Indigenous Peoples in Nepal now hold the reins to decisions about their lands and resources

A group of people in brightly colored clothes sit around a large piece of paper with notes

The Government of Nepal endorses national guidelines for implementing Free, Prior, and Informed Consent, a critical tool for Indigenous Peoples to exercise their rights to self-determination related to the development, conservation, and sustainable use of natural resources in their traditional areas.

The Himalayan country of Nepal, in addition to being home to a diversity of cultures and ethnicities, has in recent decades emerged as a global leader in wildlife conservation. From bringing one-horned rhinos back from the brink to doubling its population of sarus cranes, to tripling its population of tigers, Nepal has made remarkable gains on multiple fronts.

Much of this success is owed to the participation and leadership of local communities in Nepal’s conservation model, which recognizes that efforts to preserve wildlife and ecosystems must enhance the well-being and safety of the people who live in and around conservation areas.

Indeed, one of the Government of Nepal’s main conservation commitments has been to ensure that the establishment and management of conservation areas do not have negative impacts on the people living there. To fulfill this commitment, the government has long held Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) as a requirement. In the simplest terms, FPIC means respecting the unique right of Indigenous Peoples to have sufficient time to not only access information about proposed actions that could affect their community rights and areas in a culturally appropriate manner, but also to give or withdraw their collective consent about if, and how, those actions proceed without pressure or coercion.

However, implementing FPIC can be challenging. In Nepal’s case—as is often the case elsewhere—the application of FPIC has historically been uneven due to various factors including gaps in information sharing, capacity constraints, and a lack of clear, consistent guidelines.

To assist Nepal’s government in reliably meeting this important commitment, WWF provided a grant to Nepal’s National Foundation for Development of Indigenous Nationalities (NFDIN) to develop a National Implementation Guide for Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC). Chaired by the Prime Minister of Nepal, NFDIN is an autonomous foundation that is authorized to operate independently from the government for the interests of Nepal’s Indigenous Peoples.

To create the Guide, meetings were held with diverse communities to align around core content. Representatives of Indigenous peoples offered their initial written consent and proposed participants, who continued to engage as a sign of continuing consent to the project. While preparing the Guide, Consultations were held at the local, provincial, and government levels. In addition, a national workshop was organized in Kathmandu, at which the final document was reviewed and revised. As a result, the Guide was approved and socialized in 2023 and began to operate as a practical tool for strengthening governance.

At its core, the Guide seeks to enable Indigenous communities to modify or stop conservation planning that may have detrimental impacts on people or resources within their territory, guaranteeing them rights to self-determination in the context of their unique cultures and traditional areas. It calls for the participation of women, men, elders, community leaders, and others who wish to engage in defining the goals of projects that impact them. The Guide clarifies that communities should be involved from start to finish and that the actions developed should seek to promote equitable benefits from conservation. Further, the Guide aims to facilitate knowledge exchange with those who have been the ancestral stewards of Nepal’s natural riches and to incorporate their worldviews and traditions into decision-making.

WWF Nepal has also adopted the Guide as a requirement for intervention, meaning that the organization will not promote or support any initiative that could affect Indigenous community rights and areas without ensuring continuing consent. Like the government, WWF Nepal has long been committed to respecting Indigenous Peoples’ right to FPIC and this Guide strengthens the organization’s ability to systematically realize that commitment.

Bivishika Bhandari, WWF Nepal's gender equity and social inclusion specialist, highlights that the Guide encourages the government and other actors, like WWF, to maintain an open and reciprocal dialogue with communities. "We can open discussion again on any issue if someone disagrees,” she explains. “Decisions can change at any time during the implementation of a project."

With the development of this tool complete, the challenge ahead is to ensure its consistent and robust application. Beyond the government of Nepal, the Guide will be made accessible to all duty-bearers, as well as stakeholders like private companies and non-governmental organizations, to support them in effectively seeking the consent of Indigenous communities in the areas they work.

WWF Nepal plans to continue to work with NFDIN to translate the tool into multiple Indigenous languages. In turn, WWF will continue to partner with NFDIN in an ongoing socialization and capacity-strengthening process with government duty-bearers as well as Indigenous communities around their respective responsibilities and rights, and the existence of this new mechanism for realizing those rights alongside the conservation of critical areas of the Himalaya.