The theory of ‘Himalayan Environmental Degradation’ that was popular duing 1970s had predicted that Nepal would lose all its forests by 2000
The Community Forestry Day on August 9th marked the 43rd year of community forestry in Nepal. It all started when a patch of forest was handed over to the locals of Thokarpa village of Sindhupalchowk for management and preservation.
These days we see few denuded hills in Nepal, which is the result of community forestry initiative. The theory of ‘Himalayan Environmental Degradation’ had predicted during the 1970s that Nepal would lose its all accessible forest cover by 2000. Famous scientist Eckholm P Erik wrote in Losing Ground (1976) that world’s environment was quickly degrading. Other scientists and organizations including the World Bank had raised specific concerns about the pace of deforestation in Nepal. Thanks to the community forestry initiative, none of those predictions has come true.
Community forestry was an innovative experiment in Nepal to control deforestation and check environmental degradation. It for the first time ensured locals’ participation in forest management and preservation.
During the Rana rule, locals had no say in management and utilization of forest resources as forests were considered as private property of Rana rulers. There was a paradigm shift following the abolition of Rana rule in 1950. Private Forestry Nationalization Act was formulated in 1957, allowing for nationalization of forests that private landowners had been holding. Its basic premise was that forests are the properties of the state. Soon, several private forests were nationalized.
The aim was to conserve forests but many people were still excluded from the process.
So they started to clear forest lands, fearing that not converting them into farmland could result in nationalization. The government of the day introduced Forest Act (1961) and Forest Protection Special Arrangement Act (1967) to address this problem but this could not achieve the desired goal.
In this context, community forestry stands out as a success because it took people into account. Unlike in the past, villagers were entrusted to protect forest resources. At the policy level, National Forestry Plan (1976) recognized that the forests cannot be managed without people’s involvement. The idea of community forests was also at the heart of the 1989 Master Plan for the Forest sector. Forest Act 1993 and Forest Regulation 1995 further institutionalized community forest user groups as independent organizations for forest management.
As a result, we have around 20,000 community forest user groups managing 1.8 million hectares of forest, involving 2.3 million households in the country. Our community forestry program is an example of successful decentralization. The state trusts people and hands over forests for conservation, management and utilization.
Today community forest programs have also included gender, livelihood and sustainable forest management issues. Climate change, payment for environmental services (PES) and landscape level conservation are also the part of this initiative.
However, there are shortcomings. It’s been over two decades when forests were handed over to local communities in large numbers. Subsequently, there was a massive tree plantation in order to promote natural regeneration. Now that these seeds have produced saplings, it is now the right time to move to next stage, which involves a technique called silviculture—’the practice of controlling the establishment, growth, composition, health, and quality of forests to meet diverse needs and values’. Saving forests from poachers, fire and grazing is not enough. Silvicultural techniques should be applied to enhance the capacity of forest users.
Forest users should be provided with various types of trainings on these techniques.
People also don’t participate in forest management until the benefits from doing so exceeds the costs. For this we need to commercialize community forest goods and services, enabling communities to realize full economic benefits of forest management.
There is also an allegation that community forest programs have been captured by the elites. There is thus a need to promote equity through new policies and legislative provisions.
Community forestry is the most effective forest management modality, which entails sustainable forest management and improvement of people’s livelihoods. This approach thus needs constant support.
Paudel is an assistant planning officer, Department of Forests; Acharya is a freelancer forester