, “They neither objected to the agreements nor implemented them. This is deception.”
The Herculean task ahead
However, Kafle says the ministry is positive enough to incorporate Indigenous peoples and local communities in the whole CBD process. “Just before the COP, we assured them we would raise their concerns internationally through the government channels.”
While Kafle assures support for the inclusion of the agenda of the Indigenous peoples and local communities at the COP process, addressing their demands regarding the new legislation as well as amendments to some existing national laws will be a difficult path ahead.
Leaders of Indigenous peoples and local communities in Nepal have not only talked about their environmental rights; their demands extend as far as an amendment to the constitution, which requires a wide-ranging political agreement of the parliament members, not mere bureaucrats.
For example, the NIWF, in its appeal published for the biodiversity COP15, refers to a recommendation from a UN committee monitoring the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and talks about “the lack of recognition of the rights of Indigenous women in the constitution and the general lack of recognition of the right of Indigenous peoples to self-determination." Hence, it states, “We demand the recognition of Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination with autonomy and customary self-governing institutions… We demand the recognition of Indigenous nations’ sovereignty based on the principles of parallel sovereignty.”
It is interesting to note here that during Nepal’s constitution drafting process between 2008 and 2015, self-autonomy and self-determination were major contentious issues. Many observers have identified differences in definitions of these terms as major factors behind the delay in the constitution-making. It hence implies that a political agreement for using these terms in any legal document is extremely difficult if not entirely impossible.
Nepal’s delegation leader to the biodiversity COP15, Kafle, hence suggests these demands of a political nature, such as formulating new laws and amending existing ones, tend to take a long time.
But, he also comments representatives of Indigenous peoples and local communities are raising these demands due to their affiliations with international advocacy organizations, which push them to raise political demands irrespective of their practicality at home. “But, the parties (the governments) should not be influenced in the same manner.”
Perhaps a solution could be a middle-path approach in which the leaders of the Indigenous peoples and local communities would agree on toned-down provisions in domestic laws. But, the activists are not ready to water down their demands. “Rights such as free, prior and informed consent are guaranteed by international laws, we shall get them one day,” Bhattachan says.
Rai adds, “We don’t have hopes of the government addressing us immediately, but we shall keep fighting on.”
The question of false representation
On the first day of the biodiversity COP15 (December 7), the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity (IIFB) hosted a press conference to clarify its position on the Global Biodiversity Framework. Lhakpa Nuri Sherpa from Nepal, also a co-chair of the forum, was a major speaker.
On the next day of the press conference, Onlinekhabar wanted to talk to Sherpa about the status of the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities in Nepal concerning biodiversity conservation.
But, he was not ready. Confessing that he might not be updated about the current status of Nepal as he lives in Thailand these days, he suggested some other Indigenous experts who could provide us with better information. He brought the team together and sat beside us during the interview, without speaking a word.
Despite Sherpa currently living abroad, it appears in the run-up to and during the COP that Sherpa has been an influential person “to represent” Indigenous peoples in Nepal in negotiations with the government in Kathmandu and conversations with other stakeholders in Montreal.
“Other people know local concerns only, but he can connect them with national and global contexts and frame that into the advocacy agenda,” a Nepali activist participating at the biodiversity COP15 says on the condition of anonymity. “Otherwise, even some Indigenous leaders [in Nepal] don’t know anything about the framework.”
But, it is not only Sherpa who have a voice in the Montreal forums. Whenever there is a discussion on Indigenous women in South Asia, Yasso Kanti Bhattachan, actively contributes.
“Horchhe!” she greets in her Thakali language before introducing herself in any public address, “I am from the cross-Himalayan district of Mustang.”
But, as you begin the one-on-one conversation with her, Bhattachan tells you that she was brought to Kathmandu by her father, once a minister, in her childhood and was raised there. Yet, she says she has sacrificed a lot for the rights of Indigenous people in Nepal.
“I am in activism hoping I can be a voice for all the voiceless sisters from over 100 Indigenous groups in Nepal,” she says.
But, the activist speaking on the condition of anonymity says “the elites” like Bhattachan cannot be considered true representatives of the Indigenous peoples and local communities in Nepal. “I doubt if the real issues of the communities back in Nepal have been represented well here or in negotiations with the government in Kathmandu. The well-to-do people living in Kathmandu representing the IPLCs will weaken their agenda.”
Abhishek Shrestha, an environmental justice activist, points out this is not necessarily negative. “They (representatives attending the COP) got access to the resources to attend the COP and that’s a good thing; now, they should be careful enough to represent the real voices of people from the grassroots.”
He suggests these delegates should now make an effort to bring people from the grassroots to such international forums.
But, this has not materialized yet. Indigenous peoples’ leaders representing Nepal at the biodiversity COP15 often talk about Prajas (Chepangs) of Chitwan being killed by the national park guards for entering the Chitwan National Park for their livelihood, Bankariyas of Makawanpur being made homeless by the Parsa National Park on the encroachment charges and Majhis of Ramechhap losing their agricultural land due to hydropower projects. But, there is no one from Praja, Bankariya and Majhi communities in Montreal.
This story was produced as part of the 2022 CBD COP15 Fellowship organized by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was first published by Online Khabar on 14 December 2022 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: A scene of Kusumkhola, Chitwan, after the eviction of Chepangs, a group of Indigenous people, by the Chitwan National Park, in July 2020 / Credit: Online Khabar