Analysts have usefully delineated three phases of forestry in Nepal – privatization (until 1957), nationalization (1957 to the late 1970s), and decentralization (from the late 1970s onward).
Throughout Nepal’s modern history—the past 240 years—the Nepali state has largely been controlled by either the Shaha or Rana families, except for three brief periods of democracy in the 1950s, 1990s, and after 2006. Under the control of these families, the state polity retained a strong feudal character, whereby economic surplus flowed from the peasant farmers to the ruling elites through networks of locally based feudal lords.
Until the Private Forest Nationalization Act was enforced in 1957, all forests were controlled by state-sponsored local functionaries. As the state moved further into the era of planned development after World War II, national bureaucracies assumed political–economic control of resources. A number of laws were enacted to enforce national control over forests, which effectively expanded the forest bureaucracy and excluded local people.
Efforts to share power over forests with local people started in 1978 with the institution of Panchayat(local government) forest regulations, prompted by the central government’s realization that the state forest bureaucracy could not protect forests without engaging the local people.During the 1970s, the recognition of Himalayan degradation as a serious environmental crisis increased pressure on international development institutions and donor governments to contribute to the conservation of the Himalayas. This led to a shift in the development discourse away from an emphasis on infrastructure and technology transfer toward environmental issues.
The most significant regulatory development in support of community forestry was the enactment of the Forest Act in 1993 by the first elected parliament after the 1990 movement for democracy. The 1993 Forest Act guaranteed the rights of local people in forest management. Nepal became the world’s first country to enact such radical forest legislation, allowing local communities to take full control of government forest patches under a community forestry program.
The Community Forestry Program in Nepal evolved from a primarily protection-oriented, conservation focused agenda during its initial years of implementation to a much broader-based strategy for forest use, enterprise development, and livelihood improvement. This occurred through an often conflictual process spread out over more than a decade, during which sustained efforts to engage in policy dialogue with a range of community forestry stakeholders helped to clarify issues and develop a common vision.
Since 1990, the process of community forestry has been increasingly promoted and scaled up by an expanding public sphere, often operating outside of government and donor projects. There are increasing instances of proactive engagement of civil groups in forest governance in recent years in Nepal. Of particular importance has been the establishment of a meso-level umbrella institution of CFUGs that represents the interests of local- level actors and serves as an intermediary between national and local processes. This nationwide network of CFUGs, known as the Federation of Community Forestry Users, Nepal (FECOFUN), has emerged as a key player in forest sector policy debates.
The contribution of forestry to overall livelihood security is critically important in Nepal because more than 70 percent of Nepal’s population depends on agricultural livelihoods that encompass complex interactions between agriculture, forestry, and livestock systems. Farmers depend on green fodder from forests to feed their livestock, particularly during the dry season when forests are often the only available source of fodder and grass. The primary cooking fuel in the country is firewood, with 69 percent of households using firewood as their main source.
Community forestry is flourishing in Nepal, improving the livelihoods of rural households in thousands of communities, and nurturing democracy at the grassroots despite a prolonged insurgency and political upheavals. Three decades of operational innovations, legislative developments, and evolving practice have clearly demonstrated success in terms of enhancing access to forest products, improving livelihood opportunities for forest-dependent people, strengthening local institutional capacity, and improving ecological conditions of forests. Community forestry appears to have stood the test of time, contributing to the welfare of the masses of rural poor in Nepal. By April 2009, about 1.6 million households or one-third of the country’s population took part in the Community Forestry Program, directly managing more than 1,000,000 hectares (ha), or more than one-fourth of the country’s forest area.
In light of these positive outcomes, community forestry has been one of the few promising aspects of Nepal’s post-World War II history. It has often been used as a face-saving instrument by development actors who have been engaged in, if not responsible for, the five decades of “failed development” in Nepal. (delete?)
These community forestry policy and institutional innovations contribute to improved welfare and livelihood security in Nepal through two distinct pathways: directly through increased household access to forest food products, and indirectly through positive impacts on household incomes, employment and entrepreneurial opportunities, livelihood diversification, and broader community development activities made possible through the Community Forestry Program.
-Improvements to livelihoods
Evidence of direct improvements to livelihoods include an enhanced supply of wild edibles used by the poor, increased availability of forest products to farmers, and more reliable product supply. Indirect but crucially important improvements to livelihoods occurred through increased employment opportunities and more diversified livelihood portfolios. Community forestry has enabled households to diversify their livelihood strategies to a greater extent than was possible before, including undertaking forest-based income-generating activities like cultivating spices in the forest understory and tapping resin from selected tree species.
Pro-poor mechanisms for the distribution of forest products have also had positive effects on household ability to meet livelihood needs. Forest products may be distributed at subsidized rates to poor households and at no cost to women-headed and extremely poor Timber is sold at either 65 or 50 percent of actual price to users from designated poorer households and freely distributed at no cost to homeless users. Such subsidies provide a more reliable and lucrative source of income for the poorest households than was previously available, as members may buy forest products such as fuelwood at a low rate and then sell them at market for a substantially higher price.
- Projects supported by CFUGs
Community forestry funds have been used for wide-ranging infrastructure and community development projects that have improved market accessibility for remote villages. Infrastructure projects supported by CFUGs include building or blacktopping of roads and construction of bridges, small-scale irrigation systems, drinking water systems, training centers, and guest houses. Many CFUGs in Nepal have used their funds to support the education infrastructure by providing funds for teachers’ salaries, school construction, furniture, scholarships, nutritional enhancement, forest excursions, and cultural program contributions to household livelihoods in some districts in the country, and these are often targeted to benefit the poorest households. Among the most innovative cases are those that provide housing services program. Savings, credit, and microenterprise schemes developed by CFUGs have also made substantial ) and supported more than 2,100 poor, marginalized, Dalit and conflict-affected households to the poorest landless households. Although microfinance is currently a relatively uncommon use of CFUG funds, it may be one of the most promising options for future livelihood improvements stemming from community forestry.
CFUGs retain 100 percent of revenues generated from their forest, but they must designate 25 percent of this income for forest development activities as per the Forest Act. Examples of development activities undertaken with CFUG revenues include improving irrigation canals and water distribution, supplementing teacher’s salaries, using forest products for school or other public building construction, or providing microfinancing for community members. Methods of revenue generation vary widely across the 16,000 CFUGs that are operational in Nepal and include charging members or outsiders a fee for permission to collect various forest products. At times, such a system of charging members has generated debate over whether the system is friendly to the poor, and significant investments are made by community forestry projects to sensitize and facilitate CFUGs to undertake ranking of forest users and to formulate differential (equitable) rules for forest product access and benefit sharing.
From an ecological standpoint, anecdotal observations and quantitative studies support the premise that community forestry practices have improved forest condition. A recent study reported that 74 percent of the forest area managed by CFUGs was in “good” condition, compared to 19 percent in “degraded” condition. Others have reported that CFUGs compare favorably to government forests in terms of change in forest condition. At the level of CFUG management, the issue of forest ecological sustainability is strongly addressed. Forests are generally put under a protectionist regime immediately after a CFUG is formed, and harvesting is generally done on the basis of block-based management and in combination with an inventory and assessment of mean annual increment. Community forest users also often patrol forests in groups both day and night to protect forests from external free riders
- Sociopolitical sustainability
There is a strong sense of awareness on civil rights among CFUGs which have established systems of internal governance. CFUG management of forests also appears to be sustainable financially. Of an estimated average running cost of NRs 119,100 per year for a CFUG, 71percent is borne by CFUGs themselves, 16 percent from donors and 13 percent from the government.
CFUGs not only manage forests for direct benefits to household livelihoods but also have emerged as a local agency for community development, social inclusion, and democratic civic engagement.
Overall, the strong interest of local communities in forest governance and their adoption of a sustainable approach to forest management are the key foundations of sustainability of community forestry in Nepal. CFUG networks and civil society actors have challenged the top-down approach of government. Community forestry is well respected by political parties, despite some strategic influences by politicians, for instance over CFUG elections. CFUGs have become durable institutions supported by an active and vibrant network of CFUG federations, all contributing to the sociopolitical sustainability of community forestry in Nepal.
Local actors choose to contribute their time and labor largely because forests represent a sociopolitical arena for them to engage in cultural and political exchanges, allowing them to further shape the collective identity of a community. In recent years, local forest-dependent people are becoming increasingly conscious of civil, political, and economic rights, and marginalized groups such as Dalits and indigenous groups are seeking pro-active involvement in different spheres of forest governance. Clearly, participating in forest management is not only driven by economic benefits but by a variety of cultural, symbolic, and political benefits that are gained through collective action in the forest governance arena.
- Controversial or Unintended Negative Aspect
Livelihoods have benefited from community forestry in Nepal, although some controversial aspects serve as the basis for ongoing research, critique, and innovation to further strengthen and adapt the program. Controversial aspects include insufficient quantitative evidence of an improvement in the income component of livelihoods, particularly for the poorest households and marginalized groups; divergent viewpoints over long-term community forestry management goals; a too-tenuous policy and enabling environment for pro-poor management; land tenure insecurity, especially for the poorest and marginalized groups; and difficulties in implementing community forestry in the timber-rich Terai region of the country.
Perhaps the most prominent of these aspects is evidence that the poorest households, who are the primary focus of pro-poor development interests, appear to benefit less from community forestry than wealthier households in a community. Some studies have found that wealthier households not only tend to control forest management decisions, but also may make access to forest products.
- Order of the National Green Tribunal regarding diversion of forest land for non-forestry purposes, Ichhapura village, Jharigam tehsil, Nabarangpur district, Odisha, 31/05/2022
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