“They only talk about the trees” - An analysis of relations of power and justice in the (de)construction of Nepal’s Second International Airport
Abstract: While calls to reduce air travel have emerged in many high-income countries, Nepal, with only one international airport, is still striving to improve its air connectivity. In 2015, the government resumed its 1995 plan to build a second international airport near Nijgadh, a town in the southern plains. The project has since come under scrutiny from conservationists after plans emerged for extensive clearing of the densely forested project site. But the area is also home to nearly 8,000 people in three settlements, most of them migrants from hilly regions without formal land rights, who face displacement. While public and political debates continue to focus on ecological impacts of the project, the apparent lack of attention to the consequences for local communities raises questions about the safeguarding of their interests. Drawing on justice theories and conceptualisations of power from political ecology, I conducted an empirical case study on how and to what extent the airport project can be understood as a historical and current conflict over recognition, participation and distribution, and how different dimensions of power reinforce injustices against affected communities. During two months of fieldwork in Nepal, I gathered empirical evidence from primary and secondary sources, including observations, semi-structured and exploratory interviews, project documents and media coverage. My findings suggest that the misrecognition of local communities, particularly in Tangiya Basti, began long before the airport project, when the government reneged on its promise to grant land rights. Considering that in Nepal, property, caste and class are still crucial determinants of social status, this manifested the socio-economic marginalisation of the residents and fostered narratives portraying them as illegal encroachers. My results also show how processes of misrecognition are intertwined with current distributive and procedural injustices, reinforced by power asymmetries of various kinds. This extends to the exclusion of communities from major media discourses shaped by developmentalist and conservationist narratives, which further contributes to their invisibility. Overall, I argue that while the airport project is often framed as a conflict over claims to nature, it is also a conflict over claims to social justice and livelihood security. My thesis offers entry points to larger questions of integrating community interests into sustainability and sustainable development concerns and highlights the need for more nuanced investigations of the impacts of large infrastructure projects on communities in Nepal and other parts of South Asia.
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