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.