“It is on today’s youths to protect the environment,” says Tanuja Pandey, a 19-year-old law student from Kathmandu who has also been leading a youth environment protection movement for the past two years.
In her childhood, Pandey was fascinated by the eco-friendly cultures of indigenous communities of Kailali district (where she was born) and Jhapa district (where her family later migrated). “That impression stayed with me and I fell in deep love with nature,” she recalls.
Pandey grew up witnessing excessive extraction of riverbed materials, deforestation, and random road building in the otherwise environmentally rich Chure hills of Jhapa. She used to question herself time and again: What if our mountains melt? What if the Tarai gets converted into a desert? What if we become climate refugees? “The quest to find answers to these questions ultimately turned me into a climate activist,” she says.
Pandey founded Harin Nepal, on 14 April 2018, which is “still a loose youth alliance but more organized than during the starting days.” The inspiration was the ‘Fridays for Future’, an international movement of school students. When she saw that even children were acting as climate activists, she asked herself, “Why can’t I?” Thus Harin Nepal was born.
It is an alliance of environment-loving youths, with the objective of uniting the voices of Nepali youths in favor of climate justice. It also campaigns for greater environmental awareness and advocates sustainable development. And older folks are included too. “Though it is a youth-led organization, we have allowed older, intellectual people whose experience and knowledge help guide us on the right path,” says Pandey.
“Our core team has five members,” she adds, but any willing soul may join Harin Nepal that now is active on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.
From the start, the organization focused on climate strikes and discussions on climate change. Climate strike is similar to Friday for Future. “It is like a call for action. Every Friday, we take to streets or knock on the doors of politicians and policymakers to give voice to our demands,” she explains.
These demands include declaration of climate emergency along with quick action against the contributors to climate change. In addition, the group defends the rights of indigenous groups and farmers who are on the front-line of the fight against climate change.
“We have also urged the government to rethink the Nijgadh airport project, which is lethal for the local environment,” Pandey says. “Our government cannot close its eyes and pretend everything is fine.”
According to Pandey, Harin Nepal conducts discussions on climate change among affected people, concerned authorities, and experts. Before the pandemic, schools and colleges were its preferred venues. “Now, we conduct our climate strikes and discussion programs digitally.”
Group members travel to different places spreading awareness. Recently, they visited Sindhupalchowk, a landslide-prone district in Bagmati Province. “We were there to suggest ways to minimize natural calamities by protecting the environment,” she says.
Pandey cites shortage of funds as a major issue. “Right now, we pitch in from our own pockets. Sometimes our friends abroad help as well,” she adds. It’s a tricky balance, as the organization does not want to be accused of working for vested interests.
As it is, she adds, her climate-warriors get plenty of threats and discouragement, mostly from politicians and businessmen. The environment activists fighting the unmanaged crusher industry even get death threat. Pandey recalls how the 24-year-old Dilip Kumar Mahato of Danusha district was killed on January 10 when he protested against the illegal mining of construction materials. “Can you believe to date no one has been punished for such a heinous crime?” she asks.
Similarly, she says many politicians, including a government minister, blame Nijgadh campaigners for having a hidden agenda, being foreign agents, and hindering development. “We are ready to have a public debate on this,” she adds.
Pandey does not deny the importance of development. “We are not against development per se. We are only saying that our development process should be sustainable and climate-friendly. And our development certainly should not invite disasters,” she says.
Nepal is a disaster-prone country where floods and landslides have wreaked havoc in recent years. “The worst is yet to come if unsustainable exploitation of our nature continues unabated,” Pandey warns.
Pandey says her parents fear for her well-being as activism can sometimes be risky, as the case of Mahato suggests. Another challenge is more personal: having to juggle activism and study. “But I think I have enough willpower to pursue both simultaneously,” she adds.