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SOS Rhino : In the News : Working Around the Rebels

Working Around the Rebels

  Marty Logan
Inter Press News Agency

BHARATPUR, Nepal, Mar 14 (IPS) - With rumours of an impending Maoist blockade of the country's highways spreading like spring fever, many people in Nepal are dreading another round of price hikes of fresh vegetables and shortages of items like cooking fuel, flour and sugar.

Businesses anticipate long delays getting their goods to market and higher charges from those transport firms willing to risk the roads.

But in the central plains district of Chitwan, best known for its national park with its star attraction the white rhinoceros, a group of farmers believe they have a formula to keep their business thriving during the numerous regional and national strikes (known by the Nepali term 'bandh') called by the formidable Maoist movement in recent years.

Their Egg Collection Cooperative Centre is one of a variety of responses from producers, businesses and myriad local and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working in one of the world's poorest countries to the challenges of operating in areas no longer directly managed by the state -- it is estimated the Maoists control as much as 80 percent of Nepal's territory.

Other enterprises have simply given in to rebel demands to pay a ''fee'' and register with its ''government''.

The cooperative's office and warehouses are located just a 15-minute walk down a rutted road from the centre of this district headquarters town. During the last traffic blockade that ended Feb. 27 its vehicles continued running the country's roads without hindrance while private businesses risked the Maoists' wrath if their trucks were stopped.

''We continued collecting eggs and supplying them to the major cities during the 15-day blockade. The security agencies also cooperated with us during the crisis,'' said the cooperative's managing director Dinesh Chuke in a recent interview in his office, where he served fresh hard-boiled eggs to a team of visiting journalists.

The cooperative began one year ago and now counts 70 farmers and a couple of businesses among its members. They are among the lucky, or obstinate -- 75 percent of poultry farmers in this region known as the ''egg basket of Nepal'' have closed down in recent years, according to interviews here.

The ghosts of their former operations can be seen during an hour-long walk in Krishnapur, a nearby rural area: long, low sheds that now store hay or where the wind blows through empty windows.

''My 200 birds died when a bomb left unattended by the Maoists near my cage was defused,'' farmer Ram Nath Khanal told reporters. Others blame their business' downfall on interrupted feed supplies or their inability to deliver eggs or birds to markets on time.

The nine-year Maoist insurgency in this small Himalayan country wedged between India and China has killed about 11,000 people, drained the resources of many businesses, and forced many villagers to flee their homes to heavily-guarded district centres or, for those living on the southern plains, across the border to India.

The insurgents say they want to replace the constitutional monarchy with a communist republic in order to end glaring inequalities among Nepal's more than 23 million inhabitants.

Blaming the feuding political parties for the declining state of affairs, on Feb.1 King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah fired the government, locked up the country's top politicians, cloaked the media under a heavy blanket of censorship and declared an emergency after suspending many constitutional rights.

Gyanendra declared he would clean up corruption, bring peace, and restore the nation that boasts Sagarmatha (Mt Everest) to its former glory within three years.

While the palace coup reportedly restored confidence among some local government officers who in recent years had fled their posts to fortified district headquarters or gone into hiding, a local development officer told IPS earlier this week that the Maoists ''can do what they want outside of district headquarters''. ''And they are getting more aggressive,'' he added.

Showing journalists around two, single-storey brick warehouses where hundreds of boxes of eggs awaiting delivery rested in groups on the floor, Chuke explained that Maoists had phoned and tried to extort money from the cooperative months earlier. ''I told them, 'this is not mine; this is the farmers' business. You already take money from the farms; why do you want to take it from here'?''

Since then, the cooperative has not heard from the rebels, he added.

''Maoists cannot challenge cooperatives because they belong to the poor and grassroots people,'' said Deepak Baskota, executive chairman of the National Cooperative Federation of Nepal. ''Maybe they don't like (cooperatives) -- including some people in the government sector -- but they can't speak out against them.''

While the government has promoted the private sector since 1990's ''democratic spring, left to their own devices cooperatives have flourished, added Baskota in an interview in his Kathmandu office. In 1990, pro-democracy students and politicians forced King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah, Gyanendra's brother, to relegate his authority from an absolute monarch to that of a constitutional one.

About 8,000 cooperative societies are operating in the country today.

On the other hand, some private businesses have paid off the rebels or ''registered'' with the insurgents -- a requirement the Maoists force on those operating in their area in a bid to legitimise their presence, said a senior official of the country's business lobby.

The official, who asked to remain anonymous, said the security forces' inability to keep the highways clear during the last bandh makes him more fearful of the next strike. Among the vehicles destroyed by the Maoists were an ambulance and a truck carrying 50 head of water buffalo.

He says business has recommended that the military focus its resources on the highways entering the Kathmandu Valley from the east and west. ''If you cannot maintain supply along these routes, you'll have to compromise on your stand (vis-à-vis the Maoists) very quickly,'' predicted the official.

But continuing to work in rebel-held zones or during a bandh can be a double-edged sword, pointed out a retired senior civil servant: such activity raises security forces' suspicion that people are collaborating with the Maoists.

That accusing finger has been pointed at U.N. staff and employees of other NGOs as well as at local government workers. ''I've had several problems with the Ministry of Defence ... because they say (food aid) could be used by Maoists,'' one employee of the Ministry of local government told IPS recently.

Security forces and other government agencies argue such programmes should be discontinued if they might benefit the rebels, he added. But the employee does not agree: ''No matter what happens, people need food.''

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