Village Land Rights

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As a VSO volunteer I’ve been working, since July 2012, atCommunity Self Reliance Centre (CSRC), a Nepali NGO engaged in 53 Districts in the areas of land and agrarian reform, livelihoods and women’s empowerment.  The organisation implements a ground up philosophy, i.e. approximately 2400 Village Land Rights Forums (VLRFs)  feed into District Land Rights Forums (DLRFs), feeding into the National Land Rights Forum (NLRF) in Chitwan.  CSRC’s base is in Kathmandu, but the real action occurs at the village and district levels and staff are constantly in the field. 
Most recently I had the opportunity to visit with some land rights activists in Pravas, Palpa District.  The two women that I visited , and who hosted me along with their families, are the staff of the Palpa DLRF, working with approximately 22 VLRFs.   
I set out from Kathmandu with some other CSRC staff, a first major stop occurring in Rupandehi District where we attended a peaceful sit-in of at least 50 people, of all ages, who had recently been evicted from forestry land which they had inhabited for a number of generations.  It was a cool, overcast day and the people were sitting on a plastic tarp, many seemingly without very warm coverings.  As one member of our group spoke to the people in tones of solidarity, I wondered if they would be able to go back to their homes and land.  Unaware as to why these people were evicted, it was difficult to draw any conclusions.   But, in a country where there are many landless and tenant farmers, what really is the rationale for making people homeless?  Maybe the land was being occupied illegally, and setting some precedent would impact many, but if someone has occupied land for generations and has made it productive, why not let it be and/or assist people in making their occupation legal, possibly through a long term lease?  The bigger question is where will these people go and will they be able to start over, will some be forced to immigrate for their livelihoods in order to maintain and provide for their families?
We had to leave and headed to Butwal where I would be dropped off in order to take a bus to Pravas with my colleagues heading to Surkhet for some further work regarding women vis-à-vis  land rights. 
Arriving in Pravas I was initially greeted by a women who lived at the bus stop.  The Land Rights Activists soon arrived and we went to their one room office where district strategies are formulated.  After this we walked to the home of one of the activists. For three days I was able to experience rural Nepal and what it was like to daily drink fresh buffalo milk, eat food cooked over a mud, wood stove fire, take a somewhat warm bath in an outhouse, sleep in a frigid room without glass on the windows and enjoy the hospitality of the friendly people in this country.  I even met a priest in the front yard of the other activist who tried to sell us a stone. 
On the second day of my visit the two activists and I walked for about an hour past a football field, the Lumbini Medical College Teaching Hospital and through some lush “jungle” to the site of the Kunsare VLRF.  We were greeted by five men and a map of the village was produced showing the location of all 70 families.  Over the course of the 2.5 hour meeting, the group of people huddled on the porch of the venue grew to about 35, of which 20 were women. People came and left but anyone could join in the conversation.   Everyone listened attentively and spoke freely regarding the land issues of this particular village.  There seemed to be quite a bit of sharing as to how to take issues forward. 
Although my Nepali language skills are questionable, the feeling I had is that through the VLRF, people were being given a forum to voice  their opinions, truly providing opportunities to become empowered and make consensual decisions.  Many organisations speak of empowering others in their vision and mission statements, but in reality sufficient opportunities may not be provided.  Given that women do provide much of the agricultural effort in Nepal, it was very comforting to see so many women in attendance , not just listening but giving their opinions.
From what I’ve been able to garner through reading and talking to people in the land rights movement, there is a long road ahead and major changes need to occur at all levels of society.  But I do marvel at how this movement seems to be “walking the talk” and not just paying lip service to those most impacted as they seem to be the ones truly driving things.  Someday things may even get to the point of there being very few landless/tenant farmers and people truly feeling that they have alternatives, other than having to immigrate for their livelihoods and in order to take care of their families.  Jaye Jamin!
Position: Lover of Life-Change Agent

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