Confusion, Conflicts and Choices
While there have been some good intentions, no one comes off shining in Nepal’s experiment with forestry: not the forester, the social scientist, the “environmentalist” or the politician. Theories have been used up, the only way ahead now is to recognise the pervasiveness of ‘narrow individual interest’, and allow private forestry.
How can we characterise the present national forest policy of Nepal? Is it community forestry or ‘shoot-n-protect’ forestry, socialist forestry or capitalistic forestry, state forestry or private forestry? Also, in terms of the more recent debate, who is to take command of monitoring the country’s environment: the forester, the urban elite environmentalist, or neither? The signals emanating thus far from forestry circles in the country have been confusing, to say the least.
As far as the national forest policy is concerned, what prevails is an inefficient and confusing mishmash of the various forestry concepts. Let us first take them up one by one.
Community Forestry: This is the officially preferred policy approach enunciated by the Forestry Sector Master Plan for 1989-2010, a U$ 1.7 billion undertaking currently in execution. Despite the fact that the Plan was conceived during the dying days of the Panchayat regime, the Interim Government of Prime Minister K.P. Bhattarai continued to endorse the Plan as official forest policy. The only major change introduced in the Plan was the substitution of the word ‘Panchayat’ with the word ‘Community’ wherever it cropped up in the Master Plan document, so that we now have ‘Community Plantations’ and ‘Community Protected Forests’. The word ‘community’ refers to any user group which depends upon forest products, but there is confusion today over whether such user groups are Congress Communities or Communist Communities!
Shoot-n-Protect Forestry: On 5 February 1991, under the Interim Government, four sukumbasis were shot dead in Nawalparasi District. These landless forest encroachers had been blocking highway traffic to press for their demand for the regularisation of their settlements in the Government forests.
The deaths followed a series of public appeals and stern warnings which were put out by the authorities following reports of political activists openly promoting forest clearance and settlement. The Task Force of Forest Conservation, appointed by the then Minister of Forests and Soil Conservation, Jhala Nath Khanal, had also recommended the use of stern action (read: shoot people) to deal with deforestation.
Following the widespread and sustained protest over the killings, the Nepali Congress Government has now formulated the following policy for evacuation of the landless from Government Forests: one, identify the ‘true landless’; two, resettle the ‘true’ landless on surplus lands outside the forests; and, three, evict all the `false’ encroachers forcibly, if necessary, by razing their shacks as is being done continuously in Udaipur and Bardia.
How the Government proposes to identify the ‘true’ landless and where it will locate surplus land outside the forests, are matters yet to be addressed.
Socialist Forestry: Nepal has followed a socialist forest policy ever since, in 1957, the country’s private forests were nationalised aided by B.P. Koirala. Will his brother G.P. Koirala, now Prime Minister and expressing undiminished faith in democratic socialism, apply socialism in forestry as did, ironically, the Panchayat system? It is worth recalling that in the 32 years of the Panchayat, the fundamental socialistic tenets of the Private Forests Nationalisation Act of 1957, which transferred ownership to the State, was never repealed?
What has been the price of socialism in forestry? A reduction of forest cover from 70 percent to 37 percent in 32 years. How many trees must Nepal lose forever before the Nepali Congress Government junks (as it should) socialism in forestry?
Capitalistic Forestry: The once-popular saying “Hariyo ban, Nepalk dhan” illustrates how deeply ingrained in the Nepali psyche the link between forests, money and profit, is. Since the reign of Jung Bahadur Rana in the 1850s, the forests of Nepal have been been exploited blatantly to generate wealth for the Government.
In the beginning, forests were cut to provide railway sleepers south of the border. Today, they are harvested, both legally and illegally, for logs, kattha (a wood product used in paans), sal seeds, turpentine, lokta and sabai grass (both for paper). Money and profit is still being generated from forests. Many students who join the Institute of Forestry campuses in Pokhara or Hetauda seem to do so with the primary motive of making quick money as foresters.
How long can the Government deny the strong smell of big bucks which attracts profiteers into forestry? How long should it live a lie and espouse idealistic policies of socialism and the ‘bottom-up’ approach to community development? The Government must come out of the closet and declare forestry as a legitimate, capitalistic venture that should be managed under sound principles of profit maximisation and cost minimisation.
State Forestry: Forestry rust became a State activity when Bhimsen Thapa in the 1800s managed the passes within the forest lands of the Tarai and the mountains as strategic assets against British India and China. At no time did State control become so pervasive as after the enactment of the 1957 Act.
The production of over 200 foresters every year by the Institute of Forestry has given the State the trained manpower it requires to firmly exercise control over the country’s forests. It is ironic, however, that the increase in State control over forests should coincide with the drastic decrease in the forest cover. The beneficiaries of State control over forestry were never the people at large nor the forest area. While the forest bureaucrats, as well as politicians and forest contractors benefited, forestry in private lands has become invisible to policy makers and administrators.
Private Forestry: Even when the State was exerting full de jure control of Nepal’s forests, large tracts remained under de facto control of private citizens because the State did not have adequate manpower or logistic support. Private forests have, till recently, been invisible both to the Forest and Agriculture ministries. It is this private forestry that has filled the “alarming gap” between the supply of forest products and the unproductivity of government forest land. The Nepal-Australia Forestry Project was baffled to discover in a 20-year time la p se stud of aerial photographs of two villages in its area, that the forests were healthier in the village that had not been aided by the Project. Similarly, reports from Dhanusha, Accham and other districts normally not reached by State interventions indicate that ‘Indigenous Forest Management,’ ‘Agroforestry’, `Farm Forestry’ and other forestry initiatives of private citizens may be more efficient than State Forestry.
The Government has permitted donor agencies such as Winrock International, the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, USAID and Canada’s IDRC to not only explore but to promote private forestry. Does this portend the Government’s endorsement of private forestry as its forest policy?
CLASS WAR IN FORESTRY
Shailaja Acharya, until recently the Minister of Forests and Soil Conservation, has succeeded in renaming her ministry so that she is now Minister of Forests and Environment. (Acharya also holds the Agriculture portfolio). The proponents of ‘Environmental Forestry’ are to be found among foresters within the her Ministry, and the arguments they put forth are: that forestry is the ‘number one environmental problem’ facing the country and the region; that it is forestry which has attracted funds for environmental amelioration of disastrous floods in India and Bangladesh, and for conserving the country’s unique wildlife and biological heritage; that it is necessary to protect the Himalayan landscape from tourists and mountaineers; and that foresters have the most relevant training in environment among all the professional cadres.
Opponents of the Ministry name-conversion were mostly non-foresters, free-lance professionals or professionals outside the Forest Ministry. They would rather have had a separate Ministry of Environment where professionals would be drawn from a wider science and technology background. According to this group: environment is too big an issue to be restricted to forestry; the forestry discipline is ill-equipped to handle issues of urban water, air, noise pollution, industrial pollution, legal and public relations, health and epidemiology; that foresters are “clannish” and closed to new ideas and multidisciplinary work; and that the foresters have thus far left a trail of mediocrity, corruption and ineptitude.
The hidden force behind this tug-of-war over ‘environment’ is, of course, the strong smell of donor dollars (always lavishly spent on environmental causes), the glamour of foreign travel for those concerned about the ‘environment’, and the prestige of international acculturation. The tussle also indicates a socioeconomic class war between the urban elite professional who by virtue of their superior education and more civilised ways, consider international environmental issues as their birthright, and the rural elite foresters who feel that they have the right training and experience, and hence are more deserving of whatever ‘environmental dollars’ may come by. (Objectively speaking, the environment is too big an issue to remain exclusively within Forestry. However, foresters have the cadres, the training, and the experience to take on environmental degradation in a sustained manner and at an institutional scale. So, while the Ministry might well be named after Forests and Environment, environmental issues outside the scope of forestry should be addressed by the Ministry by including professionals from other disciplines.)
HUSTLERS AND MAGICIANS
The confusion that reigns in forest policy has arisen due to the push and pull of various segments of society for supremacy. The anatomy of the conflict between Community Forestry and Shoot-n-Protect forestry reveals the clash of overt and covert agendas, between real and supposed beneficiaries.
Community forestry was doomed by both its theoretical conceptualisation and by problems in its practical application. The approach was formally introduced in 1976 with changes in the Forest Law 1961 to create ‘Panchayat Forests’ and ‘Panchayat Protected Forests’. The Panchayat, therefore, became the community.
Then came the hustlers and the magicians: social scientists, social foresters, anthropologists and agriculturists. The common enemy of this tribe were the ‘pro-tree, anti-people’ foresters who would not allow them a toe-hold in forestry. The social scientists took it upon themselves to restore forests to the rightful owners: the people. As banners and lances, they brought out the right weapons to vanquish the foresters: Agra forestry, Farm Forestry, User Groups, and Indigenous Knowledge Systems.
While these magicians were trying to fool the people with an array of pro-people genies, they also worked overtime to hustle up millions of dollars to support the (Panchayat) community forestry. Who has not heard of the multi-million dollar Hill Community Forestry and Tarai Community Forestry Projects? But the greatest con game was to be the Forestry Master Plan.
Over 21 years, it was planned, the Forestery Sector Master Plan would collect from donors and spend US 1.7 billion. The Plan was conceived by a small cell within Ministry of Forestry with help of national and expatriate hustlers, respectably known as experts. The Plan was sold by the Panchayat polity to the Donor Community and shoved down the throats of rank-and-file foresters. Needless to say, the foresters felt alienated by a planning process that made a mockery of decentralisation and people’s participation slogans. One particularly derisive field forester summed up his feelings thus: “It (the Master Plan) is not worth the paper it is printed on. But they went and spent 11 crones just to prepare the document.”
Who were the proponents of community forestry, which is the concept that the Master Plan hugs so dearly? Among foresters, they were those that had worked with communities rather than with the loggers, contractors, smugglers and encroachers. Most of their peers regarded these persons as out-of-touch, jet-set foresters who spent more time in meetings, banquets and report-writing than in protecting forests under the heat of the midday sun.
The other category of proponents were the agriculturists, who see their mission in life as the realisation of the green revolution on every inch of forest land. No one can deny that deforestation in Nepal is the story of the failure of agriculture. What little increase in agricultural production there has been has come from the floor of freshly-cut forests, not through increased productivity in agriculture. Only a small number of agriculturists subscribe to the farming systems approach where trees are recognised as integral components of the farm. Most want community forests for agroforestry. Food production is their god and the environment (including trees) must go to appease this deity.
The last category is made up of the social scientists, including anthropologists, sociologists and economists. Since social scientists become active when there are people-related problems, their stock rose as soon as the forests were nationalised three and a half decades ago.
Nationalisation put a Wall between the people and their forests. The Wall was put up ostensibly to bring the benefits of scientific management for the maximum common good. In effect, however, the Wall came to serve as the cover behind which the Panchayat plundered the country.
The Wall had bricks and a face of paint which the people encountered every day. This face of paint was the forest bureaucracy. “Pro-people” scientists came up with clever tools to try to get over the Wall, but all they were able to do was to scrape the paint, in the form of the foresters. They could not destroy the Wall.
On second thought, how could they destroy the Wall? It gave them jobs, their raison d’ etre. Without people-related problems in natural resources, the market for social scientists would surely dip. So their motto was: bash the foresters to win the Oust of the people but strengthen the Panchayat Wall, which would reward them with prestige, jobs, perks and foreign travel. The Panchayat and the Social Scientist fed off each other. So white the Panchayat endorsed junk reports of fuzzy-headed social scientists, the “pro-people” social scientists refused to speak up when the Panchayat uprooted tree seedlings planted by the multi-party community. They were too busy hustling support for community forestry projects, and the Master Plan.
There was no time to gloat over the humiliation of the social foresters and their expatriate gurus. As they were exposed and rejected with the fall of the Panchayat, the proponents of shoot-n-protect forestry immediately reasserted themselves. These hard-liners have long expressed their view, often privately, that ‘ hard’ decisions must be taken to ‘combat’ deforestation on a ‘war footing’. So when the multi-party leaders took charge of the Interim Government, they decided to act. They relied on several factors: the multi-party leadership was not so keen to endorse the Panchayat ‘legacy’ of community forestry; and it was worried that mass-deforestation like that which happened in 1979 might occur. Neither did the new leaders want to look like indecisive wimps.
Taking advantage of the opportunity that presented itself, the rank-and-file foresters raised the alarm that deforestation was going on at a massive scale, prodded on by both Panchayat and multi-party elements. They warned that the breakdown of central authority prevented a crackdown and that the foresters were risking their lives to protect a national resource.
The Interim Government responded with the Task Force on Conservation which, though headed by apolitical appointee, was otherwise dominated by hardline foresters, which ensured foregone conclusions. Influential among the members was one individual who had made a career in Nepali forestry on a trail of blood. The Task Force went though a charade of inviting suggestions from all interested parties and individuals, visiting parts of Nepal, white washing the deforestation that was ongoing under the Interim Government’s nose, and offering the piece de resistance: “The cause of deforestation is due to a) lack of firm political commitment, b) encouragement of the clearing of forests for individual benefit, and c) the felling of trees for illegal export of logs.”
It was subsequent to this that four sukumbasis were shot in Nawalparasi. The Government also came up with a formal policy statement that promised to “take stern action against forest encroachers.”
How can a Government that shoots people to exclude them from forests ever persuade the same people to participate in community forestry? A District Forest Officer explained his predicament, “The very people I apprehend during my night patrols for smuggling logs are the persons I have to persuade in daylight to join community user groups!”
Why are the hardliners in forestry so unyielding? An examination of the collective social psychology of those at the Ministry helps. The primary motivation for most Nepalis who join the forest service is acquisition of social power and rapid upward mobility. This has been confirmed by numerous entrants at the Institute of Forestry. They are very aware of the reach of the forest service power in their villages: the power of the forest officer to order shooting (as any army commander), the power to dispose of a legal case (as any magistrate), the power to declare forest land as residential property (as any revenue officer), and the power to extract economic gain by the cubic foot or truck-load of illegally cut logs. Thus motivated, forestry students hurry through their courses and make a beeline to the territorial positions where their promised dreams are realised.
Over the past decade, with proponents of community forestry chipping into their domain, the District Forest Officers became a pale shadow of the Divisional Forest Officer of yore. It is only natural, therefore, for these territorial foresters to bring back the old days of unfettered power by recapturing the high ground from the cacophonous community foresters.
A pamphlet recently plastered on city walls by some forestry students was insightful. It asked some rhetorical questions:
“Whose forests are our forests?”
- a) Political parties and their activists
b) Landless encroachers
c) Log smugglers
d) Corrupt foresters; or
- a) The Nepali people.”
The beneficiaries are, of course, those included under choices a’ to ‘d’ . One only needs to add one more category: the burgeoning tribe of local and expatriate ‘experts’.
The urban environmental lobby is highly educated, articulate and well-connected. Unfortunately, most of its members have entered a forest only for picnicking. The interests of this lobby are to capture the lion’s share of Green Dollars and the accompanying glamour, and to avoid the heat and rain of the field. They would like to maintain their self-image as the avant garde and survive by running down foresters as rural, uncouth, corrupt and inept.
The expatriate experts, backed by donor agencies, think that they are Tarzans come to save Nepalis from the deforested mess they have created for themselves. The foreign experts revel in spending 70 to 80 percent of grant and loan money on themselves. They invite friends and cronies on exotic junkets to Nepal under the guise of ‘volunteers’ and the more highly paid ‘specialists’. They work overtime trying to out-compete other expatriates in influencing forest policy, but close ranks to buy off local critics or starve them of lucrative consultancies so as to prevent embarrassing exposes. Through adroit use of donor aid, foreign trips and cocktail parties, these foreign experts guarantee their own cushy extensions, hardship allowances, tax-free salaries and the endorsement of junk reports. By and large, foreign forestry experts have palmed off unverifiable reports to the Nepali government, secure in the knowledge that they will be shelved and never be subjected to the scrutiny of peer review. Based on such mediocre reports, the expatriate will present himself to the world as the expert on Nepali forestry issues and would-be saviour of the Himalayan environment. Unfortunately, Nepali PhD students come back misinformed by the writings of such expatriates and are hence totally misinformed about realities on the ground.
It is imperative for Nepal at this late hour to enunciate a forest policy which will enable it to navigate through the shoals of vested interests in order to bring the forests within the command of the most legitimate constituency, which is the voting Nepali public. The bottom line here is to increase the welfare of the vast majority of Nepal’s population which is directly dependent upon forest products, and to progressively increase and enrich the country’s forest cover. To achieve this, the following is proposed:
Mass participation in forestry must be proposed, not through expensive audio-visual and other extension technologies, but by releasing the natural genius of the people to innovate and to adapt. This genius can only be released when the economic incentive of profit is attached to forestry, and when forestry is perceived as a means of ameliorating enviromental stress such as fuel shortage and soil fertility loss.
Nepal must junk Statism and Socialism in forestry because they have benefited only foresters and the political establishment, and discouraged the private citizen who knows how to make profit from forests. It was under the watch of Statism and Socialism that the Nepal lost most of its forest cover. Private forestry, on the other hand, has shown the ability to meet the tree products shortfall created by the Government.
Land under forestry is limited. There is no more forest land left to absorb the failures in agriculture and population control. These two sectors must be disciplined by demanding results and withdrawing investment allocations.
In the end, the concept of community forestry, too, must be jettisoned. Because Nepal is so heterogenous culturally and because the people have only recently been freed from dictatorial control, it is not possible to build a ‘community of common interests’. This has also to do with cultural diversity and socio-economic inequalities prevalent in village Nepal. As a concept, community forestry has only succeeded where there has been sufficient cultural homogeniety and a strong proclivity to bow to authority, as among the tasteless, racially and culturally homogenous Han people of China and among the people of South Korea.
It is necessary to preserve biological and natural heritage in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries for the sake of posterity. The Army may be used to protect such areas, but only given national consensus. In order to protect the country from environmental disaster, it will also be important to identify environmental hot spots and other fragile areas, to be managed exclusively by highly trained foresters and professionals.
All the remaining productive forests that are not set aside for preservation (parks and sanctuaries) and problem management (‘hot spots’) should be released, in phases, for capitalistic management by individuals, user groups and companies.
For its part, the Ministry of Forests (and now Environment) should transform itself from an active manager of land to a supporter of forest management in which the common people lead. Foresters, like doctors and engineers, must provide advice only when called for.
A.R. Tuladhar is a lecturer of silviculture at the Institute of Forestry, Pokhara.