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COLOMBO, SRI LANKA – A man with a list of book titles enters a secondhand bookshop on a tree-lined street in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka.
Bookseller Tharaka Warnasuriya glances at the list and immediately confirms that he has three of the books in his shop. He tells the customer he will find the books and have them ready for him the next day. The man thanks him and moves on to the next shop in his search for the other titles on his list.
Warnasuriya explains that the man had borrowed the books on the list from a public lending library, lost them and now needed to replace them.
“They are old books,” Warnasuriya says as he scans the titles on a shelf at the far end of the shop. “They can’t be bought from regular bookshops because they are no longer in print.”
Textbooks, novels, literary classics, history books, children’s books, comic books and magazines fill the little shop. Although the shop measures only 8 feet (2.4 meters) by 16 feet (5 meters), it holds more than 4,000 books, stacked haphazardly in every available space.
The dim interior of the shop, lit with a single light bulb, is redolent of old books.
Within a few minutes, Warnasuriya identifies the three books the customer had requested.
Warnasuriya is the owner of Warnasuriya Book Depot in Colombo 10, an area of Colombo. His shop is one of 14 secondhand bookshops along D.R. Wijewardena Mawatha, an avenue marked by government buildings constructed during the British colonial era.
The bookstore cluster on the D.R. Wijewardena Mawatha has become a popular landmark over the past 30 years. The only place in the city that is home to more than a dozen secondhand bookshops, it is well-known to book lovers as well as the occasional customer in search of an old or rare volume, Warnasuriya says.
Warnasuriya’s father started the bookshop as a small kiosk in another part of Colombo in the mid-1970s, Warnasuriya says. When the elder Warnasuriya moved the shop to its current location in 1976, it was only the second bookshop on the D.R. Wijewardena Mawatha.
Other secondhand bookshops on the avenue have also been owned by the same families for two or three generations.
The government owns the land on which the simple shops are built. Rents vary according to shop size. Warnasuriya pays 2,500 rupees ($19) a month.
But Warnasuriya and the other 13 booksellers on the D.R. Wijewardena Mawatha know they may soon have to move their shops. They have been preparing themselves for the possibility of relocation since 2011, when the government began tearing down nearby buildings to make way for a development project.
The Urban Development Authority, an agency under the Sri Lanka Ministry of Defense and Urban Development that oversees the development of urban infrastructure, has earmarked the street for development.
Warnasuriya says the renters do not expect much advance notice of eviction.
“As the bookshops are temporary structures which have been put up on government-owned land … we will have to leave within 24 hours of receiving notice,” he says.
Warnasuriya visited several government offices in search of answers last year and again this year, he says. He has been told only that the government will inform the merchants of their fate once it has made a decision.
Warnasuriya says he feels helpless.
“Not knowing what is going to happen is frustrating,” he says. “We can’t make plans, and if they say ‘go,’ we have to go whether or not we are given alternative places. It’s so frustrating!”
The merchants are uncertain of their future because the land on which the bookshops are built has been earmarked for development for leisure and entertainment facilities. They hope their shops can be integrated into the planned facilities.
The Lotus Tower Project, a hotel and entertainment complex, is under construction in the area where the bookshops are located.
The project will include a luxury hotel, exhibition spaces, an auditorium, banquet halls, a telecommunications museum, shops and restaurants, says Weerasena Adikari, a consultant to the authority and former deputy director general of the agency.
The antenna atop the tower will broadcast signals for scores of television, radio and telecommunications companies, Adikari says.
Construction of the tower began in January 2012 and is scheduled for completion in 2016. The construction cost, approximately $104 million, is financed through the Export-Import Bank of China. The 350-meter (1,148-foot) tower will be a national landmark, Adikari says.
Construction of the Lotus Tower and development of its surroundings as a tourism zone are part of the regeneration of Colombo, he says. Areas of the D.R. Wijewardena Mawatha will be developed as parks and public spaces.
“The profile and the landscape of the city will change,” Adikari says. “Currently it is not a planned city. After development is done, it will be an orderly city.”
The Sri Lankan government intends to make Colombo one of the most vibrant cities in Asia, says Jagath Munasinghe, head of the Department of Town and Country Planning at the University of Moratuwa.
Redevelopment of Colombo started in 2010, a year after the conclusion of an internal military conflict that lasted for nearly 26 years, Munasinghe says in a phone interview.
Big projects, such as the Port City Project and the Lotus Tower Project, are designed to create large-scale change and attract investors, Munasinghe says. The redevelopment also includes smaller-scale projects, including the renovation and renewal of colonial buildings, the creation of parks and public squares, road expansions and improvement of the city’s infrastructure.
Munasinghe acknowledges that the restoration of old buildings and the construction of high-end projects are putting redeveloped parts of Colombo out of the reach of middle- and lower-class Sri Lankans.
“There is a situation of gentrification in the city right now,” he says.
Gentrification is the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class and affluent people into deteriorating areas. It often displaces poorer residents and small businesses, like the secondhand bookshops.
But the shops serve the community, says Priyankara Pitiduwagamage, co-manager and former owner of Priyankara Bookshop, a secondhand bookshop on the D.R. Wijewardena Mawatha.
Priyankara Bookshop draws about 15 to 20 customers a day during the week and more on weekends, Pitiduwagamage says. Many are regulars, ranging from students to families.
Students buy their academic textbooks for a quarter of the price of new books, and book lovers can buy novels and literary classics at bargain prices, he says.
A copy of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” a book that secondary school students often need for English literature courses, can be bought at Priyankara Bookshop for 400 rupees ($3), while a new edition retails for 1,500 rupees ($11.50), Pitiduwagamage says.
“We have loyal customers who continue to come,” he says. “There are families who have been coming for generations.”
TIERRA DEL FUEGO NATIONAL PARK, ARGENTINA – A huge forest of lenga trees, gray-barked beeches that grow to a height of 30 meters (100 feet), graces this vast park at the southern tip of South America.
Sunlight filtering through a canopy of the lengas’ tiny, shiny, green leaves falls lightly on a carpet of ferns covering the cold, black soil.
Visitors who venture a little deeper into the wilderness on Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, the largest of the cluster of islands south of the Strait of Magellan, discover a dramatically different landscape.
Hundreds of tree trunks are piled twistedly over the water in a clearing. A stream that once flowed swiftly is detained in a reservoir formed by the trunks.
The barrier was constructed by American beavers, semiaquatic rodents that fell trees and use them to dam streams, creating flood zones in which they build their lodges, says Tierra del Fuego tour guide Ana Marino.
“The beaver changes the entire ecosystem that surrounds it, and it is bringing major problems here,” Marino says.
Beavers, which are not indigenous to South America, have colonized 90 percent of the water area of Isla Grande and have migrated to the Argentine mainland, gravely disrupting the region’s ecological balance. Determined to undo the mistake it made when it brought beavers to Isla Grande nearly 70 years ago, the Argentine government is preparing a strategy to eradicate them.
Argentine officials expect to receive a grant of $3.9 million for the project from the Global Environment Facility, an independent environmental organization that provides grants for environmental projects, in November or December. The GEF is coordinating the eradication project. The Argentine government will add $18.2 million to the project fund.
The beaver introduction was a biological blunder with far-reaching effects.
Aiming to foster a fur industry, Argentina imported 25 breeding pairs of beavers from Canada in 1946. The government intended to provide a revenue source for people who lived on Isla Grande, located in the province of Tierra del Fuego Antártida e Islas del Atlántito Sur.
Isla Grande, the 29th-largest island in the world and the principal landmass in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, is so isolated from continental South America it has been called “the end of the world.”
In North America, wolves, black bears, coyotes and other native predators keep the beaver population in check. Without such predators, beavers rapidly multiplied on the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, a network of islands south of the Strait of Magellan.
The beaver population, estimated at 30,000 to 50,000 in 1993, has doubled to an estimated 60,000 to 100,000, says Christopher Anderson, scientific counselor on the GEF project on eradication of the American beaver in Tierra del Fuego.
Beavers occupy 90 percent of the watershed of Isla Grande, including Tierra del Fuego National Park, a habitat for endangered species such as the flightless steamer duck and the red fox.
Beavers have damaged more than half of the land where lenga forests once flourished along waterways in Tierra del Fuego. The animals have caused the loss of almost 15 tons of biomass per hectare (2.5 acres), according to a 2008 report by Austral University of Chile.
Areas where beavers have dammed water won’t recover, park ranger Mariano Passano says. The flooding caused by beaver dams and the decomposition of the trunks they fell alter the cycle of water nutrients, raising the acidity of the soil.
Even after floodwater has been drained, the soil remains acidic, and soil that produces less vegetation is more vulnerable to erosion, he says. Soil acidity stunts the growth of vegetation needed to raise horses, goats and cattle, the main economic activity in the region.
Because of the damage to water and soil quality, even lands downstream from beaver colonies are unsuitable for human habitation, Passano says. People can’t build houses, grow vegetables or raise animals on land affected by beaver activity.
Argentina has made various efforts to reduce the beaver population.
To encourage locals to help, it legalized the recreational hunting of beavers in 1981 and legalized commercial hunting in 1997. Starting in 2001, the Tierra del Fuego provincial government offered a bounty on beavers and promoted the consumption of beaver meat.
None of these strategies was effective, according to the 2011 report. The government did not reach its population reduction target, and it failed to maintain a monitoring system to guide or improve management decisions.
Beavers migrated to the Chilean portion of Isla Grande in 1964 and soon spread to nearby islands in the archipelago, according to a report by the Chilean government and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
In 2008, Chile and Argentina agreed to work together to reduce the beaver population. The nations have since held joint summits on the problem.
Argentina is coordinating the eradication effort with neighboring Chile, Gabriel Terny, director of wildlife of the Argentine Secretariat of Environment and Sustainable Development, says in a phone interview. Ownership of Tierra del Fuego is divided between the two nations.
Like its neighbor, Chile is developing a plan to fight invasive species using funds from the Global Environment Facility.
The Argentine government is confident it will be able to launch the eradication program once the GEF approves its grant request, which Terny believes it will do in November or December.
The grant must first be sanctioned by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, he says.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. in Argentina confirms that the project is in the approval process.
The grant will not be used solely for the beaver eradication program, Terny says. It will also be used to eradicate other invasive exotic species, including bullfrogs and red-bellied squirrels.
Among other things, the GEF funding will be used for pilot studies, traps, and transporting workers engaged in the eradication, he says.
The beavers will not suffer, Terny says. The Argentine government will not authorize the use of technology it deems inhumane.
KATHMANDU, NEPAL – Produce vendor Arjun Silwal is preparing to throw away 3,500 kilograms (7,716 pounds) of cabbages, bitter gourd, okra, radishes, maize, long beans and pumpkins. The heavy monsoon rains in August destroyed more produce than usual, keeping vegetables damp in the fields, during transport and unloading, and in market stalls, he says.
Silwal, 46, runs a shop at the state-owned Kalimati Fruits and Vegetables Market in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal.
After closing up shop at 5 p.m., he gathers up and sorts the unsold vegetables. He packs ripe and lightly damaged vegetables into a few crates to be sold to street vendors the next day at a reduced price. He collects rotting, overripe and smashed vegetables in large plastic buckets and throws them onto a pile of spoiled produce at the side of the road outside the market.
The vegetables were part of a consignment of 5,000 kilograms (11,023 pounds) of vegetables, grown by farmers in the adjoining Dhading district, that were brought to Silwal’s shop two days before, he says.
Silwal says he has no alternative to disposing of the spoiled vegetables, which comprise 70 percent of the consignment.
“I have incurred a big loss,” Silwal says, a worried frown on his face. “I can't even get back my investment cost.”
Silwal, who has been a vegetable wholesaler since 1989, says food waste has been an ongoing problem for him and the farmers whose produce he buys.
Since the retail shop owners and individual customers who come to his shop want fresh produce, Silwal has to throw away vegetables that are overripe or have damaged skin, he says. Each day he throws away about 30 to 50 percent of the vegetables shipped to his shop.
To reduce wastage, Silwal lowers the prices of vegetables that are close to spoiling, he says. Nonetheless, he often ends up throwing away the marked-down vegetables to make room for fresh produce.
Silwal attributes the damage to farmers doing a poor job of grading and packing produce. Much produce is packed in polyethylene bags instead of crates, exposing it to damage in transit, he says.
Recently, tough enforcement of Nepal’s Food Act, which sets food quality standards and establishes penalties for failing to uphold them, has increased losses to farmers and traders.
The Department of Food Technology and Quality Control, the agency responsible for enforcing the act, started conducting surprise inspections of the produce at the Kalimati Market in July, Silwal says. If an inspector finds excessive traces of pesticides or fertilizers in some kind of produce, the wholesaler has to throw away the entire product.
Such inspections have increased the amount of discarded produce by about 5 percent, Silwal says, based on his observations.
“I started a vegetable wholesaler’s shop to earn some money,” he says. “However, it has been very difficult to do so, due to the problem of wastage and rotting of the vegetables.”
On average, Silwal loses 60,000 rupees ($613) to 65,000 rupees ($664) a day to wastage, he says.
Nepalese vegetable farmers and wholesalers bear heavy financial losses from the large-scale dumping of damaged and spoiled produce in wholesale markets. Nearly half of the produce that farmers ship to local vendors is dumped after a few days because it spoils quickly in the open-air markets. Striving to alleviate the problem, the government is developing a network of cold storage facilities to extend the shelf life of produce. It also is working to minimize food wastage by training farmers and transporters to properly grade and pack produce.
Arjun Prasad Aryal, director of the Kalimati Fruits and Vegetables Market Development Board, which manages the Kalimati Market, sees wastage at the market every day.
About 650 metric tons (716 short tons) of vegetables arrive at the wholesale market every day, most of it from the Kathmandu Valley, Aryal says. On average, 15 metric tons (16.5 short tons) to 25 metric tons (27.5 short tons) of vegetables are discarded daily because they are found to be damaged.
The amount of wastage may have increased since Department of Food Technology and Quality Control officials began conducting inspections in July, Aryal says. But the market development board has not conducted research to confirm that impression.
Vegetables account for most of the produce being dumped, says Balaram Prasad Koirala, program director of the Post Harvest Management Directorate of the Ministry of Agriculture Development. Few Nepalese farmers grow fruit for sale. Most farmers cultivate vegetables; those who grow fruit generally do so only for their own consumption.
Wastage raises the cost of produce, often putting it beyond the reach of the average consumer, says Rameshwor Khanal, an economist and former secretary of the Ministry of Finance.
The government supervises 22 vegetable and fruit wholesale markets in Nepal, says Hari Babu Tiwari, program director at the Agribusiness Promotion and Marketing Development Directorate of the Ministry of Agricultural Development, the main government agency to market agricultural products and promote agribusiness.
Public markets discarded about 20 to 50 percent of the 3.2 million metric tons (3.5 million short tons) of vegetables produced in Nepal in 2011-2012, according to a 2012-2013 report published by the Nepal Food Scientists and Technologists Association and the ministry.
The waste is caused largely by farmers failing to grade or properly pack vegetables and fruits before shipping them, says Shrawan Adhikary, program officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Nepal.
Grading ensures that spoiled or overripe produce is not mixed with fresh produce, and packing produce according to uniformity of size reduces damage during transport, he says.
About 30 to 40 percent of vegetables produced in Nepal are damaged in transport every day, Adhikary says, citing informal research data from Nepal’s Ministry of Agricultural Development.
Kanchha Lama, 33, a farmer in Makwanpur district, does not agree that farmers are to blame for damage to produce.
Lama, like all farmers, does not pack damaged vegetables with good-quality ones because he knows that rotting vegetables will spoil the fresh produce it touches, he says. He is especially careful to properly sort and grade tomatoes and carrots, which can rot easily. This careful sorting takes time.
After sorting, they pack the best produce in the few plastic crates they have and put the rest in polyethylene bags, Lama says. But farmers can’t afford to pack all their produce in crates.
A plastic crate, which holds 25 kilograms (55 pounds) of produce, costs 500 rupees ($5), he says. A large polyethylene bag that holds 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of produce costs only 5 rupees (5 cents).
“But sometimes, during a long-distance transport, the vegetables can rot in the arid conditions before they reach the wholesalers,” he says.
On average, about 20 to 30 percent of the vegetables he sends to market are discarded because of spoilage, Lama says.
“Wholesalers throw the produce away if it does not sell,” he says. “Our labor goes to waste. We are mostly suffering loss. But we have no other alternative. Who will understand our plight?”
Both farmers and wholesale traders bear the cost of this wastage, Lama says. But because wholesalers pay farmers only for the produce they sell, the farmers bear the biggest losses from wastage. Lama rarely earns back the money he invests in growing his vegetables.
“I invest more than 65,000 rupees ($664) to grow the vegetable crops in one season, but I earn only about 25,000 rupees ($255) from it,” Lama says.
A cultivation season spans three to four months.
When Lama does not earn back his investment, he must borrow money from cooperative banks to plant his next crop, he says.
The financial loss Lama incurs from his vegetable farming is taking a toll on his family, he says.
Lama had hoped to send his children to a private school in his village, Phakhel village development committee, but he cannot afford to do so. Further, he cannot afford new clothes for his family for religious festivals and celebrations.
BAMENDA, CAMEROON – When Annette Beri was 13, her parents arranged to have her work as a nanny for a couple in Douala, Cameroon’s economic capital.
Beri and her parents, who lived in a little village in the Donga-Mantung division of Cameroon’s Northwest region, 300 kilometers (186 miles) from Douala, saw the role as an extraordinary opportunity.
“I was happy to go to the city,” she says. “So too were my parents. My parents and I had never left the village – never. So they were happy that I would be the one to make them visit the township someday.”
Beri’s parents, who could not afford to send her to secondary school after she completed seventh grade, struck the deal with a man from their tribe whose wife was pregnant.
Under the agreement, Beri was to work for the family for two years, solely as a nanny. Her employers would then send her to learn a trade of her choice.
Things did not work out that way. Beri worked for the family for five years and took on several demanding roles.
Besides doing domestic work, she was required to hawk foodstuffs. Such traders move around selling goods they transport on their heads or in handcarts.
Ultimately Beri became the family’s home manager, a role that includes baby-sitting, managing the kitchen, and buying and selling foodstuffs.
“During my fourth and fifth year, I worked like a jackass,” she says.
But hard work was the least of her problems, Beri says.
Whenever the woman of the house found the baby crying, she denied Beri food, she says. She also deprived her of food whenever she came home late from the market where she hawked food.
During her first two years with the family, Beri says she was also beaten regularly. She says her bosses assaulted her with their hands or a gas pipe.
The beatings tapered off over the years but still occurred every three months or so, Beri says.
“Many times when my mistress comes home when the baby is crying, she makes sure she beats me up too,” she says through tears. “For five years, they treated me like a real slave.”
Beri’s parents never knew about the abuse, she says. They were too poor to visit her. And because she was never paid for her work, she was not able to visit them.
Beri begged her employer to honor his side of the agreement by sending her to train as a tailor, her dream job, she says.
“For five years, my employer did not pay me a franc,” she says. “They were not even ready to send me to learn a trade, as the agreement stated.”
Frustrated and angry, Beri finally packed her belongings and left.
It has been five years since she left, and her employers have yet to settle the debt, she says.
Since Beri, now 22, already spent her own money on the training the couple had promised to fund, she thinks the couple should settle the debt in cash.
“I cannot be suffering when I have my hard-earned money that is buried somewhere,” Beri says.
In Cameroon, many girls and young women who enter domestic service say their employers mistreat them. What’s more, many of these laborers have been sold, tricked or coerced into bondage, local advocates say. In response to growing demand for action, nongovernmental organizations are fighting for the rights of trafficked domestic servants and working to ensure that employers who abuse their employees are punished under a law enacted in 2005.
That law defines child trafficking as “the act of moving or helping to move a child within or outside Cameroon with a view to directly or indirectly reaping any financial or material benefit therefrom.” The crime is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and fines ranging from 50,000 Central African francs ($100) to 10 million francs ($20,000). Higher sentences and fines are for violators who traffic children under 15.
Cordelia Ndagha, the Mezam divisional delegate for the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the Family, says the trafficking of children for domestic work still occurs in Cameroon but is becoming less common. She says she does not have statistics to reflect the decrease because she is new in her role.
A 2011 survey by the Center for Human Rights and Peace Advocacy, a Bamenda-based independent organization that promotes the rights of Cameroonians, found that the Northwest region has the highest incidence of child trafficking in the country. And Donga-Mantung, where Beri grew up, is the biggest supplier of trafficked children among the seven divisions of the Northwest region.
This could be because the Northwest region has a large population – more than 1.8 million people as of the 2010 census – and most of the residents are poor, Ndagha says.
Most children trafficked in Cameroon are still in primary school or have just completed primary school, says Ndagha, the officer responsible for all women and family issues in the division. She also mediates in cases of domestic conflict and abuse.
“Female children have been victims of child trafficking and domestic work in Cameroon,” Ndagha says. “This has led to abuse of the rights of these children.”
Trafficked children are commonly taken from villages to big cities, where they are put to work as domestic servants, she says. Agreements typically call for employers to send children to learn a trade after they have worked for at least two years.
But employers often break these agreements, leaving the children with no form of compensation and often further impoverished.
This poverty fuels child trafficking in Cameroon, she says.
Poor rural parents are unable to send their children to school, Ndagha says. Instead, they send them to cities to work as domestic servants. In some cases, a servant’s wages are paid directly to the child’s parents.
In addition to withholding pay and committing physical abuse, there is also evidence of employers sexually abusing their servants.
POKHARA, NEPAL – Karma Tsedar, the son of Tibetan refugees, applied for a driver’s license in 2008.
After he filled out an application at the Department of Transport Management, a department official asked him to provide proof of citizenship or a refugee identity card. Possessing neither, Tsedar was told to produce some other proof of identity.
Tsedar returned to the department with his father’s refugee identity card, which lists him among his father’s offspring. Officials initially declined to honor the card as validation of Tsedar’s refugee status.
Only after he visited the office repeatedly did the agency finally accept the father’s documentation as proof of Tsedar’s legal status.
“Nepali people do not have to go through this hassle,” Tsedar says.
Although born in Nepal, Tsedar is not a citizen of the country. As the son of refugees, he is classified as a refugee; he will never be eligible for Nepalese citizenship.
His refugee status makes him eligible to apply for college and most private-sector jobs, but his lack of a refugee identity card of his own hinders his ability to get ahead.
Tsedar, 27, lives in a small, three-room house with his parents at the Tashi Palkheil Tibetan Refugee Settlement. Surrounded by green hills, the settlement is the largest of four Tibetan refugee camps in Pokhara, a densely populated city at the foot of the Annapurna massif, part of the Himalayan mountain range.
Some 800 refugees live in 300 homes on lanes so narrow they can accommodate only motorbikes and small cars.
Tsedar’s parents have lived at the settlement ever since they fled Chinese-occupied Tibet in 1962. When they arrived, the Nepal Ministry of Home Affairs issued them refugee identity cards that establish their identities and legal status.
But Tsedar, who was born in the settlement and has lived his entire life in Nepal, has never obtained a refugee identity card; he is merely listed on his father’s card.
As a result, he lacks the identification he needs to prove his legal status, which has deprived him of many opportunities, he says.
“I work as a waiter to sustain myself,” he says. “I cannot pursue a profession because I have no legal documents.”
Without a refugee identity card, Tsedar cannot travel outside the country, he says. He cannot open a bank account or apply for scholarships.
“I studied and worked hard, and I cannot find a good job because I am a Tibetan refugee,” he says. “Even educated Tibetan youth are not getting jobs because we have no citizenship.”
Tibetans fleeing the Chinese occupation of their country have sought refuge in neighboring Nepal since the late 1950s.
Over the past two decades, Nepal, under pressure from the Chinese government, has cut back on services it provides Tibetan refugees. Among other things, the government has stopped issuing refugee identity cards. It renews the cards of early refugees each year, but the children and grandchildren of those refugees cannot obtain cards of their own.
Without proof of legal status, many younger Tibetan refugees cannot pursue higher studies, find permanent jobs or even open bank accounts.
Tibetans launched an uprising nine years after Chinese armed forces invaded their country. When China cracked down on the rebels, thousands of Tibetans fled to Nepal and India.
Nepal became a permanent refuge to many Tibetans. It also became a transit point for Tibetans traveling to Dharamshala, a city in northern India where the Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, and his followers established a government-in-exile.
About 20,000 Tibetan refugees now live in a dozen camps in Nepal, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The Nepalese government does not know how many refugees live within its borders, says Shesh Narayan Paudel, undersecretary of the Nepal Ministry of Home Affairs and deputy coordinator of the National Unit for the Coordination of Refugee Affairs.
When the government last conducted a census of the Tibetan community in 1993, it recorded 12,540 refugees scattered across 21 districts.
Initially the Nepalese government issued refugee identity cards that established the exiles’ legal status, Paudel says. It ended that practice in 2002.
The government does not have a record of the number of cards it has issued to Tibetan refugees, and it has no plans to issue more.
This is because the Chinese government has pressured Nepal to stop providing protection to Tibetan refugees, Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, says in a Skype audio interview. Human Rights Watch is an independent international organization that conducts research and advocacy on global human rights issues.
When China hosted the Olympics in 2008, Tibetans and their supporters used the international spotlight to protest China’s occupation of their homeland. They also conducted peaceful protests all over the world, including in China and Nepal.
In response, China tightened its control over the Tibetan region and pressured Nepal to restrict the rights of the many Tibetan refugees living within its borders, Ganguly says.
Since then, Nepal has signed several security agreements with China, intensified border security cooperation, enforced restrictions on public demonstrations by the Tibetan community, and implemented surveillance programs, she says. On politically sensitive dates, large numbers of Nepalese armed police are deployed in Tibetan neighborhoods to prevent refugees from holding demonstrations.
“The Nepali authority clamped down on Tibetans in Nepal,” Ganguly says. “Peaceful celebrations of Tibetans were closely monitored. They are being denied their fundamental freedoms.”
Recognizing that Nepal lacked the means to step up security and did not have a compelling national interest in curbing the activities of the Tibetan community, which has strong historical ties to Nepal, Beijing has significantly stepped up its economic and diplomatic engagement with the country, Ganguly says.
Nepal now says it cannot allow “anti-China activities,” she says. However, Nepal’s policy of prohibiting peaceful political protest violates well-established international human rights law.
The president of the National Human Rights Foundation, an independent organization engaged in human rights advocacy work in Nepal, agrees.
“The government of Nepal has stopped issuing refugee identity cards to Tibetan refugees because they are under pressure from the Chinese government,” Bhawani Prasad Kharel says in a phone interview. “The Chinese government does not want Tibetans to get out of Tibet. They do not want Tibetans to get refugee status anywhere in the world.”
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