Prof. D. D. Poudel, the Founder of the Asta-Ja Framework
Asta-Ja is a theoretically grounded grassroots-based planning and management framework for conservation, development, and utilization of natural and human resources.
Asta-Ja means eight of the Nepali letter “Ja” [Jal (water), Jamin (land), Jungle (forest), Jadibuti (medicinal and aromatic plants), Janashakti (manpower), Janawar, (animals), Jarajuri (crop plants), and Jalabayu (climate)]. Asta-Ja promotes accelerated economic growth and socio-economic transformation of the nation.
It is a scientific, holistic, systematic, self-reliant, and multidisciplinary framework for the conservation, development, and utilization of Asta-Ja resources. The eight elements of the Asta-Ja system are very intricately linked and strongly connected.
Hence, it is important to have sustainable conservation and development of each of the eight elements of Asta-Ja for better functioning of the entire system. Asta-Ja Framework emphasizes community capacity-building, self-reliant, and national, regional, and local level planning and development of environmental and natural resources for socio-economic transformation of the nation. Asta-Ja is the backbone of Nepal’s economy.
Therefore, the best governance of Asta-Ja should be the ultimate goal of the Government of Nepal.
The mountain region of Nepal is very susceptible to environmental degradation due to its shallow soils, steep slopes, weak geology, and lack of soil moisture especially on sloping lands. This region is susceptible to forest degradation, soil erosion, landslides, loss of biodiversity, and loss of agricultural productivity. Human impacts can be very high and intense.
The Tragedy of Chudher :
Located at about two hours walking distance from Damauli Bazaar in the north, Chudher is a Magar village in Vyas Municipality, Tanahu, in the mid-hill region of Nepal.
The village sits on the hilltop at 2,206 ft above sea level, overlooking the Himalayan range of Machhapuchhre, Annapurna and Lamjung Himal in the north, the Madi River in the east, Sange Phant in the west, and the Mahabharat range on the south.
Chudher village was the home for nearly 115 households, about 100 Magar and 15 Brahmin families, until mid-1960s. While Brahmin households owned Khet and Bari lands in the Besi areas, Magar families were contented with Bari lands in the hills and the slopes and in joining Indian Army.
While Brhamin households could provide food grains to Magar households when needed in return for farm labor or cash purchases, the Magar Lahure households helped in cash flows in the village.
The Mukhiaya (the chief) of the village used to be from a Magar family. As a token of respect, Brahmin households used to bring banana, ghee and yoghurt to Mukhiya family during Dashain festival every year.
The Mukhiya had rights to authorize the use of public lands in his jurisdiction for farming in the community. Chudher community used to host week-long cultural events such as Budhabare Maruni Naach and Ghatu Naach from Gurung community, Balun Naach from Brahmin and Giri community, and Chudka Naach from other Magar communities in the region. Chudher used to have Rodhi ghars which were attended by youths irrespective of caste and ethnicities with beautiful music and songs starting around 9 PM and running until late-night to early morning most days during the year. Janakavi Keshari Dharmaraj Thapa’s Chudher visit sometime in early1970s is a testimony for cultural attraction of the village.
The fact that the Chudher community putting a bintipatra for an elementary school in Chudher to King Mahendra when he visited Damauli area on his way to Pokhara in 1959 is a clear testimony for the eagerness of the community to formal education. Chudher Elementary School was granted through Hukum Pramangi, however, the school was hijacked by another community in the area simply saying that “Chudher School” belongs to them.
Chudher community continued fighting for the School by visiting District Education Office in Bandipur for the next ten years until they got approval for an Elementary School, Shree Padma Elementary School in Chudher. Indian Army retired Lahure was the first school teacher.
There was a big drive of spraying DDT in houses in mid-1960s to eradicate malaria. Safety measures were very poorly followed. Inside walls and the ceilings of the houses used to turn completely white after spraying DDT.
Housewives were asked to cover their food and other stuffs and come outside the house while spraying inside their houses. The eradication of malaria in 1960s affected the demography of Chudher village in a huge way. The Besi areas which were not suitable for settlement due to malaria turned out to be the preferred settlement sites. The Brahmin households started settling down in Besi areas following the eradication of malaria.
Except for one or two Brahmin families remaining in the village until early 1980s, all other Brahmin households had left Chudher by 1975. Chudher village was a sole Magar village with more than 100 Magar households in 1980s. As population grew, many Magar households also started moving out from the village to settle in their nearby farmlands in the hill slopes.
A few Magar families also moved to Besi areas later. Thus, once a vibrant and dense Chudher Magar village has turned now into an empty, lonely and distressed village with merely 24 Magar households.
Until early 1970s, the landscape of Chudher village was quite vibrant and pristine. There was a lot of forest cover with huge sal trees all around. Forests were very dense with a lot of vines, sub-storey vegetation, and with very thick leaflitter and fallen trees and branches on the floor.
There were plenty of large and tall trees such as simal, chap, bar, pipal, sami, and nareshowar in the landscape. Forests housed many monkeys, percupines, and wildbirds. Pythons were also found. There used to be a lot of Theuwa birds.
They used to show their incredible aerial nosedives in a pair making interesting sounds. Similarly, there used to be miles and miles of karyang kurung (Demoiselle crane), migratory bird travelling from Dar E Salaam over the Himalayas to Gujrat and Rajsthan, in the sky, during the month of October.
Their sound could be heard from the ground. The Himlayas used to have a lot of snow cover. They used to shine even during the night in moonlight. Air was very fresh and clean.
Forest was the major source of food for Chudher community. There were plenty of Aiselu (raspberry), katush, jamuno, amala (gooseberry), wild honey, and game birds in the forests. There were many Bel (wood apple) trees in the area. Non-timber forest products such as niuro, siplican, bamboo shoots, githa and bhyakur were major component of the food systems.
Some households used to survive with githa and vhyakur when they ran out of grains during the months of food shortages. There were seveeral mango grooves consisting of many huge and tall trees in public lands. Bayar (Indian Plum) bushes in the riparian areas were so many that pedestrian could pick up dried Bayar for several months and eat them while travelling on foot. Rivers and streams had a lot of fish.
Magar community had a tradition of weaving fishing net and making bamboo fishing traps (Dhadiya). Magar community used to do Baha Bish (i.e. crushing khirro and simtar leaves and stems and putting it in the flowing stream for killing fish) in the nearby Sange Khola once or twice a year.
At least one person from each household would participate in Baha Bish. They used to practice regularly Duwali Thunne, meaning diverting water in a stream in one side and catching fish in the orginal stream, and Jal Hanne, using fishing net for fishing in the stream or river.
Another community activity used to be tiger hunting in which one member from each household was required to participate. As young as 10-12 year old boys could participate in tiger hunting. The villagers would form a chain of people in one side of the forest and start driving tiger forcing it to cross a mountain pass where gunmen would be waiting for shooting.
The person who kills the tiger would be honored. Tigers used to come to the village and kill goats, dogs, buffalo and cattle.
Rains were well distributed throughout the year. Extended rain events such as Aashare, Shaune, Bhdaure, Pushe, and Maghe Jharis were common and dependable. Because of well-spread rainfalls during the year, there used to be many perennial, seasonal and ephemeral springs across the landscape.
There was no stress in the environment due to water shortage.
Resting places called Chautari, where Bar and Pipal trees are planted, were built in several locations mainly along the pathways that people and livestock walked regularly. Ingenuity of the community was manifested by the construction of a pond for collecting surface runoff water nearby a Chautari.
These ponds not only served as wallowing ponds for buffaloes, they supplied drinking water for cattle and wildlife and also served as the source of water for nearby Bar and Pipal trees.
The Bar and Pipal are the sacred trees. Beside providing shade in the resting area, these tress provided food for many birds and living creatures. Farmlands until mid-1970s had a lot of tall fodder trees such a saj, barro, daudaye, kutmiro, and gideri. Soils in the farmlands were quite fertile, therefore, there used to be healthy crops in the field.
There were many guava, orange, nibuwa, papaya, and lime trees in the farmlands.
The current situation of Chudher village is much different. There are no signs of Theuwa birds nor karayng kurungs fly in the skies. The tall and large trees in the farmlands, nearby forest, and even Bar and Pipal in many places are gone making the landscape kind of empty.
Those big trees such as simal, chap, sami, nareshowar and even bar and pipal in some cases were cut down for timber or wood. Mango grooves in public lands have been encroached and converted into agricultural lands. Illegal logging in the forest for timber and housing materials had taken huge tolls on sal trees.
A lot of forest areas have been encroached for human settlements and agricultural lands. Agricultural lands are fallowed due to young people going out for foreign jobs. Forests are so degradaed that they are not able to support local communities with nontimber forest products as before.
Many springs have either dried up or have remarkably reduced water flows. Rainfall pattern has been changed. Very erratic, patchy, and often very high intensity rains occur. Drought is frequent for an extended period. The Bayar bushes in the riparian areas have disappeared. Lust forest vegetation has turned into dry, unhealthy and full of open spaces.
Titras are difficult to find. There is a haze in the lower atmosphere almost all the time obstructing visibility.
In past fifty year, there have been massive environmental changes including land and forest degradation, drying of springs, and loss of biodiversity resulting in severe loss of ecosystem services in Chudher landscape.
The Chudher tragedy had taught us several lessons.
The first lesson learned is the failure in natural resources governance results in ecosystem degradation, community distress and downfall. Failure in the enforcement of governmental laws and regulations in protecting forestlands from encroachment, controlling overharvesting of forest products, and preventing illegal logging was probably the most obvious reasons for Chudher tragedy.
Fast increase in population in the area due to migration resulted in forest encroachment and overharvesting of forest products. Failure in regulating the harvest of forest products, especially none timber forest products, led to severe forest degradation.
Form these facts, it is clear that a community must develop appropriate guidelines for sustainable forest harvest and management and implement these guidelines in order to ensure sustainable natural resources conservation and utilization. In the absence of appropriate natural resource governance strategies, sustainability of natural resources especially near the towns or cities is at high risk.
Natural resource managers need to be careful when issuing permits for cutting down large trees in farmlands.
These trees provide many services to wildlife and help in ecosystem functioning. Second important lesson learned from Chudher tragedy is that natural resource managers and local communities should be educated in terms of ecological and environmental risks of human activities such as forest encroachment, overharvesting of non-timber forest products, cutting down of large farm trees, illegal logging, and climate change impacts.
By understanding Chudher community’s pressing need for clean drinking water supply, the Rotary International has recently funded a lift drinking water project in Chudher, which is supported by Rotary Club Sunset, Hawaii, USA; Asta-Ja USA, Rotary Club of Damauli, and Asta-Ja Research and Development Center (Asta-Ja RDC), Kathmandu, Nepal. Construction work of this much-needed project has started with a plan of completion within next four months.
The Chudher Drinking water project will supply drinking water to 120 families through 17 water taps covering Mathilo Gaun, Tallo Gaun, Dhapthumki, and Chhetrigaun.
This project will certainly make a huge impact on Chudher community where men and women spend about five hours daily in fetching drinking water on their backs for the families. Another lesson learned from Chudher village is that when a community breaks such as this in Chudher (i.e. all Brahmin families leaving the village to settle down in Besi areas), a serious disruption occurs in the society in relation to livelihood, resource utilization, morale in the community, and development.
It takes long time for such a broken community to build again.
While Brahmin households who settled in Besi areas, in general, did prosper mainly because of formal education, the Magar community lagged behind due to various reasons and the youths still migrate out to India for low paid jobs.
As the Government of Nepal has worked on community forestry for long time, has established water user groups and similar other groups across the nation, and has involved community organizations in natural resource governance at the local level, natural resources conservation and development in many localities is moving in right direction.
However, the damage already done to the ecosystem is irreversible.
Therefore, it is important for local governments to pay close attention to the socio-economic and population dynamics and developmental initiatives in their respective jurisdictions and undertake necessary proactive natural resource conservation strategies for conservation and sustainable development of natural resources so that the tragedy like that of Chudher village would not happen anymore.
In part five of this series, the author will discuss Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in natural resources governance.