In Nepal, Women Are Leading Environmental Justice Movements


In Nepal, Women Are Leading Environmental Justice Movements

One can find numerous lists of young environmental activists from all over the world in a single Google search. Greta Thunberg's 15-year-old self-initiated climate strikes spread to numerous nations, pushing young people to take climate action. These young minds are now protesting against such staged theatre with little discernible consequence in addition to attending international conferences.

The majority of respondents to a historic study of 10,000 young people in 10 nations expressed concern about climate change. Almost 60% of respondents claimed to be "very worried" or "very worried." Typically, this dread is linked to emotions of betrayal and abandonment by authorities and adults.

Environmental demonstrations are a relatively new phenomenon in a nation like Nepal. 800 activists from Pokhara, Janakpur, and Kathmandu participated in a 2003 study on social movements in Nepal to learn more about their objectives and driving forces. There were 14 different types of protests at the time, but the environment or climate just wasn't one of them.

But over the past few years, things have altered. There are more and more marches and demonstrations calling for climate justice. 2019 saw Nepali youths take to the streets to support the climate fight, motivated by the global Fridays for Future campaign. A new organisation, Harin Nepal, established in 2018, organised a large number of these protests.

When one of Harin Nepal's co-founders, 21-year-old Tanuja Pandey, who is from the Terai region, learned that the Nepali government intended to clear out a forest area with 2.4 million trees in Nijgadh in Terai, Harin Nepal was born. This project involved constructing Nepal's second international airport. If constructed, this airport would have the greatest surface area in all of South Asia. But it was really expensive.

"The majority of those who opposed it at the time belonged to privileged circles. Concerns were expressed concerning the wildlife and trees. But for the Terai, it is crucial for access to essential food and water. We wanted to pay attention to social and economic effects as well, particularly those on gender, in addition to environmental effects. Since this increased the threat to women, especially Madhesi women, we decided to take a multidisciplinary approach to solve this problem. Tanuja remembers.

The highest court in Nepal has already received a petition against the government's plan. However, the group worked on the streets to put the judges under public pressure. Subigya Poudel, 21, a co-founder of Harin Nepal, recalls the earlier times: "We would write letters to various schools and ask them to send their students to join in demonstrations." "At first, only the 3–4 members of the group would be there. But over time, the number rose to hundreds," she claims.

Building movements and mobilising people is never simple. But for almost 14 years, a different loose network of young people has been doing it nonstop. Laxmi Sapkota, 23, a current core team member of Nepalese Youth for Climate Action (NYCA), exudes pride while describing how they have operated for years without a budget, whether they are leading conversations or conducting workshops.

Do the members still qualify as "young" after 14 years? The people participating are between the ages of 18 and 29, Laxmi affirms with a smile. The core team often works for a few years before passing on its responsibilities to younger generations. Given that the majority of the key team members are women, she claims it may also be seen as a network run by women.

Laxmi relocated from Dhangadhi to Kathmandu to pursue her higher education. When she first saw the city, she was astounded. To witness a city devoid of any vegetation was shocking to her because she had essentially lived in the middle of forests her entire life. Laxmi, who originally came to this location to pursue MBBS, switched to forestry. Then she was made aware of NYCA.

There are 17 regional chapters of NYCA operating in Nepal. This enables neighbourhood activists to tackle problems unique to their area. For instance, the NYCA Baitadi branch presently operates climate-smart farms in the agricultural sector. Targeting today's youth, Harin Nepal focuses on digital literacy while also appreciating the value of doing grassroots work. Tanuja likes to refer to herself and her friends as grassroots activists. Even though they received a lot of media attention for speaking out against the Nijgadh airport, Harin Nepal works in the trenches, visiting communities of Tharu, Dhimal, and other indigenous people, mostly in Terai.

Her friends concur with Tanuja, saying, "Sometimes I think my work is insignificant compared to those who have worked and sacrificed so much." She talks about the activist Omprakash (Dilip) Mahato, who was murdered for speaking out against sand and stone mining that was not lawful. "His sisters are still protesting it with loud voices. But such individuals rarely find a place, she claims.

Additionally, they assert that practically all of the grassroots activists they have encountered are female. But when it's time to claim credit for all the work, Subigya says, "somehow a man arrives." There are difficulties involved in working with communities that are actually impacted. They cover a wide range, including literacy, comprehension, language use, and cultural difficulties. Azeena Adhikari, 22, the network coordinator of the NYCA Baitadi regional chapter, and I spoke over the phone about the difficulties she faces while interacting with the local population.

The majority of them rely on woods. Therefore, we cannot forbid people from doing so outright because doing so will harm the ecosystem. since forests are their primary supply. In Kathmandu, it is simple to discuss those choices. But while we're here, we need to provide them with reasonably priced choices. We also need to consider how to manage their existence and means of subsistence. They find it challenging to purchase gas instead of wood. So working here is a little challenging," she explains.

The NYCA aims to be as ambitious as possible in its efforts to include people from various backgrounds. However, Laxmi acknowledges that they haven't been able to completely involve members of the LGBTQIA+ community or those with disabilities. She explains that they are attempting to investigate and learn more about specific difficulties people confront as a result of climate change.

The attitude is echoed by Bipana Adhikari, a 22-year-old member of the LGBTQIA+ community and another co-founder of Harin Nepal. She cares about how people felt about the Pride walk that was held just last week. People believe it just concerns the LGBTQIA+ community's freedom. But as I spoke with them, I realised that even they wanted to work on climate change-related projects. They believe they are largely being overlooked.

Avni Center for Sustainability (ACS) director Shilshila Acharya, who began as an activist about ten years ago, believes that Nepal's climate movement has not been as diverse as the nation as a whole. "In the metropolis, individuals view climate change as lucrative and financially rewarding. Engaging young people from rural places who have actual field experience is still challenging. It is particularly challenging because, although those who work there might not even mention "climate change," they are the ones who are most impacted and vulnerable as a result of it, she says.

She began her campaign by urging a decrease in the use of plastics. The government did introduce a policy to forbid single-use plastic in the Kathmandu valley after several years of criticism, but implementation stalled. This issue has now moved up their priority list after ten years. The World Bank is providing funds for Nepal to implement the policy of prohibiting single-use plastics. Shilshila said, "Now they are concerned about single-use plastic when we have bigger issues with rubbish and e-waste.

Shilshila was motivated to take a risk after considering what an activist would do once their causes reached the policy level. "It is up to the government to make sure it is carried out after it has been made into a policy. However, I believed that we could maintain the pace if we used business-type solutions. Shilshila has been working in trash management for the past three years, sorting and recycling waste through her business, Avni Ventures.

Shilshila considers her ten years of lobbying work. "A few years ago, between 70 and 80 per cent of the 3000–4000 young people participating in plastic ban marches were female. Every batch of our classes, where we cover sustainability, has more than 60%, female students. Even then, there were a lot of applications from women when we called for fellows to document indigenous knowledge in their communities. She adds that, in her experience, women tend to stay in the field for longer than males do. She smiles and says, "Look at me, I've been here for more than ten years."

This, according to her, is a result of female leaders' empathy and common sense. "The long-term values that we require, such as considering others, cooperating with others, and having empathy for others, are characteristics that most women possess. I believe that women in leadership roles typically refrain from making hasty or power-hungry judgments because they consider their children and families," adds Shilshila.

The work is not without risk or worry. Protests are seldom a positive environment for marginalised populations, and they frequently feature people who undermine female leadership and voices. There are usually no female police, so if (when) you get caught, police can just grab you wherever. Activism may be tough and exhausting. But occasionally there is a ray of hope when the powerful truly pay attention.

In May 2022, the Nepal Supreme Court issued a groundbreaking judgement ordering the Nepal government to revoke all decisions taken on the development of the Nijgadh airport following a lengthy public debate that lasted five years. However, the young minds from Harin Nepal are still not persuaded. Tanuja explains, "Until you receive the complete judgement, you never know. They just gave the Ministry of Environment their 6-point road map, which includes, among other things, reforestation and the relocation of the indigenous Tangiya Basti clan.

Whether they are the ones who bear the brunt of climate change or the ones who lobby for it, the presence and experiences of these activists and advocates demonstrate that there are more women on the ground when it comes to environmental activism. To fulfil the goals of environmental justice, it is now necessary for effects to diffuse to the ground level.

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