While studying plant ecology in 1980, Gurus repeatedly emphasised that 'the Earth does not belong to man. Man belongs to the earth… Whatever man does to the web, he does to himself'; and 'forests are the lungs of our land, purifying air and giving fresh strength to people'. This contributed to realise the urgency of conserving the Nature – plant, animal, water, air and the soil. Survival and prosperity of human beings depend on our understanding of the value of natural resources and their use pattern. Heavy exploitation of resources such as forests, with the motto of 'utilisation first' resulted in the loss of human beings from natural and anthropogenic calamities such as landslides and floods.
Nepal is also facing severe consequences of natural and man-made disasters each year. Realising such recurrent events, people started conserving and sustainably utilising resources for their own 'survival and prosperity' by declaring and managing parks, sanctuaries, reserves, conservation areas and/or watersheds through policies and regulatory and non-regulatory instruments. Nepal also initiated activities to protect life-forms, in particular globally important wild animals and plants since 1970s in the form of government-managed national parks and wildlife reserves. In 1990s, Nepal established NGO-managed Annapurna Conservation Area and people-managed Kanchenjunga Conservation Area, adopted an approach of 'conservation with development' and proved itself very successful in conserving Nature and natural resources. It also resolved park-people conflicts by introducing buffer zone management concept and sharing of revenue. This prompted Nepal to manage about 23 percent of its area under protected area regime. Nepal's conservation initiatives, models, benefits and learning are well appreciated and replicated in other countries as well.
Managing Nature in the form of protected area is expanded in Kathmandu Valley which is surrounded by Phulchoki, Shivapuri and Chandragiri hills. Conservation of hill forests was of utmost importance in Phulchoki and Shivapuri-Nagarjun, and watershed management received high priority in the Kathmandu Valley since the 5th Plan (1970-'75).
In 1976, the Government established Shivapuri area as protected watershed and wildlife reserve with the main objectives of supplying water in Kathmandu Valley. On the occasion of the International Mountain Year (2002), it was gazetted as Shivapuri National Park, named after Shivapuri Peak of 2,732m altitude. It initially covered 144 km2 and was extended to Nagarjun Forest Reserve in 2009. Now Shivapuri-Nagarjun National Park (SNNP) covers an area of 159 km2. In general, 'protection' gets high priority in national parks. One can recall resettlement of people living within Chitwan (Padampur) and Rara National Parks to maintain serenity.
Over four decades of concerted efforts, Shivapuri area has changed its face from degraded to dense forest, and is considered the 'lifeline' for Kathmandu people. It provides fresh air and clean water. Many people enjoy her calmness, bird and water sounds. The SNNP has become a part of recreation and is visited repeatedly. Its aesthetic value matters a lot.
The National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act (1973) prohibits to, inter alia, construct or possess house, hut, shelter or any other structure; and clear, fell or remove trees, plants, and other forest resources etc. The Act also provisions for operation of services within NP or reserve by entering into a contract. However, it is important to understand why such Parks or reserves are established and protected, and why conservation policies, including Nepal Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (2014-'20) are formulated.
National newspapers have covered news in the recent days on the plan of the Government to issue permit to establish and operate cable cars, hotels and resorts also in protected areas, including Shivapuri-Nagarjun National Park (SNNP) to promote eco-tourism. This has raised greater concerns to individuals and institutions involved in protecting and advocating the continued need for nature and environment conservation.
On 8 August 2019, Nepal Forum of Environmental Journalist (NEFEJ) - 34-year old dedicated organisation of journalists and subject specialists, and Conservation Concern Group organised a programme on 'Commercialisation of Protected Area: Is it appropriate' in Kathmandu to discuss potential impacts of promoting eco-tourism through cable cars and resorts in SNNP. Ninety-two year journalist Bhairab Risal called for a stop to such activities that damage the protected areas. Dr. Tirtha Bahadur Shrestha, Conservation "Emeritus" condemned the commercialisation of protected areas in the name of eco-tourism and recalled visit of Former President of USA in SNNP early in the morning to enjoy birds sound. He proposed to maintain it as 'Quiet Park'. Kamal jung Kunwar, a dedicated implementer of conservation programmes in protected areas, shared potential impacts of such activities in watershed and water source in SNNP. In a video interview, Krishna Bahadur Shrestha shared his decades of experiences and learning in rehabilitating the Shivapuri watershed for improving water source for Kathmandu Valley. Moderating the programme Dr. Prabhu Budhathoki informed about the conservation needs and initiatives at the global and national levels.
Nepal's experience in promoting eco-tourism through the establishment of hotels and resorts within National Parks is not encouraging. The same happens in the national forests. For example, a 2.5 km long cable car operation in the Chandragiri Hill, a national forest in Kathmandu Valley, has promoted eco-tourism to a larger extent. But the proponent has not complied with the approved Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Report while establishing the resort. As per Section 18 of the Environment Protection Act (1996), 'the prescribed authority may stop such act immediately, and may punish with a fine ...'. Based on newspapers, the Government (Ministry of Forests and Environment), in accordance with this Act (amendment in 2018) has recently punished the proponent of the Chandragiri resort with a sum of NRs. 20 lakhs for non-compliance with the approved EIA report. The Government has also instructed to undergo a process for Supplementary EIA (SEIA). It happened due to gross negligence of the responsible institution on environmental monitoring which penalised the proponent. If environmental monitoring was carried out, any non-compliance and ineffective measures are reported, in principle, sufficiently in advance for necessary correction.
In principle and global practice, EIA is carried out before construction and/or implementation of any proposal. It is a pre-project study and planning tool to integrate environment protection measures (proposed by EIA study) in project design to avoid, minimise or compensate adverse environmental impacts and enhance beneficial impacts. Nepal has also introduced legal provisions for SEIA. As per the definition in the Draft Environment Protection Bill (2075), SEIA is carried out for any proposal which has once approved EIA report and there is need, in proposal, for partial change in physical infrastructure, design or change in land use, transfer or change of structures, and add forest area or increase project capacity. It provides clear message that SEIA should be carried out for partial change in components of the proposal. In case of Chandragiri, resort is already constructed.
Sensitivity of the protected areas is well recognised in the existing legal regime such as in Environment Protection Act and National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act. Hills around the Kathmandu Valley have tremendous ecological values to make Valley ecologically liveable. Any project that is planned to implement in the protected area must undergo EIA process in Nepal. In general, EIA study report does not recommend stopping the project. In case, mitigation measures are costly to avoid, reduce to compensate adverse environmental impacts of any project, the proponent may decline to implement the project. Recalling the basics, it is of utmost importance to stop or prohibit the implementation of any type and scale of environmentally disastrous projects in protected areas, including SNNP to protect not only the water source but also to ensure continuous supply of clean water and fresh air and serenity of the area – the lifeline for Kathmandu Valley.