If we want to manage the landless-induced forest conflicts, we need to involve and incentivize landless communities
Landlessness induced forest encroachment has become a key concern in the management of forests in Nepal’s Tarai region. A recent study by the Department of Forest showed that 94,872 hectares of Tarai forest lands have been encroached upon between 1992 and 2014. There is no sign of this encroachment slowing down.
According to 2011 national census, 25 percent of Tarai population is either landless or functionally landless. In a recent call for registration by the Sukumbasi Commission in 2014, 1.2 million households (HHs) registered themselves as landless. Over 80 percent of them either live in or near forests, or make their living either through agriculture or forest-based activities. Another study by the Parliamentary Committee on Natural Resource and Revenue Sharing identifies landlessness as a key challenge of forest protection in Tarai and Chure regions. Besides, denying access to forests in many cases has increased conflict between the landless groups, forest authorities and local residents—which often results in degradation of forests or deforestation.
On the other hand, the government has introduced various strategies to help reduce landless-induced forest crimes. But they have not helped at all. Since the 1960s successive governments have been struggling to stop encroachment by criminalizing it, increasing surveillance and also by frequent evictions of settlers. The Promulgation of the Forest Encroachment Control and Management Strategy 2011 was a part of the same campaign.
There is a huge cost associated with strengthening surveillance and eviction of encroachers. A review of the Annual Progress Report of the Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation shows that three million rupees is required to evict those inhabiting 600 hectares of encroached land. As almost 100,000 hectares of land is encroached, eviction is not an effective option. Similarly, lack of human resources at the District Forest Office (DFO) has made the problems worse.
The government has formed a commission to solve the problems of the landless. But this too has proved ineffective. So far, 12 different commissions have been formed to resolve the landless problems. But half of them were dissolved before they could complete their studies. So far, these commissions have distributed land entitlement certificates to 154,853 households, while the number of landless households stands at more than a million. The dismal performance of landless commissions is the result of their political alignment, prevalent corruption, and short-termism.
Resolution of encroachment problem in Nepal has largely failed due to support of political parties to land seekers, lack of alternative livelihoods, low capacity of forest authorities, high costs of law enforcement, and perhaps most importantly, a weak state.
For the landless households, forests serve as a means for their lives, providing a sense of security and belongingness in a community and a reliable source of fodder for their livestock. The majority of them sell timber and fuelwood as a major source of income.
They are dependent on fuel wood for cooking. Thus forest provides life support to the landless.
A recent research carried out by Forest Action in Janakalyan Community Forest User Group (CFUG) illustrates that recognizing and strengthening local level collective action by transferring forest tenure rights to landless can substantially reduce conflict and conserve resources. Janakalyan CFUG, a settlement comprising largely landless people with a whole host of forest crimes, has now turned into one of the most successful Community Forests (CFs) and is appreciated by the authorities, neighboring CFUGs and also by its own members.
For long this forest had become a platform for illegal logging, poaching and unsustainable collection of fuelwood. The locals had not been able to claim forest management rights due to weak internal governance and dispute with neighboring communities. The group has been able to acquire formal forest management rights, resolved its conflicts with the neighboring CFs, and has established a legitimate leadership. Recently, senior officials from the Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation including the DFO visited the site and congratulated the CF members.
The old notion that the landless are the encroachers was proved wrong in Nawalparasi district, through forest management activities in this landless-dominated CFUG. The collective efforts enabled the CFUG to negotiate with the DFO and neighboring CFs. It also helped to increase its compliance with community forest rule. Such efforts also contributed to reducing illegal activities.
The CFUG also received permission to harvest and sell timber, increasing the flow of community forest funds in development and livelihoods related activities and forest management activities (regular thinning, weeding, minimized grazing and developed nursery). As a result, forest density is increasing, with concomitant increment in pole-size trees.
So in order to effectively manage landless-related conflicts, it is important to involve and incentivize landless communities in and around forestland, irrespective of their legal status. Similarly, it is important to support CFUGs and make them include landless households. This means accepting legitimate community forest members and assuring them equal benefits. Finally, we need to have a more collaborative management of our forests instead of the rigid bureaucratic management of the old.