January 3, 2008
To most people in the West, the South Asian nation Nepal conjures up images of a tranquil and idyllic “Shangri-La.” But after almost 10 years of a civil war that, according to a 2005 National Geographic report and other sources, claimed some 12,000 lives, the Nepali people are just beginning to put their lives back together.
Nepal transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a democratically elected parliamentary monarchy in the early 1990s. The early years of the democracy were unstable, and in the late 1990s a faction of the Communist Party split off and initiated an armed struggle. Angered by government corruption and inaction to correct a very unequal distribution of wealth, their goals were to overthrow the government, oust the king and establish a Communist “people’s” republic. They called themselves Maoists, and gained inspiration from Peru’s Shining Path movement. The first few years of the conflict saw only sporadic violence, as the movement slowly gained momentum in impoverished rural areas
I lived in Nepal in 2001-02, just as fighting between Maoist rebels and government forces had begun to intensify. During this time, the conflict went from pockets of resistance to a full-scale civil war. But with both sides having signed peace accords in the spring of 2006, I wanted to see first-hand what the current state of affairs was. Nepal is listed by the UN as one of the 49 most severely under-developed in the world. Classified due to its markedly low per capita GNI, an over-reliance on an agricultural economy, and low levels of literacy, health care and life expectancy. In terms of development, Nepal is more similar to many sub-Saharan African countries than to its powerful neighbors China and India.
The Road To Rural Development
This summer, I traveled throughout Eastern Nepal, a remote region covering the foothills of Kanchendzonga, the third tallest mountain in the world. Throughout my travels, I found that people were looking toward the future, and that “development” was the main word that was on villagers’ lips. Although it is hard to generalize about the mood of an entire country, majority of rural subsistence farmers seemed hopeful and optimistic, yet jaded by hard living, war and a corrupt government.
In the village of Lungthung, in a building made of stone and mud, two men sat drinking Thungba, a local millet beer, through long bamboo straws. The smoke from their cigarettes mingled with the aroma of buffalo meat sizzling in oil. The men talked of a proposed road that would finally connect their village to the district center, so that they’d no longer have to walk for two days to reach a hospital.