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A National Park, River-dependent Sonahas, and a Biocultural Space in Peril

Chapter 5 of the The Right to Responsibility - Resisting and Engaging Development, Conservation and the Law in Asia

Natural Justice and the United Nations University – Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS) have just released a new book for peer review, entitled: The Right to Responsibility: Resisting and Engaging Development, Conservation, and the Law in Asia. This edited volume explores how Indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ resilience to external factors is often undermined by laws, institutional arrangements, and judicial systems. It also examines how particular peoples and communities are striving to overcome such structural barriers to self-determination by resisting unwanted developments and engaging proactively with a range of actors at multiple scales.

1.  Introduction

This chapter traces the lives of river-dependent indigenous Sonaha minorities from a bucolic terrain across the longest river basin of Nepal, fraught with contestations and struggles with Bardia National Park, the largest lowland national park in Nepal. It begins with a description of Sonahas’ ancestral territory and customary practices of fishing and effective management of gold panning in river and riparian areas. It then explores some of the consequences of the state-controlled protected area for the Sonahas’ lives. It argues that the state-imposed approach to conservation has jeopardised the Sonahas’ unique relationship with the river ecosystem and their associated culturally, historically, and spatially embedded livelihood practices. In the milieu of these historical-cultural connections and interactions of Sonahas with the river and riparian areas in and around the national park, the author conceives these areas as ‘biocultural space’ in peril. The chapter further argues that these aspects have been further obscured by integrated conservation and development projects promoting participatory conservation in the buffer zone of the national park. It also unpacks the Sonahas’ resistance and responses to the national park regime in the struggle to revive their historical rights of fishing and gold panning. Finally, the chapter offers some insights into resolving the tension and incorporating interests of the Sonahas with larger conservation endeavors and democratic territorial governance. 


2.  A Glimpse into the Sonahas’ Territory and Way of Life 

The historical and ancestral territory of the Sonaha indigenous minorities is marked by the natural course of the lower Karnali river basin, the longest river basin in Nepal. The river bifurcates into the Geruwa River and Karnali River near the Chisapani Bridge (in the east-west highway, to the north) across Bardia National Park (BNP) in mid-western lowland Nepal. The two rivers form a delta locally known as ‘Bhanwara Tappa’, a fertile plain that houses 11 Village Development Committees (see Figure 1).[1] The Geruwa River, which forms most of the western border of BNP and buffers peripheral villages in the delta, flows for approximately 37 kilometres (km) in Nepal between Chisapani to the north and Kothiya Ghat (a ferry point) to the south. Only a 10 km portion of the river falls outside the jurisdiction of the park and makes it way to Katharniya Ghat Wildlife Sanctuary in India to the south, which is connected to the BNP in Nepal by the Khata wildlife corridor. After it bifurcates from the Geruwa River, the main channel of the Karnali River flows to the west of the delta and falls outside of BNP.

 Figure 1: Terai Arc Landscape, Western Nepal. Karnali Flood Plain adjacent to BNP constitutes ‘Bhanwara Tappa’, where settlements of Sonahas are located. © WWF Nepal



Figure 2: A participatory sketch map of the Sonahas' ancestral territory juxtaposed with the Bardia National Park in the river delta. Only settlements of the Sonahas are marked. © Local Sonahas of Rajipur and Sudeep Jana

Settlements of Sonahas are spread throughout several villages in the delta and across the two rivers, both inside and outside of the BNP buffer zone (see Figure 2). This author’s ongoing study indicates that out of the entire Sonaha population in Nepal (1249 people), 64.89 percent (811) are in the district of Bardia, 559 of whom reside in the buffer zone (areas peripheral to the national park).[2] Their original settlements were on the edges of the two rivers, including areas that are now the national park. Other Sonaha settlements with a significant population, for example, in the far-western lowlands of Kanchanpur, are also found to have originated from the Bhanwara Tappa. 

Sonahas led a semi-mobile way of life until five decades ago. They were historically engaged in fishing and micro-scale manual mining of gold ores for subsistence in and around stretches of the Geruwa and Karnali Rivers. They used to reside in temporary shelters in and around the river referred to locally as ‘Dera’ and ‘Basai’, sometimes spending up to six months at a time fishing and gold panning, depending on the availability of fish stocks and golden ores in the river. A common narrative among local Sonahas in the buffer zone is (in a Nepali language) “Jata nadi, machha ra soon, tetai Sonaha” (“Wherever there is river, fish and gold, Sonahas were there”), which recalls the ways of life of their ancestors. Although they are sedentarised at present, their unique mobility in and around river tracts still persists. For example, it is still common practice for Sonaha men to spend one to two weeks at a time in such temporary shelters away from their villages. They also spend nights fishing in the river, departing from the village in the early evening and returning the next morning. During gold panning season (August-September), women and children spend several days in such temporary shelters when floodwaters recede. Men are skilled fish hunters with exceptional expertise of rowing a narrow wooden canoe in the fast currents of the river and fishing simultaneously in a pair with their drift and throw nets. Sonaha women are also skilled in catching small fish, which they occasionally do with their hands and nets. 

Their longstanding presence and interaction with the riverine ecosystem (including the river itself, its banks, and adjoining forests) of their territory far predates Nepal’s modern conservation interventions, which began only in the 1970s.[3] Interestingly, oral histories of Sonaha elders claim that Sonahas have a much older history of existence in the river delta than the currently dominant Tharu[4] indigenous peoples of Terai, the lowland region of Nepal. The ‘Pahadey’ (people of hill origin) also migrated into the region mainly during the 1950s and 1960s after eradication of malaria, which followed state-induced resettlements. With the influx of the increasingly dominant populations first of the Dangaura Tharu peoples in the river delta and later of the hill migrants, the Sonahas, who consider themselves natives of the river delta, have been relegated to the status of minority in their own ancestral territory.[5] 

In addition to fishing, the Sonahas’ main indigenous occupation of small-scale gold panning in the river is still being practiced. Fishing and gold panning as livelihood practices can also be understood as culturally embedded in their lived experience and therefore underpin their identity formation and cultural sustenance. Their very identity as Sonaha is believed to have been acquired from this occupation (both ‘Soon’ in Nepali vernacular and ‘Swan’ in the local vernacular mean gold). They possess unique knowledge and skills to extract tiny golden ores manually from the mixture of sands and boulders in the river banks. Women are more dexterous than their male counterparts in gold panning and thus have a particular specialised role to play. 

2.1.    Customary Governance and Management of Riverbanks 

The Sonahas had a unique system of governing and managing riparian areas for gold panning in the river delta. As recounted by Sonaha elders, in the past, the riverbanks in the delta were treated as de facto communal spaces for gold washing, which belonged to several clans of Sonahas.[6] In Sonaha vernacular, such sites are regarded as ‘Kafthans’ (also commonly referred to as ‘Swan kamai gaon’, an area or a village to earn gold). Riverbanks on both sides of the Geruwa and Karnali Rivers were once divided among several clans of Sonahas. Although there is no recorded evidence, Sonaha elders believe that such a system had been mutually generated by their ‘Purkha’ (ancestors). 

Clear clan-based demarcations of such areas in the river banks existed in the past.[7] Elders also recall a ‘mul manchey’(key person) in each Sonaha clan having de facto ownership over each area in a stretch of river. The key person was often determined by the possession of the clan’s ‘Darshan’ (shrine of a god). Each clan had its own exclusive Darshan, which they revered respectively and passed on from one generation to another on a hereditary basis. On the basis of primogeniture, the male head of the family in historical possession of the shrine – highly respected in his clan – would perform the sacred ritual of worshipping a god in the riverbank. Authority over demarcation and then further distribution of plots in a given stretch of river to fellow Sonahas in the riverbanks and their subsequent regulation was vested in and entrusted upon these key individuals. Customary rules required the uppermost portion – believed to have the highest likelihood of gold availability – of a stretch of riverbank allocated to a particular clan to be reserved for the key person. The rest of the allocated area was then divided equally among fellow Sonahas willing to wash gold there, irrespective of their clan affiliation, though only after being sanctioned by the key person. 

Before allocation of Kafthans to fellow Sonahas, a collective gold panning would take place at a spot reserved for the key person. However, the Kafthan could be accessed only after a ritual to revere ‘Bhutta’ (the spirit of god) was performed by the responsible key person on behalf of the clan and the Darshan (shrine) was brought by the key person from his house to the Kafthan. This was driven by a strong cultural belief that gold availability would be otherwise ruined and that misfortunes would plague the village. Whenever there was a sense of scarcity of gold at a particular Kafthan, a commonly held practice was to perform a ritual to prevent such scarcity or to revive availability of gold. Often only wooden equipment was employed because of a taboo that prohibited the use of metal equipment. Use of slippers, making unwanted noise, and whistling were also discouraged at the site because of the associated taboo. 

The gold was sold in local markets or to individual buyers who came to the village; mutual trust within the village ensured that exchanges were conducted equitably. The key person would spend half of the earnings from the gold generated on the day of collective gold washing on a feast at his house for those who participated in the day. He would retain the other half of his earning from the day’s yield. The remaining area was then allocated to fellow Sonahas who wished to wash gold in the area, regardless of their clan but bound by a customary rule of first seeking permission to do so from the respective key person. This fostered cooperation over the customary use of collective resources, which in turn significantly contributed to maintaining inter- and intra-clan social relations.

 Figure 3: Sonaha women from the village of Rajipur panning gold on the bank of Karnali River. © Sudeep Jana

As illustrated in Figure 2 above, riparian areas across the two rivers once consisted of series of Kafthans. Subsequent sections of this chapter describe how the unique customary system and practices of territorial demarcations have now eroded in present times and exist only in the social memory of Sonaha elders and childhood memories of young adults. However, gold panning by local Sonahas takes place in these river stretches both inside and outside of the national park.



 Figure 4: Sonaha fisher folks departing their village to fish in a canoe, with a community forest in the background. © Sudeep Jana


3. The Emergence of Protected Areas as a Direct Threat

Since the early 1970s, the government establishment and enforcement of terrestrial protected areas has been the major national policy and approach for the conservation of invaluable flora, fauna, and ecosystems in Nepal. They currently constitute 23.23 percent of the total area of Nepal.[8] Protected areas are predominantly governed and controlled by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC), the bureaucratic wing of the Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation (MoFSC), and managed with the assistance of the national army, although there is a diversity of modalities in the national protected area system.[9] The extensive literature on local people and protected areas in Nepal provides strong evidence and analysis of the significant local costs borne and conflicts generated by protected area policies and practices.[10] Featuring prominently in this literature is local resentment of imposed strict state policies that have restricted traditional access to natural resources and ignored wildlife-related losses and damages. Scholars have also explored the multiple impacts of the state conservation regime on various ethnic groups identified as indigenous peoples of Nepal.[11] 

The establishment of BNP, first by ruling elites as a royal hunting reserve to protect exclusive hunting grounds and later by the state as the national park[12] through exclusionary and protectionist conservation policy, has largely influenced and impinged upon the Sonahas’ existence and ways of life. Their lives have also been shaped and influenced by several other state laws (see Table 1) and social, environmental, and political factors.[13] As the original inhabitants of the delta, Sonahas have longstanding interactions and ties with the natural environment and certainly a much older history than BNP. Elderly Sonaha men often lament, “We used to wander freely and fish freely. No fear. We had boatfuls of fish in couple of hours. Fish catch was abundant then.” Female elders also recall their pasts of unrestricted gold washing and times spent at temporary shelters with their children. 

Areas that have been demarcated and strictly conserved as the core area of the national park were not pristine wilderness areas devoid of human interaction in the past. There were human settlements and even cultivations in various parts of what is now the BNP. In fact, when the government protection measures began, several of the villages were resettled from their original locations to outside of the new park’s boundaries.[14] Until 1976, locals could graze and raise their livestock and access forest products there.[15] 

In addition, the forested area was once a popular and exclusive site for game hunting for autocratic Rana rulers and their royal foreign guests between the 1850s and 1950s, as well as for Nepalese Shah monarchs until the 1990s.[16] Sonaha elders have vivid memories of ‘Sikar Savari’ (royal hunts) in the area that is now a national park of the late King Mahendra (1920-1972) and subsequently, his late son King Birendra (1945-2001), who are also often known – somewhat paradoxically – for their contributions to wildlife conservation in Nepal. “We were asked to demonstrate our fish catch and sometimes offer some to the members of the royal hunting team. In return, we would receive bones and leftovers from their game hunts,” 90-year old Dewari Sonaha has said, recounting a hunting trip of King Birendra in the 1970s. “Once, I even got a ride in a helicopter with officials of the hunting trip when I had offered some fish catch. They hunted tiger, spotted deer, and big crocodile.” 

Table 1: Key legislation in Nepal (listed in descending order of relevance and implications for Sonahas)

Legal framework


Implication for Sonahas

National Park and Wildlife Conservation Act, 1973

National legislation that asserts the State’s authority over declaration and jurisdiction over management and natural resources of protected areas. The fourth amendment in 1993 includes provision for local peoples’ institutions in buffer zones (consisting of elected representatives of village-level user committees and the park warden) and provision of 30-50% of the protected area revenue for conservation and development in the buffer zone. Royal hunting reserves declared before 1973 were regazetted as wildlife reserves or national parks under this Act.

Restrictions over access and use of park resources (including gold panning and fishing). Traditional resource use and livelihood practices now illegal. Mobility in rivers inside the boundary of national park constrained.

Bardia National Park Regulation, 1996

Accords authority to the national park administration over governance and management of Bardia National Park and its natural resources.

Same as above. There is a provision to provide an individual fishing permit to communities traditionally engaged in fishing, but is subject to the discretion of park warden.

Buffer Zone Management Regulation, 1996, and Buffer Zone Guideline, 1999

Provision and institutionalization of community-based three-tiered model for conservation and development in buffer zone consisting of users’ groups (at the household level), users’ committees (at the village level), and federated co-managed council[17] (at the level of buffer zone for each protected area). This signals a legal shift towards participatory conservation and equitable sharing of benefits from conservation. Effectively involves handing over of community forests in the buffer zone to the local user groups.

Sonahas as members of local level groups in the buffer zone. Two exclusive Sonaha-specific sub-committees within the structure of buffer zone user committee have been established.


Members of community forest user groups in the buffer zone have sometimes obstructed the practice of gold panning in river banks around some community forests. Sonahas have also enjoyed use rights over forest resources if they are members of particular community forest user group.

Forest Act, 1993, & Forest Regulation, 1995

Allow for creation of community forest user groups entrusted with usufruct and management rights over forests outside of the protected area and buffer zone.

Use rights over forest resources granted to members of community forest user group. Conflicts over use of riverbanks in the vicinity of the community forest for gold panning. Private fish contract system under the aegis of the group conflicting with traditional fishing rights of Sonahas in the past.

Local Self Governance Act, 1999, Regulation, 2000

Grants District Development Committee (local government at the district level) authority over use and management of natural resources.[18]

Practices of private fishing and ferrying contracts in conflict with traditional fishing rights of Sonahas. Gold panning sites impacted by extraction of stones and boulders.

Aquatic Life Protection Act, 1961

Provision to conserve aquatic species and preventing damaging and harmful practices to aquatic life, includes permission for fishing in the river.

No clear-cut provision to secure the rights of traditional fishing communities.

Mines & Minerals Act, 1985

Asserts all minerals as state property; exclusive authority of the state to carry out mining and grant licenses for the same, without significant adverse effects on the environment.[19]

No security of gold panning practices for Sonahas. They are also vulnerable to the state’s interventions.

Water Resources Act, 1992


Prevents pollution of water resources and accords utilization of water resources without adverse impact on the environment. Legal right of the government rules for conservation of water resources.

No clear-cut provision for river-dependent fishing communities.


3.1.    Unraveling the Consequences of Protected Areas

The Sonahas’ previously free and unrestricted mobility in their territory for fishing and gold panning was gradually constrained and eventually fully restricted with the imposition of strict forest protection measures and broader protected area regime introduced in the late 1970s. The author’s interviews with a number of Sonaha elders elicited accounts such as the following: “We came to know about the ‘reserve’ (before its designation as BNP) when we witnessed army guarding the forest across the river. We were told we could not fish in the river and enter the forest. If caught while fishing, we would be fined and punished! Arakcha ko kanun lagcha (doomed to the law of wildlife reserve).” This suggests that none of the Sonaha elders interviewed could recall local consultations prior to the formation of the wildlife reserve, which was later designated as BNP. The Sonahas’ customary rights and historical, socio-cultural, and economic ties with and dependence upon the river were thus blatantly ignored. 

Sonahas’ encounters with the national army and game scouts (under the park administration) deployed in various posts of the BNP intensified when they continued to fish and pan gold inside the park despite restrictions. In due course, punitive actions of the army against the Sonahas’ fishing and gold washing within and in the periphery of the national park began to rise. For example, their canoes and fishing nets were confiscated; they faced unlawful acts of verbal abuse as well as physical assaults from the guards and army; they were held in custody until monetary fines were paid. These harsh realities often generated deep resentments among Sonahas towards the national park guards and army. However, despite some degree of awareness of the park’s strict rules[20] and fear of armed guards cultivated through frequent encounters in the river tracts, they continued to transgress the national park boundary at night to fish and wash gold. Many studies have indicated the crisis of traditional livelihoods and reported incidences of rights violations as a consequence of the national park regime and policies.[21] 

The western periphery of BNP across the Geruwa River constitutes 114 km2 of the Karnali River floodplain. The floodplain and river tracts are natural spaces and living systems with which Sonahas have historically interacted and co-existed. These natural spaces have been perceived and represented by the park administration and conservationists as prime habitats for so-called charismatic species of wildlife and as a biodiversity hotspot.[22] The riverine ecology and aquatic ecosystem in particular have been constructed as critical for endangered Gangetic dolphins, Gharial crocodiles, and golden Mahasheer fish, as well as several river and migratory birds.[23] For example, a 2006 WWF Nepal study raised alarming concern about the declining population of dolphins. Among others things, it recommended an urgent need to minimise the fishing pressure throughout the entire stretch of the Karnali River. It also stated, “Most people in the area belong to the indigenous Tharu and Sonaha communities. Tharu have traditionally fished in the Karnali River...”[24] This demonstrates the high level of ignorance amongst conservationists and planners of the Sonahas’ customary ways of life and of their practices of fishing and gold panning as longstanding traditional cultural occupations. 

Therefore, a clearly demarcated bio-physical space that is now under the jurisdiction of BNP for park and buffer zone management (often represented in sophisticated maps) is constructed and further produced as areas of ecological significance and sites of critical biodiversity to be protected from human influence. Such constructions are often driven by an eco-centric and preservationist worldview based on Western and modern science and environmental knowledge. The park regime borne of this worldview has essentially driven the Sonahas’ marginalization and impoverishment by simultaneously ignoring and eroding their culturally embedded governance systems, values, and practices associated with their fishing and gold panning ways of life, all of which are inextricable from their customary territory. The Sonahas have thus been further disenfranchised by having their resource control and access curtailed and their mobility constrained without just and viable alternatives, and by being alienated from the particular environment and natural resources with which they previously co-existed. 

The crux of the argument is that riverine and riparian areas are much more than mere natural spaces to be conserved or exploited; they are lived spaces[25] in which Sonahas’ spatial and cultural practices of fishing and gold panning are cultivated and sustained as integral parts of their everyday lives. These spaces, often interpreted with livelihood significance or resource access only in a narrow economic sense, are actually where the very cultural identities, beliefs, and practices of Sonahas are formed and fostered. The territory of the Sonahas, which spans the collective and integrated system of settlements both inside and outside of the BNP buffer zone, including rivers, riparian landscapes, and forest edges, could be conceptualised as a whole as a biocultural system. Therefore, the indigenous territory of the Sonahas constitutes their ethnosphere[26] and is not only limited to the biosphere. It is clear that the narrow notion of conflict between local Sonahas and national park authorities over resource use and control alone is not a sufficient frame of analysis. Instead, the consequences and dynamics of protected areas have to be deciphered in a much wider context of contestation and politics of dynamic space with biocultural, social, and spatial meanings and attributes. 

3.2.    A Critical Look into Integrated Conservation and Development Projects

Conflict with local people has not gone unnoticed in protected area debates and discourse in Nepal. Debates of global paradigm shifts in protected areas towards participatory conservation approaches as well as increased attention towards local costs of conservation have also influenced the country’s discourse and practice.[27] Since the mid-1990s, there has been an emergence and institutionalization of the “buffer zone” concept to describe areas with human habitations peripheral to or inside the protected area, though not including the core zone of the protected area. As mentioned above, such areas as governed jointly by the local peoples’ institution and the protected area warden. The motives behind this concept was to engage local people in the conservation and sustainable use of natural resources, to reduce local pressure on the park resources, and to support community development through sharing of protected area revenues. This became a widely favored model of participatory conservation to address the conflicts between parks and people in Nepal.[28] To this effect, a series of initiatives under the approach of Integrated Conservation and Development have been introduced since the early 1990s.[29] 

An overview of project initiatives implemented by multiple actors in the BNP buffer zone (See Table 2) provides an important backdrop to critiques of the dynamics and impacts of the protected area regime on the Sonahas’ ways of life. These initiatives indicate a gradual shift from the heavy-handed management of protected areas by government bureaucracy towards complementarities between conservation and development in buffer zones and now conservation efforts tailored to broader landscapes in lowlands. It can be argued, however, that project interventions that should cater to socially and culturally differentiated local people with diverse needs have been largely guided by the conventional development paradigm and conservation imperative. In other words, participatory conservation and subsequent community development projects in the buffer zone have been largely driven by a uniform and overly generalised approach. They often fail to address social differences among local people as well as their diverse relations with and dependence upon the natural environment[30] and in some occasions, have further entrenched social marginalization and inequalities.[31] It has therefore become evident that buffer zone programmes have particularly failed to address the needs and exclusion of poor and marginalised social groups.[32]

Table 2: Overview of Integrated Conservation and Development projects in the BNP Buffer Zone

Projects in Buffer Zone of BNP

Core Components

Implementers and Donors

Bardia Conservation Programme: 1989 onwards             

Wildlife research and monitoring and conservation and development.          

Implementer: National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC)

Donor: Norwegian Agency for Development

Park and People Programme (PPP): 1994-2001

Institutionalization of buffer zone management, conservation, and development.

Implementers: Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC), UNDP Nepal

Donor: UNDP

Bardia Integrated Conservation Project: 1995-2000

Conservation and development, collaboration for PPP and BNP buffer zone.

Implementers: WWF Nepal, DNPWC, NTNC

Donor: Government of the Netherlands

Terai Arc Landscape[33] (TAL): 2001 onwards

Conservation and development in TAL.

Implementers: WWF Nepal, Ministry of Forest (Nepal government)

Donors: US Agency for International Development, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Netherlands),US Fish and Wildlife Services, Save the Tiger Fund (World Bank), WWF (the Netherlands, International, UK, and US)

Participatory Conservation Programme: 2002-2004 (continuation of PPP)

Continued institutionalization of buffer zone management, conservation and development.

Implementers: DNPWC, UNDP Nepal

Donor: UNDP

Western Terai Arc Landscape: 2005 onwards

Conservation and development in western region of TAL.

Implementers: DNPWC, Department of Forests

Donors: Government of Nepal, Global Environment Facility, SNV Netherlands Development Organization, UNDP, WWF Nepal, and others


Project such as the Western Terai Landscape Complex Project, among others, have attempted to support local groups of Sonahas in the buffer zone through income-generating and other community development activities. However, it remains unclear whether or not and to what degree these interventions have either lessened the Sonahas’ discontentment with the BNP or improved their ways of life. This author’s ongoing study suggests that such projects that promote alternative livelihoods for river-dependent Sonahas and other conservation and development projects in the buffer zone that aim to reduce dependency on the park have further reinforced the unfounded notion of ‘wilderness’ and the exclusionary nature of the national park. Similar to the state conservation interventions (primarily in the form of imposed protected areas), the projects have in fact encouraged further distancing of Sonahas from the natural environment and have ignored and obscured their unique history, existence, cultural practices, and spatiality, all of which are embedded in their lived and biocultural space. According to one rights activist and analyst, this has amounted to the overall failure to address issues of local peoples’ rights and governance in the context of conservation.[34] It is thus alleged that these projects have co-opted the rights agenda of marginalised groups such as Sonahas, who are often relegated to the role of passive beneficiaries rather than active custodians of their customary territories, and are ultimately disempowering for the very people they purport to be supporting.


4. Contested Terrain and Regime of Bardia National Park

After the 1990s, the broader political context was one in which rights-based movements and campaigns of marginalised groups and civil society organisations thrived in Nepal.[35] Although Sonahas’ attempts to organise around rights issues had previously withered during the period of violent armed conflict, local organising again gained momentum in 2006.[36] These efforts were largely spearheaded by leaders of Sonahas in the buffer zone of BNP and backed by rights-based Nepalese NGOs. A national organisation of Sonahas known as Nepal Sonaha Association subsequently emerged in 2007. In order to intensify their struggle, Sonaha leaders allied with the Protected Area People’s Rights Federation, a national organisation advocating and campaigning for rights of communities affected by protected areas in Nepal. During the period of 2006-2007, they were engaged in various forms of non-violent collective actions such as local mobilisation, mass rallies, demonstrations, dialogues, and written appeals sent by Sonaha delegations to BNP authorities. 

In 2008, after persistent pressure placed upon the BNP administration through peaceful actions, the Sonahas finally negotiated a fishing concession for nine months each year for those residing in the buffer zone in accordance with a number of conditions set out by the BNP authorities. One such condition was to halt fishing during the three-month spawning season. The concession was still welcomed by Sonaha leaders and activists with a sense of relief and victory in their struggle. The fishing licenses were issued in accordance with the provision of the 1996 BNP Regulation that accords permits exclusively for communities traditionally engaged in fishing in the buffer zone. Notably, this was the first time the provision had ever been implemented in BNP.[37] The licenses were issued to Sonaha individuals in the buffer zone through their affiliation with either of the two Sonaha Conservation and Development Sub-Committees under the jurisdiction of the Buffer Zone User Committees, both of which are recognised by the buffer zone legislation (see Table 1).[38] 

However, within a couple of months of granting the fishing permits, the BNP administration unilaterally halted the process of issuing and renewing fishing permits further when two Sonahas from Manau, the village near BNP, were arrested and legally charged for poaching rhino horn. Park authorities perceived this to be a breach of Sonahas’ commitment to wildlife conservation and further suspected that Sonahas ferried armed poachers.[39] During the context of this author’s research, local Sonahas claimed that this was the first instance of Sonahas’ involvement in the poaching of rhino horn in their entire history and that none of the Sonahas had ever been engaged in wildlife poaching. Since then, Sonahas have been using various forms of collective actions to urge the BNP to reinstitute their fishing licenses and rights of gold panning. 

 Figure 5: Sonahas’ demonstration at the Park headquarters. The placard reads, “Gold panning and fishing is our traditional occupation! Conserve it!” © Sudeep Jana

 In 2011, the BNP authority issued three-month fishing concessions for Sonahas from Manau, allowing them to use only traditional fishing techniques. Within a few days, the Manau Sonahas returned the permits to the BNP administration and demanded reinstatement of the previous fishing permits. Eventually, they accepted a single week-long permit of gold panning inside the park that was issued verbally by the park administration (at their discretion) to the village of Manau in response to the persistent demand. This occurred even though there is currently no official policy and regulatory provision to grant access to the national park for gold panning.

The Sonahas’ responses to the national park regime also have to be understood within the wider context of the indigenous peoples’ movement in Nepal. The discourse and politics of ethnic identity and historical exclusions have intensified throughout the country in recent times. In this pretext, state recognition as ‘Alpasankhyak Janajati’ (ethnic minority) has also influenced the Sonahas’ struggle. Despite their unique cultural identity and practices, Sonahas are still excluded from government listings of indigenous peoples.[40] Hence, recognition of their distinct identity constitutes an important objective of and fodder for mobilisation around their current struggle for historical rights of fishing and gold panning.[41] The Sonahas’ actions exemplify a sense of discontentment with and resistance to the state regime of protected areas. Their struggle is now increasingly networked with civil society organisations and campaigns towards legislative reforms and democratisation of protected area governance.


5. Conclusion

The experience and struggles of the Sonahas enunciate a crisis engendered by the state’s protected area interventions. This crisis can also be understood as an erosion of the Sonahas’ culturally, historically, and spatially embedded livelihood practices, as well as of their culture and identity themselves. The Sonahas’ dissonance poses serious questions about the current approach and rhetoric of conservation and development interventions that have failed to address fundamental issues such as democratic governance and their customary rights to access and use natural resources. They have also grossly underestimated the centrality of Sonahas’ associated cultural and spatial practices to the realization of those rights. A powerful socio-cultural dimension,[42] which is often missing in the debate of the ‘parks and people’ conflict and protected area discourse in Nepal, can enhance capacity to reconcile historical rights of Sonahas with national objectives of biodiversity conservation. In this pretext, this author proposes the concept of ‘biocultural spatiality’ asa dimension of space (with all of its socio-cultural and political attributes and dynamics, and not only physicality) that integrates embodied relations between biodiversity and culture. This concept has the potential to improve understanding and appreciation of Sonahas’ relations with the territory and resources upon which they depend, of the implications of conservation interventions for their ways of life, and of the cultural politics of their struggles. It may also help advance critical and constructive social science knowledge on peoples’ contestations with protected areas and towards democratic practices more broadly.

The unjust separation of Sonahas from their customary territory and ways of life is driven by the laws, policies, and practices ensuing from faulty state and conservationist constructions of natural landscapes and wilderness in protected areas. The continued alienation of the Sonahas from riverine ecology and riparian areas in and around the national park and the erosion of their historical ties and associated cultural practices not only threaten their very survival and identity, but also affect the efficacy of biodiversity conservation by disempowering the earliest stewards of the area that is now BNP and its buffer zone. Rather than being perceived as antithetical to conservation, recognising and nurturing the Sonahas’ co-existence with the river ecosystem that constitutes their biocultural space, their culture, knowledge and practices have to be considered valid and essential aspects of an effective and equitable rights-based approach to conservation.

In order to ensure the coupled realisation of conservation and locally appropriate development, the Sonahas’ historical rights to fishing and gold panning must be enshrined in the state’s legal frameworks. Since the mere existence of laws and policies does not guarantee their effective implementation, communities also need to engage in concerted local social mobilisation and actions that are also buttressed by broader movements and campaigns, as exemplified by the granting of the fishing concession to the Sonahas. Further needed is a more holistic system of democratic, inclusive, and local community-driven governance and management of the river and landscape that respects the broader Sonaha territory beyond the confines of the buffer zone, in essence, the two river tracts in and around the river delta. This would enhance the conservation effectiveness of riverine ecology and the connectivity with the BNP in the east and wildlife corridors in the west of the delta. Although Sonahas constitute a minority population, their unique connection with the river and ancestral lands, knowledge, proactive engagement, and territorial stewardship practices are critical to the effective and equitable conservation of the ecosystem and embedded biocultural space.


Holly Jonas, Harry Jonas, and Suneetha M. Subramanian (editors), 2013. The Right to Responsibility: Resisting and Engaging Development, Conservation, and the Law in Asia. Natural Justice and United Nations University – Institute of Advanced Studies: Malaysia.

Chapter 5: Jana, Sudeep: A National Park, River-dependent Sonahas, and a Biocultural Space in Peril  in The Right to Responsibility: Resisting and Engaging Development, Conservation, and the Law in Asia. Natural Justice and United Nations University – Institute of Advanced Studies: Malaysia. Editors: Holly Jonas, Harry Jonas, and Suneetha M. Subramanian, 2013.



Sudeep Jana - I owe my gratitude to the Sonahas of Bardia and Rajipur village in particular, to Holly Shrumm and Dr. Christina Birdsall Jones for their comments on drafts, Professor Roy Jones and Mr. Somat Ghimire for encouragement, and Curtin University for supporting my ongoing PhD research.


[1] The Village Development Committee (VDC) is the lowest political and administrative unit of governance in Nepal. Each VDC is made up of 9 wards.

[2] Several Sonaha settlements are in the VDCs both inside and outside of the BNP buffer zone. After Bardia, their most significant population is found in the far-western lowland of the district of Kanchanpur; more are scattered in various parts of the adjoining Kailai district.

3] Until the 1950s, the forests were protected as property of the Rana oligarchic rulers before it was nationalised by the state in 1956. In 1969, the ‘Royal’ Hunting Reserve was declared and armed guards were deployed. It was gazetted as the Royal Karnali Wildlife Reserve in 1976, although local people had de facto access to the forest and grazing grounds. Finally, it was designated as the Royal Bardia National Park in 1988. See Upreti, B. N., 1994. Royal Bardia National Park.National Conservation Strategy Implementation Project: Kathmandu, Nepal. After Nepal was declared a democratic republic in 2008, the symbolic prefix ‘Royal’ was renounced from the names of all national parks and wildlife reserves that had retained it since their enactments.

[4] Tharus are recognised by government as ‘Adivasi Janajati’, which isthe term used to denote indigenous peoples in Nepal. “Tharus consider themselves to be and are thought of by others being the indigenous peoples of the Tarai.” Guneratne, A., 2007. “The Tharu of Chitwan, Nepal”, page 93, in Brower, B.A, and B.S. Johnston (eds.), Disappearing Peoples? Indigenous Groups and Ethnic Minorities in South and Central Asia. Left Coast Press, Inc.: California. They had co-existed historically with dense forests of Terai. The mid-west lowland region, including the river delta described in this chapter, is predominantly inhabited by Tharus, mainly ‘the Kathariya Tharu and the Dangaura, whose name is derived from their original home in Nepal’s Dang Valley’. Guneratne, 2007, page 91.

[5] Sonaha elders testify that non-Sonahas were non-existent in the past in their ancestral territory (“Gair Sonaah haru kohi thiyena”, meaning thatnon-Sonahas were absent). They do, however, recall the occasional presence of the mobile Raji peoples, who harvested wild honey, in the forests in and around the two rivers. Some elders also acknowledge the presence of ‘Desauri’, sub-groups of Tharu people, before the arrival of Dangaura Tharu in the delta. The ongoing study by this author also suggests that there are 156 Sonaha households in a total of 7726 households (projection in 2010) in VDCs with Sonaha populations in Bardia.

[6] Under national law, riverbanks are considered state or public property.

[7] Altogether, there are 12 distinct clans of Sonahas. Sonaha elders still refer to gold panning spaces with terms such as ‘hissha’ (share), ‘simana’ (boundary), and ‘gaon’ (village). They remark, “Yo Poltu ko bau ko parcha” (“This falls within an area of Poltu’s father,” a key person of Dahitwa clan) and remember how certain areas belonged to each key person. 

[8] Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC), 2010. Annual Report (2066/67). DNPWC, Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation, Government of Nepal: Kathmandu.

[9] It is interesting to note that out of twenty protected areas in Nepal, all ten national parks, all three wildlife reserves, one hunting reserve, and two conservation areas are managed by DNPWC; three conservation areas are co-managed by a quasi-government national conservation agency (National Trust for Nature Conservation) and local peoples’ institutions, though the modality of one of these, the Gaurishankar Conservation Area, is still unclear; and one is managed by a council of local people. No military has been deployed to Makalu Barun National Park or to any of the conservation areas. Buffer zones in each of the 12 national parks and wildlife reserves are co-managed by DNPWC and local peoples’ institutions.

[10] See, for example: Allendorf, T. D., 2007. “Residents’ attitudes toward three protected areas in south western Nepal”. Biodiversity Conservation,16: 2087-2102; Paudel, N. S., P. Budhathoki, and U. R. Sharma, 2007. “Buffer zones: New Frontiers for Participatory Conservation?” The Journal of Forest and Livelihood,6: 44-53; Jana, S., 2008. Protecting People in Protected Areas, Recapitulating Rights Campaign in Lowland Protected Areas of Nepal, Community Development Organization. The Press Unlimited: Kathmandu; Paudel, N. S., 2006. “Protected Areas and reproduction of social inequality”. Policy Matters: Poverty, wealth and conservation,14: 155-168; Heinen, J. T., and S. K. Shrestha, 2006. “Evolving policies for conservation: An Historical Profile of the Protected Area System of Nepal”. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management,4941-58; Campbell, B., 2005. “Nature's Discontents in Nepal”. Conservation and Society,3: 323-353; Budhathoki, P., 2004. “Linking communities with conservation in developing countries: Buffer zone management initiatives in Nepal”. Oryx,38: 334-341; Mclean, J., and S. Straede, 2003. “Conservation, Relocation, and the Paradigms of Park and People Management: A Case Study of Padampur Villages and the Royal Chitwan National Park, Nepal”. Society & Natural Resources,16509-526; Muller-Boker, U., 2000. “State intervention in Chitwan: On the historical development of a region in southern Nepal”. Studies in Nepali History and Society, 5173-200; Stevens, S., 1997. “Consultation, Co-Management, and Conflict in Sagarmatha (Mount Everest) National Park, Nepal”, pages 63-97 in Stevens, S. (ed.), Conservation through Cultural Survival: Indigenous Peoples and Protected Areas. Island Press: Washington D.C.

[11] Stevens, 1997; Muller-Boker, 2000; Campbell, 2005; Naya, 2006; Jana, 2008.

[12] Upreti, 1994.

[13] These include, among others, changing riverine ecology, declining fish stock with increased fishing by non-Sonahas, lack of tenure security over river tracts and river banks, historical exploitation by non-Sonaha landed classes, landlessness or limited land holdings, increasing trends of outmigration, and their minority status.

[14] Upreti, 1994.

[15] The study of Dinerstein (1976) and Pokharel (1993) report cultivation in areas now grown into grasslands inside the park prior to 1975. Brown, K., 1998. “The political ecology of biodiversity, conservation and development in Nepal’s Terai: Confused meanings, means and ends”. Ecological Economics, 24: 73-87.

[16] There is an account of a hunting safari organised by Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana in February, 1876, in honor of the then Prince of Wales, Albert Edward, during which the hunting team killed at least 17 tigers in about a month in the jungles of western Tarai. Rana, P.S.J.B., 2049 B.S. (Nepali Date). Shree Teenharuko Tathya Britanta. 2nd Edition, Bidhyarthi Pustak Bhandar: Kathmandu. Accounts of ‘Royal Hunts’ in BNP and the loyalty of national park officials have been studied in, for example, Bhatt, N., 2003. “Kings as Wardens and Wardens as Kings: Post-Rana Ties between Nepali Royalty and National Park Staff”. Conservation and Society, 1: 247-268.

[17] This is legally recognised as the Buffer Zone Management Council, an apex body of all of the representative buffer zone user committees. The warden of the protected area acts as a member secretary and influences the affairs of buffer zone management. The warden also has the legal power to dissolve the council.

[18] In the current legal framework, the authority of local bodies (District Development Committees and Village Development Committees) overlaps with the protected area authority in situations such as extraction of sands, boulders, and stones from the buffer zone.

[19] Major mining operations or extraction of minerals are prohibited by the protected area and buffer zone laws.

[20] The national protected area law, gazetted in 1973 (see Table 1), prohibits several actions inside the national park, including, among others, entry to the park without permits, removal of minerals, sand, or stones, and construction of a shelter. These are considered offences punishable by law. The national law also permits confiscation of means of transport and other materials related to the offence and punishments such as monetary fines and imprisonment.

[21] See, for example, Jana, 2008; Neupaney, S., 2007. Traditional Livelihoods in Protected Areas: A Study on Indigenous Sonaha Minorities in Bardia National Park. BA Thesis, National College, Centre for Development Studies. Kathmandu University: Kathmandu.

[22] DNPWC, 2007. Bardia National Park and Buffer Zone Management Plan 2007-2011. DNPWC: Babar Mahal, Kathmandu.

[23] DNPWC, 2007.

[24] WWF Nepal, 2006. Status, Distribution and Conservation Threats of Ganges River Dolphin in Karnali River, Nepal. WWF Nepal Programme: Baluwatar, Kathmandu, page 11.

[25] Use of the word ‘space’ here is in reference to the multiplicity, complexity, and dynamism of the meaning and politics of space as theorised by Henry Lefebvre, and not limited to the material and physical sense. See Lefebvre, H., 1991. The Production of Space. Blackwell: Oxford, UK, and Cambridge, USA.

[26] This term was coined by anthropologist Wade Davis in his book, ‘Light at the Edge of the World’. Also see Glass, J., 2003. “Tales of the Ethnosphere”. Ascent, 19 (fall). Last accessed 6 September, 2011, at:

[27] Prabhu Budhathoki, pers. comm. via interview. 21 May, 2011.

[28] United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 2004. Impact Assessment of Buffer Zone Programme in Nepal. UNDP: Pulchowk, Kathmandu, Nepal.

[29] Brown, K., 2003. “Integrating Conservation and Development: A Case of Institutional Misfit”. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 1 (9): 479-487.

[30] Neumann also makes a similar critique of integrated conservation and development projects that treat local people as a homogenous entity as further extending state authority and obscuring local politics. Neumann, P.R., 1997. “Primitive Ideas: Protected Area Buffer Zones and the Politics of Land in Africa”. Development and Change, 28: 559- 582.

[31] Paudel, N.S., 2005. Conservation and Livelihoods: Exploration of Local Responses to Conservation Interventions in Royal Chitwan National Park, Nepal. PhD Thesis, University of Reading, UK.

[32] UNDP, 2004.

[33] The idea was to expand conservation initiatives at a landscape level, create connectivity among protected areas through wildlife corridors, conserve areas of biological and ecological significance outside of protected areas, and contribute to the livelihoods of local people. The TAL covers an area of 49,500 km2 comprising 11 protected areas and forest corridors stretching along the Indo-Nepal border from Parsa Wildlife Reserve in central Nepal to India’s Rajaji National Park. MoFSC, 2004. Terai Arc Landscape – Nepal, Strategic Plan (2004-2014). Nepal Government, MoFSC, Kathmandu.

[34] Somat Ghimire, pers. comm. via interview. 1 June, 2011.

[35] After the people’s movement, there was an advent of multi-party democracy in Nepal that ended the party-less autocratic Panchayat regime and direct monarchic rule in Nepal.

[36] Immediately after the historic people’s movement that marked the end of constitutional monarchy, the country was declared a republican state.

[37] Jana, 2008. This provision was first incorporated into the regulation of Chitwan National Park, another major protected area in south-central lowland Nepal. Indigenous fishing communities in the buffer zone of the park were granted fishing permits after their own local struggle. See Jana, S., 2007. Working towards Environmental Justice, An Indigenous Fishing Minority’s Movement in Chitwan National Park, Nepal, Talking Points Series. ICIMOD: Khumaltar, Nepal.

[38] It should be noted, however, that this fuelled dissatisfaction among Sonahas residing outside of BNP who historically accessed the fishing grounds in and around the national park. They are effectively excluded from both the fishing concession and buffer zone-related community development programmes.

[39] Fanindra Kharel, pers. comm. via interview. 25 May, 2011.

[40] There are 59 different groups of Indigenous peoples recognised by the government in Nepal. The government has yet to decide upon the recommendations of the special commission formed to study various Indigenous groups previously excluded in the listing.

[41] Krishna Sonaha, pers. comm. via interview. 26 March, 2011.

[42] For more information on cultural dimensions and approaches to conservation, see special issue of Policy Matters 13 on History, Culture and Conservation. Last accessed 21 July, 2012, at:



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