Though the management of natural resources such as forests as a common property was a stimulating concept, it gave rise to a theoretical controversy. American ecologist Garrett Hardin in 1968 lent a fatal blow to the concept. He contended that leaving such resources in the hands of communities would lead to perpetual deterioration, eventually leading to a situation he termed the ‘tragedy of commons’. The implication was profound; it significantly curtailed community use rights over such resources. This led not only to governments’ reluctance in handing over new resources to the communities but also forced them to mull exterminating their rights over the resources.
NEPAL: A TEST CASE
While many community right activists were concerned by this development, they could do little in the face of the powerful theory. Academics tried to question the theory’s rationality, but those questions were limited to theoretical discourse that lacked ground demonstration. Nepal can be considered a ‘test case’ to demonstrate the viability of community management of forest resources on the ground. This started with the recognition of indigenous system of forest management where many communities, particularly in the hills, were involved in safeguarding local forest resource. Nepal government eventually built on this system to arrive at a new forest policy (1989) and supportive legislations such as Forest Act (1993) and Forest Rules (1995). These arrangements actually made way for Nepal’s much-talked about current mode of community forestry, through which 16,000-odd community forest user groups are protecting their forest resources. This has received global recognition and has been used as a ‘test case’ to challenge underlying assumptions of Hardin’s theory. E. Ostrom bagged 2009 Nobel Prize for her contribution that essentially explained the conditions (‘design principles’ in her term) where common property would work. She backs her theory by citing examples from Nepal. Globally, the concept of management of common resources is in ascendance for which Nepal is a show-case example.
There is little doubt that Nepal’s community forestry has fuelled global debate on forest decentralization. It has helped regenerate forest resource in hills, thereby creating a pressure in favour of giving forestry tenure to local communities. It may however be noted that the resources thus created are under ‘passive protection’ than ‘active management’. Experts claim that actual harvest in the contemporary system has been a small fraction of what the forests could provide. It is estimated that potential harvests through scientific forest management may be four to six times higher than the current level. This means that bringing the forests under more intensive management may improve forest health, thereby also generating a source of income for improving rural livelihoods.
During forty years of Australian engagement in Nepal (1966-2006), their project created enormous forest resources. As much as 42,617 hectares of plantation was created and likewise huge areas were brought under natural regeneration in two project districts, Kabhrepalanchok and Sindhuplachok . Down the road, in the period between 1980s-2000s, the project pioneered work in devising appropriate institutional model and governance arrangements, in a way that local communities can take control over such resources in a sustainable and equitable manner. The impact was far-reaching, which helped shape the new forest policy (1989) that recommended handing over forest resources to users. It may however be noted that the project was phased out in 2006.
A CONTINUITY BID
Apparently there was some realization about pitfalls of premature phase-out and the Australian Government once again showed its interest in continuing the work, however, with a different modality. Australian Government with UNDP conceived taking over the unfulfilled task of active forest management and poverty alleviation in the two project districts. Micro-Enterprise Development Program (MEDEP) was entrusted with the task, which started working in 2008. A study by a team led by this author in seven sample community forest user groups in the project districts, however, found that the project was far from achieving its objective of active forest management. This also entailed meager resource for poverty alleviation. Over three years of project implementation the concerned groups were able to harvest merely 40,000 cubic ft. of timber against the planned five year target of around 332,000 cubic ft. Obviously, the much aspired active forest management and use of incremental resource for poverty alleviation was not attained. It appears that the situation is not drastically different with some other projects that were inspired by similar objectives.
Although Nepal’s community-based forestry has not been completely successful, there have been important lessons.
While Nepal can take pride in being a test case for regenerating forest resource base through community management, it is yet to demonstrate how the resources could be brought under active management. Communities that have ventured into intensive harvesting in more accessible areas of the country are often in trouble. We hear about rampant felling and misuse of funds in Tarai. Thus, we are only half way through refuting Hardin’s ‘tragedy of commons’ theory. Full-fledged refutation may be claimed only when we succeed in demonstrating that resources are not only protected but also brought under active management thereby creating financial resources to support community livelihoods.
Failing this, the current protection oriented regime will fall apart in the face of market pressure and extreme poverty. After all, how long can poor communities restrain themselves from breaching local rules just to keep the forest intact? Of course, we have learned many lessons in forging community actions to forest protection. Our future role needs to be geared at active forest management and poverty alleviation. It is certainly not wise to abandon the endeavor half way, which can undermine achievements thus far. It is unwise to ‘throw the baby’ with ‘fresh spring water’ that we have tapped through extraordinary efforts. Rather, it is prudent to use the gained knowledge, process and approach in managing forest resources in the Tarai and high altitude where we are yet to find suitable tenurial and governance model. Emerging agendas such as climate change, biodiversity conservation and combating desertification are other areas where lessons could be applied.
The author is former Joint Secretary, Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation
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