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Former Maoists In Ecological Task Force Units In Nepal

P. K. Gautam was a Consultant at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • November 11, 2008

    In the just concluded two-day conference at the IDSA on “Changing Political Context in India’s Neighbourhood: Prospects of Regional Cooperation”, Dr Hari P. Bhattaria from Tribhuvan University, Nepal alluded to the problem of integration of over 19,000 former Maoists in the Nepal Army or para-military forces in Security Sector Reforms.

    One suggestion that can be offered is that like the Indian Army, the Nepal Army can raise an Ecological Task Force (ETF) based on former combatants with adaptations and modifications to suit their needs. In terrain that is similar to the terrain and climate of Nepal, India’s Pithoragarh and Garhwal Himalayas region of Uttarakhand have raised two such units which are already performing tasks such as afforestation, watershed protection, control of desertification and soil stability with great success since the 1980s.

    Conceptually, the credit of the idea needs to be given to Dr Ernest Borlaug, the father of the green revolution, who in the early 1980s suggested the need for a disciplined force to undertake such tasks. The then Prime Minister, Shrimati Indira Gandhi, on observing the ecological degradation in the Himalayas, and displaying rare ecological insight, operationalised the idea by issuing an executive order to form an ETF of the Territorial Army. New age soldier scholars and the renowned United Nationpeace keeper, the late Brigadier Michael Harbottle of the United Kingdom,was inspired by the ETF. He recorded the unique work of the Indian Army’s ETF in his path-breaking work titled, “What is Proper Soldiering”. The monograph was a visionary work. This is borne out by the manner in which armed forces personnel all over the world are being employed. They are not only tasked with fighting wars, but are being used in disaster relief, ecological restoration and in UN peace keeping missions which demands deep understanding of ecological links to intra-state wars and maintaining peace. The linkage between ecological restoration and peace received proper recognition when in 2004 Ms. Wangari Maathai, Assistant Minister of Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife, Kenya, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for planting trees.

    Where the Indian experience can be related to Nepal is the ETF’s work in Pithoragarh in regenerating abandoned agricultural land. A common notion is that such abandoned plots would regenerate by themselves. But this is not so. Similar problems exist in Nepal. Research also shows that Nepal needs to regenerate abandoned or former terraced field due to out-migration of village labour force to get jobs and earn income in the plains – a trend which is common to any mountain economy across the Himalayas. Careful land management is necessary even after such abandonment to minimize adverse geomorphic and ecological consequences.

    The Nepal Himalayas also suffer similar problems of fragmentation of land holdings as in India. Careful land management is necessary with new opportunities to develop commercial dairy.

    Another activity can be afforestation, as is being done in the Garhwal Himalayas. Degraded plots of forest land can be identified and an ETF raised for the same. It has been an Indian experience that one plot, after afforestation, can be handed over to the forest department after three to five years. The ETF then moves on to another plot. One lesson is that it is easy to plant trees and get media coverage; but survival of trees is like bring up a baby - it needs tender and full-time care and this is never followed through by the media. Plants have to be watered, provided manure, protected from grazing animals, wind and other threats. Nurseries have to be raised and pits dug for the future. While planting trees in urban areas is easy, protection of watershed and higher reaches cannot be done until a disciplined and dedicated force such as the military, is available throughout the year. The local soldiers also have traditional ecological knowledge and can easily connect with nature -- a gift which no forester can imbibe in the best universities in the world or in management schools with PhDs.

    Yet another area in which the ETF in Nepal can now be employed is in wild life protection as a special ETF. In the case of India , the proposal is gaining ground. Selected parks, wild life sanctuaries and other areas can be given to the ETF to check poaching and allow the endangered wildlife to survive.

    The days of the threat of an armed invasion of a neighbouring country are now over. Yet, due to forces of realism, armed forces are maintained as a dissuasive force. We should have no quarrel over this as all countries have militaries. But today, the new challenge is from non–military threats or non- traditional security issues. Degradation of Himalayan ecology, abnormal and accelerated melting of Himalayan glaciers leading to glacial lake outburst floods, floods in the plains, followed by drought and conversion of perennial rivers to seasonal, are the new challenges. Nepal’s Initial National Communication to the Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change of July 2004 (Natcom) has acknowledged the increased deterioration of natural resources and environment. The UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report, 2005, has concluded that the challenge of reversing the degradation of eco-systems while meeting increasing demands for their services can be partially met under some scenarios, but these involve significant changes in policies, institutions, and practices that are not currently under way. Many options exist to conserve or enhance specific eco-system services in ways that reduce negative trade-offs or which provide positive synergies with other eco-system services. Surely, an ETF is an option which has pure South Asian roots.

    Claiming funds from Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the Kyoto Protocol can also be attempted by Nepal through the performance of the ETF. Though adaptive measures on a massive scale have been alluded to in the Natcom, what is needed are funds. Trees planted for afforestation are carbon sinks and thus form mitigation measures to protect against climate change. In the second phase of the Kyoto Protocol (starting 2013), the negotiations for which began in full swing at Bali in December 2007, it had been proposed that Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) should also be included in the Kyoto Protocol. Forests account for nearly 20 percent of carbon sinks. If Nepal can put forward a case for funds under a new CDM, based on REDD and link it to providing jobs for its former Maoists combatants, then two things will be achieved. First, a selective ETF can be raised in Nepal with the support of UN agencies for peace, including funding. The second is that a new ecological vision will get transmitted to the great nation of Nepal. It will then motivate the society to check deforestation and go back to traditional ecological knowledge. Thus ecological restoration will be a no regret option and will also lead to protection and preservation of the Himalayan watershed, soil, water and biological resources. Surely, the people of Nepal and the military can make a paradigm shift by protecting the ecology of the nation. This, of course, is a long- term strategy. Visionary policymakers in Nepal can now also explore this issue.