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Fishermen from the Musahar indigenous community prepare to cast their nets. Near Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, the Musahar people have built four ponds, where they breed and catch fish. The 21 households then share the profits. Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal
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Crocodiles, Fishing Communities Battle for Survival in Nepal

Nepal

Indigenous communities near Chitwan National Park have fished the Narayani River for generations, but as they try to catch more fish faster, they’ve come in conflict with another river community: crocodiles. Officials in the region try to balance the needs of these river-dependent groups as both struggle to survive.

KAWASOTI, NEPAL — Whenever Buli Ram Majhi goes fishing with his son, he follows the same routine. He pulls on his shorts, reaches for the cast net hanging outside his house in Kawasoti, and heads to his wooden boat on the banks of the Nayarani River, across from Chitwan National Park.

“I have license to fish in the river, but my son does not,” 57-year-old Majhi says. Mahji is a fisherman, as were his forefathers, and he and his son support the family by selling their catch to local restaurants and hotels.

Majhi fishes in the river three times a day. “Sometimes I catch nothing and sometimes I catch up to 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of fish,” he says. He gets 500 to 650 Nepalese rupees (about $4-$6) per kilogram of fish.

But even with this long legacy of fishing, working almost every day, Majhi and his family barely survive. None of his children are educated, and it’s the same for most families in the community, where options for education and careers are limited.

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Buli Ram Mahji and his son Dinesh display their day’s catch from the Narayani River. They will sell the fish to restaurants and hotels in the area.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

To catch more fish and earn more money in a short time, many local fishermen are using illegal nets made from plastic and nylon. But this practice has been linked to the deaths of crocodiles, who get tangled in the nets and cannot open their jaws.

After Chitwan National Park was established in 1973, it became illegal to kill wildlife in the national parks. However, local Nepalese fishing communities of Musahar, Majhi and Bote were given license to fish in the river using traditional methods, like hatte jal (cast nets) and dhariya (bamboo traps). These indigenous groups don’t own land and have depended on fishing for their livelihood for generations. They live primarily in Nepal’s Terai region, on government property.

Increasingly, fishermen from these communities are now using gill nets made of plastic and nylon, which are illegal. They say these nets allow them to catch more fish faster, which puts money in their hands quicker.

While members of these communities say they know the dangers of using illegal equipment, they see few other options.

Rajendra Musahar, 22, dropped out of school after ninth grade, citing problems at home. He learned to drive a tractor but can’t find a job. “I don’t want to fish, but now I have no other option,” he says.

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Buli Ram Majhi holds his fishing license, provided by officials from Chitwan National Park. His wife, Suklamaya, holds a photocopy of an old document, which states that they are permitted to fish in the Narayani River.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Community members also do labor and construction work when it’s available. They are paid 800-1000 rupees ($7-$8.73) per day. They say the work is seasonal and only available when there is construction going on.

Bir Bahadur Musahar, 36, has a fishing license and uses both legal and illegal methods, including forbidden two-finger nets. “We should be allowed to use tiyari jal nets up to 2 fingers, which are small. We don’t use big nets,” he says. “This is the only work we know. We need money to eat and educate our children.”

Officials say nine crocodiles died after they were trapped in illegal nets. Twelve others were rescued by Chitwan National Park staff.

Despite these challenges, locals try to maintain their livelihood. During a span of four years, Manrajani Musahar, 31, attempted to get a fishing license three times but was denied each time.

“Fishing is our identity and a source of our livelihood,” she says. “The government did not discuss with us before making the law. They stopped access to the river without giving us any information. They made the law but didn’t think about us.”

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Manrajani Musahar, a member of the Musahar indigenous community, runs a small grocery store from her home. She tried to get a fishing licence but has not yet received it.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Officials say they’re trying to respond to the needs of everyone in the community. Gopal Bahadur Ghimire, assistant conservation officer at Chitwan National Park, says that while they try to give licenses to everyone who needs them, they must be renewed every year and only one person per family can receive one. Plus, the license is only valid from mid-July to mid-April. The remaining three months are the breeding period for the fish.

“We don’t allow fishing during breeding season. If we don’t let the fish breed, then there won’t be any fish in the river,” Ghimire says.

Over the past year, officials arrested more than 100 people who used illegal gill nets or fished without a license, some of whom were from local communities. “Out of these, 10 to 15 of them have licenses,” Ghimire says. “If a person is caught, they can be fined between 20,000 and 50,000 rupees ($174-$436) or jailed for six months.”

Locals have tried to create alternative business opportunities.

With the help of Chitwan National Park’s Buffer Zone Committee, the Musahar community created four ponds to farm fish. Twenty-one households share the work and profits. But maintaining the ponds is expensive because the fish need 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of food each day.

Other people have expressed interest in small business ventures but were stopped short.

“We went to the bank, but they asked for collateral to take out loan. We don’t have land in our name, so we cannot take out loans from banks,” Jhup Bahadur Musahar, 30, says.

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Musahar fishermen toss the fish from the pond into plastic sacks. They also make sure the fish caught in the net don’t escape.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Dhan Bahadur Chaudhary, chief advisor of the Lamichaur Buffer Zone Committee, says officials were forced to enforce stricter laws. “The river is polluted, farmers are heavily using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and fishermen are using current jal made from nylon and plastic,” he says.

Chaudhary also says the government and various nongovernmental organizations are training these communities in occupations including animal husbandry and electrical, barbering and restaurant work.

“But they are not able to utilize these trainings. It is difficult for them to come out from their traditional occupation,” he says. “On the one hand, they are asking for their rights to fish, and on the other hand, they are expecting alternative jobs.”

But residents say preparing for a new way of life is not easy.

“We can’t leave Narayani at once. The government should provide us with jobs and other sources of income. Then we can slowly and gradually leave Narayani,” Manrajani Musahar says.

 

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ, translated all interviews from Nepali.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Musahar is a common surname of the fishing community. Some of the sources are related by extended families.