Social Science Baha

Can Displaced Communities Move out from the Poverty Cycle? Experiences from Rana Tharus in Far Western Nepal

Christie Lai Ming Lam

Existing literature on the effect conservation-led displacement has on those evicted is at best a mixed bag. Studies show that such eviction generally harms local communities, particularly those who are socio-economically marginalised (Agrawal & Redford, 2009; Cernea, 1997; Cernea, & Schhimit-Soltau, 2006; Heming & Rees, 2000; Lam & Paul, 2013). However, some scholars also advocate that the growing population near the protected areas indicates that conservation does indeed have benefits (Wittemyer et al., 2008). One source of this ambiguity in assessing the impact of displacement could stem from the unavailability of reliable data. A further quandary is the short-term focus in many of the empirical studies. This limits our understanding of how such displacement affects households in the long-term. When forced displacement remains the common conservation strategy in the lowland Tarai region in Nepal, its long term impacts particularly the ways in which displaced communities’ capacity for coping with displacement intersects with local historical contexts to reach current welfare status are not well examined.

The paper therefore aims to address these shortcomings by creating and analysing a novel panel dataset. It builds on an existing study, Lam and Paul (2013) which examined the short-term effects of conservation-led displacement due to the extension of the Shuklaphanta Wildlife Reserve. This study documented that the conservation-led displacement made the indigenous Rana Tharus community (hereafter referred to as Ranas) vulnerable to further impoverishment through the following channels: (a) inadequate land-based compensation policy, (b) depletion of social safety nets, and (c) deterioration of the traditional patron-client system. While this provided insightful narratives on the short-term effects of displacement, it also leaves many unanswered questions like – whether they were able to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty after ten years? or what new livelihood strategies were followed by the displaced households to break out the poverty cycle? – are of paramount importance for sustainable and welfare-enhancing policy outcomes. A second round of surveys was therefore administrated in 2013, after almost nine years since the first round was conducted.

Empirical findings indicate that while displaced Rana households suffered from poor land productivity and food insecurity in the first five years since displacement, they appear to be better off today, a decade since displacement, compared to non-displaced Rana households. Displaced Ranas diversified into sugarcane cultivation and seasonal laboring, and they engaged in international migration as a new livelihood option because it promised higher returns. These activities helped them overcome the vicious cycle of poverty. These findings do not, however, imply that all displaced Rana households experienced these improved instances of material welfare; on the contrary, the results reinforced that the historical and local contexts played very influential roles in determining welfare outcomes – systemically disadvantaging the poorest of households. This explains why displaced Rana households – of whom, larger land owners survived successfully. However, this has come at the expense of loosening social ties, more livelihood options and most importantly an overall deterioration in the socio-cultural well-being.