Taking away forests from communities

Bharati Pathak, Chair FECOFUN. Pic: Onlinekhabar.com

Onlinekhabar.com, 17 June

Parliament’s Agriculture Committee has started debating the government’s draft bill to amend and integrate the Forestry Law. Just as there was opposition to changes in the Guthi Bill and bills on the Media Council and National Human Rights Commission, stakeholders also have concerns about revisions in more than two dozen clauses in the forestry bill.

The main critic is the Federation of Community Forest User Groups Nepal (FECOFUN), whose Chair, Bharati Pathak, says community forests would cease to exist if the proposed changes are passed.

Clause 31, sub-clause 5 in the draft amendment says, ‘members of user groups shall be legally considered to be government employees’. This means that the 22,236 community forest user groups and their 100,000 members will no longer be volunteers if the law is adopted.

Pathak says with a note of irony: “If they consider us government employees, then why don’t they also give us the same pay and facilities as civil servants and allow us to get into Singha Darbar?”

FECOFUN says the new law would take away its independent decision-making power on the sale of forest products and hand it over to the Divisional Forest Office. The federation also opposes a clause that would make the DFO a member of the community forestry group.

FECOFUN also wants restrictions on farming included in a clause that would ban settlements inside community forests, and another clause inserted stating that community forest management should be the main priority. The group argues also that the community forestry campaign should be added to the list of ‘national pride projects’, because of its contribution to ecosystem services, biodiversity protection, job creation and the role it plays in contributing to the carbon sink in Nepal.

Stakeholders are worried that proposed changes to the law would allow the government’s DFO to arbitrarily dismiss a community forest, or seize its land if the user group is deemed not to have fulfilled its commitments.

“We agree that a guilty individual should be punished, but to abolish an institution because of the mistake of one person is not right,” Pathak says. “It’s like you do away with the Home Ministry because one of its civil servants is corrupt.”

FECOFUN is also opposed to paying taxes to all three levels of government, especially because user groups dedicate 35% of profits from the sale of forest products for the under-served and women. Additionally, it does not want community forests inside nationally protected forests to be affected if they are transferred to conservation areas.

Abdullah Miya in Kantipur, 27 June 

Even though the Forestry Act 25 years ago granted community forestry user groups independence to decide on the price and sale of forestry products, a draft amendment to the act would revoke that right.

Clause 18 of the new law would require the user groups to submit an application to the Divisional Forest Office to approve any sale of timber, charcoal, bark, grass, fodder, wild honey, herbal products, soil, boulders, rocks, sand and other products found in a forest.

FECOFUN Chair Bharati Pathak said: “The country is now a federal republic, but control of forests is being handed back to the DFO... our user committees had been deciding on the price and sale of products and how to spend proceeds to uplift the poor and marginalised. This right is being taken away from us.”

Former Forest Secretary Udaya Raj Sharma says it appears that the government is trying to exert more control over community forests.“Nepal’s community forest system is a model, and has now become part of the country’s identity – it should not be restricted.”

Forestry activist Bhola Khatiwada says community forests helped increase the country’s woodlands from 39.36% to 44.74%, and yet the new law would take away the rights of the user groups that made this possible.

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