Though not regarded as a country with any great ability to implement development initiatives, one may be surprised to hear there are a few noted exceptions. One of these is community forestry - regarded as a model from which interventions around the world could learn something for ensuring better people participation in forest management.
Currently, around 16000 community groups are managing their local forestry resource in various nooks and corners of the country, which serve over 25 percent of the national population. This initiative in Nepal has also been able to demonstrate to the world that the theory of G. Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of Commons (1968) needs a cautious revisit. Elinor Ostrom is one eminent figure (2009 Nobel Prize laureate) who persuaded the academia that common property is not necessarily a problem, thus emphasizing that the governments must not rule out the possibility of managing common property as a community resource, provided that a set of workable ‘design principles’ can be ensured. The idea is to make communities a sovereign power to govern local resources.
This write-up will look at how community forestry made its way into Nepal and the journey it followed.
Disappointed with the sorry state of forests in Nepal’s hills, the then district forest officer TBS Mahat came up with the radical idea of entrusting local Panchayats (village councils) with the local forests for the first time in the 1970s, laying down the concept of community forests. Though in the beginning, the concept was ridiculed by some hardcore technical foresters, the move was finally accepted and eventually got legislative endorsement.
Amendment to the Forest Act (1961) and promulgation of Panchayat and Panchayat Protected Forest Rules (1978) included provisions for handing over a part of the national forests to village councils. These legislative arrangements were considered as major breakthroughs towards decentralization, which paved the way for a large of number of bilateral and multilateral projects in the country. The World Bank, Asian Development Bank and countries like the United States of America and the United Kingdom were among the major project partners. For over a decade, the country spent huge sums of money in handing over hill forests to local Panchayats and in planting, to eventually realize that the much aspired people’s participation remained unattained.
However, some motivated people desperately wanted to break this impasse and Kabhre, Sindhupalchok, Dolakha and Dhankuta were districts where such initiatives were taken. This writer, as DFO of Dhankuta district, was of part of the mission.
MAKING IT A ‘SOCIAL PROCESS’
Aware of the near-ineffective state of the Panchayat form of community forestry, Jane Gronow —advisor to the contemporary UK supported project in Dhankuta—and this author seriously considered breaking the deadlock. We had some reflective sessions and eventually realized that the main reason behind the failure of the earlier missions was the dominance of the ‘blueprint approach’ as compared to the ‘social process’ required to make such models successful. The existing legislation then expected us to handover the forests to the Panchayats, irrespective of the fact that the concerned forests in all possibility may be of interest to a limited group of people, who were within the accessible distance. We realized that we needed to design a purposeful process of identifying rightful users and ensure an equitable system of forest management and product distribution if the people were to start co-operating. This, however, was extra-legal—requiring us to take the risk of ‘out of the box’ thinking and working.
We started a dialogue with the responsible field ranger (Nagendra Yadav), who concurred with our idea. We then approached the municipality head (Rajendra Pradhan) who approved of our idea but could not suggest a way to tackle the legislative arrangement which allowed the handover of the resource to the Dhankuta municipality, and not to the actual users. Willing to take risks to initiate this idea, we then decided to do a pilot project in the Sildhunga Forest of Dhankuta municipality, through a slightly long-winded route. The forest was first handed over to the municipality, which in turn handed it over to the actual users of Sildhunga.
This, however, was far from simple. Eight months were spent in identifying the real users and in designing workable forest protection, management and product distribution systems. Consensus and equity among genders, castes and classes were critical to the overall process. This was captured by the Operational Forest Management Plan, which was jointly signed by all three parties- the DFO, municipality head and the chairman of the community forest user group that was constituted to execute the agreement.
Much to everyone’s surprise, we saw a miraculous level of success. The community forest user groups were excited to have the forests finally handed over to them. They began holding regular meetings where they discussed how they could implement the management plan. Ensuring an effective protection system and other such useful parameters constituted a major aspect of their discussion. They employed a ‘guard’ for checking illicit activities. Soon we realized the forest started recuperating to a level the villagers had never experienced. It was obvious that the community, for the first time, had begun looking at these forests as their own.
This initiative became the ‘talk of the town’ and we soon started to have a lot of visitors who were keen to learn from our experience. This eventually had far reaching implications, so much so that the master plan for the forestry sector (1986) endorsed the concept in lieu of the earlier Panchayat-centric community forestry model. This finally gave way to the new Forest Act and Forest Rules, 1994, and the corresponding operating guidelines. It is overwhelming to see how community forestry is now a proven paradigm to conserve the local forestry resource, while also supporting people’s livelihoods.
EXTENDING THE IDEA
It may also be emphasized that the ‘out of the box’ and ‘learning by doing’ paradigm of community forestry in the hills has to find its application in a number of other areas both in the forestry and non forestry sectors. The former would include management of ever depleting forests in the Tarai and in higher altitudes. The latter might include instilling the notion of a participatory system in the bigger irrigation projects and in designing climate adaptation intervention.
As Einstein rightly said, ‘We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.’
The author is a former joint secretary, ministry of forests and soil conservation.