Let me begin by asking you a naive question. What do you think will be the legal repercussion of stealing products from public forests? You will say it is likely to lead to penalty according to the prevailing Forest Act. Yes, states around the world penalize offenders as a deterrent and to protect public resources. Nepal cannot be an exception to this, particularly after the establishment of the department of forests six decades ago.
In Siraha, however, when I was posted as a District Forest Officer (DFO) in 2000, we tried just the opposite in an attempt to explore alternatives to the obsolete ‘command-control-penalize’ approach which has barely checked the dwindling resource trend. We, of course, would catch the offenders, but not necessarily resort to litigation. Contrary to everyone’s speculations, the offenders would receive rather unusual hospitality—occupying a room next to mine and sharing some of the delicacies I ate. Many who witnessed this were baffled to find that the offenders were given a ‘guest like treatment’.
Reasons behind this alternative approach lie partly in my interest to bring about positive changes considering that our usual approach was unlikely to address forest depletion. I also felt a compelling need to devise workable mechanisms in the Tarai: a region with evident distinction. This region, compared to the hills, is characterized by large-scale complexities in terms of ‘forest-stakeholder’ relationship, thus requiring a different approach altogether.
Rampant poverty, few employment opportunities combined with lack of public forests in the south (home to bulk of the population) triggered a vicious cycle of unchecked forest loss. Failure of the government to pay attention to the supply situation further exacerbated the problem. There was another dimension to the paradox; the poor were often the victims of surveillance as the more privileged managed to flee or were immune to action owing to complicity with some staff.
There was no way Siraha district could address these rather complex set of cross-cutting issues on its own though we were determined to do what we could. By taking a cue from the hills, we envisaged the ultimate solution of transferring the resource tenure to the local people. Despite being a stimulating concept there were challenges galore. Here, unlike in the hills, forests were geographically constricted in a narrow tract of Chure in the north, thus segregating them from the huge dependent population (mostly poor) in the south. Immense market value and better accessibility also put a huge pressure on forests. Reaching out to the people for consultation was obviously the first step towards intervention, which proved to be difficult. A large number of people (extending as far as the Indian border) simply did not have the patience to listen to our rather ‘abstract’ ideas.
One particular incident took place amidst all the confusion. This happened when our patrolling team caught two people trafficking timber. Many villagers started pouring into our office to support the offenders. Their general plea was conventional; they wanted us to file official cases against them at the earliest so they could be freed on bail. However, given that we didn’t believe in the practice, we consistently disagreed but had to arrive at a compromise in the end. The villagers were to assemble on a specific date and place in their village where we would go and initiate dialogue.
It was amazing that the villagers, who until then were turning a deaf ear to our proposals for meetings, actually gathered as agreed. We knew that this was essentially triggered by the custody of their fellow villagers. However, we were excited to have a chance to discuss the fate of Chure with the locals for the first time. We talked about the unfortunate state of Chure and about how a failure to reverse the trend had long term implications on the environment, and eventually on the people. The discussions focused on how government policy on community forestry allows them to take control of the resources so that they could, instead, eventually start sustained management. Enthused villagers ultimately decided to hold further discussions amongst themselves and eventually contact the forest office at a certain date.
We were excited that the seeds of alternative thoughts had been sown in the minds of these villagers for the first time. We privately, among our own staff, acknowledged that the benefits of our new approach far outweighed the traditional approach which simply ended in litigation, thus closing the avenues for future cooperation. Encouraged by the initial move, we felt motivated to apply this ‘trick’ elsewhere. This led to an unprecedented decision on our part. We decided to free the two offenders and initiate a new chapter of collaboration with all of them.
The offenders were waiting when we returned to our office. We freed them amidst a large number of villagers who had come to take them home. To our satisfaction, we heard them planning and discussing the next meeting.
Since this incident, we started to universally replicate the approach as a tool for extension. I am aware that the moves were perhaps ‘extra-legal’. But at the same time, these provided the much-needed window of opportunity to meet and discuss the issue with a large number of people, which would otherwise have been impossible. Kudos to all the people, agencies and especially the department of forests for allowing us to try this ‘risky act’ and pursue our out-of-the-box approach Given the scale of the problem and limited period of my stay in Siraha, I would not claim that we succeeded in bringing about a visible breakthrough in Chure conservation. However, empirical research might be able to elaborate more on the achievements of the module and its utility for wider application to check the ever dwindling forest resource in Tarai.
The author is former joint secretary, Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation