Karl-Heinz Kraemer
Department of Political Science of South Asia, South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg

Ulrike Mueller-Boeker. 1995. Die Tharu in Chitawan. Kenntnis, Bewertung und Nutzung der natuerlichen Umwelt im suedlichen Nepal. [The Tharus of Chitawan. Knowledge, valuation and use of physical environment in southern Nepal] Erdwissenschaftliche Forschung, vol. XXXIII. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.

Review in: The Kathmandu Post, 31 August 1997

The first four chapters of the book are dealing with the regional topographic, climatological, historical, social and cultural conditions. In the centre of observation are the Tharus of Chitawan. The Tharus and some other minor ethnic groups living in this area since earliest times have developed some kind of active immunity against the wide-spread malaria because of their modest trend to mobility.

It was Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa, who after the Anglo-Nepalese war (1814-16), for the first time tried to preserve the undeveloped forest and swamp areas for strategic reasons. Later the Ranas (1846-1951) followed the same idea, but they also tried to exploit the economic potentials of the fertile Tarai region. But compared to the outer Tarai the Chitawan area still remained a thinly populated peripheral region, since the Ranas claimed it as their private hunting area.

After the abrogation of the Rana system Chitawan became an immigration area to relieve the densely populated mountain region and to provide areas of arable land for the growing population of the country. The resettlement politics of the government, started in the mid-fifties, and the successful control of malaria led to an extremely high population growth in the early sixties. When the government lost control over its resettlement programme in the mid-sixties, King Mahendra ordered the forest to be "cleaned" of illegal settlers, but also of old Tharu villages, and made it a royal hunting reserve, which it has been until today.

But this could not solve the problem of illegal settlements in Chitawan, since these were also promoted by the infrastructural development of the area. Most of the migrants from the mountains settled in Chitawan because of economic distress in their home areas. But besides there was also a number of well situated families, which tried to extend their economic activities upon Chitawan.

Within a few years Chitawan faced the same process of confiscation of ethnic land by elite mountain groups, that had been typical for the development process of the modern Nepalese state, and which is now denounced in public by ethnic organizations: Many of the indigenous families lost their land; the traditional shifting cultivation of the autochthonous population was no longer allowed; the jimindari system encouraged devious land transactions; there were no owner guarantees for Chitawan's indigenous population; the colonists simply cultivated fallow land disregarding ethnic systems and property rights; former cultivators had to sell their land for sums far below its value; there was no initiative of the government to prevent the sell-out of Tharu land, etc.

In 1973 the Royal Chitawan National Park was founded. Today it is one of Asia's most important natural reserve areas attracting ten thousands of tourists every year, which constitute a further burden for the region.

Chapters 5-8 are concerned with the author's ethno-ecological approach. She classifies the physical and agriculturally used environment from the viewpoint of the Tharus, including their reactions to floods and erosions caused by the river. The author explains, how the Tharu's ideal adaptation to their natural environment has been defunctionalized since the early fifties by the intensive population growth and the resulting shortage of land. The Tharu's traditional agriculture of shifting cultivation in combination with silvo-pastoralism was replaced by permanent field cultivation dependant on regular use of fertilizer. But the necessary intensification of cultivation was managed by the Tharus only in part.

The traditional technology of the Tharus, too, is the result of a century-old successful adaptation to their natural environment. But the population pressure and its consequences make the supply of natural materials more and more difficult. And in the National Park its utilization is very restricted by regulations. Today the Tharus complain, that the National Park, founded as an institution for the protection of wild animals and used by tourism industry, has cancelled the traditional rights of the Tharus.

In the context of applied development research the author's ethno-ecological approach is an addition to and systematization of participatory methods of evaluation and planning. The treatment of the problem from the view of the affected people in addition fulfils the approach of development from below.

Copyright © 1998, Karl-Heinz Kraemer