Kaji Shrestha, a noted community forestry expert-cum-activist, once made some incongruent remarks. He opined that official figures of forestry plantation in the country would exceed even its geographical area. He was, of course, pointing finger at how plantations vanished soon after they were completed. This notion was widely shared by the print media during the 1980s-90s, so much so that it became an ‘adage’.
This happened when the country emphasized plantations through community forestry under international support in the wake of Erick Ekholm’s alarmist call that the entire Himalayas was on the verge of an environmental collapse (Losing Ground, 1976), needing massive restoration. My purpose here is not to prove or disprove the ‘adage’ but merely to share my little experience working as a District Forest Officer between 1990 and 1992.
UNDERSTANDING THE PLACE
In a district under my watch, to my astonishment, I saw cattle strolling in many locations which were, in fact, supposed to be community plantations. A subsequent look at the official records revealed a puzzling scenario. The District Forest Office (DFO), through Helvetas’ support, had undertaken a large number of plantations in different parts of the district and a watchman was provided to safeguard each patch. However, what I observed was just to the contrary.
There were elaborate discussions with fellow colleagues in DFO about this anomaly. We found that plantations were being undertaken according to targets set by the center. We decided that the prevailing practices needed to be changed to garner community support for future plantations. We were able to eventually figure out a people-centered approach for plantations. We were committed not to undertake plantations unless there were unambiguous community commitments. However, figuring this out was tricky as people might have expressed insincere commitment.
We adequate budget, which we did not want to go unused. At the same time, we wanted to make sure that communities did not tender their demands lured by illicit benefits. This essentially required a workable liability-sharing mechanism to deter false interests solely driven by monetary benefits. The arduous job of digging plantation holes had to be allocated to communities, which would be a ‘test case’ for community commitments. Seedlings transportation from government nursery was also to be carried out by communities.
Additionally, the communities were to take responsibilities for post-plantation activities like weeding and protection of the planted areas. This would translate to 100 percent work performed by the community of which around 50 percent cost would be reimbursed after successful plantations. The arrangement was meant to test the community’s commitments for long term sustainability.
Analyzing the breakdown of conceived cost sharing, at the beginning, the government would have to share 50 percent financial liability, which would however plunge to 10 percent in the long run. This, given that the communities would commit to volunteering for post-plantation protection efforts, which would otherwise have accounted for most recurring costs. This might sound unfair as government hitherto had been shouldering entire cost. However, we were compelled to compromise for the sake of sustainability.
Meanwhile, panic mounted when we realized we could be drawn into a controversy, particularly if the communities denied accountability. We would have a difficult time with the ministry which had not given us any mandate to take up an alternate approach. The local politicians would not spare us either for not using the allocated resource. However, given our commitments, we did not want to withdraw.
Mercifully, we were able to attain 168 ha under plantation against the 134 ha target. The leftover money was used to procure nursery and plantation equipment. Thanks to our new modus operandi, we were able to achieve more than the set target. Transparent money disbursement system also garnered community trust.
During a survey after four months of plantation, we found survival rates of plantations were as high as 85 to 100 percent. Each surveyed patch was well nourished and cautiously protected by community volunteers. Though the survival rate was moderate (66.2 percent), those were sufficient to establish full forest cover. The initiative brought tiny patches of wastelands scattered around the villages under plantations, which had so far been left out due to financial unfeasibility.
The experience led to greater trust between villagers, who were tempted to undertake similar collaborative initiatives in the future, and us. Impressed by the undertaking, the government introduced the concept of cost sharing in future plantation activities all over the country such that the community would bear at least 20 percent of total costs.
This success was of course not without costs. Intensive fieldwork and our transparency efforts taxed us. The Chief District Officer often taunted us by comparing us with our predecessors, who apparently had better social relations. This was not surprising given that the process required us to spend a lot of time on the field. It was shocking when the officiating Deputy Regional Director from within our institution asked us for an explanation as “we were simply violating the norms”.
However, popular support made us immune from official action. It would be useful if someone took the time to evaluate overall work and analyze its relevance for future plantations.
The author is former joint secretary, Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation