Community forestry, as it is practiced today, is a result of the government's willingness to learn from its past mistakes. Also, traditional management practices helped the government achieve its goal
Man Bahadur Chettri of Sarang Kot is aware of the gradual plunder of the forests and the evolution of cfm in his country. "For the rulers of Nepal, forests were an infinite source of revenue," he says. The strategy varied from ruler to ruler. But there was only one agenda: commercial exploitation of forests.
Forests were cleared for revenue generation, both by selling timber and by converting it to agricultural land, which fetched land tax. Villagers were cutting firewood for cooking and heating purposes and farmers were clearing forests land for agriculture. Livestock pressure on forests was also increasing. The result: forest was moving away from the villagers. Accessible forest area was decreasing at a threatening rate. In 1985-86, the total accessible forest land was 5.8 million ha. It was reduced to 4.6 million ha in 1992-93 and in 1994-95 the figure plummeted to 3.1 million ha.
There was no forest regulation -- the population was small and forests were in plenty. Besides revenue generation, the forest was also an instrument for appeasing friends of the king. By the 1950s, under a tradition called 'birta', one-third of the total forest cover was distributed to the kin and friends of the king as a gift for their service. However, in the remote areas, due to inaccessibility and lack of infrastructure, forests continued to be controlled by the villagers.
The terai forests continued to act as a buffer against British invasion from India. But, in 1941, the king allowed the Indian timber traders to harvest the sal forest for British railways and for defence purposes.
The 1960s saw large-scale migration to the terai from the hills, which was highly-degraded by then. Consequently, agricultural yield had also gone down. Distress migration continued till the 1970s. One estimate says that during the 1970s, around 10,000 families settled in the terai every year. "The government encouraged this settlement as it was expanding their tax scope," says Narayan Kazishrestha.
In the 1950s, when the Shah kings came to power, they started experimenting with limited democracy. Their first major policy decision was to nationalise the forests in 1957. The Private Forest Nationalisation Act was passed to 'prevent destruction of forest wealth and to ensure adequate protection, maintenance, and utilisation of privately-owned forests'. This gave absolute forest rights to the government and alienated the local community from the forest. "This decision was primarily to check forest depletion in the terai . However, it was adopted nationwide," says Balkrishna Khanal, deputy-director general of the department of forests. "But nationalisation resulted in further deforestation as people lost ownership over the forests, which they once nurtured even without any help from the government," admits K B Shrestha.
The Private Forest Nationalisation Act was followed by the Forest Act of 1961, a result of the political change in 1960 and the creation of the party-less panchayat systems for administration. This was the first major step towards the community's participation in forest management. It demarcated the forest into national, community, religion, leasehold and private forests. Besides, it made provisions for handing over forests to the panchayats for management. "However, the legislation could not be implemented due to lack of infrastructure and humanpower," says Rabi Bahadur Bista.
A few powerful villagers, who monopolised the management of forests, had a stranglehold over the panchayats . They discouraged active community participation. Also a panchayat , as a unit, was large and consisted of many villages. Thus, there was a problem of allocating the right kind of forest to legitimate users. In the terai , despite this legislation, the government continued encouraging migration. To exercise more control over the forest, the government came up with yet another legislation, the Forest Preservation Act in 1967, which was followed by the National Forest Plan in 1976. But things only went from bad to worse.
A 1978 World Bank report, known popularly as 'doom and gloom' scenario, predicted absolute deforestation in the hills by 1993 and in the terai by 2000. More and more studies predicted the death of Nepal's forests. It was then that the county woke up to the problem of deforestation.
Many experts suggested cfm as a solution because Nepal does not have the resources to maintain a vast forest department. Also, forests in remote areas were in any case being nurtured by the villagers. Keeping all these factors in mind, in 1978, the government introduced the Panchayat Forest Regulation and Panchayat Protected Forest Regulation, which redefined the role of the department of forests and limited its function to technical assistance to the panchayat s.
The 1980s saw the real legislative changes taking place. First the sixth five-year plan (1981-85) gave importance to cfm to protect, conserve and use forest resources. To facilitate the implementation of the policy declaration, the 1982 Decentralisation Act and the 1984 Decentralisation Regulation were adopted. But the government soon realised that the system of panchayat s managing forests was not working, so the concept of fug s was considered.
During this period of the 1980s, there were a lot of afforestation programmes, funded by foreign donors, being carried out in various parts of the country. However, says Kazishrestha, "The programme was a farce... if you calculate the total area reportedly afforested, it adds up to more than the total geographical area of Nepal." Besides, the management aspect was never in the agenda. So it was barely helping the people.
On the one hand, the government was trying to give up its control over forests. The donors, meanwhile, were pushing their agenda of letting communities manage the forests, says a foreign aid agency official. Thus, the government started working on a Master Plan for Community and Private Forestry Sector, which was aimed at giving absolute power to the people.
In 1987, a national workshop, the first of its kind, was held in Kathmandu to deliberate on the issue. This was followed by a national exercise to get a consensus on the workshop's decision. "For three months, everyday 60-70 villagers and forest officials were briefed on the Master Plan, sentence by sentence," recalls Bista.
Finally, in 1989, Nepal adopted the Master Plan becoming the first Asia-Pacific country to chart out forest management plans for two decades -- 1989-2001. "Forests near villages will be managed with the villager's participation... The ancient rights of the people to collect fuelwood and fodder will be regulated according to the decision and management plans of the users. The villagers themselves will thus defend their property against illegal exploitation," states the Master Plan.
However, when the Plan was adopted, the field staff were confused as to how and where to start the process, says K B Shrestha. A need was felt to develop an operational guideline. The government issued the Operational Guidelines for Community Forestry Programme in 1990 but it was considered too sophisticated. Finally, in 1993, the government enacted the Forest Act 1993, which simplified the process and gave a legal status to fug s (see box: Key features of cfm ).
The Forest Act was again followed by the Forest Regulation in 1995, which set procedural guidelines for the implementation of the Act. By 1997, the fug s were given total powers over the use of forest produce. They were even given the authority to draw up the forest management plan and the option of spending the surplus amount -- from funds meant for cfm -- on village development activities such as building trail roads.
The department of forests also started training programmes to equip the communities with the necessary skills and knowledge. Meanwhile, at the fug- level, they started organising themselves without the help of the forestry staff. They formally organised themselves at the range post-level (lowest forestry administrative field unit) and at the district and national-level into the Federation of Community Forest-Users of Nepal (see box: An organised front ).
From the reign of the kings to post-democracy, Nepal has indeed set an example on people's management of forest resources. The move to empower grassroots people, which got a headstart after the 1978 World Bank report, has continued unabated. "Though Nepal is a small nation, we had the bigger task of managing the forest resources, which is crucial as a majority of people are dependent on forests. The decision of adopting the present model of forest management came after a thorough analysis of our earlier efforts. Democracy played a key role in making people aware of their rights," says former forest minister Sidda Raj Oja (see table: Step by step ).
The priority accorded to cfm is so high in the Master Plan that 47 per cent of all investments on the forestry sector are to be earmarked for community forest development. During the financial year 1997-98, the government set aside $2.9 million -- 46.8 per cent of the total budget -- for forest development. "The government has shown the required commitment for cfm ," says Anupam Bhatia, regional co-ordinator of International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development ( icimod) .
One reason why the government brought about such a legislation is because "we needed a national programme, a set of guidelines", says Rabi Bahadur Bista. Furthermore, adds Anupam Bhatia, "Nepal doesn't have a colonial set-up and its forest department doesn't have a rigid professional hierarchy. So they were more open for change."
What gave a fillip to the government's initiative is the traditional community management methods that many villages still practised. "People were managing the forest. So it was easier for us to hand it over to them," says forest secretary Bista. The topography and habitat pattern also helped a lot in the success of the project in the hills. A traditional hill settlement is surrounded by agricultural land, which is then enclosed by a patch of accessible forest. "When the legislation came into being, it was just a change in legal status for them," says Steve Hunt of nacrmp .
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