Community forest management THE NEPALESE EXPERIENCE

Nepal government decided to hand over certain forest areas to rural communities.

 
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015 | 21:11:47 PM

community forest management THE NEPALESE EXPERIENCE

In 1993, the Nepal government decided to hand over certain forest areas to rural communities. Six years later, 8,559 such communities are managing 621,942 hectares of forest land in the country. They are bent on accomplishing what the government has not been able to do -- regenerate the fast-depleting forest cover. While government-protected forests go from bad to worse, those managed by communities are getting a new lease of life. Unfortunately, a recent government circular threatens to bring the story of Nepal's community forest management (CFM) to an abrupt end. Aimed at the terai region, where the government has shown reluctance in promulgating CFM, the circular was to stop commercial logging. But forest bureaucrats have asked communities all over the country to stop all forest-related activities. Now that the people have decided to fight back, the government is showing signs of withdrawing the circular. Despite such conflicts, Nepal's 'big brother' India has a lot to learn from community forestry in the small Himalayan kingdom.
A report by Richard Mahapatra

Reaping the benefits

For 30 years, 60-year-old Gyan Bahadur Karki, along with his fellow villagers, has been protecting a 24-hectare (ha) patch of forest in the vicinity of his village Kahnu, near Pokhra. He has been sourcing his fodder and fuelwood needs from the forests since then. "But there is a big difference between the past and the present," he says. "Earlier the forest belonged to the government so it was illegal, now it has been handed over to us."

The government handed over the degraded forest to the community in 1997. Thereafter, the villagers adopted rules and regulation set by their forest-users' group ( fug ) committee, comprising traditional users of forest produce. For the 146-member households living in Kahnu village, this change in status is a new-found asset. "At present, the forest provides us with a continuous supply of grass. When we harvest the forest later, it will fetch us hard cash," says Gyan Bahadur Karki, who is also a member of the village's Jaykot fug committee.

"The money will be used to get drinking water," says Bimal Basnet, a member of the committee. In its annual plan, the committee has also mentioned spending extra money on community activities like widening trail roads and taking up commercial plantation of bamboo and cardamom.

Every year, each member of the fug contributes approximately us $3 (Nepali Rs 200) towards the management of the forest. Two forest guards have been employed to keep a watch on the forests. The forest is kept open for only two months in a year, during which time local people are allowed access to collect fuelwood. "Even though it doesn't take care of our annual needs, we manage with whatever we collect during this period," says Shankar Karki, another member of the fug committee. Despite this, he says, there have been no instances of norms being violated.

The villagers see a great future in the forest. Since last year's monsoon, three streams, which had dried up, have started flowing again. "Villagers can see the fruits of their labour so they are getting involved more intensely," says Tika Karki, founder member of the fug committee (see interview: CFM has changed the concept of community life).

The people of another village near Pokhra, Sarang Kot, also see a great future ahead of them. Famous for the spectacular view of the famous Machapuchare (Fish Tail) mountain, Sarang Kot is a densely-forested hill. "It wasn't like this earlier," says Man Bahadur Chettri, a member of the village's fug , named Aushadi Thotne after a medicinal plant. Since 1990, 52 households took up the task of rejuvenating a 14-ha patch of land. Today, it has reached harvesting stage. "The forest means everything to us. It gives us fodder, fuelwood and leaf litter. It's a perfect home," says Sita Chettri, deputy chairperson of the fug committee.

The villagers meet on the first Saturday of every month to assess reforestation activities. Grazing is banned. All fug members are entitled to a tree each year, for which they have to apply to the committee. Their need is then verified and, if granted permission, the villager concerned is allowed to cut a tree. The harvesting is also done in a sustainable manner. In Sarang Kot, for instance, the fug has divided the forest into five parts. "The fug decides which part should be harvested or which one needs close monitoring depending on the rate of regeneration," says Nauraj Chettri, a teacher in the local school and the treasurer of the committee.

With the regeneration of forests, birds and a few other animals have been spotted in the Sarang Kot forest. "We are seeing wildlife in the forest after a gap of two decades," says Nauraj Chettri. To protect the animals, the committee has enacted a set of rules. Punishment for poaching is decided according to the species. The committee penalises the poacher for the first and second time. But, if caught for the third time, the poacher is handed over to the police.

CFM at its best
Kahnu and Sarang Kot are two examples of Nepal's community forest movement. In the face of rapid deforestation, the Nepalese government is handing over all accessible forests -- irrespective of political and administrative boundaries -- to traditional forest-users for their protection and management.

In 1989, Nepal adopted the Master Plan for Community and Private Forestry Sector, which strongly advocated the participation of communities in forest management. In keeping with the recommendations made in the Master Plan, the 1993 Forest Act defined fug s as 'autonomous corporate bodies' and accorded cfm maximum priority.

Under the Act, once the users decide to protect the forest, they can request the district forest officer ( dfo ) to hand over a particular area of the forest. The dfo then carries out a door-to-door survey to check their dependence on the forests. On behalf of the government, the dfo secedes control over the forest for 'perpetuity'. The users form fug s which, in turn, draw up a five-year plan to manage, protect and share the forest produce. "At no point does the government interfere except when the community demands it. It's just like marrying off your daughter," says Rabi Bahadur Bista, the forest secretary who was instrumental in drafting the legislation on community forestry.

The villagers can sell the forest produce and spend the money on community activities without any tax liability. "There is a growing trend of forest earnings being spent on development activities like getting drinking water and widening of the trail roads," says Biswa Bahadur Adhikari, the district development committee ( ddc ) chairperson of Tanahu district. The government doesn't share the earnings from the forest but expects the community to spend at least 25 per cent of it on further development of the forest. fug s have also formed sub-committees to effectively manage the forests (see box: Institutional set-up ).

In all community forests, villagers either protect the forest themselves or they appoint guards to do the work. The appointed forest guards are paid by fug members and are also given access to forest produce. At a general meeting of the village, the users decide when to go to the forest to collect dead trees for fuelwood, while fodder and grass come free at any time. "The management plan that communities have drawn up speaks of their capability to manage forest resources," says Bhim Prasad Shrestha, general secretary of the Federation of Community Forest-Users of Nepal ( fecofun ), a legally-registered national-level federation of all fug s in the country .

Since 1993, the government has handed over 621,942 hectares (ha) of forest land to 8,559 fug s, which are spread over 74 districts across the country (see diagram: Factfile ). Though highly-degraded when handed over, the community forests that have now sprung up are appreciated for their density. The only difference between government and community forests now is the rate of growth. While government forests still face degradation, community forests are becoming denser by the day.

"The loss of forests was a deadly blow to the people living in the hills," says Tika Karki. So, when they were given the forests, the villagers responded enthusiastically. Economic benefits came their way and the quality of forest improved rapidly. "One can see the difference between the community forests and other forests," admits K B Shrestha, director-general of community and private forests under the ministry of forests and soil conservation.

"Handing over forest areas to the communities was a decision taken keeping in mind the socio-economic needs of Nepal. Being a mountain ecology, Nepal cannot afford to lose its forests," says G P Koirala, former prime minister and currently president of the ruling Nepali Congress party.

In the future, the ministry of forests and soil conservation has decided to hand over an estimated 3.5 million ha of forest land (61 per cent of Nepal's total forest area). In keeping with the target, on an average, 1,000 new fug s are formed to wrest control of forests from the government every year.

Earning from forests
Last year, during Dussera, villages in the hills of Nepal were as usual full of chingra s (Tibetan sheep), especially brought from the Nepal-Tibet border to be slaughtered during the festival. But there was a difference. They were a stall-fed flock. "We don't allow grazing in the forest," says Man Bahadur Chettri. His village, Sarang Kot, has some 3,000 chingra s, "but not a single one of them has even mistakenly entered the forest," he says. The villagers do not mind spending an extra two hours every day collecting fodder for these animals.

"Most users are happy to give their time free of cost when their responsibility is to manage the forest," says a report of the Nepal Australia Community Research Management Project ( nacrmp ), which is funding cfm in some districts.

According to the nacrmp report, shrublands and grasslands are being converted to more productive categories of forest land. It shows that during 1978-90, in Dhankota district, forest areas had increased by 2.3 per cent. Similarly, satellite photographs of Palchok and Khabre Palanchok districts show a significant increase in land under forests in less than 15 years (see diagram: Then and now ).

The people of Chaubas fug in Lalitpur district, which was handed over a totally degraded forest in 1992, now owns several hundred hectares of mature plantation producing sufficient pinewood to run a sawmill. The sawmill is a joint venture between Chaubas and four neighbouring fug s, one of which supplies logs. According to nacrmp , in 1988-99, the five fug s have earned $24,445 (Nepali Rs 16,74,000) and generated local employment worth $6,571 (Nepali Rs 4,50,000).

In almost all community forest areas, villagers are now self-sufficient in fodder and fuelwood. "Earlier, the scarcity of timber was so great that, at times, we even used our door frame as fuelwood... there was no forest cover," recalls Rajindra Pokhrel, a member of Jhapa district's community forestry programme. Today, he says, "People are not only self-sufficient in fuelwood and fodder, they also earn more than $2,92,056 (Nepali Rs 2 crore) annually by auctioning fuelwood and timber in the district."

Thulaban fug of Lalitpur district has been selling Christmas trees to hotels in Kathmandu every year. The money earned is used for village development like repairing schools and supplying drinking water. Similarly, Sathimure fug in Karkitar village, also in Lalitpur district, has spent $2,044 (Nepali Rs 1,40,000) for irrigation purposes and getting potable water to the village, while Baghmaney fug in Dang district is funding a secondary school from the money it earns from auction of forest produce.

Even areas where community-protected forests are yet to deliver economic returns, the trend is positive. The forests are reaching harvesting stage in some villages and fug s are already drawing up plans on how to spend the money earned from sale of timber and other forest produce. "Being at the helm of affairs, villagers are methodically planning to earn from the forests," says Narayan Kazishrestha facilitator of the South Asia Forests, Tree and People Programme, a Food and Agricultural Organisation project.

Community forestry has set in a cyclic mode of development. Since the fug s spend money earned from forest for development activities, more villagers (even those who do not depend on forest) are committing themselves to forest protection and management activities. For instance, when the fug uses its funds to get drinking water to the village, everyone benefits from it. Says Biswa Bahadur Adhikari, "Due to this, there is no conflict of interest between forest-users and non-users." Yugesh Pradhanang, who supervises United Nations Development Programme's rural energy development programme in the village, sums it up: " cfm has definitely brought back the community feeling among the villagers." This is the reason why community forests are becoming denser, adds Bhim Prasad Shrestha.

fug s are becoming the hub of community activities and are also setting the development agenda of villages. " cfm instills a sense of ownership over the resources," says Steve Hunt, team leader of nacrmp . In fact, the government has also started involving communities in all its integrated rural development projects. " cfm not only gives you the responsibility to protect the forest, but also manage it. This indigenous managerial skill that we develop are also used for other development works," says Bahadur Gurung, chairperson of Thuldunge fug in Piughar village in Kaski district. "Forests are the centre of subsistence. Once this resource is managed by the people, they will automatically seek control over other resources. The experience they have gained from cfm can be used to manage other resources also," says Biswa Bahadur Adhikari.

However, as the community forestry programme enters the seventh year of implementation, it is threatened by the attitude of the same set of officials who initiated it. Now that the hills are lush and seems commercially-lucrative, it has become the 'neighbour's envy'. The neighbours, in this, case are the forest officials. Threatened by the success of cfm , a circular has been issued to the communities asking them to stop all forest-related activities. But the communities do not intend taking the government diktats lying down. They have decided to fight back for what is theirs: the forests that they have so carefully nurtured over the years.

Chronicling CFM

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.

The era of legislations
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.

Waking up to the problem
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 ).

CFM: a priority
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 .

A troubled frontier

On November 2, 1999, the department of forests ( dof ) and the Community Forestry Development Programme ( cfdp ), both under the ministry of forests and soil conservation, issued a circular to forest officials across the country to ask fug s to immediately stop commercialisation of timber. "However, all the district forest officers made changes in the content of the circular. Instead, they issued a notice asking fug s to stop all their forest-related activities," says Apsara Chapagain, a steering committee member of fecofun . "Now the forest rangers even prohibit the users' groups from entering their own forests. This is the time for trimming the twigs but we haven't been allowed to do anything like that inside the community-protected forest," she adds.

The decision, as K B Shrestha of cfdp , says, "was aimed at the terai region where the fug s are felling young sal trees for commercial purposes". It is not applicable to the hills , he adds. But district forest officials have included the hills too.

The terai has remained a troubled frontier. As the cfm programme enters the seventh year, the success in the hills is overshadowed by the failure in the terai . In fact, the World Bank, which assessed cfm in the terai , described it as a 'supreme failure'. The terai forests, which account for 35 per cent of the total forest area in Nepal, "is the real test of community forestry". But, so far, the government has shown reluctance in handing over the forests to the communities in the terai . Take Bara district in the terai , for example. The communities had to fight for control over forests. Under pressure, the government has finally given rights to six fug s. The users have worked day and night to regenerate the forests and are finally reaping the benefits of cfm.

But the picture is far from perfect. Of the 8,559 fug s in the country, 19 districts in the terai account for only 184. "In reality, the government does not intend giving the terai forests to the people," says Ramji Khanal, a member of the Damauli village fug in Bara. Most of the forests in the terai have been declared 'national', which technically debars handover to communities. As a matter of fact, says Deepak Gyawali, a Kathmandu-based policy analyst, "Policymakers will never allow the terai forests to be managed by the people as there is a strong nexus between politicians and the timber mafia."

What the policymakers have also forgotten to consider, before adopting cfm in the terai, is the complex socio-economic profile of the region. "The terai society is more heterogeneous, unlike in the hills. This makes it difficult to form fug s," says Anupam Bhatia (see box: Hills vs terai ).

As in the past, even today, a few powerful landlords (many of them migrants) control the land as well as the rich sal forests. "Most of the community forests were earlier private forests and controlled by powerful individuals of the villages. Even after the change in status, these individuals continue to influence the working of the fug s," says a forest official. It is observed that inside community forests some users have even started their own plantation of commercially-beneficial species like cardamom and bamboo. "Most of the people are not aware of their rights. Taking advantage of this, a few individuals are calling the shots and virtually controlling the forest," says Balkrishna Khanal of dof . This has even pushed the traditional forest-users away from the forest. According to dof estimates, the traditional users of the terai forest have been pushed away by seven kilometres from the forest.

The Master Plan also dealt intensively with the hills, while overlooking the terai . In fact, in 1989, when the Plan was adopted, it did not suggest handing over the terai forests to the people. It was only in the 1993 Act that both the areas were given equal treatment. But bureaucrats are yet to change their mindset, allege some experts. "If the government is really serious about community forestry, then it should clear the formation of fug s for which files are piling in dof offices," says Bhim Prasad Shrestha. But forest secretary Bista says: "We don't want to hand over the terai forests in a haste."

Says K B Shrestha, "As there is one operational line for both the hills and the terai , community forestry is not successful in the plains. In fact, we are making a different working plan for the terai ." Besides, he says, "In the hills, community forestry started in the 1970s, while it was introduced in the terai in the 1990s. So it will take time to make a headway."

A problem area
Until the handing over of forest areas in the hills there were no conflicts, but in terai there seems to be an understanding between the forest officials and the timber mafia, say many experts. The latter manages to get hold of not only community forests but also mature government forests. And, once the ownership of certain forest areas is shifted to the community to which they belong, they immediately start commercial logging operations. The result: flooding of the local market with timber. This directly competes with the timber supply from government-controlled agencies, which is not good news for the forest department. Besides, say forest experts, this way only a handful of people have benefited from cfm .

"We learnt from the past mistakes and handed over the forest areas to the communities," says Mahant Thakur, the country's forest minister. "But what we have to guard against is that the liberal policy should not be exploited by a few powerful individuals for their vested interests," he says.

The circular was, thus, an effort to address the conflicts arising from the present management guidelines. However, argues Balkrishna Khanal, "We don't intend to get back the ownership of community forest and that is not possible either. We will allow them to sell only surplus products and that too not below the royalty rate fixed by the government, which stands at approximately $3 (Nepali Rs 200) per cubic feet of the timber." Elaborating on the new plan, he says that if one community has a surplus then that should be sold to the neighbouring community. And if the latter does not want that surplus, it can be sold to the next close community. Only if there is no demand for timber among themselves, does the question of selling their products in the market arise, he says.

Forest officials argue that the aim of cfm is for meeting the basic needs like fodder, fuelwood and limited timber needs, and not for commercial exploitation. However, villagers counter it by saying that the laws do not say so and, in any case, the money is being spent for developmental activities. fecofun members view the government's latest move as a systematic plan to curtail community powers. "It shows that the government doesn't want to hand over the forests to the people," says Kazishrestha.

Whether in the hills or the terai , fecofun has decided to wage an 'all-out war' with the government. "We have collected reactions from all the users' groups. Now negotiations are going on with the government to withdraw the circular, which doesn't have any legal backing because it was not decided by the Cabinet but by the whim of some officials," says Chapagain. "We have decided to challenge the decision in court if the circular is not withdrawn," she says. As it organises fug s spread across 74 districts, according to sources, fecofun has started lobbying with external donor agencies too.

The agitation is gradually spreading all over Nepal. fug members have started to retaliate in many terai districts, such as Nabalparashi, Rupendehi, Bardia, Jhapa and Ilam. Now officials seem to have realised the pandemonium that the circular is likely to create both at the local and national level. Says Balkrishna Khanal: "That was an interim circular and it is already in the process of modification. The forest department has already submitted a softer mechanism to the government, which will fix the standard for using forest produce by fug s."

Line of control
Another unusual conflict haunts cfm progress in Nepal: that of boundary disputes between fug s and individuals. A forest under a village development committee can be given to fug s under municipality jurisdiction. Also, as encroachment into forest areas was once encouraged, many users have agriculture land inside community forests. This has given them traditional ownership rights which, in turn, gives rise to disputes over the boundary of the forest area to be managed by a community.

Worse, the conflict is no more confined to the community. It has reached the courts, some of them the Supreme Court. According to Dil Kumar Khanal, legal advisor, fecofun , there is an average of 20 boundary cases pending in every district court, while there are some five cases pending in the Supreme Court. But what baffles both the government and non-government forestry experts is the heavy dependence of the community on dof for solving their dispute. "Nobody from the fug would like to have a fight with another member of the village," says Durga Bahadur of Piughar village. Bhim Prasad Shrestha blames the department for not demarcating areas properly while handing over the forests. As a solution, dof has started intensive survey of the area and the users before handing over the forest.

Will these conflicts affect the sustainability of the project? Says Steve Hunt: "Though it is very difficult to predict the sustainability of the project right now, the conflicts cannot derail it." There is a trend of members of local elected bodies like village development councils also being elected to the fug committees. This will reduce conflicts, he says, adding: "There should be a more formal link between the two."

Rabi Bahadur Bista feels such conflicts are inherent. However, they should not have the potential to derail the cfm process. Warns Anupam Bhatia, "They should not be ignored or avoided as it might lead to degradation again."

A lesson for India

Perhaps the Nepalese forest department had never expected communities to regenerate the forests to the point that they would become cash-rich. But now that the communities have done the 'unexpected', it seems to be bothering the forest bureaucracy. Why else would a circular intended to stop felling activities only in the terai , be passed on in the hills too? The forest bureaucracy is taking a serious note of commercialisation. And this might even affect the sustainability of the project, says Steve Hunt.

The department of forests is now evaluating the conflicts arising from commercialisation of forest produce and control of fug s, says Rabi Bahadur Bista. "Initially, the project was designed to be sustainable. But since problems have come up, we are taking stock of them," he says. But the people argue that, in any case, the money earned is being spent on development activities. Therefore, the forest department has absolutely no reason to get worked up.

Now the project is in transition from sustenance to management of the forest, says Anupam Bhatia. "The question is how do you move from here?" he asks. But he is optimistic that the people's ability to adopt to new changes is remarkable. This will keep the project going. The rate of fug formation, if any indicator, gives a positive signal as every year some 1,000 such groups are formed. And going by the activities of the old fug s, many of them are taking up other income-generating activities, thus lessening their dependence on forest. "This will make the project sustainable," says K B Shrestha.

"Sustainability comes from the immediate economic benefits of the project," says Badri Poudyal of Nepal Forum of Environmental Journalists. Moreover, adds Biswa Bahadur Adhikari, ddc chairperson of Tanahu, "Not only the forest dwellers, but also other villagers are benefiting from cfm . So, despite the conflicts, cfm will make some headway."

On conditions of anonymity, a mission head of a foreign aid agency, said, "With a democratic set up and ngo s trying hard to raise awareness, it doesn't seem that the project will fizzle out."

Some feel that dof 's inability to manage the vast forest area will make the forestry project sustainable. "People have absolute rights over the management and dof is not going to take over as it doesn't have the infrastructure," admits B P Baskota, an assistant forest officer in Pokhra.

India vs Nepal
Despite conflicts, there is little reason to doubt that Nepal's forestry programme is 'a globally progressive piece of legislation' from which other countries can learn a few lessons. India, in particular, has a lot to learn from Nepal.

During the 1970s, both India and Nepal took the initiative to encourage community participation in forest management. But India's forest management programme is no match for the autonomy given to fug s in Nepal or the political will shown by the government (see box: Policies with a difference ).

India has the joint forest management ( jfm ) programme which seeks community participation in a limited way. A discussion paper titled " Community Forestry in India and Nepal: Learning from Each Other " published by the icimod observes: "Experience with community/social forestry in India and Nepal have evidenced many similarities and some surprising differences, many instructive failures and some exciting successes. However, despite shared ecological conditions, similar socio-economic conditions, and some similar programmes, there has been surprisingly little interaction or inter-learning between India and Nepal."

In fact, though an estimated $2 billion has been invested by donors in various forestry projects in Nepal and India in the last 15 years, according to the icimod publication, India is yet to boast of a community-based policy. jfm is all about community participation in forest management in India, but does not give absolute power to the community in the management of forest. Further, unlike Nepal, the government does not share the full benefits with the community ( see box: Miles apart ).

N C Saxena, secretary, Planning Commission of India, who has done extensive research on India's community forestry, says, "India has a long tradition of government management of forest. This has virtually kept the forest dwellers deprived of their basic source of livelihood." cfm in Nepal teaches us a lesson, he says. "What we should learn from it is that we should identify the users of the forest and hand over the forest to them. Under our jfm , defining the administrative unit, to which a patch of forest will be given, has proved to be difficult. But given the right political will, the government can attain this," he explains.

In Nepal, cfm is a success because traditionally the government never managed the forest and, unlike India, the link between the government and the forest resources is very weak. So when an initiative was taken, it was accepted by the community. In India, there are communities protecting forests on their own without government recognition. "At least, these communities should be given the forests they are protecting. For that we need a political will to experiment with community forestry as in Nepal," says Bhatia.

With inputs from Prakash Khanal in Kathmandu, Nepal

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.