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After Slavery, Unshackling Potential

Nepal, November 26, 2007

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

At the end of pestilence, a plague of other problems came to southwestern Nepal.

For thousands of years, families belonging to an ethnic group called the Tharu were the only people to live here, an area of Nepal called the Terai, which in the local language means "moist lands." The Terai, a stretch of lowlands between the Himalayas to the north and various rivers that form the border with India to the south, is characterized by humid jungle and marshland: an ideal environment for malarial mosquitoes.

Over centuries the Tharu adapted to the threat of malaria, developing an astounding innate resistance to the disease. As a result, they lived in relative harmony and flourished in the Terai, creating their own language, religion and agricultural way of life.

All of that suddenly changed in the 1950s, when the Nepalese government used the synthetic pesticide DDT to eradicate malaria in the Terai. With the threat of disease gone, there was an almost immediate land rush to claim the vast swaths of fertile land that the area had to offer. Thousands of families came southward from the Himalayan foothills and swarmed north from India, overwhelming the Tharu.

They instantly fell to the bottom of the area's new social hierarchy, based on the caste system. Years of isolation put the Tharu at a deep disadvantage in dealing with more highly educated newcomers.

"Although they're very capable within their own culture, the Tharu don't understand how they fit into the context of broader society," explained Dharma Raj Rana, an education coordinator for Mercy Corps' local partner organization, BASE. "They have no concept of a federal government, districts or even cities."

As social outcasts the Tharu lost their land to wealthy, well-connected families. Without a place to grow food, the Tharu had to borrow money to feed themselves — and so indebted themselves to the new landlords.

Many became kamaiya, or bonded laborers, who had to work as near slaves on the landlords' plantations to repay their debts. However, because of their lack of experience in such matters, the Tharu were never certain when — or if — the debt had been paid off. As a result, they remained perpetually in servitude.

It wasn't until 2000 that the Nepalese government — responding to widespread protests and advocacy from groups such as BASE — officially ended the practice of keeping kamaiya. Tharu families were freed from bonded labor and were promised land and other compensation to begin new lives.

However, for most, those things never came. Instead, Tharu families were evicted from the land. They were kicked out into a society that they knew little about, forming small communities on marginal land and falling deeper into poverty.

Still at the fringes of Nepalese society, the Tharu have been victimized by a plague of problems: unemployment, health problems, human trafficking, and a long-running conflict between Maoist rebels and the Nepalese government. These problems are being addressed, slowly but surely. The Maoists signed a peace agreement and joined an interim government in November 2006, ending a 10-year insurrection that killed nearly 13,000 Nepalis.

In collaboration with its local partner BASE, Mercy Corps is helping the Tharu — and other marginalized groups in Nepal's western Terai — create a more peaceful, prosperous society. Our Youth Initiative for Peace and Reconciliation (YIPR) program is working with youth groups in 820 villages to promote education, to provide skills training and to generate job opportunities. The program is currently helping more than 30,000 youth.

The Terai remains a lonely anomaly in a land-locked country. It is characterized by small clusters of settlements belonging to families from different castes, ethnic groups and religions. It feels disjointed.

The Tharu — and others who live in the Terai — still have a lot of work to repair the injustices and indignities of the preceding generations. However, Mercy Corps and BASE are unshackling the potential of youth who want to overcome, and who will.