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Rebuilding Community Forestry

Rebuilding Community Forestry
Community Forestry
Rebuilding Community Forestry

Just before COVID-19 outbreak started last year, I had the opportunity to visit Kavre and Sindhu districts of Nepal to speak to community leaders about how they have managed community forests recently, and also to understand how wider political and economic changes are impacting their forest management plans and decisions. Of the two community groups I visited, one is close to the town of Banepa and other is in the mountain hinterland in Sindhu, but still connected by earthen roads. In between the two groups are the bustling towns of Banepa and Dhulikhel, which are iconic in Nepal’s urbanising landscpes.

As many of you know, community forestry started in the late 70s in Nepal, and Kavre and Sindhu were the pioneering districts for this innovation which is praised internationally. But how are communities themselves experiencing this innovative natural resource management system after 50 years? Have they been able to benefit from the past investment in protection and management? How can forest resources be managed more actively, without depleting the resource stock? These were the questions I had in mind.

Difficult harvest

Let me begin with the reflections from the more remotely located group in Sindhu district. After a few hours of drive from Kathmandu, our team reached the community forest group (A). We were a small research team. It was winter (January) and in the morning, the entire middle hills landscape showed up with mosaic of forest areas and farmlands, crowned by snowy peaks of the Himalayan range to the north. We were welcomed by the members of the Group A. We sat in a nice community hall at the village side of the forest boundary in the north facing slope (at around 1800 meters from sea level). The newly built community hall is located on the edge of the village bordering the community forest. A group of women members started boiling water and preparing some snacks outside, and we held meetings mostly with the male leaders in the meeting hall (that was not our choice and did not want to question their role division).

‘We are here to know about how you are managing your forest’, my colleague explained our purpose. A lively discussion erupted immediately. One leader said: “there is no point in putting more efforts on this community forest. We wasted lots of money last year as we could not sell the surplus timber to market due to a number of kanuni (regulatory) hurdles. “There are so many people you need to pay to clear the way en route to the market that it is almost impossible to recover the investment”, he explained.

The pine trees in the community forest have been fully mature. In the two districts, nearly 100,000 hectares of mature pine plantation are waiting for active harvesting before these trees. These were established by the Department of Forest with the assistance of the Australian forestry project. After 40 years, these trees have become mature and the surplus timber can be sold to the market, which can create some incomes to the poor and disadvantaged mountain communities. Forest experts say a community forest can earn, on average,  NRs 2 million every year from the sale of surplus timber, without negatively affecting the forest condition.

And for harvesting and selling to happen, there is actually no issue with the forest law. It does allow community groups to sell extra forest products as per the agreed plan between government forest office and the community. But problems emerge in administrative practice and regulation. The government officials also admit that there are a number of unnecessary administrative barriers that prevent the community from harvesting timber and selling the surplus amount to the market.

Water, not wood

The second story is about a group (B) that is nearer to the town of Banepa (and also to the city of Kathmandu). Here too, we wanted to meet the majority of the executive committee members just like Group A, but could meet only the chair and a woman member. People were busy and making time to meet visitors wanting to talk about forest was not their priority. Luckily, one of our team members had good rapport with the chair, so he was able to persuade the chair of the group to spare some time to talk to us.  We went out of the settlement to get close to the community forest, and sat on a farm terrace under the lovely winter sun. He told a long story about his fellow members not showing interests in the forest.

“I even told my group members I will remove their gas cylinders from your kitchen if you don’t join community forestry meetings”, he said to us. It was obvious that in the recent years, everyone in the community has purchased gas cylinder which means they no longer needed fuelwood for household energy. When people did not need forest products, their interest in forest also reduced greatly. We checked with the chairperson if the community is still interested in timber from the community forest. He replied that people prefer to use agrakh (sal timber) imported from outside to using the pine timber from their community forest.

‘So people don’t need forest at all – right?’ I checked. The chairperson replied, “Oh, yes, quite a few say they would love to join the meeting if water is in the agenda.” Water demand has increased in the area while the supply and sources are same as before. There are even reports which say that spring water sources are declining in the mountain regions of Nepal, perhaps due to climate change and lack of water conservation efforts amidst widespread development work such as roads in the mountain slopes.

The chairman added: “Two decades ago, I used to sell even the twigs and leaves at Rs 25 Paisa (quarter rupee) per bhari (headload), but now people don’t want these even when I offered to deliver better quality wood for fuel and household use at their doorstep. It is so frustrating to be the chair of this group now.”

We had a short walk through the community forest – it is dense and thick, and showed no signs of harvesting or any operations for the past several years. The chairperson said to us pointing to the thick bushes, “This is all going to create fire risk which can also spread to the community”.

The overstocked forest with over mature trees also remained me of a stark fact that Nepal’s timber import has risen consistently over the past few years. Community leaders are also aware of timber imports when they are unable to use their dying trees in community forests.

Market, not subsistence

As we return from the trip, we began discussing why community forest groups and their community forests were as ideal as we wanted them to see. There is obviously a mismatch between local realities – communities and their visions – and the policy and regulatory framework of community forestry. People want to sell surplus timber (Group A) to the market but they cannot do that due to regulatory hurdles. People are interested in managing forest as a source of water (Group B), but water is a separate domain in terms of governance and institutions.

In the two community forestry groups, and perhaps many others, people have clear visions – harvesting mature trees, selling surplus, managing forest as water catchments, reducing fire risks and so on, but the state regulations are slow to respond to such expectations of people and the local ecosystems comprising forest, water and fire risk. Governance on the state side is based on the conception of traditional sectors such as forest, water and agriculture, whereas local realities demand spatially integrated governance and management of environment and natural resources. More recently, government policies are prioritizing global ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration through REDD+, with community groups receiving mixed and confusing signals as to what they should respond.

Community-state discrepancy

What emerges as a fundamental challenge is that local community visions lack competent agency and voice in the face of penetrative and overly-regulatory state facing the community, and overly liberal import policy allowing overseas timber to enter the Nepali market. This duality of state policy has impacted both local livelihoods as well as larger economy of Nepal. And unfortunately, this community-state discrepancy is the reality despite so much of radical political mobilisation that Nepal has seen around federal governance in the past decade. The question is – when will the state allude to the visions of the local communities? And then when will there a sustainable and self-reliant strategy in place supporting the active and equitable management of forest and natural resources? Without the state creating enabling environment, community forestry can soon become a past story of development success.

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