Nepali nomadic tribe struggles to stay in forest

By Pramod Raj Sedhain  |  Sept. 24, 2013 at 4:09 PM
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A Nepalese tribe of forest-dwelling nomads who refuse citizenship and voting rights is facing a crisis, with its young people's thirst for mobile phones and modernization clashing with their elders' struggle to maintain their traditional way of life even as deforestation undermines their livelihood.

"I fear we are losing our unique ethnic identity," the 61-year-old chief of the Raute tribe, Man Bahadur Shahi, told UPI Next.

Numbering just 618, according to Nepal's latest census, the Rautes live in makeshift forest shelters, move every six weeks to two months, and survive on monkey meat and a dwindling income from wooden products, such as bowls and storage pots, they make.

The monkey population they feed off is declining with the forests, and cheap plastic goods flooding the market are outdoing the Rautes' wooden products, says Hari Thapa, founder of Contemporary Vision Nepal, a Kathmandu audio-visual production and advocacy organization that promotes the Rautes and makes documentaries about them.

"Our community is facing serious problems," Shahi said.

Referring to a prohibition on chopping down trees under measures to curb deforestation, he said the government is "stopping us from entering the forest and has restricted our age-old preferential rights to free movement in the forests."

"We are losing control of our hunting areas."

Anthropologist Nanda Bahadur Singh says the Rautes' traditional methods of survival have been affected by the mainstream communities living nearby.

"They are struggling to maintain their traditional values despite insurmountable problems," Singh, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Nepal's Tribhuvan University, told UPI Next.

Rautes say the government gives each member of the tribe an $11 monthly allowance, but many young male Rautes spend the money on alcohol, chewing tobacco and cigarettes.

About a dozen young Rautes have left their community to migrate to the cities for better lives, said Diwash Rai, a planning officer for the National Foundation for Development of Indigenous Nationalities, a government-affiliated organization in Kathmandu working with indigenous communities.

The tribe’s diet is also changing. Rautes have started eating rice as their staple food instead of wild yams and air potatoes, a jungle vine variety of yam, and some have started rearing cattle, the organization said.

Of Nepal's 125 castes and ethnic groups, the Rautes are the only ones who live in forests their whole lives, but they are gradually absorbing modern ways.

"Life in the jungle is difficult. So we have started using modern amenities," Ain Bahadur Shahi, a young Raute, told UPI Next. Some bathe once a month, which is against their traditions, he said.

Raute men a wear a piece of plain cloth. The women wear old clothes received from begging. They only marry within their community. Nursing mothers in the community are not allowed to eat anything touched by people from outside their community, Shahi said.

They have gradually started using medicine, he added.

"The government has trampled our ancestral profession through dependency method," Shahi told UPI Next.

He said bans on entering forests to gather logs for manufacturing the goods they sell for a living have undermined their only occupation -- Rautes depend heavily on their woodwork as they have never practiced agriculture or worked for wages.

"We have been facing serious food shortage," Shahi said. "Very few people in my community are still able to carry out the traditional occupation of manufacturing wooden materials."

Another Raute nomad, Surya Narayan Shahi, said they face starvation.

"We are suffering from hunger as we have no other source of income," he told UPI Next.

Rautes refuse citizenship and electoral registration. No Raute has ever applied for citizenship, a district official said.

"They believe citizenship certificates are for landowners only," said Yagya Raj Bohara, chief district officer of Slayan district, 190 miles west of Kathmandu.

"We sent a team to the Raute settlements to distribute citizenship certificates and register them as voters, but they refused," Bohara told UPI Next.

Traditionally Rautes have refused to use telephones, but Rautes in Khanekhola forest, 225 miles from Kathmandu, have been tempted and walk for several hours to talk on a cellphone.

"We have come here to communicate on the phone," Shiva Raj Sahi, a Raute nomad from Khanekhola forest, told UPI Next by telephone, "We need to talk on the phone as we want to be acquainted with the latest gadgetry."

Satya Devi Adhikari, chairman of the Raute Uplift Foundation in Kathmandu, told UPI Next that Rautes had repeatedly asked him to supply them with cellphones.

Following massive deforestation and food shortages, Raute chief Shahi sent 14 groups of Rautes from their traditional shelter in Surkhet district to live in jungles in Chitwan district in central-southern Nepal. His deputy, Shivaram Shahi, was appointed their leader.

"We will not discard our longstanding tradition despite our geographical differences," Shivaram told UPI Next.

"As our ancestors lived in the jungle, we will also spend our lives in the jungle."

However, 19-year-old Amar Raute of Dadeldhura in Nepal's far west opposes the traditional Raute ways and says he wants to study.

"I could not continue my studies due to economic problems," Amar told UPI Next.

He attended primary school until fifth grade. He is now trying to get a job as a school assistant.

"I wish to serve the nation," Amar said.

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