Kathmandu’ s public lands policy has actually hastened the decline of Nepali forests. Only a Robin Hood-like strategy that reverts control of woodlands back to the people can bring the trees back on the hillsides.
The areas most devastated by Nepali politics of the past three decades were human rights, social and economic opportunities for the poor majority, and the natural environment. The damage to the natural environment was due to degradation in the other two areas. Despite tiring talk of development, the human right to development was ignored by Panchayat polity. Being economically poor meant also being environmentally distressed.
Without a doubt, the change in the political system should lead to a change in the role of the people in politics and in the management of their natural heritage. In a country where 90 per cent of the population depends heavily upon the natural system for its livelihood, the problems of the environment has deep ramifications. The agrarian economy is hypersensitive to the changes in natural resources and climatic conditions.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
A series of mistakes were made by governments over the past decades, which contributed to the devastation of the Nepali countryside.
Nationalisation: Disaster hit the environment the day forestry resources were forfeited from the people. The nationalisation of the forests in the second half of the 1950s was undertaken before there was a stable government, a functioning forestry service, or control mechanisms against misuse.
Land Reform: The land reform policy which was imposed during the first half of the 1960s was a response to the popular demand for the redistribution. However, a political system which needed support of the local rich could not stand up to those who resisted government pressure. Also, ecological diversity, soil fertility and altitudinal limitations were not considered. If the concern was equity, income guarantees should have been the paramount element and not a ceiling on surface area. With land reform, the rich kept the best land for themselves and only released marginal lands for redistribution.
Because both nationalisation and land reform were carried out without an adequate understanding of their full impact, the end result was that forests suffered. There was no control over the plunder of community forests while at the same time private woodlands were converted into unproductive fields and terraces. The latter half of the 1970s brought with it the concept of community forestry, an attempt to try and unravel the problems created by nationalisation. But even this strategy was wrongly conceptualised, based as it was on the false definition of a “community” as being inherent in the village panchayat. Natural resource management systems should never have been based on the political underpinnings of the local panchayats. As a result, there was unexpressed but grassroots opposition to the false sense of community imposed by Kathmandu planners and politicians.
The Master Plan: The late 1980s brought another yet another masterly intervention, the Forestry Master Plan. One would have expected that the years of experience and wrong turns on forest-management issues would have lead to a plan that was conscious of the villagers’ needs. Instead, the Master Plan, conceived by a Finn consultancy firm, was a “top-down” and Kathmandu-centric affair without many redeeming features.
The Master Plan proposed, in effect, to bring about widespread dislocations in the Nepali farmer’s relationship with his/her forest. However, it did not guarantee an improvement in the quality of the implementing agencies. The document was formulated with the help of a forestry bureaucracy that was at its weakest due to rampant corruption and opportunism at its upper echelons.
Since forests, fields and livestock form one integral system within the farming system, one cannot separate the three artificially. But that is what the Master Plan tried to do. In any case, a plan for the forest sector alone was out of touch with reality because farming in Nepal means an artful use of forest resources, livestock and agriculture.
The Master Plan’s major focus is on the provision for leasehold forestry and the re-nationalisation of all plots of forests that did not come under categories of “religious”, “private” or “public” forests. This would have given the administration control over even the locally managed small forest plots that were left out by the first nationalisation of the 1950s.These plots are normally accessible for community use and are well-stocked. There was a vested interest to get hold of these good forest plots for the use of the ruling and richer classes.
In order to implement the Master Plan’s provisions, a most undemocratic Forestry Bill was proposed. The Bill, an anti-human rights and anti-democratic document, was drafted towards the end of 1989 and would have come into force through adoption by the National Panchayat by the second half of 1990. A Master Plan which was unpopular and unworthy to be placed before the people envisaged spending over NRs2 billion annually over the next two decades. This showed excessive arrogance on the part of those who would have the people follow their ivory-towered policies.
The implementation of the Master Plan, as with the community forest plan, was based on the structures of the Panchayat system. Luckily, the political system was toppled before the plan was introduced. Today, it lies in limbo. The best thing the present government can do is to shelve the Master Plan and guard against future attempts by vested interests to make a grab at the forests.
The one feature that marked Nepali forestry over the past decades, thus, was the steady weakening of traditional management institutions and customs, and the centralisation of the forestry administration. As one of the few sources of wealth held in common trust, forests fell easy prey to periods of political instability and to corruption.
Things came to such a pass that, recently, politicians and bureaucrats under active investigation for misappropriation of forest resources were still being allowed to carry on with their official work. At the end of the Panchayat era, the credibility of forestry administration which oversaw the overuse and plunder of Nepali forests was at its lowest ebb.
Nepal’s forestry administration, while failing miserably to protect the resources under its control, refused to give the people the opportunity to manage their woodlands. These “protectors of forests” themselves became parry to deforestation. Rather than trying to gain the people’s trust, they confronted and harassed local communities.
The biggest loss of the forestry resources is said to have taken during 1979-1980, the time of the referendum. The politicians of the day were, again and again, willing to sacrifice the country’s vital forests in order to maintain an unrepresentative, exploitative political system.
TRUST THE VILLAGER
There is a qualitative change in the political atmosphere today. People can now sound the alarm when a forest is being decimated without fearing for life and security. There is less danger of vindicative actions by the local overlords, at least for the moment.
Considering the numerous socio-political problems that are arising in the country today, forestry is one of the easier fronts to handle. An interim arrangement to arrest depletion is needed until a long-term solution can be worked out. The law which allows distribution of forests plots to individuals under a leasehold system must be frozen.
The new government must be liberal and courageous enough to have confidence in the people, who are, after all. sovereign. In order to protect nature and at the same time develop economically useful forests, those who would lead Nepal have to go to the people. The public must have a say in determining plans about the choice of plant species, their density and the quality of forests. After all, the people have longer traditions with planting trees and protecting forests than fly-by-might consultants, whether from Kathmandu or Canada. For example, planners often forget that the majority of the people living off farming naturally prefer broad-leaf multipurpose trees such as Schima wallichii, a farmer’s multipurpose timber species, Quercus sp., which is a desired firewood and fodder species, and Ficus sp., the most common hill fodder tree.
The people have more stake in managing local forests than foresters or urban business people. Village communities have evolved their own mechanisms of management. Obviously, changes will have to be made in traditional mechanisms to take account of objective changes in technology, population pressure, accessibility arid transport, fuel-wood demand, and other socio-cultural factors. But whatever changes are made have to supplement and not replace village management. The only way towards the slow recovery of Nepali woodlands is to give back the forests to the people. A Robin Hood is what we need, preferably in legislative guise, with full constitutional powers and total understanding of village Nepal. Which means, of course, good government.
Kk. Panday is an environmentalist who initiated the JaraJuri grassroots awards for villagers striving to protect their environment.