Nepal’s Mid-hills have witnessed nothing less than a miracle in the last few decades in the field of community forestry. The region, feared to undergo sweeping environmental degradation, in fact experienced an incredible degree of restoration, thanks to the government’s community forestry policies. The first of them was Forestry Policy 1976, which led to Master Plan for Forestry Sector 1986, New Forest Act 1992, Forest Rule 1995, and corresponding guidelines. Handing government forests over to local community groups with due thrust on ‘empowerment’, ‘equity’ and ‘consensus building’ followed these policies.
To date, in the Mid-Hills alone, nearly 13,000 community forest user groups are managing around 1.1 million hectares of forest patches. They protect and manage forest resources and exercise their rights to utilize its products to support their livelihoods, though the current percentage of forest harvests are far below their actual potential. The enduring nature of community forest user groups became clear in the last decade’s protracted violent conflict, when virtually all government services and local institutions had collapsed, except community forestry institutions. No wonder, countries around the world admire Nepal’s community forestry as a model to learn from.
One may be tempted to ask whether this encouraging scenario is universal across the country. Not really! Tarai and High Altitude areas lack such community based mechanisms, even though official records show some community forest user groups or other entities in the areas, dispensed with the responsibilities and corresponding use rights of forests. Most forests in these areas continue to be controlled by the government, and are dwindling fast. Even those patches vested to local groups are generally characterized by a lack of robust safeguarding mechanisms. Two major programs called “Collaborative Forest Management” and “President Chure Conservation Program” have been designed for Tarai, but they lack the strategies required to address the complex issues at hand, leading to dismal achievements. The situation in High Altitude areas is no better, apart from a few institutional modalities based on the concept of ‘conservation area’, the bulk of the forests remains poorly governed.
Judiciously managed community forests in the mid-hills, and rampantly destroyed forests under government jurisdiction to their north and south, is thus the ground reality of Nepal. One may prefer to use the paradox ‘dark under the luminous streetlight’ to describe this situation. It is thus imperative that the Mid-hills’ model of participative forestry be replicated nationally if the forest resources in the country are to be conserved. This calls for a retrospective view on successful community forestry. The purpose is to figure out the key to success so that it can be applied elsewhere.
The right type of institution is probably the most crucial denominator of success. In the early years, it was the Panchayats (now VDCs) to which the forest resources were handed over. Years of experience showed that it is the indigenous user groups which have vested interests in the resources, and hence are the right institutions to be entrusted with the same. This would lead us to a lesson that we need to hand over the resources to the right type of user groups and institutions. Tarai is characterized by a large stretch of forests in the northern fringe and extensive population stretching as far as the Indian border in the south. Combined together, these factors complicate the task of crafting the right institutions. However, the interventionists must solve this puzzle if resources are to be conserved.
Appropriate form of tenure is the other requirement to meet. In many cases, people were not very interested in the concerned resources until the government was ready to give full fledged tenurial rights to local users. However, tenure rights should not be confused with ownership. People value tenure rights (bundle of secured rights) more than legal rights per se, as the latter may not necessarily guarantee practical rights. Apparently, the Department of Forests is currently drafting the ‘Strategy for Scientific Forest Management’ with a focus on Tarai and concomitant piloting initiative in Kapilbastu. While it is a welcome move, both these initiatives must pay due attention to the aforementioned institutional and tenurial issues if they are to be accepted by local communities.
Good governance is another crucial requirement. Community forest user groups that lack good governance have suffered, regardless of whether they are in accessible areas near commercial centers, or in far-flung villages. People do not comply with set rules if they fear that the elite might use the forest and its proceeds in undemocratic and non-transparent ways. Several community groups in Palpa have been managing their forests successfully despite the fact that they face a lot of commercial pressure owing to their proximity to roads, thus disproving the common belief that access to markets is perilous to conservation.
It is not practical to conserve forests without addressing the needs of the poor, who are highly dependent on forests.
The other important thing to be acknowledged is the role of forests in poverty alleviation. It is neither moral nor practical to conserve forests if we fail to address the needs of the poorer sections of the community whose dependence on forests is disproportionately higher than their rich counterparts’. This in turn points towards an inevitable need for active forest management to realize the full potential of forests. The poor in particular may not show much interest in conservation unless the proceeds are used in development works with due emphasis on people’s livelihoods.
If we want to uphold the strong legacy of community forestry in Mid-hills and use the knowledge gained therein to start similar endeavors in Tarai and High Altitudes, intervention must be seen not merely as a technical process, but also as a strong social process. The right type of local institution, tenurial arrangements, governance system, and equity are among the important ingredients of success. Ensuring this would essentially require intervention as a social process based on the principle of ‘learning by doing’ rather than on a technical blueprint. The task ahead is definitely daunting, requiring much more commitment and concerted efforts from the government, donors and civil society alike.
The author is former Joint Secretary, Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation