In 1965, the government of Nepal, with support from the US and WHO, launched a malaria eradication program in western Nepal. The program was accompanied by a land reform program, which was, at least initially, pushed by the U.S. Based on archival and recent ethnographic research, this paper examines the effects of these programs, especially within the Dang Valley, one of Nepal’s largest valleys, where the outcome was especially dramatic. There, the malaria program and land reform combined with local patterns of labor exploitation in a way that spurred the out-migration of thousands of indigenous Tharus. The goal of this paper is to figure out what happened and why.

Until the 1960s, much of Nepal’s southern strip—a lowlying stretch called the tarai—was malarious. A joint U.S., WHO, and government of Nepal eradication program remade the country, but has gone understudied. Examining this history provides a rich opportunity to combine international relations history, environmental history, medical anthropology, and local history.

Despite Dang’s malaria, the area was historically populated by Tharus, who suffered from malaria but not to the extent of their highland neighbors. From at least the nineteenth century, high-caste elites from the nearby hills had acquired land in the valley and used Tharu tenants as a labor source. The landlords would come in the winter, and leave when the weather turned warmer, often carried by Tharu laborers.

The eradication of malaria and the land reform program upended this system, but the benefits were far from uniformly positive. At first, the change brought relief to the Tharu, because it meant the end of carrying their landlords and supplies to and from the hills. But eradication allowed the hill landlords to stay in Dang year-round, which increased the burden on Tharu. At the same time, the land reform program encouraged the selling off of lands, which opened the door for many more, but smaller, landlords to come from the hills. Some of these migrants displaced Tharu workers, while others took in Tharu servants.

In addition to examining these dynamics and attempting to quantify the outmigration, this paper also examines the effects of these programs on the kamaiya system of bonded-labor that was common in this area in the 1970s and 1980s and became the center of “free kamaya” social movement in the 1990s.