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Untold story of community forest program in Nepal

Untold story of community forest program in Nepal

The ‘community forest’ initiative stands as one of Nepal’s most touted conservation development endeavors. Nepal devised the ‘Hariyo Ban Nepal Ko Dhan’ (Forest as national wealth) slogan in the yesteryears with a target of having at least 43 percent forest cover. However, propagators of the campaign say Nepal’s forest dwindled to 40 percent from 45 percent in the 1960s in just 15 years after the nationalization of private forests in 1956. This decline led to the introduction of the ‘community forestry program’ in 1987, transferring forest management responsibilities to local communities. Today, more than 16,186 forest user groups are affiliated with the Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal, which speaks volumes about the success of the program.

 The program’s underlying motive was to elevate the proportion of forested land in the country by any means necessary. This singular focus led to widespread endorsement and implementation of the project across Nepali society with governmental support, with little room for alternative perspectives. The project’s community-centric name further obscured potential downsides even though the program was implemented without adequate consultation with rural Nepali communities.

 In official rhetoric, community forest was presented as a catalyst for sustainable development of local communities. It promised not just employment opportunities but also income generation through the sale of forest products like herbs and wood. The initiative envisaged forest users groups as autonomous community organizations to manage daily operations and generate resources for various community needs, including drinking water schemes, loans for indigenous people, public infrastructure, road construction and school management, among others. However, the implementation of the program predominantly focused on increasing forest cover. The intricate dynamics of rural livelihoods dependent on forests was largely overlooked.

 When the program was introduced, villages in hilly areas of Nepal were primarily agrarian communities. These communities believed in self-sufficiency in food production. Market dependence for staple food items, especially grains, was frowned upon during those days. Even households with significant cash earnings prioritized subsistence farming for survival. Villagers traditionally stored surplus grains to weather potential crises like droughts, which ensured community resilience and food sovereignty. This helped Nepal become a net exporter of food until the early 1980s.

 Recent researches show that Nepal transitioned to a net importer of food, particularly cereals, from the early 1980s onwards. This shift, many say, is linked to the implementation of new forest policies under the banner of community forest.  Previously, forests were freely accessible to all and they contributed to vibrant rural economies centered around animal husbandry and organic farming. As it was the only available occupation in rural areas, the younger generation participated in subsistence farming.

 Theoretically, there was room for local involvement in the organizational structure of the community forest program. However, the structure was designed in such a way that inadvertently favored control by a select group of local elites. While there were provisions for marginalized communities, particularly women, to participate actively in the program, the nature of duties assigned to members often prevented genuine people dependent on forests from active engagement. As a result, the poorest and most vulnerable members were overlooked while forming management committees. The program’s structure provided an avenue for local elites to assume leadership positions within forest user groups fostering a nexus between local leaders and government authorities. This collaboration was facilitated by the government’s objective to increase forest cover, influenced by Western ideologies, and its need for local partners to execute the initiative. Lately it was understood that the then western donors helped for this project for carbon trading so that they offer token money to countries like Nepal against the saved timbers, which otherwise could be used by locals as firewood for cooking. However, taking forest dwellers away from the jungle products have diverted village livelihood from eco-friendly sustainable life with renewable energy sources i.e. firewood to LPG gas.   

During those days, communication channels were limited to government-owned media outlets, which were accessible to only a fraction of rural households. This made it easier for authorities and the local elites to introduce new initiatives with minimal resistance from the local communities. Village dynamics also facilitated the implementation process, as the endorsement of a few influential male members would be sufficient to rally community support in those days. The attraction of leadership roles within the community forest framework, coupled with the program’s preservation-centric approach, favored those who already possessed land and trees, primarily the locally affluent. Those reliant on forest resources for their daily sustenance consequently found themselves relegated to the sidelines.

The policy of preserving forests by denying access to local communities was a flawed idea as forests are home to numerous renewable resources crucial for both communities’ sustenance and forests’ health. Regular forest management practices such as clipping and trimming could have facilitated faster forest growth, aligning with the intended objectives of the community forest initiative. Some communities did envision allowing villagers to utilize forest products. But it was not sufficient to meet the needs of the local population.

 The program’s structure was focused more on increasing forest cover rather than addressing the immediate needs of people dependent on forests. This initially led to a conflict between management objectives of the programs and the livelihoods of local communities. Despite the program’s punitive measures against collection of forest resources, many villagers, especially women and children, were forced to risk fines and harassment to gather firewood and fodder. The lack of accessible media platforms and social support networks left victims of this flawed policy powerless to voice their grievances. This suppression of traditional livelihood practices forced communities to depend on external resources, which gradually undermined their self-sufficiency.

The government prioritized road construction as a symbol of progress and modernity in later years. Road expansion enhanced connectivity significantly but also facilitated people’s access to external markets. This made a detrimental impact on local production and self-reliance. The easy availability of imported goods amid erosion of traditional farming practices exacerbated Nepal’s reliance on imported food, which led to a staggering increase in food imports over the years. This situation has proven beneficial for market fundamentalists but it has affected those advocating for a sustainable, eco-friendly and self-reliant economy. Nepal’s food imports were nominal until 2001. By the year 2021, the food import bill had surged by a staggering 78 times. This has highlighted a concerning trend of increased dependency on external food sources.

The author is associate professor of Political Sociology at Kathmandu University