This paper problematises the recent participatory turn in conservation policy and practices through the experiences and struggles of Sonaha ethnic minorities in relation to Bardiya National Park, the largest protected area in the Nepalese lowland. Claims of Sonaha elders suggest that their long standing occupancy and association with the riverine and riparian territory of the lower Karnali River delta has met with a progressively exclusionary conservation regime of the national park. Traditionally leading a semi mobile life in and around the delta, and engaged in small scale fishing and gold panning for subsistence, the lives and realities of Sonahas have been heavily implicated by the state intervention in the name of nature and biodiversity conservation.

In the global conservation domain, Nepal is portrayed as a country with progressive conservation policies and practices. Since the mid-1990s, the country’s conservation thinking and policy paradigms have shifted away from its earlier protectionist and fortress conservation to participatory, community-based, and people oriented conservation approaches, and again towards conservation of ecosystems and landscapes. However, for Sonahas, such participatory reform has become an extension of conventional top-down conservation regime. Based on an ongoing critical ethnographic work with marginalised Sonahas in the delta (buffer zone of the national park) who are significantly dependant on the resources of the natural environment, this paper presents an argument on the crisis of such participatory reform. At a time when the country is moving through the agenda of inclusive transformation, Sonahas’ experience with the conservation regime offers important insights into the politics of inclusion and participatory governance. In particular, this paper challenges the rhetoric of participatory conservation and development that legitimises top-down, techno-bureaucratic, military-centric, nature-focused, and globally-oriented conservation regime that further marginalised the local poor and indigenous groups.

Examination of the Sonahas’ experiences and resistance strongly suggests interplays of both the direct state power and violence in the name of conservation, as well more subtle and indirect exercise of power and domination. These are understood as informed by the concepts of ‘subjectivity’ and ‘governmentality’ (Foucault), ‘hegemony’ (Gramsci), and ‘symbolic violence’ (Bourdieu) in the context of conservation. The current ‘Park-People’ conflict debates in Nepal is problematised through social theory of ‘space’ (Lefebvre, Bourdieu) and its politics is problematised under a framework of political ecology, towards reframing democratic governance of protected areas and spaces for representation and articulation in the nature conservation regime, hence, reframing the existing conservation politics.