Mining the Seti River. Image by University of Potsdam via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
- Environmental human rights defenders in Nepal continue to fear for their safety and lives amid a lack of protection from the government, a new report shows.
- It found that despite rising threats to the environment, Nepal doesn’t have specific legislation to define who defenders are, their work, or the measures of protection they need.
- It also found that women defenders, in particular, were more likely to experience domestic violence and sexual assault because of their work, as well as excluded from decision-making processes and participation in public life.
- Some of the respondents in the study cited the January 2020 killing of Dilip Mahato, a critic of illegal sand mining in Dhanusha district: “People pay attention … only when they get killed.”
On Jan. 10, 2020, 24-year-old Dilip Mahato died after being stabbed multiple times and then run over by a truck. Mahato was an outspoken critic of illegal sand mining taking place in a river in the Dhanusha district, in Nepal’s southern Madhesh province.
According to investigators, Mahato had been trying to obstruct the mining when he was attacked. Reports said the miners had previously issued death threats against him.
The incident drew widespread coverage and sent chills through the community of environmental human rights defenders across Nepal, who were already facing a host of challenges, including similar threats to their own lives and those of their families.
In the years since Mahato’s death, little has changed, a new study shows. Published by the Informal Sector Service Centre for Human Rights and Social Justice (INSEC), an NGO, the study says Nepalis working for the protection of the environment continue to feel unsafe due to a lack of government security mechanisms.
“During the course of the study, it was found that discussions haven’t even begun to frame policies to protect people defending the environment,” Prapoosa K.C., the lawyer who led the study, said at an event to share the findings.
K.C.’s team interviewed 51 respondents in the provinces of Sudurpaschim, Lumbini, and Madhesh, and the study found that most activists working to protect the environment don’t identify as “environmental human rights defenders” (EHRDs). Similarly, most were unaware of the role of EHRDs as outlined by the United Nations.
The U.N. defines environmental human rights defenders as “individuals and groups who, in their personal or professional capacity and in a peaceful manner, strive to protect and promote human rights relating to the environment, including water, air, land, flora, and fauna.”
In recent decades, extractive industries such as sand mining and the timber trade have emerged as major environmental challenges in Nepal, mainly due to lax government monitoring and enforcement. Numerous incidents of violence and intimidation involving industry players have been reported in the media in the last few years. All of this has made the job of environmental human rights defenders a lot more difficult.
The report says that despite the growing challenges, Nepal doesn’t have specific legislation to define who EHRDs are, their work, or the measures of protection they need. This impedes their access to speedy justice and helps from law enforcement, the study adds.
Similarly, most EHRDs and their organizations work independently of each other, with little coordination between them, the study found. Existing EHRD networks and coalitions are insignificant, and discussions among members on topics including security are limited, said Shubhechchya Khadka from INSEC.
In addition to this, women EHRDs were found to be more likely to experience domestic violence and sexual assault because of their work, especially in community forests, the study said: “In certain circumstances, they face pressure from family members to give up their activism and support the family financially by working.”
The findings are consistent with those of another study, published in 2022, that documented the challenges faced by women EHRDs in Nepal. In addition, the new report highlights that women environmental human rights defenders in Nepal have limited access to resources, and lack recognition and support. It also notes that they’re often excluded from decision-making processes and face significant barriers to participation in public life.
“We saw that women who had to patrol the forests at night found it difficult to convince their husbands to let them go,” K.C. said. “Women also need to convince their in-laws that they shouldn’t be involved in logging.”
In the case of Dilip Mahato, justice was finally delivered this February, more than three years since his killing. The Dhanusha District Court sentenced two people to 25 years in prison and another to 12.5 years for their involvement in the crime.
Although EHRDs have welcomed the verdict, they remain skeptical about their own safety and future. K.C. said some of the respondents told her that the Mahato case shows that people “pay attention to the challenges EHRDs face only when they get killed.”
Forestry expert Shyam Shrestha, who wasn’t involved in the study, said that although the Mahato case received a lot of attention, there may have been other cases that largely went under the radar. “The government hasn’t paid attention to the issues of environmental human rights defenders. It needs to start doing so,” he said.
The story was first published in Mongabay in 23-June-2023