Safeguarding the soul of sal

A healthy, diverse natural forest in Chitwan with three vegetation layers. All phoos: LILA NATH SHARMA.

It was sunny afternoon in December in 2018, I was sitting on a pile of logs at the Janakalyan Community Forest Office in Nawalparasi, waiting for its chair Kabiram Bhandari. I had just finished a three-day survey in the forest that his community had protected since 1996.

It had not been easy to formally manage and protect aforest on which villagers depended on for fodder and fuel. At that time, the forest was severely degraded due to Illegal felling, encroachment, and wildfires.

It took Bhandari, with support from the District Forest Office (DFO), 20 years to formally hand over the management of the forest to the local community. The logging mafia was livid, and he got multiple threats.

With the declaration of the community forest, encroachment stopped, logging declined, villagers collectively controlled wildfires, and underserved communities at the edge of the jungle were provided access to forest products.

Women and indigenous groups were represented in forest management, local institutions were strengthened and revenue from the sale of forest products were channeled into maintaining roads, water supply and supporting schools.

This story of one community forest in Nawalparasi is shared by thousands of such locally protected forests around Nepal, and is a success story that has won international acclaim and contributed to Nepal’s forest area doubling in the past 25 years through forest protection and restoration for biodiversity conservation though decentralised and participatory management.

Kabiram Bhandari arrived, smiling as usual, and asked if I had finished my assessment of his forest. I could sense that he was expecting an affirmation of his struggle to protect and manage his community forest.

A forest is not just a clump of trees to count and measure their girth in cubic feet, and convert that at prevailing hardwood timber prices into rupees. A forest is a social, ecological and evolutionary organism. Instead of counting trees in a forests, my training in biodiversity made me count the number of species: how many of them are rare and threatened species of plants or animals, how many are non-native.

The condition of a forest is different depending on what parameters we use to examine it. Tree data within a forest is therefore a manifestation of national priority of community forests, and in this case a report card for the effort of people like Kabiram Bhandari in Nawalparasi – and the paradoxical goals of protected and unprotected forests and Nepal.

To protect, but how?

Nepal’s community management of forests started with a few pilot projects in the late 1970s, and was soon replicated nationwide in later years. It has since been widely hailed as a model of forest protection and biodiversity conservation.

However, the protectionist approach of forest management is also biased in favour of high value species to the detriment of varieties that are deemed or perceived to be of inferior value.

The Dipad Community forest in Makawanpur district had recently been subjected to the much contested concept of ‘scientific forest management’. The custodians of the community forest regarded its shrubs, vines and climbers as not being ‘good’ for the forest. In fact, the undergrowth in this ‘scientifically managed’ forest was made up of only sal seedlings and saplings.

Further east, the Jalthal Community Forest of Jhapa district looked more like a monoculture plantation of sal trees. “See, there are no bushes, no thorns,” said the management committee’s Chiranjibi Poudel.

Be it Nawalparasi, Makawanpur, Jhapa or other other community managed forests of Nepal’s Tarai, the story is the same ­— the drive to protect sal at the cost of other species. There were fewer tree species with higher commercial value in them.

In the Nawalparasi forest, for example, of the 141 tree trunks I measured, 133 were of sal. The other eight species were badkamle, kyamuna, siris and putalikath. Sal makes up 94% of the species also in other Tarai community forests, which are devoid of shrub or liana.

Read also: The greening of Nepal, Marty Logan

The Jalthal Community Forest in Jhapa is a rectangular block 10 km long and 5.5 km wide, spanning about 6,000 hectares and located at the lowest elevation in Nepal. Jalthal is currently being managed by 22 community forest user groups and has biodiversity that is disproportionate to its physical area.

Jalthal appears at first glance to be well conserved by communities. Encroachment by squatters and influential people has been stopped. Tree density has increased, with thicker canopy cover. There are fewer forest fires, poaching of wildlife and timber have been controlled. Collection of fuel and fodder is regulated, and revenue from the forest is invested in inclusive local development.

The downside is that forest biodiversity has not been adequately protected, and degradation has continued. Invasive plants are affecting the indigenous vegetation of which there are only a handful of mature individuals left. The critically endangered pangolin is still being illegally hunted. Community forest management does not adequately consider these biodiversity aspects of protection.

The very name Jalthal implies that the forest has wetlands within it, but not much priority is given to protecting these water bodies which support biodiversity. Wild stands of latahar tree found in Eastern Nepal and eastward up to Malaysia are being depleted, with an absence of its sapling layer.

Tree density has increased, but with an overwhelming share of sal. The forest is therefore homogenising. Even old growth stands of sal have been modified to make them look like a plantation forest. Healthy forests are supposed to be mixed species, but the story of Nepal’s community forestry is one of selective protection of certain species to the detriment of others.

A clean monoculture forest that looks like a plantation of exotic species is not what a community forest is supposed to be. Local people rely on forests daily for diverse products, with fodder being the most important. On typical day this spring, more than 2,000 people entered the Jalthal forest mostly for fodder and firewood.

In the monsoon, over 500 people visit the forest everyday just to collect fiddlehead fern and other leafy vegetables.We found that people entered the forest for 12 types of products ranging from mushrooms to medicinal plants, edibles to timber.

A ‘scientifically managed’ forest does not support these needs, and prioritises timber species for special protection. Liana like bhorla and bebre lahara and small trees like khasreto are not seen much anymore. Important fodder trees like kutmero, sadan and khanyu have declined. In fact, besides sal, there is a proliferation of eucalyptus and teak.

Community forests are designed to support local needs, while managing and improving the vegetation. Given their multifunctional nature, Nepal’s community forests were supposed to promote diversity and coexistence of multiple species. Higher diversity entails wider ecosystem services and resilience.

Managing forests only for timber overlooks the dependence of local people for a wider spectrum of ecosystem services. Besides timber, high value introduced medicinal plants are also the focus of forest management like lemon grass and citronella, turmeric oil to bio briquette, rhododendron juice to paper plates.

Promoting enterprise and generating income is not a bad thing in itself, but this cannot be done at the expense of protecting an indigenous forest. I have seen a dozen or so community forests where local people have benefited from these new forest products, but only from daily wages, not to fulfil their traditional needs. Promotion of fodder trees, for example, would have been much more useful.

How we understand a forest shapes our management objectives, decisions and routine activities.What was the original goal of Nepal’s community forestry program? Why have forests in the Tarai and elsewhere adopted similar management methods irrespective of local conditions and needs?

Out definition of a forest seems to be restricted to having as many high value trees and medicinal plants as possible. There is rarely any attention paid to preserving biodiversity. The status of a forest does not just depend on a tree census, but past management of community sal forests focused mainly on maintaining or increasing tree density and cover. A ‘successful’ forest was one with increased density of sal, overlooking the forest as a complex ecosystem.

Preferential protection of sal is an outcome of our policies and worldview on forests that treats a forest only as an economic resource, not an ecological treasure. The result is promotion of only high value species, be it timber or herbs, and overlooks wider spectrum of forest ecosystem services.

Hariyo Ban Nepal ko Dhan was a popular slogan in Nepal’s forestry development in the 1980s. The word dhan ended up monetising forests. A new motto now is Ban Marfat Samriddi (prosperity through forests)and this is the thinking that has turned forests into a resource to be mined for timber.

Nepal’s decade-long scientific forest management initiative was finally abandoned last year, but not before it hailed regeneration density in logged areas as a success, even when it was found that the original forest had been replaced by sal saplings. Treated blocks were poorer in species diversity compared to the original forests.

The original conservation-oriented approach of forest management in community forests focused on retaining trees, and increasing crown and tree density. But the increase in density of the common most structural species was an outcome of the preferential protection by both Forest Department and user groups.

A native sal forest is truly diverse in its associated flora and fauna with at least three vertical layers of vegetation. The canopy later has the taller trees, medium-sized trees make up the sub-canopy layer, and then there are shrubs and grasses in the forest floor which changes with the seasons.

In tropical forests, liana, vines and climbers make up another important component, with some of them woody, massive and long lived – mainly in sal riverine forests. Old growth trees also support orchids and ferns with some sal supporting as many as seven species of orchids. Some trees have up to four species of ferns.

Old growth forests are also rich habitats for birds, amphibians, reptiles and many insects like beetle and spiders. Old trees have cavities in the trunks and branches which shelter for animals like monitor lizards, owls, wood peckers, parrots and hornbills. Higher up in the food chain are the bigger mammals. Diversity in vegetation entails diversity in fauna as well.

Read also: Protecting Nepal’s forests from fires, Dev Narayan Mandal

Nepal’s forests are multipurpose, and people depend on them for a range of direct and indirect products. A sal is itself a multipurpose tree. A mixed and diverse forest not only delivers multiple services we need, but also has higher resilience to cope with climate uncertainty and plays a vital role in meeting food security.

Today’s high value timber forest could not be further removed from the concept of what a natural forest should be. But it also has to be said that without community management, even these forests would probably be degraded and encroached.

Our forests need to reflect the need to adapt to the climate emergency, and not just meet the economic needs of communities and the nation. We should build on Nepal’s community forestry success to restore natural woodlands.

We therefore need to reimagine our forests. How an ecologist regards a forest is different from how an economist sees it. Nevertheless, sustainable forest management can balance diversity with meeting the need for revenue.

This means conserving a forest with original biodiversity that also meets local needs. Such a forest would be diverse enough to sustain a wide spectrum of biota. Maintaining diversity does not cost more, in fact it protects Nepal’s natural wealth for this and future generations.

Lila Nath Sharma has PhD in ecology from University of Bergen Norway and is with ForestAction Nepal.