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Including people with disabilities in community forests

Including people with disabilities in community forests

Over the span of four decades, community forests (CF) in Nepal have emerged as transformative forces, profoundly impacting the lives of forest-dependent communities. Renowned globally for their prowess in carbon sequestration, regeneration, and localized environmental protection, these initiatives have undeniably flourished. However, amidst this acclaim looms a critical inquiry: do they genuinely amplify the voices of the marginalized?

Despite their laudable achievements, the landscape of gender equality, disability rights, and social inclusion remains shrouded in ambiguity and skepticism. By definition, socially excluded groups (SEG) encompass a spectrum ranging from women and Dalits to Adivasi Janajatis, Madhesi, Muslims, and people with disabilities, along with those from geographically remote locales. While many project interventions claim to incorporate the perspectives of these segments, the reality often falls short. In particular, individuals with disabilities find themselves relegated to token representation, existing merely to fulfill bureaucratic checkboxes. Despite their numerical significance (2.2 percent of the total country population), their voices are frequently sidelined, ignored, or dismissed when it comes to crucial decision-making processes dominated by the elite. Are they truly empowered to wield their rights and privileges to the fullest extent?

Although various quotas and reservation systems ostensibly aim to uplift these communities, their tangible impact within the realm of community forestry remains wanting. Their limited involvement and exposure underscore their status as the most marginalized within CF initiatives, facing discrimination long before access to even the most basic resources. Amidst this landscape of inequity and partiality, the story of Bishnu Lamsal from Sundari CF representing the people with disabilities community, nestled in the heart of Nawalpur, stands as a beacon of possibility. Her journey exemplifies how empowering disabled communities within CF initiatives can yield profound transformations.

Bishnu Lamsal epitomizes empowerment as a differently-abled woman catalyzing change within her community in Sundari Community Forest. Reflecting on her journey, she recalls a stark dichotomy between her early life and her transformative role today. Initially confined within her home not by familial restrictions but societal prejudices, she was perceived as incompetent. However, within Sundari CF, she flourishes, holding multiple pivotal roles including representing the Community Forest User group and serving as Secretary of the saving and cooperatives and Manager of Namaste Women Saving and Cooperatives.

In recounting her socialization process, Lamsal speaks of a profound evolution over the past decade. She traversed from a life devoid of social interactions to becoming a confident and expressive activist. Sundari CF became her gateway to understanding social dynamics, fostering networks, and embracing her identity within society. The transformation is palpable—from being disregarded and confined to limited mobility between home and college, to now being an integral part of the community. Through Sundari CF, she found a platform where her voice is heard, her contributions respected, and her identity redefined. Lamsal’s journey signifies not only personal growth but also the power of inclusive initiatives in redefining societal perceptions and creating meaningful change.

Recalling her journey to becoming a part of Sundari CF as a disabled woman, Lamsal vividly remembers the discrimination that marked her early years, confining her social interactions. Despite these challenges, she was fortunate to have supportive family members who encouraged her to pursue higher education before focusing on her career. Refusing to settle for a job without obtaining her master’s degree, Lamsal visited Sundari CF to receive Baisakhi, an aid provided to disabled individuals as part of the CF’s annual program. During her visit, she noticed a vacancy targeted towards individuals willing to work in the disability sector. However, the eligibility criteria, which included being a high school graduate, female, and proficient in cycling, struck a chord within her. Lamsal found this requirement insensitive, recognizing that not all disabled individuals would possess the ability to ride a bicycle. Determined to challenge this notion, she decided to apply for the position despite feeling unprepared mentally. Her decision stemmed from a desire to prove that disability does not equate to weakness and to advocate for the capabilities of differently-abled individuals. Lamsal emphasizes the importance of inclusive employment practices, highlighting the detrimental impact of insensitive job requirements on marginalized communities already facing limited opportunities.

Lamsal has dedicated a decade to leading the Namaste Women Saving and Cooperatives within Sundari CF. Inspired by a peace campaigner training under the Hariyo Ban Program, over 100 women committed to economic independence and societal impact, leading to the formation of the cooperative. Timber is provided to marginalized women at discounted rates after thorough investigation, ensuring genuine need. Lamsal’s role extends to overseeing Triphala enterprises, managing operations from collection to marketing, and facilitating wage payments. She actively engages with NGOs, INGOs, and local governments to address issues facing the disabled community, advocating for their rights and seeking services. Through her multifaceted involvement, Bishnu strives to empower marginalized women and enhance inclusivity within Sundari CF.

Lamsal praises Sundari CF for its exceptionally inclusive environment, especially for individuals with disabilities. She attests to the ease of working within the CF, noting its progressive policies and programs catering to disabled people. Sundari CF has established a Disability Rehabilitation Committee and Subcommittee to oversee various initiatives, including the distribution of prosthetic limbs, advocacy programs, and commemoration of International Disabilities Day. Disabled individuals receive support through the CFUG fund, further emphasizing the organization's commitment to their welfare.

Sundari CF’s inclusive approach has garnered significant recognition, including the prestigious Ganesh Man Singh Award, thanks to its focus on disability issues. This recognition has extended internationally, with CF members invited to share their expertise in countries like Brazil. Despite Sundari CF’s success, Bishnu observes that other CFs often overlook the perspectives and preferences of disabled people. She advocates for greater inclusion of disabled individuals in CF committees nationwide, stressing the importance of recognizing their capabilities and providing suitable opportunities, such as desk-based work.

Moreover, Lamsal emphasizes the need to avoid underestimating the abilities of disabled individuals, acknowledging that they may excel in different ways, such as administrative tasks. She suggests that CFs should adapt their expectations and recognize the diverse skills disabled people bring to the table. Sundari CF serves as a model for empowering disabled communities through its inclusive practices, demonstrating that with the right support and environment, disabled individuals can achieve remarkable milestones. Lamsal’s advocacy underscores the importance of inclusivity within CF initiatives, not only for the benefit of disabled individuals but also for the broader community’s welfare and progress.

Experts and environmentalists critique Community Forest (CF) policies for marginalizing vulnerable segments like the poor, women, and especially people with disabilities, intensifying their exclusion from rights and responsibilities. While legal frameworks have shifted from Gender Equity and Social Exclusion (GESI) to Gender Equality, Disability, and Social Inclusion (GEDSI), practical implementation lags, notably within CF initiatives. To foster inclusivity, it’s imperative to identify and address the root causes of exclusion, develop tailored strategies, and rigorously monitor their effectiveness. CF areas should prioritize disabled-friendly infrastructure, including restrooms and seating, while offering support aids. 

By recognizing the diversity within the disabled community and drawing inspiration from individuals like Lamsal, CFs in Nepal can emerge as catalysts for empowering disabled communities. Lamsal’s journey exemplifies how disability can be a source of strength, driving social transformation. Thus, CFs have the potential to lead the charge in creating a more inclusive and empowering environment for people with disabilities.