The Likhu River is a collective treasure stewarded by Sunuwar and Sherpa Indigenous communities for generations. But Indigenous and local communities there now are adversely affected by three hydroelectric power projects spearheaded by Kathmandu-based MV Dugar Group. The projects have a total investment of 21 billion rupees from 18 private banks, but the affected communities continue to await remedy and justice.
Hydroelectric power is often touted as “green” and “clean” energy. However, its development has been linked to numerous Indigenous rights violations, such as displacement, land grabbing, and the failure to obtain the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) of impacted communities. The MV Dugar Group projects are a case in point, as all three projects were illegally conducted without addressing the communities’ demands or giving adequate compensation for the damage resulting from their construction.
On December 21-23, 2021, Cultural Survival, along with the Sunuwar Welfare Council (an umbrella organization of Sunuwar Indigenous Peoples) and Indigenous community radio and television stations, hosted public concerns hearings in three locations and conducted site visits with a group of Indigenous human rights lawyers associated with Lawyers’ Association for Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous Peoples.
Members of impacted Indigenous communities living along Likhu River address officials from the MV Dugar Group and local officials at event organized jointly by Sunuwar Welfare Society, Cultural Survival, and Indigenous Television.
During the public dialogues, affected community members denounced that the hydroelectric investors failed to obtain their FPIC or to compensate those whose private lands have been destroyed by infrastructure construction at the dam sites. They reported vandalism and threats during construction of access roads and a high voltage transmission line that now runs through the village.
Dawanuri Sherpa, an affected Indigenous community member, said that a temporary police post and army camp had been established and that Sherpa people were threatened for filing a public case. “We have had two incidents of at least three Sherpa community members being taken into police custody at the district headquarters just because they were trying to stop construction work and were seeking compensation for the destruction of their private land. We can easily assume that we now are forced to be silent, forced not to stand against this project because the hydropower developer, with support from the local government, deployed these security forces,” Sherpa said.
There are also reported cases that the local government manufactured consent for the project by arresting protestors and forcing them to sign consent forms under duress and threat of imprisonment and further criminal sanction. “It is necessary to obtain FPIC prior and during the utilization of natural resources of Indigenous Peoples. If FPIC is not obtained, locals have the right to obstruct the project being undertaken on their lands and territories,” says Bhim Rai, an advocate with the Lawyers’ Association.
Likhu-A hydropower project power house being built by the MV Dugar Group on the Likhu River in Nepal.
Free, Prior and Informed Consent is an international legal standard that requires projects and authorities to seek permission from local Indigenous Peoples before taking action on their lands. It is a process where communities have the final say in decisions that affect them. But in the case of hydropower projects on the Likhu River, local communities were not provided with basic information or opportunities for consultations on project impacts. The affected communities said that the projects resulted in adverse human rights impacts, with some having been displaced from the areas they have been living in for generations.
Sunuwar Indigenous Peoples have sacred religious and cultural ties with the Likhu River. A special fish, Neng, which they catch in the river, is used for rituals from birth to death. The cremated remains of those who have died are dispersed in the river, which is also used for cultural and healing activities. Because of these hydropower projects, Sunuwar Peoples are likely to be driven from their traditional lands and face restrictions in accessing their natural resources on the Likhu River.
Some community members have refused to cede their private land and have protested against project construction. Company officials have made false promises to provide job opportunities, facilities, and compensation for damages, but an estimated 70 percent of the work is now done, and there is little chance that the community will get compensation.
“The company has taken my private land. They insincerely made an agreement to pay the market price of my land. When the company started constructing the tunnel, my house was damaged because of blasting,” says Debi Bahadur Basnet. “When I made demands for compensation, I was taken into custody not once, not twice, but four times to the district headquarters in Manthali. [Approximately half an acre] of land was stolen for company use, but I have not gotten a penny.”
Basnet is one of many who were arrested, detained, and coerced into signing a document while in custody, giving their promise not to obstruct project construction. According to community members, they are threatened with criminal charges and further imprisonment if they do not sign the documents. They say that the only option for them now is to close down the project area and obstruct the ongoing construction work.
Buddhi Bahadur Sunuwar says, “We did not want to give our land, but the company lured us by promising to provide ambulances, drinking water, school facilities, a healthpost, and a road. Because of the blasting, my house was cracked. We were told we would be provided electricity for free, and all six households here in Dovan provided our land. The company built the main powerhouse tunnel and other infrastructure on our land but we have not received the promised compensation.”
The promoters of the hydroelectric projects at MV Dugar Group were absent during the public dialogues, despite promises to be present. Rokat Basnet, a public relations officer who was sent as a representative, expressed “commitment to send the reports compiling people’s concerns and grievances to the board of the directors” of MV Dugar Group. As of the drafting of this article, he said he had not communicated the concerns to the board.
“The hydropower projects have caused more suffering to the locals than development. When compensation was sought for the damage to our private lands, we were threatened and we were forced to give up our land,” says Pabitra Sunuwar, Chairperson of Sunuwar Welfare Society Ward Chapter. “A 19-point agreement has been reached with the local government, but so far none of the points have been implemented. Our demands are not monetary. We want the hydropower company to compensate and restore our damaged culture because the hydropower projects have impacted all aspects of our lives, lifeways, and culture. We have the right to continue our culture as we have for generations.”
The rights of local communities to access resources are enumerated in several provisions in Nepal’s constitutional laws and policies. The Local Self-governance Act of 2055 BS (1999) stipulates that the process of development must include the participation of Indigenous and local peoples in project identification, formulation, planning, and implementation through local councils. Additionally, the Environment Protection Rules of 2054 BS (1997) require public consultation on proposed project plans.
Local community members and Indigenous Peoples maintain that no information has been provided about the project, and as such, communities were deprived of the opportunity to give or withhold their consent to the project. The meaningful participation of affected Indigenous Peoples and local communities through Free, Prior and Informed Consent is protected under national and international standards such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and ILO Convention 169, both of which Nepal is party to.
“It is not development, rather destruction,” says Ranabir Sunuwar, Chairperson of Sunuwar Welfare Society. “Hydropower companies should introduce plans to address cultural and ritual rights. It is now high time to get united and file the case against the violation of cultural and ritual rights of Sunuwar Indigenous Peoples.”
Keepers of the Earth Fund (KOEF) is an Indigenous Led Fund within Cultural Survival designed to support Indigenous Peoples’ community development and advocacy projects. Since 2017, through small grants and technical assistance, KOEF has supported 190 projects in 37 countries totaling $828,067.
All photos by Dev Kumar Sunuwar.