A conservative harvest

A conservative harvest

The potential for community forestry to improve the health of forests and the lives of those who protect them remains untapped.
All images Smriti Mallapaty
All images Smriti Mallapaty

We were walking through the dense pine forests when he pulled out his wallet, took out all his cash, and threw the money on the nest of needles below our feet. He said that we had been given chickens that could lay golden flowers, but had neglected to pick our blossoms. He was right.

Netra Bahadur Kunwar, forester and local from Chaubas, a village in Kabhrepalanchok District just east of Kathmandu, recounts this parting visit by the last team leader of the Nepal-Australia Community Forestry Project (NACFP). We are seated on a wooden bench, narrowly set against one of three establishments – all dark and bare – that make up Chaubas bazaar. We face the rain and the slippery, red-soiled road that brought me here. Several buses, loaded with people, heave back and forth, before heading downhill. They will wobble over boulders, past buses on the opposite side surrendering to the untraversable track and unloading their passengers, who will make steadier steps uphill.

Somewhere between the crest of pine trees, the tip of Netra's Dhaka topi and the ridgeline marks 2000 metres above sea level. The 18 kilometres down to the nearest town of Dolalghat takes the same two hours as the 65 kilometres from there to Kathmandu. There is no electricity here.

Three decades ago, instead of a crowd of slim poles, there were shrubs and grasses dispersed across the mostly barren hills. That is what Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary would have seen in the early 1950s on their ascent past Chaubas to the peak of Mount Everest, and what later made the Dalai Lama's escape from Tibet visible from afar, as Netra tells me over a plate of kheer, sweet rice pudding seasoned with pepper. Netra is known here as thulo bhai, or 'big younger brother'.

In 1978, growing concerns over the degraded and degrading slopes led to a major effort by Nepal's Department of Forests (DoF), backed by Australian technical and funding support, to reforest over 20,000 hectares of land across Kabhrepalanchok and adjacent Sindhupalchok district with various species of pine. A few years later, the transition to community forestry began as the plantations were later handed over to local community forest user groups (CFUGs) to nurture and use.

Community forestry is a forest governance model in which local communities manage, and sometimes even communally own, forest resources. The extent of community ownership and rights to use the forest for commercial and non-commercial purposes varies from country to country. In Nepal, community forests are designated for development, conservation, and utilization in the community's interest, short of the land being fully owned by them. For years, communities have strictly controlled the consumption and distribution of the maturing trees – generally used for firewood, leaf-litter and lumber.

Forests support agriculture-dependent communities in many ways. The majority of families in Nepal still collect firewood for cooking and heating. Fallen leaves are fed to livestock, or used for their bedding, later composted and applied as fertiliser. Timber is cut and shaped into ploughs, yokes and handles for small tools, or built into houses, cattle sheds and schools. And sometimes villagers forage through the growth for food, spices, healing material, or sellable resins.

"We went from not having any accessible firewood, to paying one or two rupees per basket-load, to free collection twice a year," explains Netra. But when it came time to thinning the forests and harvesting trees beyond their subsistence needs, various autogenous and external barriers continued to get in the way, causing billions of rupees worth of timber to grow old and stagnant, together with their ageing caretakers.

"They are sitting on a goldmine," Yam Malla, Nepal country representative for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), says in his office in Kathmandu.  

Saving trees
On a bench under the shade of pine and broadleaf trees, closed-in by a curious and lingering crowd in Kathmandu's Ratna Park, community forest and forage technician Khadga Kharel from Chaubas recounts the early planting days. He was about 17 when the planting began. "We started by fencing off nurseries with barbed wire," he tells me. A few people worried about no longer being able to let their cows and livestock graze on the open grounds, but most were eager to get a fast-growing source of firewood to ease the constant pinch. Sometimes, villagers would have to walk for hours just to find twigs and branches, or would burn dried cow-dung instead. "These days, we have gas, kerosene, biogas, and other forms of alternative energy. But back then we had nothing." Kharel is a natural wanderer. When I first called him, he was somewhere hiking in Lumle in west-central Nepal; today he is in the capital; tonight in Banepa city; and the day after he will be back home in Chaubas village. He smiles under his nettle sunhat, reading glasses hanging from his neck, and looks up at the thickening crowd. "Even in Kathmandu they used to buy firewood to cook with. Stoves were rare."

The community dug and planted saplings of pine chosen for their hardiness – the native species Pinus Roxburghii for lower elevations, Pinus Wallichiana on higher ground, and the exotic Pinus Patula in between (also known as Mexican weeping pine).

Most of Nepal's forest loss took place around the late 19th and early 20th century. Among the causes of deforestation, farmers would receive government land tax breaks if they converted forestland into cultivable cropland, which incentivised felling. Also, many forests in the Tarai were later cleared for timber sale to India and grain production, profiting large families of the ruling Rana clan who owned the land. Competition between the two land uses – forestry versus agriculture – eventually reached a stalemate. Deforestation within designated forest boundaries, however, continued. Over 60 years ago the Department of Forests was established to strengthen central state management of forests, at the exclusion of locals. Around that time, under the changed political context following the 1950 democratic movement, feudally-controlled forests were handed over to the state, until a series of legislation, policies and plans enacted in the 1970s gradually decentralised management, first to local panchayats and then to community user groups.

"Earlier conservation efforts took a command-and-control approach. It put people outside of the forest for the sake of conservation, blocking their traditional rights," explains Ek Raj Sigdel, environment specialist for the Poverty-Environment Initiative, an effort led by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Environment Programme that seeks to integrate environmental and poverty reduction drivers into local planning and policy. "Then the government realised that they did not have the manpower and financial resources to maintain that approach." Hence, they started looking to communities for forest protection. The 1993 Forest Act legally recognized the autonomy of CFUGs over the management and marketing of forest products.

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Himal Southasian