Nepal can up forest cover to 45% by 2030

Chitlang, Makwanpur. Photo: KUNDA DIXIT

Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba announced at COP26 last week that Nepal would increase forest cover to 45% of its area by 2030 when he along with the leaders of 124 countries signed the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use pledging to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation.

Presently just over 37% of Nepal's area is covered in forest, and the country's successful track record in reversing deforestation and championing community-based forestry makes this an area where Nepal can leverage its past experience to achieve the new target in the next nine years.

Killian Dumont and Rastraraj Bhandari spoke with Giri Raj Panta, a Forest Officer at the Sub-division Forest Office in Bardaghat, Nawalparasi West, about the opportunities, needs and challenges of forest conservation and water management in Nepal in light of the new targets.

Nepali Times: How did your career in community forestry begin? 

Giri Raj Panta: I grew up on a farm surrounded by trees and nature, and as I got older I was exposed to the movement for community forestry in Nepal. This inspired me to get into natural resource management as a career.

Community forestry was just beginning when I was a young civil servant. I was initially stationed in Gulmi district, and my job was to just plant trees. Soon, I was sent to lead the forest department in the adjoining district of Baglung after their forest ranger was ousted for being corrupt.

The working environment there was very hostile, and to address this issue, I worked extensively with the local stakeholders, developed user groups to listen to the needs of the villagers, and started distributing seedlings for free. This was a need-based, people-centric development model that ran counter to the more traditional forest-centric development in Nepal. But it was the right path forward for community forestry.

Over the course of my career, I have helped plant thousands of tree saplings, and I’m proud to see that these seedlings have now grown into lush forests across the country. That’s what I love about forests and this work. It is fascinating how quickly the trees you planted with your own hands grow into vast forests which will live for hundreds of years.

What was the key to Nepal’s success in community forestry?

When I first started out, community forestry had a lot of support from international development partners and included a participatory and bottom-up approach by the local people crucial for those relying on forests for their livelihood.

At that time, some deforestation was inevitable because many people relied on trees for fuel and income. But times have changed, and alternative fuel sources are available at cheaper prices now. Society relies more on electricity than firewood, and the government has also come up with stronger policies to regulate timber.

Collaborative forest management approaches like forest watchers, fencing, rotational grazing and awareness campaigns are efficient, while migration from rural to urban areas has eased pressure on Nepal’s forests. The pledge by Prime Minister Deuba at COP26 is very promising, and we need to adopt an integrated approach for sustainable forest management.

Tree samplings in Bardghat, Nepa.

What are some of the second generation problems community forestry is facing in Nepal now?

Deforestation is declining and there is now a clear vision for what we must do to protect our forests. But there are still improvements to be made. The bureaucratic process, for example, is difficult to understand, slow and complicated.

In the past, the Division Forest Office controlled monitoring and accountability, but now it is in the hands of the courts which involves more actors and allows for corruption. Moreover, the courts sometimes interpret forest laws differently, and the confusion on whether forestry or criminal law should take precedence opens a major loophole for those who wish to exploit our natural resources unsustainably.

Similarly, policies are not well-designed to manage privately owned forests. Not all clauses in the regulations are equally implemented in all regions. And there is no assurance that policies are implemented in the way they were designed. Too many rules and regulations can be confusing and contradictory.

What can we do to resolve these issues and meet the 2030 target?

We can start by creating a clear roadmap that lays out the roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders. We need to streamline the legal process for holding illegal fellers and timber poachers accountable. The current process is cumbersome, costly and unreliable.

As for privately owned forest, what we need for the owners is incentive, not just command and control. I hope that the target to achieve the 45% forest cover also includes privately owned forests in Nepal.

In addition, it is also important to operationalise and liquidate forestry credit, and explore innovative performance-based financial products. This way, we can establish financial incentives to protect the forests and meet the target set at Glasgow.

In March 2021, the Government of Nepal and the World Bank signed the Emission Reductions Payment Agreement for the Emission Reductions Program in the Tarai Arc Landscape which is a good example in this context.

Forestry Training Program conducted in Nawalparasi district.

Forestry is linked to water security in Nepal. What kind of approach do we need to reduce the impact of climate crisis?

Forestry, watershed management, and biodiversity conservation are all interlinked in a delicate ecosystem. Deforestation leads to soil erosion, which leads to increased dangers of landslides and floods. Ponds and rivers are the lifeblood of forests, and the roots of trees -- including soil-binder species such as shrubs, ground flora -- prevent the rivers from carrying away the soil.

When trees die out, there is a decline in water sources. This is because forests help recharge springs, which in turn provide drinking water for wildlife and humans. The effects are visible even in weather patterns and seasonal droughts.

Though there is a growing understanding of the need for an integrated approach to forest management and water security in Nepal, the process remains ad-hoc. We need a more institutionalised approach to bringing these two crucial conservation goals together, as one cannot be achieved without the other. The forestry target pledged at COP26 is an opportunity look at these two issues carefully and take joint action.