Protecting Nepal’s parks by saving buffer zones

Next generation buffer zone policies will help conserve the country’s natural diversity for the future

Nepal has successfully doubled the number of its tiger population. Photo: WWF

Nepal’s success in protecting endangered wildlife and their habitats is unquestionably impressive. It leads the world in innovative policies that promote community participation in conservation, such as community forestry, conservation areas like Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP), and national park buffer zones.

Nepal’s forest cover has nearly doubled from 26% in 1992 to 45% in 2016. The population of rhinos have increased from 100 in the 1960s to 752 in 2021, and tigers from 121 in 2010 to about 240 last year. These successes have happened despite high human population density, which makes them even more astounding.

We can attribute much of Nepal’s success to a ‘sandwich’ of innovative policies from above and community action from below, which have made the country a role model for biodiversity conservation around the world.

Protected area buffer zone policies enacted in the mid-1990s incorporated communities in globally unprecedented ways. They set aside 30-50% of park income to locals for conservation and livelihood activities and made provisions for community forestry in the buffer zone.

But these policies would not have been effective without people’s support for protected areas and environmental conservation. Even before buffer zone policies took effect, people appreciated benefits from protected areas.

In the mid-1990s, I surveyed communities in the buffer zone of Bardia National Park about their perceptions. More than half of the people said the park benefited them in a multitude of ways. People described the area as beautiful, green, and good to see.

They thought it was useful to conserve the forest and wildlife, that the protected area improved the climate and increased water for crops. They appreciated resources they could extract from the park, such as thatch, fuelwood, fruits, and vegetables.

Today, people there are even more likely to perceive benefits. In a 2015 study, more than 90% of people felt the Park was important for a healthy environment and for future generations. Two-thirds said it was essential for the conservation of wildlife.

But the buffer zone policies are not perfect.

In the 1990s, when park-people programs first began in Nepal, the primary goal was to reduce locals’ dependency on parks by improving their livelihoods. To achieve this goal, buffer zone policies set aside half of the community funds for development and income generation activities. Development funds went to physical infrastructure, such as roads and buildings, and income generation funds went to trainings like vegetable farming and motorcycle repair.

But these types of activities are not directly related to conservation. During my research in the 1990s, when buffer zone projects were first piloted, local residents around Bardia National Park questioned how sewing training for women and health posts were connected to conservation of the park.

The project-sponsored health post was even perceived as detrimental because it competed with the local government health post. Thirty years later, while visiting Chitwan National Park’s buffer zone in January this year, I heard the same sentiments.

People questioned why buffer zone money was going to development projects with no direct link to conservation instead of community forests and community-based anti-poaching units.

Around the world, alternative livelihoods are the go-to activity for communities when it comes to biodiversity conservation projects. However, the main benefit of livelihood activities is often improved community relations. There is little evidence that they are successful in terms of increasing people’s income or in decreasing pressure on protected areas. They can even cause more natural resource extraction.

And, unfortunately, the focus on increasing income has limited our appreciation of the ways that protected areas help communities. Increasingly, studies are showing that, contrary to the common belief that protected areas cause or exacerbate poverty, the benefits from protected areas actually translate into less poverty in Nepal and other places like Bolivia, Costa Rica and Thailand.

The underlying problem for communities in protected areas is not poverty, but that they do not have sufficient opportunities to participate in conservation and management. Focusing on providing ways for people to participate will improve livelihoods that complement conservation.

Now, as Nepal modifies its buffer zone regulations, it has an opportunity to prioritise activities that strengthen the links between communities and conservation. This will create sustainable livelihoods in the broader sense of improved health, water, climate, and nature resources. Following are some recommendations that will strengthen the park-people relationship:

  1. Buffer zone funds should not be used for regular government activities but rather support conservation activities that directly help communities protect habitat and wildlife.

This means prioritising community forests, community-based anti-poaching units, human-wildlife conflict mitigation, and support for forest and natural resource- dependent communities, who are often the poorest of the poor and the most marginalised. This may also help depoliticise buffer zone management committees, a common criticism of the current system.

  1. Support for forest and natural resource-dependent communities should prioritise the sustainability of traditional livelihood activities, especially for the most marginalised communities. Policies should support and enable the conditions to incorporate people’s traditional activities into the conservation of natural resources and serve as a bridge for these communities to alternative livelihoods.

For example, buffer zone funds could be used to create and support river stretch conservation user groups, just as they support community forest groups.

  1. Buffer zone policies should have mechanisms to incorporate local and traditional ecological knowledge into habitat and wildlife management. For example, water and grassland management are two increasingly critical issues in protected areas of Nepal, about which people with traditional and ecological knowledge, such as Tharu, Sonoha, Maje, Bote, and Musahar know a great deal. They can provide invaluable insights and perspectives into pressing conservation needs.
  2. Buffer zone policies should be consistent with national policy guidelines and community forestry guidelines regarding inclusion and pro-poor activities. For example, community forestry policies require registration of both male and female head of households, 50% women participation on committees, and require that 35% of Community Forest User Group (CFUG) funds be allocated to pro-poor activities.

Buffer zone policies should also have similar provisions. In addition, there should be equal representation of households in buffer zone management groups. For example, one household in each user group should have the same voting power as any other household in any other user group.

This means user groups should represent the same number of people across the buffer zone. Currently, while a user group must have at least 15 households, some have up to 100, but each user group, regardless of size, has two delegates who choose user committees members.

Our survival as a species depends on policies and communities everywhere in the world preserving our environment and its biological diversity. Nepal leads the world in bringing communities and conservation together. It will be interesting to see where Nepal will lead the world next with its revised buffer zone policies.

Teri D Allendorf, PhD, is the executive director of Community Conservation Inc. and an Honorary Fellow in Dept of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA.

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