During the first week of September, Indigenous communities met with newly elected local government representatives in the Kailali and Bardiya districts of western Nepal to ensure land rights will be one of their top priorities.

Nepal’s political landscape is changing rapidly with power increasingly decentralized to local governments – the new Constitution allows local governments to develop their own policy and plans for land, forests, and water. Elections held May 2017 restored local government after nearly twenty years.

To make the most of this change, Oxfam in Nepal and Community Self-Reliance Centre (CSRC) brought Tharu Indigenous community and newly elected government officials together for dialogue sessions with the aim of sensitizing them on landlessness in the specific context of the Tharu Indigenous People.

The Tharu are the largest and oldest ethnic group of the Nepali Terai whose ancestral territory is the once isolated jungle area between India and the Himalaya. This isolation ended abruptly in the 1950s, when a large influx of highland farmers moved to the Terai, cutting down its jungle and establishing what is now Nepal’s rice basket.

These new farmers quickly gained ownership over large areas of fertile land and the Tharu found themselves increasingly landless and in debt. Tens of thousands of Tharu became bonded labourers, or Kamaiyas, working to repay debts, often without being allowed to hold their own possessions or land.

Bonded labour was abolished in 2000, with the government declaring all Kamaiya debts void. Ex-kamaiya families were promised alternative land, but this land never came, nor did adequate rehabilitation packages.

In recent years many Tharu, still landless, are returning to their previous landlords as sharecroppers, or occupying land in Kailali and Bardiya. Indeed, approximately 50% of Kailali and Bardiya households are on ailani, or non-registered land. Because of this, many live in constant fear of eviction, while their lack of legal landownership functions as a barrier to important documentation like citizenship. After more than seventeen years of being freed from near-slavery conditions, many Tharu remain excluded from access to public resources like water and forests, and suffer economic discrimination.

During a serious of preparatory meetings, Community Land Reform Coordination Committees debated on the roles they see for local governments in protecting land, forest and water. Community members agreed on the adequate mapping of available land, and on initiating discussions with the Community Forest Users Groups who manage and use forests as collective resources, urging them to allow former bonded farmers and landless people as members as well.

This was followed by an Interaction Program with Local Government during which committee members could appeal directly to the highest local representatives. They urged local authorities to use the power they were recently awarded, to resolve land right challenges, and to implement Community Land Reform regulations. The local governments committed themselves to the fight against landlessness, with a Municipal Head declaring: “When I took oath of office, I made a commitment that I shall play a primary role in resolving the problems of the landless and the squatters. We shall provide required assistance for operation of the Community Land Reform Practice Program”.

Oxfam in Nepal and CSRC remain hopeful that local governments will take action on landlessness, which is seen as the most pressing political issue in this region. They continue to advocate for an interpretation of land that goes beyond the financial, taking cultural and spiritual aspects into account as well as conveyed by one Indigenous representative: “Water, forest and land are priceless gifts of nature given to us, and cannot just be compared with money. Without them, we cannot live a single moment. That is why it is our duty to conserve them.”

This article was written for the Land Rights Now campaign, under the supervision of Fionuala Cregan and with thanks to Rasna Dhakal. It first appeared there on September 21 2017.