Conservation and Society

: 2017  |  Volume : 15  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 292--303

The Politics of Conservation: Sonaha, Riverscape in the Bardia National Park and Buffer Zone, Nepal

Sudeep Jana Thing1, Roy Jones1, Christina Birdsall Jones2,  
1 Department of Planning and Geography, Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia
2 John Curtin Institute of Public Policy, Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia

Correspondence Address:
Sudeep Jana Thing
Department of Planning and Geography, Curtin University, Perth
Western Australia


This paper problematises the recent participatory turn in nature conservation policy and practices through an ethnographic investigation of the experiences of the marginalised Sonaha (indigenous people of the region of Bardia where the national park is located) in relation to the conservation discourses, policies and practices of the Bardia National Park authorities in the Nepalese lowland. Since the mid-1990s, the country's conservation thinking and policy paradigms have shifted away from an earlier protectionist and fortress conservation focus towards more participatory approaches. However, for the Sonaha who are historically and culturally embedded in and derive their livelihoods from the riverscape in and around the Park, the pre-existing discourses and practices of strict nature conservation still impact adversely on their everyday lives. The paper argues that participatory reform, despite its strengths, has nevertheless reinforced the old conservation paradigm and hegemonic conservation discourses that normalised conservation violence and the marginalisation of the Sonaha. Based on critical ethnographic work with the Sonaha, we present a political ecology critique of conservation approaches. A case for rethinking contestations between indigenous peoples and national park managements is postulated.

How to cite this article:
Thing SJ, Jones R, Jones CB. The Politics of Conservation: Sonaha, Riverscape in the Bardia National Park and Buffer Zone, Nepal.Conservat Soc 2017;15:292-303

How to cite this URL:
Thing SJ, Jones R, Jones CB. The Politics of Conservation: Sonaha, Riverscape in the Bardia National Park and Buffer Zone, Nepal. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2017 [cited 2019 Dec 10 ];15:292-303
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In the global conservation domain, Nepal has been portrayed as a country with progressive conservation policies and practices (Heinen and Kattel 1992; Heinen and Shrestha 2006) but in recent years these have attracted strong criticism (Anaya 2009; Paudel et al. 2012; Stevens 2009, 2010, 2013a, b). Since the mid-1990s, the country's conservation thinking and policy paradigms have shifted away from its earlier protectionist and fortress conservation focus towards more community-based and people oriented conservation of ecosystems and landscapes. But these shifts only represent a partial adoption of the 'new paradigm' principles and standards advocated by the IUCN in an attempt to fully meet the treaty obligations under ILO 169 and the standards of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In its lowland national parks at least, the Nepalese government continues to maintain exclusionary 'old paradigm' policies and practices that displace Indigenous peoples and local communities (Stevens 2013a, 2014b, c) such as the Sonaha indigenous minority groups in the lower Karnali River delta, in the Midwestern lowland Nepal.

This case study documents and examines the experiences of the Sonaha in the context of the conservation practices operating in and around the Bardia National Park (BNP), the largest lowland protected area in Nepal. The riverscape and the research subjects under inquiry are situated in the spatial and policy contexts of a techno-bureaucratic and military controlled national park and of participatory regimes of conservation in its designated buffer zone. The Sonaha with their long-standing occupancy and relationships with the riverscape are still confronted and governed by an exclusionary national park regime and discourse notwithstanding recent shifts towards participatory conservation. The paper argues, participatory reform has failed to address the Sonaha's worldviews and consequent resistance, rather it has perpetuated the old conservation paradigm and hegemonic conservation discourses that normalise conservation violence and marginalisation of the Sonaha.

In this paper, we first discuss the framework and theoretical perspectives that inform our inquiry and analysis of this case. We then briefly present the methodological approach for this study, and provide background information on the park and the policy context. We then explore the Sonaha's unique ways of life and livelihoods; examine their contestations with the Park management and interrogate the dominant conservation discourses within which these take place. We then outline the implications of our analysis and its contribution to the reframing of park and people contestations more generally.

 Political Ecology of Conservation

Our theoretical framework is informed by the political ecology of conservation (Vaccaro, Beltran and Paquet 2013). Political ecology broadly defines the relations of power and difference in interactions between human groups and their biophysical environments (Gezon and Paulson 2005). Early works in the field of political ecology constituted the relationships between social, political and environmental processes using a framework of structural relations of power and domination over environmental resources (Scoones 1999). Some of the important topics of concern to political ecology are: the nexus between environmental change and degradation and peoples' marginalisation and poverty; struggles over the use of, access to and control over natural resources among social groups; and environmental identity and its role in the creation of social movements (Robbins 2012). Since the 1990s, increased attention has been paid to the post-structural concerns of discourse, power and knowledge (Escobar 1996; Bryant 2000; Peet and Watts 2004).

The terrain of the political ecology of conservation is diverse. It encompasses: the examination of state control and the exercise of power upon communities; the colonial and post-colonial contexts of protected area designation and management; the role of conservation NGOs and the influence of conservation science in the understanding of nature; the socio-cultural impacts of conservation practices on social groups; and policy reforms and neo liberal thinking on conservation among others (e.g., Adams and Hutton 2007; Brockington et al. 2008; Vaccaro et al. 2013; Stevens 2013a, 2014c). The political ecology of conservation therefore seeks to inform both sound environmental management (conservation) and 'empowerment of disadvantaged social groups' (Zimmerer 2000: 357).

Globally, the experiences of protected area designation as a geographical strategy for biodiversity conservation have been mixed. While there is evidence of the benefits and diverse values of protected areas (Secretariat of the CBD 2008), strict and exclusionary paradigms and practices of protected area administrations have produced adverse impacts on local inhabitants and indigenous peoples (e.g., West and Brechin 1991; Ghimire and Pimbert 1997; Brechin et al. 2003; Colchester 2003; Stevens 2014c; West et al. 2006). The relationships between indigenous peoples, state instrumentalities and major conservation organisations have frequently been strained (Chapin 2004; Dowie 2009) and indigenous peoples and local communities have resisted protected area initiatives (Neumann 1992; Norgrove and Hulme 2006; Holmes 2007; Stevens 2014c). However, recent thinking on conservation and protected areas has undergone a major shift with increasing attention being given to human rights, social justice, equity, culture, democratic governance (e.g., Borrini-Feyerabend et al. 2004; Brosius 2004; Campese et al. 2007; Stevens 2014c, d) and to the roles and contribution of indigenous and local communities (Borrini-Feyerabend 2010) leading to 'a new protected area paradigm' (Stevens 2014d).

Power and discourse

Our analyses are informed by the discourse-power nexus (Foucault 1980) since the relations of power and differences among social groups are central to political ecology (Wilshusen 2003; Gezon and Paulson 2005). We pay particular attention to the material and structural dimensions of conservation politics and conflicts as well as to their implicit symbolic and discursive aspects (Escobar 1996; Nygren 2004).

As noted by Foucault (1982: 790), power relationships must be sought in the mode of action of government, and in the ways that the “conduct of individuals or of groups” are directed and governed beyond the domains of violence, struggle, or consent. Several scholars have examined the concept of 'governmentality' in relation to conservation (e.g., Agrawal 2005; Campbell 2007; Fletcher 2010; Robbins 2012; Caruso 2014). Equally important, in the operation of power, is the idea of 'subjectivity' (Foucault 1982), the process whereby human beings are made subjects, both through self-subjection and through being made subject to others (Neumann 2001; Agrawal 2005, Caruso 2014). We also appreciate that the operation of power can be subtle, indirect and invisible. In our view, both these concepts resonate with a radical conception of power (Lukes 2005).

We understand discourse as: “a specific ensemble of ideas, concepts, and categorisations that are produced, reproduced, and transformed in a particular set of practices and through which meaning is given to physical and social realities” (Hajer 1995: 44). In this paper, particular attention is given to the hegemonic power of the nature conservation discourse as it influences the management of the Park and its buffer zone. In particular we consider the issue of the conservation of the riverscape which is controlled and mediated by conservation authority and by the Nepalese state and the consequences of this process for the Sonaha.


This paper draws on ethnographic and empirical information generated during fieldwork in Nepal (2011–2013) as a part of a doctoral thesis (Thing 2014), conducted in the villages with Sonaha populations in the Karnali River delta adjoining the BNP. These villages are located both inside and outside the buffer zone (see [Figure 1] and [Figure 2]). Primary information was collected through multiple research methods and techniques including structured and unstructured in-depth interviews with individuals and groups and informal conversations with the Sonaha and other local residents in the delta and elsewhere in the Park buffer zone. During the study, the Park officials, present and former members of the national park and forest bureaucracies, relevant individuals from conservation organisations and civil society organisations were also interviewed. Oral histories and memory mapping of elders and adults as well as participatory methods were used to trace current and former mobility patterns and ancestral territories of the Sonaha. Participant observation provided some experience of the Sonaha's everyday lives, cultural practices, livelihoods, struggles and resistance against the Park regime and its policies. The lead author's observations of the everyday lives of local population in the lowland protected areas, and his prior engagement in national policy deliberations as a researcher affiliated to several civil society organisations in Nepal (2006–2010) also informed the selection of the groups and villages for this study.{Figure 1}{Figure 2}


The Bardia Park region was under British India control from 1816 to 1861. It was a popular hunting and grazing ground for political elites (Conway et al. 2000). Its low-lying frontiers were under the control of Muslim landlords from the adjoining region of Awadh (Oudh) in India and were later handed over to the Nepalese rulers. Jung Bahadur Rana who founded the Rana regime (1846–1950) in Nepal designated the region as a part of a new Nepalese dominion in the western Tarai lowland plains. Jung distributed lands to his relatives and supporters which intensified the internal colonisation and subordination of the indigenous Tharu people that had begun with the earlier conquest of the area by Gorkhali rulers (of the Shah dynasty who ruled and expanded the kingdom of Gorkha as a part of the unification of Nepal from 1769 onward) in the late eighteenth century (Lal 2013). The forests of Bardia were under a Birta, a privileged tenure, and were hunting grounds for the Rana ruling elites (Kollmair et al. 2003), see [Table 1]. It was therefore claimed that the rulers provided the wildlife and forests with some form of protection1 (Blower 1973).{Table 1}

This region also had a history of commercial exploitation and deforestation, supplying timber for railway sleepers in British India (Lal 2013). Although commercial forestry led to serious deforestation in the 1920s (Bolton 1976) forest stocks have been claimed to have recovered over time (Upreti 1994). Migrant settlement was encouraged in the Tarai region in the second half of the nineteenth century but, until the malaria eradication of 1950s, the hill populations avoided inhabiting this region. Migration to the region accelerated from the 1960s and this led to the rapid conversion of forests into cleared, settled and agricultural land (Conway et al. 2000). This process triggered state initiatives for forest and wildlife protection and the eventual imposition of National Park policies on the local population.

Portions of the current area under state protection were originally inhabited by indigenous peoples such as the Tharu and the Sonaha, and later by other migrant settlers. King Mahendra, who had hunted in Bardia in the early 1960s (Bhatt 2003), later supported the foundation of the state conservation movement. While Nepal's forests were nationalised in the 1950s, state-bureaucratic control in the 1960s in Bardia also took the form of setting aside forested areas between Babai and Thakurdwara under the wildlife management division of the government (Upreti 1994), see [Figure 1].

In 1969 the Park area was closed to locals and became the exclusive hunting reserve of the ruling monarch. Armed forest guards were deployed. Later, after it was designated as an official wildlife reserve in 1976, grazing and forest access by local people were increasingly restricted with military deployment for this purpose occurring from the mid-1970s (Bolton 1976). This strict management of the Park was institutionalised by national legislation and strongly supported by the state bureaucracy, the ruling monarch and the royal family2. During both the Park's creation and the later expansion of its boundaries, local inhabitants were displaced in the late 1960s, 1970s and the 1980s. Some 9600 people were resettled outside the Park in 1984 (see [Table 1]).

The Discursive Creation of the Park

The idea of a protected area in Bardia was inspired by the field experiences and encounters of conservation experts in the scenic and wildlife rich River Karnali and its surrounding forests, especially in the western section of the present Park3 (see [Figure 1]). In the early 1960s, the British naturalist, Gee (1963: 74) recommended that areas north and south of the Chisapani Gorge along the Karnali River as well as “…any other such area found suitable for the purpose, be constituted as national parks or wild life sanctuaries for the preservation of the country's low elevation fauna”.

At that time, a national discourse of wildlife protection was triggered by narratives of an ecological crisis in the lowland Tarai. In-migration and forest destruction in the 1960s were endangering the one horned rhinoceros and this led to designation of the country's first National Park in Chitwan. The preservation ethic and the interest of the powerful monarchy and royal family in wildlife, together with the international techno-scientific discourse of wildlife conservation, and the provision of international aid, crucially influenced the state imposition of protected areas during the 1970s. The discourse of tiger conservation in particular was instrumental in the inception of the Park in Bardia (Blower 1973; Bolton 1976) which was also aided by discourses of the Yellowstone model (Stevens 2014c), the idea of fortress conservation (Brockington 2002), and the 'old paradigm' of protected areas (Stevens 2014b, c).

Policy Evolution for Protected Areas in Nepal

Nearly two decades of exclusionary and top-down management of protected areas by the state backed by the 1973 National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (NPWC) Act, resulted in conflicts and tensions with the local populations. Subsequently, the global thrust towards participatory development, advocated participatory approaches in conservation which were reflected in major state policy documents in the 1980s and early 1990s (Ojha et al. 2014). Important provisions about local participation in the management of Buffer Zones, peripheral areas peripheral areas or enclaves with human habitation in different types of protected areas, were incorporated in legislation in the 1990s4. These were landmark shifts in conservation policy and thinking and saw participatory conservation at least partially accepted in the management of protected areas in Nepal.

Several buffer zones have been declared since the mid-1990s. In Bardia, a buffer zone was declared and demarcated in 1997 (see [Figure 1]). Participatory conservation was institutionalised through the creation of local institutions5 for the co-management of the buffer zone. This reflects the evolution of Park management and governance (see [Table 1]). It is worth noting that the buffer zone populations do not have a significant role and authority in the decision making and policies of the park management. Park warden has supreme power and authority in the management of the buffer zones. Therefore, buffer zone policies and practices have also come under criticism (Paudel et al. 2012).

 The Sonaha Customary Riverine Territory and Ways of Life

The lower Karnali River delta is bordered by the main Karnali River channel and a branch known as the Geruwa River that forms the western boundary of the Park today. Much of the delta falls in the western buffer zone of the Park (see [Figure 1]). The Sonaha consider themselves as a distinct ethnic group indigenous to the delta. In recent times, they have been seeking recognition as one of the officially designated indigenous peoples of Nepal6. Oral accounts by the Sonaha elders suggest that they were present in the delta as far back as the pre-unification period of modern Nepal in the eighteenth century. The Sonaha elders claim a history and interaction with the riverscape in the delta that predates the arrival of the Dangaura Tharu, a sub-group of Tharu originally from Dang valley, which now constitute the majority population in the delta (Chetri 2005).

The Sonaha population has often been unaccounted for in the national census. Although the latest census mentions 579 people with a Sonaha mother tongue (CBS 2011), more than twice this number (1249) were identified as Sonaha during the study and this total may still be understated. The Sonaha reside in different locations in the delta (both inside and outside the Park buffer zone, mainly closer to the rivers, see [Figure 2]) as well as outside Bardia in the Farwestern Nepal.

Historically, the Sonaha led a semi nomadic life involving artisanal fishing, the alluvial mining of gold dust, and foraging and accessing forest resources rather than a settled agrarian way of life. Their mobility and customary (temporary) shelters called Dera or Basahi were concentrated on the river islands and river banks in and around the delta. The Sonaha consider this as their ancestral riverine territory (see [Figure 2]). The river and riparian areas also frame the Sonaha's socio-cultural, spatial and livelihood practices—

Going to the river is our occupation! Fishing and gold panning! We, Sonaha cannot afford formal education. We take all our girls and boys to wash gold. Gold washing is our ancestral occupation. By carrying our belongings, carrying our sons and daughters, we go to the river..., gold and fish are our farming... (Palti Sonaha, pers.comm.2012).

This English translation of the song above by a Sonaha woman underlines the importance attached to their customary ways of life. While artisanal gold panning technologies are still customary, the Sonaha's fishing practices have undergone changes from the use of cast nets to plastic string gill nets, but they still rely on customary wooden canoes (see [Figure 3] and [Figure 4]). Their customary ways of life have been changing as the Sonaha diversify into other livelihood options including small-scale farming and seasonal daily wage labour. There has been increasing labour migration to the cities, to neighbouring India and recently to the Middle East. Despite these changes, their customary occupations are still the main source of subsistence, since most are landless or have minimal land holdings (see [Table 2] and [Table 3])7. During the fieldwork period, many Sonaha regularly travelled through the delta away from their village settlements for fishing and gold panning purposes (see [Figure 5]). These practices still hold significance in their everyday lives as expressed below— {Figure 3}{Figure 4}{Figure 5}{Table 2}{Table 3}

We have been making our living from the rivers. We have everything in the river. Our future….and our lives rely heavily on the river. River is the biggest property…. (Kallu Sonaha, pers.comm.2012).

River, sand, rocks are not only a natural area. For us they are just like land under cultivation. We are deriving benefits from it. We fish in the river…… from the sand we earn gold. They are just like a property [unlike a private property] just like land (Fula Ram Sonaha, pers.comm.2012, our addition).

A customary practice of managing and governing the gold panning areas as common property known as Kafthans existed until recently (Jana 2013). Although this practice was gradually weakened over the second half of the twentieth century, they operated up to the 1990s. The sacred gold panning plots on the river banks were allocated equally to each household willing to pan gold dust. This was regulated by the customary authority of a key person in each Sonaha lineage group who possessed the collective sacred shrine of the lineage and also performed rituals at the Kafthans. The Sonaha elders still recall how the riparian areas were historically allocated among various key persons across several lineage groups. The customary practices associated with the Kafthans were based on the Sonaha's spiritual, economic and socio-cultural relations.

The Sonaha's Lived Experiences and their Constructions of their Riverine Space

In addition to the significance of river based livelihoods noted above, the river and riparian areas in and around the Karnali delta (including those inside the Park) have deeper historical and cultural meanings, emotional connections, and relationships for the Sonaha. Interactions with their ancestral territory shape their collective identities and cultural practices. Although the Sonaha now live a more sedentary life, a number of the Sonaha in the delta continue to shelter in Dera on the river islands away from the village settlements, sometimes for up to one month at a time. Historically these have been places where intergenerational learning, skills and adaptations to the riverine way of life took place and where Sonaha kinship and social relations were fostered. “For us river islands are also our homes and villages” was a common sentiment expressed by the Sonaha during the fieldwork.

Customary Kafthans are also remembered by referring them as Gaun (village) but this has a radically different connotation than that of a village in popular Nepali vernacular. Although customary management of Kafthans and associated cultural practices have disappeared as a result of complex factors including the Sonaha losing access to and control over their ancestral territory as a result of state interventions and policies related to the Park, the elders still demonstrate emotional connections to those sites8. Sonaha adults also recollected childhood memories of these practices. Hence, this space is a lived space (Gow 1995) and not only a natural physical landscape. The riverscape in the delta, where the livelihood practices of the Sonaha thrive, also constitutes their knowledge and conceptions of the natural environment. It is meaningfully linked to a lived symbolic place in which their collective memories, cultural identities and meanings are embedded. However, the Sonaha's meanings and close associations with the riverscape have been altered by the Park regime.

 Park and People Contestations

The violence of nature conservation

Oral accounts and recollections by the Sonaha elders suggest that the creation of the Park, which some of them still refer to as Arakshya (a strict wildlife reserve), was forcibly imposed by the military and armed guards. Since the 1970s, with the enforcement of the strict Park laws and policies9 their hitherto free mobility in the rivers around the Park has become increasingly constrained (See [Table 1]). As one elder lamented—

Sonaha had freedom over the rivers…. When it became Arakshyaeverything stopped, hunting, fishing and mobility. Army came to tell us, 'Do not enter the forest'. If they found us there, they would arrest us and take us away. Arakshya is for wild animal, we cannot go there (Mahangi Sonaha, pers.comm.2011).

The Sonaha often recall harassment by and punishments from the military and the Park authorities, and the extreme hardships they have experienced as their customary occupations were restricted and deemed as breaches of the Park regulations10. Several landless Sonaha families were also forced into the exploitative bonded labour system. In the villages of Rajipur (Patabhar) and Saijana (Manau), hardships resulting from the Park restrictions and the actions of the authorities forced the Sonaha to migrate to India. The Park regime and its policies usurped their customary territory, curtailed their access to and mobility in the rivers and, more importantly, dismantled and altered their ties with the land and waters and their socio-cultural practices including Kafthans without offering them any just and lasting alternatives (Jana 2013)11. These detrimental impacts can be construed as a violence of conservation (Peluso 1993; Neumann 2001) perpetrated against the marginalised Sonaha by the Nepalese state.

In recent years, the Park administration and its conservation partners have mobilised local youth groups around the Park to curb wildlife poaching and illegal logging. The Sonaha's relationships with these groups, which largely consisted of Tharu youth but none of the Sonaha during the study, were tense. Leaders influential in the youth group were also affiliated to the Young Communist League (YCL), the youth wing of the Community Party of Nepal (Maoists). During fieldwork, the Sonaha reported resentment of the raids by the youth cadres and the Park patrols on the river shelters and their attempts to discourage them from gold panning in the rivers around the Park. The youth cadres however saw themselves as agents of conservation, and can thus be considered as conservation subjects (Agrawal 2005) supported by the Park administration. This indicates that the coercive conservation measures of the state against the marginalised Sonaha have been increasingly exercised by local actors under the guise of community based anti-poaching campaigns.

Despite the shift to participatory conservation and development practices in the Park buffer zone, tensions with the Park authorities have continued12. Although the Sonaha are occasionally intercepted in the rivers at the Park boundary, the frequency of direct encounters between the Sonaha and the Park guards has declined in recent years. One of the reasons is that the main river channel of the Karnali, where most of the Sonaha currently fish and pan gold, now flows outside the Park's jurisdiction. The Geruwa River, at the Park's boundary, has recently been running low in water. The Sonaha fishing and gold panning practices there have therefore lessened in recent years. But the Sonaha fear that tensions are likely to intensify again if the main river channel of Karnali runs low again (as has happened in the past) and the Sonaha resume their customary occupations on the Geruwa River.

Interrogating the discourses and practices of conservation and development

In addition to the coercive imposition of the national park regime and its associated discourse on the Sonaha, their everyday lives have been increasingly influenced and impacted by a much wider and dominant conservation discourse. In the context of the Sonaha and the Park, this hegemonic and exclusionary discourse of the state entails characteristics which can be seen as central to the 'old paradigm' of conservation as identified by Stevens (2014b)—

Preservation of the Park (including the riverscape in and around the delta) as a 'wilderness' (Cronon 1995; Spence 1999) which fails to acknowledge and appreciate the existence of the Sonaha and their interactions with the natural environment; thereby separating the Sonaha from the 'wilderness'.Depiction of the Sonaha's relationships and engagement with the riverscape as purely economic; and their practices as being incompatible with nature conservation; thereby criminalising and delegitimising their customary livelihoods and cultural practices.Discounting the Sonaha's meanings and ties with the land, water and forests in the riverscape, thereby marginalising Sonaha worldviews and counter discourses.

In the official conservation discourse, the riverscape is represented and reconstructed as an ecologically significant natural ecosystem, the Karnali Flood Plain13, a biodiversity hotspot and an ecotourism destination. It is portrayed and promoted as an important habitat of the endangered one horned rhinoceros, tiger, Gharial crocodiles and river dolphins (DNPWC/MoFSC 2001, 2007). The Park officials and conservation practitioners interviewed in the study articulated these dominant discourses of the riverscape and its conservation in relation to the Park. These respondents did not envisage Sonaha coexistence with the riverscape, and held views counter to Sonaha meanings of the riverscape, as well as, to international conservation discourse on the rights of indigenous peoples (Stevens 2014c, d). These conservationist discourses of the riverscape ignore Sonaha history and environmental interaction and rather reinforce the hegemonic conservation discourse outlined above.

The Sonaha in the delta have encountered the discourse and practice of Madhyawarti (buffer zone) policies since the late 1990s. Several Integrated Conservation and Development Projects (ICDPs) have been instrumental in promoting the Nepalese state's dominant discourse and practices of conservation in the Park buffer zone (see [Table 1]). These ICDPs seek to engage the local populations, the state and its conservation partners for conservation and community development, to build local institutions and support local livelihoods. Such initiatives include: management of community forests; setting up electric fences to address depredation and raids by wildlife; conservation awareness and education. The creation and existence of three tiered local institutions for the management of the buffer zone has been important in promoting and intensifying a discourse of Samrachan (conservation) at the grassroots level. These local institutions and ICDPs, in which the Sonaha have no role in decision making, played a significant role in reinforcing the dominant discourse of Nikunja (national park).

Until 2006, the Sonaha were invisible in the Park management plans and documents and, therefore, in various ecological and conservation studies in relation to the Park. They appeared for the first time in the Park management plan for 2007-2011, with respect to their potential role in the conservation and tourism zone as noted below (DNPWC/MoFSC 2007: 26):

A tourism package will be developed in some selected areas ……. and other villages having Sonaha people and the Tharu. These Special Target Groups identified …. should be used as Special Resource Group (indigenous knowledge, skills and practices) for wildlife and aquatic fauna conservation.

Although, for the Sonaha, this package has yet to materialise, they gradually gained visibility through the activities of the Western Terai Landscape Project (WTLCP), 2005–2012, a government executed project funded by international donors that began engaging with the Sonaha from 2007 onwards. To leverage the benefits from this Project, such as micro saving and credit funds, the Sonaha appropriated the dominant conservation discourse already accepted by many of their fellow buffer zone residents, by associating themselves with the Project activities. In 2007, the Project and the Park administration organised the Sonaha at Patabhar and Manau (west of the Park in the buffer zone, see [Figure 2]), into an exclusive Sonaha community based organisation known as the Sonaha Conservation and Development Sub-Committee (SCDS).

Hence, the Sonaha have not only been subjected to the strict conservation regime but they have also been co-opted into the mainstream discourse and practices under the rubric of participatory conservation and development in the buffer zone14. The Sonaha residents in the buffer zone are eligible to receive the benefits of ICDPs supported livelihood activities as well as a portion of the Park revenues allocated for the buffer zone residents. Firstly, as residents and legitimate members and beneficiaries of buffer zone user groups and community forests and secondly, as members of the SCDS within the formal structure of buffer zone management15, the Sonaha have been transformed into conservation subjects despite suffering the costs of the Park management policies. Thus, as analysed by scholars elsewhere (e.g., Neumann 2001; Agrawal 2005; Caruso 2014; Stevens 2014a) the governmentality of conservation is thus enacted not only through coercive measures and policies but also through the construction of the Sonaha as conservation subjects under the surveillance of the Park administration, and through the intensification and adoption of the hegemonic conservation discourse in their everyday lives.

While the Park authority's restrictions on the Sonaha's customary ways of life are still intact, the WTLCP provided support for alternative livelihoods that included skills development training, seed funding for the SCDS and micro saving and credit schemes, and some community development work in the Sonaha settlements. During the fieldwork, the Sonaha, despite leveraging resources from this Project, expressed their grievances with it because it ignored their customary occupations and rights. They perceived the Project support as insufficient to compensate for the loss of their customary livelihoods notwithstanding the claims of the Project and its donor that they were transforming Sonaha lives and improving the Sonaha's relationship with the Park authorities (UNDP Nepal 2008; WTLCP 2008).

The dominant discourse of conservation and the current practices of the Park in its buffer zone management, reinforce the Sonaha's alienation and displacement from their ancestral territory and customary livelihoods. This discourse, we argue, also rationalises state control over the riverscape and normalises the conservation violence perpetrated against the Sonaha. As the hegemonic conservation discourse of the Park and the riverscape is sustained and entrenched, the Sonaha's practices, and their relationships with the riverscape and its embedded complex meanings are also marginalised. In fact, the very concept of a 'buffer zone,' despite its worthy principles, has proved to be incompatible with Sonaha world views and riverine ways of life. For instance, the river stretch (Karnali-Geruwa) that marks the Park boundary and segregates the buffer zone (society) from the Park (nature), is also problematic for the Sonaha customary ways of life that are embedded in the holistic riverscape.

Sonaha resistance to the Park regime

.... We go to the national park to fish.... When Sonaha are distressed, YCL are cheerful! We go to the national park to wash gold.... amidst fights against the park warden and threats of Army! Still deprived of licenses [for fishing & gold panning] (Janaki Sonaha pers.comm.2011, our addition).

This English translation of a song by a Sonaha woman, articulates the Sonaha's everyday struggles. The Sonaha have been resisting the national park regime since the creation of the Park through silent, evasive, and usually cautious acts, what Scott (1985) calls 'everyday resistance' by contravening the Park rules, by continuing their customary occupations and by travelling along and using the rivers. Despite frequent Park patrols and vigilance, they fished and panned gold at night in the Park Rivers by dwelling on temporary shelters outside of the Park boundary. On several fieldwork occasions, Sonaha men were observed fishing at night from their canoes and Sonaha women fishing during the day with their bare hands and nets in the Park Rivers.

In recent years, Sonaha have also resisted overtly through collective actions against the Park regime supported by rights based NGOs and political activists (Jana 2013). Their peoples' organisation known as Nepal Sonaha Association (NSA) emerged in the course of their push (2006–2011) to demand collective rights to their ancestral occupations and recognition of their ethnic identity. In February 2008, after persistent collective protests, the Sonaha in the buffer zone negotiated nine-month concessions from the Park administration to fish in the Geruwa River at the Park boundary. However, this exemption was short lived. After three months, the Park administration unilaterally rescinded the fishing license, when three Sonaha youths from their settlement at Manau were held by the Park authorities along with other locals for the alleged sale of a rhino horn. Despite their occasional protests, the Sonaha have failed to renegotiate the fishing license to date. The Sonaha perceive this as a punishment for the entire community16.

The Sonaha's collective resistance to the national park regime articulates, and is also the site of counter discourses of indigenous rights. Their collective actions that were initially triggered by the hardships resulting from the Park restrictions have now also become avenues by which to assert their collective identity as a marginalised ethnic group and their ongoing struggle to gain official indigenous status from the state. As expressed by a Sonaha leader, “our fight is not only with the Park warden; it is with the government too for recognition of our Jati [ethnicity]” (Tek Sonaha, pers.comm. 2011, our addition). Ethnic consciousness and assertion among the Sonaha can also be attributed to the growing national discourse surrounding the politics of ethnicity and identity nationally since 1990s (Gellner 1997). Although the Sonaha's collective resistance to the Park regime has ebbed since 201217, it has stemmed from the crises resulting from the strict paradigm of nature conservation and subsequent participatory conservation reform in the buffer zone.


The Sonaha's encounters with the Nepalese state conservation interventions and policies demonstrate how the violence of conservation, both through the direct exercise of power and more subtle effects of hegemonic conservation discourse, operates in this nature conservation regime. The governmentality of conservation is enacted and sustained through direct violence and hegemonic discourse with detrimental impacts on the Sonaha in both cases. The ability of modern conservation to marginalise indigenous peoples and regulate their interactions with the nature emanates not only through the state power, as suggested by Colchester (2003), but also through hegemonic conservation discourses. Peluso (1993) argues that state violence in the name of conservation is legitimised by conservation discourse. This case demonstrates how dominant discourses and practices of conservation normalise state violence against the Sonaha and their arbitrary separation from their ancestral territory, and in turn marginalises their world views of the lived riverscape. This study contributes to scholarship on the relationships between conservation discourse and violence (e.g. Peluso 1993; Bocarejo and Ojeda 2016).

Unlike the scenario of hegemonic discourse of conservation versus counter hegemonic discourse as examined by Norgrove and Hulme (2006), this situation is much more complex than the simple binary, since the Sonaha, despite their resistance, have also appropriated the conservation discourse. However, the Sonaha resistance to the Park regime, both demonstrate the inadequacies of, and powerfully symbolise challenges to the strict and the participatory regimes of conservation. As argued by Brockington (2004) and Holmes (2013), strict protected area regimes tend to prevail despite local resistance.

Violence against the Sonaha continues despite the participatory conservation reforms and interventions in the buffer zone, in contravention of the international standards of participatory conservation and the new paradigm of conservation (Stevens 2014d). Participatory conservation has not transformed violent conservation but re-entrenched it. Both strict protection of the national park and participatory conservation of the buffer zone reinforce the top-down, techno managerialist (Caruso 2014; Stevens 2014a), bureaucratic, military-centric, nature-focussed, indigenous rights violating, and globally-oriented conservation regime. The current model of buffer zone and national park management fails to accommodate Sonaha world views. Our critique of participatory conservation contributes to the existing scholarship in this area (e.g., Tsing et al. 2005; Dressler 2009; Caruso 2014; Stevens 2014a). Attention to the political ecology of conservation including both its material and discursive dimensions and dynamics are imperative to understand complexities of park and people contestations, to address the challenges of participatory conservation and to realise the rights of indigenous peoples.


We acknowledge the contributions of the Sonaha people from Bardia and other research participants in the research project. We also thank the Research Unit for the Study of Societies in Change (RUSSIC) and the Department of Planning and Geography, Curtin University. We are grateful to the reviewers and editors.


There is no documented evidence of customary conservation practices of the forests by indigenous peoples in the region. But, both the Tharu and Sonaha have traditionally had dependence on and interactions with the forests including hunting (Upreti 1994; Jana 2014).See Bhatt 2003 on interests of the Nepalese monarch and Royal family in the conservation affairs of Nepal.This overlaps with the ancestral territory of the Sonaha.Fourth amendment to the NPWC Act in 1993 and the 1996 Buffer Zone Management Regulation.Local level groups at the village level are called Buffer Zone User Groups. Their representatives compose a Buffer Zone User Committee at the level of a Village Development Committee. In turn, these are represented on an apex council called the Buffer Zone Management Council at the Buffer Zone level.The Government of Nepal legally recognises 59 indigenous nationalities of Nepal. In 2010 a high-level task force of the government recommended a revision of the current list expanding the total number of indigenous nationalities to 81. Although the Sonaha were included in this recommendation, to date the government has not made any official decision on this matter.See Thing 2014 (Chapter Six) for detailed documentation of customary livelihoods of the Sonaha in the delta.Although factors behind the disappearance of these practices are complex and multiple; the Sonaha consider the Park policies and control over their ancestral territory as major factors that alienated Sonaha from these customary practices in the areas under the Park jurisdiction including their sacred Kafthans.The regulation restricts entry to the Park at night, the removal of sand and stones, the construction of any form of shelters, and fishing without permits. These are offences punishable by law that includes: seizure of materials related to the offence; monetary fines and imprisonment of those apprehended. Park warden has semi-judicial authority over cases of violation of park laws (Paudel et al. 2012).Although no Sonaha have been killed by the military, it is worth noting that the Park's army protection unit was involved in extrajudicial killing of two Dalit women and a girl who were collecting wild vegetables in the Park, which attracted the attention of human rights organizations (see OHCHR-Nepal 2010).See Jana 2013, Thing 2014 on further documentation of the negative consequences of laws, policies and actions of the BNP authorities on the Sonaha.Discussion on the critique of 'participation' can also be found in Stevens 2014a: 301–303.It is located to the west of the Park and is bordered by the two main branches of the Geruwa River (see [Figure 1]).For similar critique also see Caruso 2014, Stevens 2014a.The Sonaha are not represented in the key decision-making bodies such as the Buffer Zone Users Committee and the Buffer Zone Management Council.Park officials during the interviews rationalised that the practices and presence of the Sonaha in the rivers are not conservation friendly. They found the use of modern gill nets for fishing problematic and strongly favoured alternative livelihoods for the Sonaha away from the rivers.See Thing Forthcoming on a detailed analysis of the Sonaha resistance.[79]


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