Reviving Nepal's community forestry success story

After restoring forest cover, Nepal should now prioritise harvesting and regeneration of forests to raise living standards

All photos: HEMANT OJHA

Nepal's community forestry success story has been praised internationally. Other developing countries have tried to emulate it, and in November even The New York Times noticed this success, running a story titled ‘How Nepal Grew Back Its Forests’.

The Times reported: ‘Large swaths of national forest land were handed to local communities, and millions of volunteers … were recruited to protect and renew their local forests, an effort that has earned praise from environmentalists around the world.' it went to cite emerging issues including increased wildlife and rural migration.

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However, what The New York Times missed out on was how community forestry is now facing a multi-faceted and systemic crisis from dysfunctional local groups to regulatory recentralisation that I observed during my recent fieldwork in Kavre, Sindhupalchok and Lamjung districts. Kavre and Sindhupalchok were where Nepal's community forestry concept was first piloted in the 1980s, with support from an Australian aid program.

“No one attends the meetings for the community forest anymore. The forest has become a jungle of weeds and unwanted shrubs, increasing the risk of fire,” a community forestry leader in Kavre told me. “Twenty years ago, people used to pay for small tree branches and even leaves, but today, people are not interested in receiving any forest products even when I offer free delivery.”

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This 80-year-old Kavre resident has experienced a systemic institutional decline in his community forest, so much so that he is the only member of the village committee running and keeping the group afloat.

In another community forest in Kavre, mature trees had fallen and were lying on the forest floor, left there for months or perhaps even years.

“These trees have good commercial value in the market, but the forest user group is not interested in investing time and effort to clear complex regulatory requirements for sale,” explained Sarada Tiwari of ForestAction Nepal. “And they don’t need fuelwood as they buy LPG from local shops.”

Indeed, in almost every site I visited, I found that community forests had become dense jungles, increasing the fire hazard. Restrictive regulations prevent communities from harvesting trees, leading to a decline in the interest of local user groups in managing forests. As a result, good market value trees are left dying.

After 40 years of glorious history, community forestry in Nepal is facing a new generation of problems which threaten to undermine past gains.

Perhaps the primary source of this crisis is the significant shift in people’s dependence on forests. With increased road networks and the flow of remittance from family members working abroad, people have shifted from using fuel wood to fossil fuels.  With the decline in farming, the use of other forest products has also significantly dropped. But this new forest-people relationship is yet to be reflected in plans and policies of community forestry.

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Policymakers in Kathmandu believe that community forestry is mainly a source of subsistence livelihoods, a proposition that was true two decades ago. That is why they continue to impose restrictions on harvesting and marketing of forest products.

A forest official told me: “We are careful not to encourage commercial harvesting of timber from community forest areas”.

This is what happens in practice, despite formal laws being open to marketing forestry products side-by-side with what is seen as progressive community forestry policies at the federal level. Nepal’s Forest Law 1993 was one of the world’s strongest forest legislations to devolve power to local communities willing to take control of an area of forest in their locality. The same spirit continues through the Forest Act 2019.

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However, in actual practice, regulatory enforcement hardly follows the policies and legal provisions in letter and spirit. A senior community forestry activist once said: “In Nepal, forest laws are undermined by rules; rules by working procedures, working procedures by written notices, and written notices by oral instructions. How can you then comply with all of them?”

What’s worrying is that even community forestry activists seem to have an orthodox attitude that denies more active and sustainable use of community forests.

“We are worried that some projects aim to promote marketing of forest products which can jeopardise community forestry,” said one community forestry activist working at the national level. He seemed to have settled on the idealistic narrative of community forestry, and believed it was not necessary to think of ways in which communities could benefit from the growing market values of forest products.

Even when trees are harvested as per the sustainable use plans and with necessary approvals, the wider public and the media portray it as destruction of protected woodlands. This has prompted forest officials to take a risk-averse approach, further reinforcing regulatory restrictions in marketing surplus products.

To be sure, felling trees may sound synonymous with the act of deforestation. But our research has reconfirmed some of the existing scientific knowledge and community wisdom that it is possible to undertake sustainable forest harvesting without jeopardising the forest ecology. Indeed, active use of forest can also protect the forests from fire hazards and foster good ecosystem health.

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Proven techniques exist to facilitate forest regeneration after harvesting mature trees. However, operational regulations and the mindset of policymakers and community leaders that forests are for subsistence farmers, prevent innovation for more active and equitable use.

Nepal’s community forests are an important natural capital for locals. Forests make up nearly 45% of Nepal’s land area and there are over 500 commercially tradable products, with 150 species already in trade. Across the country, over 22,000 forest user groups manage 34% of the total forest area, but only a small fraction of community forests are under active management.

Yet Nepal is spending billions to import timber because domestic forests are under-utilised. Clearly, local communities as well as the national economy cannot afford this crisis in community forestry.

There is no one solution to tackle this impending crisis. The absence of marketing is not the only problem. What is required is a holistic socio-ecological solution that empowers communities to take action, with incentives accruing to them as per the ecologically sustainable levels of natural capital use.

In a research project funded by the Australian Centre for Agricultural Research, we are analysing the political and economic roots of this crisis to inform an exploration of actionable ways to revitalise community forestry institutions at the local level. Our focus is on Kavre and Sindhupalchok where we are also tracing historical evolution of community forestry from the days of Australian project in the 80s.

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But a problem of this scale is not solvable by a research initiative alone. It is crucial to foster critical dialogue among policymakers, communities and research groups. Every aspect of community forestry should be brought in the table for new policy discussion – from resource rights to local organisational models, from financial governance to social equity, and from business models to market linkages. How local governments and community groups can work together should be a key dialogue agenda.

But dialogue without practice-based insights and research-based evidence is pointless. Moreover, change cannot happen without key policy actors appreciating the changing context of community forestry.

Hemant Ojha is associate professor at the University of Canberra, and also an adjunct associate professor at Australian National University, Australia.

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