'We have failed to convert our forests into wealth'

Published On: May 3, 2018 01:00 AM NPT By: Thira L Bhusal & Mahabir Paudyal

Minister for Forests and Environment Shakti Bahadur Basnet is also a key leader of CPN (Maoist Center) and one of the members of Party Unity Coordination Committee. What is his assessment of Nepal’s forestry? And what is the progress in party unification process? Thira L Bhusal and Mahabir Paudyal met with him Tuesday afternoon.

Generations of Nepalis grew up learning the adage Hariyo Ban Nepal Ko Dhan (green forests are Nepal’s wealth). What actually is the state of forests at the moment?

We often take forests for granted because they are there in front of us. Perhaps this is why Ministry of Forest is not accorded greater importance it deserves though it is one of the oldest ministries. The slogan you mentioned came to be limited to paper and school textbooks. We have actually failed to convert our forests into wealth. Around 45 percent of Nepal’s landmass is covered with forests. How has it contributed to the country’s economy? Or can it contribute at all? We have not explored these questions. If fact, we rarely think of forests in economic terms. This is why when someone asks how forestry can enhance economy you have no clear answers. This is the situation today. Another irony is that we, the country with around 45 percent forest areas, import timber and wood products from as far as Malaysia and Burma.  

What in your view contributed to this situation?

I see two main reasons behind this. One, our understanding of forestry sector is rather conservative and narrow. That is to say we have been thinking of forests only as a property to be preserved and nurtured. Of course they need to be preserved, but not in a way we do not get any benefit out of it. Forest has multidimensional aspects. It has social, economic and environmental sides to it but we tend to focus only on environmental side. This is why we say trees should be preserved and they should not be cut down. And in this, we forgot social and economic sides. We never focused on proper utilization of forests. Second, we have not been able to ensure good governance in forest sectors. 

We need to find a fine balance between preservation and utilization of forests with robust management system to achieve this goal.  Many tend to think once we start utilizing the forests, our hills and plains would be denuded. This is a faulty view. For one, forest areas do not deplete simply because you use your forest resources. If so what do we say about the countries who export wood to us? Forests do not get diminished by utilization. They diminish when we lack proper management and administration system to ensure forest governance. The question we are facing today is how to put scientific management of forest in place. We need to consider multidimensional aspects of forestry—non-wood products, herbs, eco-tourism, environment preservation, climate change and entrepreneurship among others. 

You mentioned scientific management of forest. What does that entail and how can it be done?

Let me illustrate with an example. You keep a piece of tree that does not grow after ten years for as many as 30 years because you think trees must not be cut down. How can you benefit from it? When some trees get old they might even not become useful from environmental perspective. So we need to keep cutting down old trees while at the same time planting new ones at the massive scale. For this, we need to formulate clear rules and policies. We need to come out of the old preservation school. 

If so what is the plan of your ministry to work toward that end?

Our one priority commitment is to increase forest area as much as possible. We will never allow current forest area to be diminished. This fiscal year we are going to announce a program to generate around 100,000 jobs from forestry sector. We have identified how it can be done. Forest sector can make visible contribution to employment generation and economy. Sadly, we have never looked at it from this perspective. Now we are working in this direction. At the moment, we are working for updating forestry acts, frame new policies and update existing regulations. We are also working to restructure forestry sector in line with federal set up. 

This sounds like a long-term goal. What is your plan for promoting Nepali wood and control timber smuggling?

We will focus on production of wood. Our sale and procurement process of wood and timber is rather unmanaged. We do this through various channels. Now we will bring it under one door policy. We are thinking of addressing all issues in a package. Our plan today is to replace timber import with timber sufficiency within this year. This is our goal and commitment. I was discussing this issue with some experts before you arrived in my office. We have reached the conclusion that we can stop import from the next year. Regarding timber smuggling, it is related with governance issue. We are working on this with priority.

We are known internationally for forest management through the involvement of community groups. International communities have appreciated this practice because our community forest user groups are doing really well. In this context, we are thinking of establishing an international level community forest studies center in Nepal. 

What are your priorities for environment sector?

Our main focus is on climate change and preservation of biological diversity. Nepal is a party to various climate related conventions and treaties. We are active partner against climate change. We are going to bring all these efforts under national action plan.  

We are not responsible for the problems of climate change and its adverse impacts on health and wellbeing of people. Instead, we have contributed to global initiative against climate change through expansion of forest areas, and promotion of clean energy. But we are the first victim of climate change. Thus we will push for the benefits we are entitled to for contributing to climate change mitigation this way. I will raise the issue of compensation owed to Nepal against the damages done to us through carbon emissions by other countries. We will push these issues at the international forums with priority. On domestic front, we have to control pollution, properly manage wastes and promote greenery in the cities. These are the urgent issues. We will integrate these three elements and will launch a mega event for clean environment this year. My ministry will make it a priority agenda. And it will be result oriented as well.

Let’s turn to political questions. Why is unity between Maoist Center and CPN-UML being endlessly delayed? Where has it stuck?

It has not stuck anywhere but yes, like you said, it has been delayed. Unity process is going on in its own way. It is taking time because it is not only about two parties coming together. It has more to do with redefining political history and roles of the two parties. 

You say so but you have missed one after other deadline for unity already.

In my view, this is how every unity process moves forward. At the announcement phase, there is excitement in the air. Everyone is good and there is an environment of trust among all members. You can call it a pleasant phase. At this phase, the only goal is unity and everyone looks forward to it. Obviously, this phase goes with ease because everyone is focused on achieving the goal. There is agreement that unity is inevitable and everyone looks forward to bright future. You do not hear of disagreements because the leaders agree on broad framework and stick to it. No body talks ill of nobody else. 

Then the second phase comes in which leaders start discussing every detail in depth. The party to unity will start deliberating every pros and cons. Some may start thinking that early euphoria was short-lived and that there are a lot of issues to be resolved. A lot of contradictions appear. Each party might think they were better off before and that after unity they will lose identity. You will also witness clashes of interests at this phase. Thus from the outside it might appear that leaders are fighting and they are not going to come around for unity. It might then appear to the outsiders that unity process has been derailed.

And then the third and final phase starts. The leaders then do a lot of soul-searching and self-reflection. They deliberate on the questions like: Are we doing the right thing by derailing the process? Would it be right to back down from the promises made to the people? What will I gain if I stay out of unity process? What will I lose? What will the country as a whole lose or gain? The third phase is crucial for materializing unity purpose.

In other words, in the first phase we see only benefits of unity. In the second, each party begins to see disadvantages. In the third phase, they make a deep and broad understanding of the loss they will have to suffer if the unity does not happen. We are in this phase right now. So I tell you not to doubt on unity.  It will reach a logical conclusion soon.

You seem to be theorizing. Is not the power sharing the sticking point? Your party has been demanding 50 percent share in central committee, which CPN-UML seems reluctant to offer.

Let me tell you this is not at all about what percentage of seats should be allocated to which party in party committee. Unity is beyond mathematics. It is basically about accepting existence of both the parties. There are ideological, political and organizational issues that need to be resolved. If we go for percentage ratio we won’t be different from an alliance, a morcha. Maoist and UML are going for a unity not to create another morcha, which we already are. This is about creating a new party out of the two strong forces. Like I said, it is about coexistence. 

We are not talking about dissolution here. Maoist is not dissolving into UML and vice-versa in this process. Main thing is to ensure coexistence. In this process, one party may get fewer seats in party committee than expected. That’s a secondary thing. The unity we are talking about is completely different from unity between UML and ML that we once witnessed. Our goal today is to integrate and unify the whole communist movement of Nepal. Thus we are marching forward with a big noble goal. This is why it is taking some time. Two top leaders [Prime Minister Oli and Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal] have already resolved the issue between them. We are soon going to resolve all outstanding issues. Unity won’t take as long as you may be thinking.  



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