“Although land reform and land return are not top priorities currently, given the ongoing political crisis, if left unaddressed for too long such issues may sow the seeds of serious discontent in the future,” Sarah Levit-Shore, country representative of the Carter Centre, a US-based NGO, told IRIN.
When the conflict started in 1996, one of the key Maoist demands was that the government should seize and nationalize land belonging to feudal landlords and redistribute it to landless farmers. During the war, a large number of properties were distributed to peasants as landlords fled the violence, according to the Informal Sector Service Centre (INSEC), a local human rights NGO.
Although Maoist leaders have promised to return confiscated land, progress has been slow and uneven, especially in the Midwest and Far West regions, where the properties remain under Maoist Party control, according to a recent Carter Centre report.
In September 2011, the Maoist-led government announced that all land seized during the conflict should be returned immediately to the owners. In November a high-level delegation of party leaders visited Bardiya District in the Midwest region, 600km west of the capital, Kathmandu, where most of the confiscated land is located, to form a taskforce to ensure its return.
But little has changed, said local human rights activist Bhola Mahat, regional coordinator of INSEC in Nepalgunj city, the seat of the regional government overseeing Baldiya District. “The problem is still [serious], as this has now become more complicated since the Maoists split up into two parties and the hardliners have become very rigid about their conditions [for land reform].”
In the wake of growing dissent in the Maoist party, hardliners led by Kiran Baidya formed their own party in June 2012, after splitting from the ruling Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPNM), led by Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda and Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai.
The ideological rift between Prachanda and Baidya dates back to the civil conflict, with Prachanda favouring a democratic parliamentary republic and Baidya calling for a communist state.
Some UCPNM leaders say the issue of land returns has been resolved. “From our side, we have returned all the lands after reaching a compromise between the landowners and the ones who had captured their lands, and I don’t think this is an issue anymore,” said Shanker Koirala, a Maoist leader in Nepalgunj, aligned with Prachanda.
“This is just another political agenda by other parties to humiliate us. The reality is that there are no more land disputes,” he maintained.
Landowners who are still fighting to have their land returned say otherwise. “Even the government has failed in its negotiation with the Maoists,” said Binay Dhoj Chand, who is trying to reclaim 27 hectares of farmland in Baldiya District. “All our lands have been seized, and not even the police could give us security if we went back to the village to reclaim our lands.”
According to INSEC, the Maoists are still holding about 1,625 hectares of land belonging to 349 families in 14 districts across the Midwest and Far West regions. Maoist political hardliners told IRIN they will not evacuate peasants who have taken over the land.
“We cannot ask the landless to leave the land unless they are given alternatives, and the only option is to see a scientific land reform, which we don’t see happening soon,” Hari Bhakta Kandel, a leader and politburo member of the recently formed Maoist breakaway faction, told IRIN in Nepalgunj.
He said the government has not given poor peasants livelihood options, and previous landlords already had enough land and income to live comfortably. “How we can ask them to leave without offering any concrete solutions? They cannot be kicked out like cattle,” said Kandel, who added that as soon as new land reforms are introduced, all lands will be returned.
In November 2011, the government formed a committee under the Ministry of Land Reform and Management to recommend a comprehensive land reform policy, focusing on limiting land ownership and redistribution, but progress has been slow.
“The current political situation is making [it] difficult to introduce new laws or implement any recommendations,” Jeet Bahadur Thapa, director general of the Department of Land Reforms and Management, told IRIN.
The only progress so far has been a “Land Use Policy”, approved in April 2012, to optimize land use for agriculture to boost food security, but officials say that without land-use legislation, the policy cannot be implemented.
Thapa added: “We are at a stage where the land reform issue has become a very crucial issue, but this does not seem to be a top priority for the political parties.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions