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Nepal: Rights, quake rehab plan are musts for peace and development

On the occasion of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, ILO News talked to Dr Mukta Singh Lama, an indigenous person from Nepal, about the post-earthquake situation and the impact of ILO Convention 169 on important rights of indigenous people.

Article | 07 August 2015
For this year’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on 9 August, the International Labour Organization (ILO) is presenting a snapshot on indigenous peoples in the world of work looking at the experience of various countries in Asia, including Nepal.

ILO News caught up with Dr Mukta Singh Lama who provided an update on indigenous peoples in Nepal in the post-conflict period. Nepal ratified the ILO Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169) in 2007 as part of the peace process which brought an end to the decade long civil war. *

He also spoke of the terrible toll the high-magnitude April and May earthquakes and landslides have had on indigenous peoples.

Dr Lama is from the 1.5 million person Tamang indigenous community who live in the central Nepal Himalayas. The Tamang are one of the largest indigenous populations in Nepal, one of 59 different groups referred to collectively as Adivasi Janajati. Due to historical discrimination, they form one of the most disadvantaged populations in contemporary Nepal.

Hard hit by earthquakes

ILO News: How have indigenous peoples (IPs) in Nepal been affected by the strong earthquakes this Spring?

M.S. Lama:
Indigenous peoples suffered the most extensively as a result of this disaster. Analysis of available data shows that about 70 per cent of the total fatalities occurred in indigenous populations who experienced also about the same percentage of destruction of their infrastructure. Several indigenous villages are no longer suitable for living due to landslides caused by the earthquakes and monsoons.

The heavy toll is primarily due to weak housing structures owing to poverty and powerlessness of IPs, in addition to the epicentre of the earthquake being in indigenous land in the fragile Himalayan mountains. If there is no indigenous-specific rehabilitation plan, the society will be pushed back half a century in terms of development.

ILO News: Following the earthquakes, did indigenous survivors have access to the health care they needed?

M.S. Lama:
The indigenous community exhibited a high level of resilience in the aftermath of the earthquake. As the majority of IPs live in remote areas, there were delays in relief materials reaching them and quantities were limited. Access to support was much better for well-connected Nepalese. IPs, who have faced exclusion historically, lack social capital and networks and felt left out.

ILO News: Besides marginalization, what are the other barriers to health care for IPs?

M. S. Lama:
In the earthquake-affected areas, almost all public health facilities were damaged. A government report indicates that more than 1,000 health facilities were made dysfunctional by the disaster. During the early, post-earthquake phase, the unavailability of medicines and health workers were major problems. Health posts have since been gradually re-supplied with medicine and attended by health workers including in indigenous areas.

Geographic remoteness and the language barrier, however, remain obstacles for IPs to access health services. The destruction of places of spiritual value including local shrines and monasteries as well as disruption in the lives of traditional healers has disturbed the traditional healing system.

Respect of rights

ILO News: Do you think that the ILO Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (C.169) has contributed to durable peace in the country?

M.S. Lama:
Yes. When Nepal ratified C.169 in 2007, it was a part of a peace process to end the ten-year conflict between the Government of Nepal at the time and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). Many indigenous youths were drawn to the conflict and participated in the movements. Ratification provided a ground for addressing their demand to protect their rights.

ILO News: Are IPs’ rights reflected in the draft of the new constitution?

M.S. Lama:
IPs hope to have their rights secured in the new constitution and constitutional reform represents an important opportunity that should be seized. In the current debate in the Constitution Assembly, however, it has appeared less likely that IPs’ rights will be included. Failure to respect IPs’ rights in the constitution and lack of implementation of ILO C.169 may result in conflict in the future.

ILO News: What are the areas of discord?

M. S. Lama:
IPs aspire to the constitutional guarantee of their rights in line with C.169, especially their collective rights over land, territory, culture, language, and the right to self-development. Demands for autonomy as well as official federal and provincial recognition and demarcation of indigenous land are sticking points. There is fierce opposition from conservative political forces to these rights being inscribed in the constitution.

ILO News: How can respect of IPs’ rights be ensured?

M.S. Lama:
Since the ratification of C.169, there has been a significant increase in awareness about the rights of IPs in Nepal among both the Adivasi Janajati community and non-indigenous groups. This represents progress. However, in my view, there are four major things to be done to improve the respect of IPs’ rights:
  1. Approval and implementation of the National Action Plan for implementing C.169.
  2. Inclusion of IPs’ rights in the new constitution.
  3. A change of mind-set in the government, political parties and dominant segments of society towards seeing C.169 as a positive tool for peace building, development and protection of human rights.
  4. Formulation and use of a detailed procedure for consultation of IPs by the government and development agencies with participation of IPs in policy-making, development planning and implementation.
Dr Mukta Singh Lama has a PhD in anthropology from Cornell University. He actively promotes the rights of indigenous peoples in Nepal, and defends their interests.

* Launched by the Maoist Communist Party, the conflict (1996-2006) aimed to overthrow the monarchy and achieve an equal, participatory society.