RECOFTC’s Program Officer for Gender and Rights, Bhawana Upadhyay, writes on the implications of a proposed amendment to Nepal’s Forest Act 1993.
The forest means everything to 31 year-old Laxmi Tamang of Dadeldhura, Nepal. She nodded while saying, “We will fight to the death, but won’t let our forest pass into the hands of encroachers,” to a passerby who asked her about the news of Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation (MoFSC) passing a proposal to amend the Forest Act 1993.
I wondered if our politicians and lawmakers have adequate ears to listen to hundreds of thousands of voices like hers. To date, there are more than 1.6 million households engaged in conservation and sustainable management of community forests in Nepal.
A press release by Federation of Community Forestry User Groups Nepal (FECOFUN) rejected the proposed amendment, arguing, “although MoFSC has been justifying the proposal on the grounds of enhancing state revenue, experts say that the proposed amendment is merely triggered by a few cases of irregularities and overexploitation of forests in some regions.” There has been considerable finger-pointing on all sides. For instance, district forest officials claim that some members of Forest User Groups (FUGs) are involved in smuggling forest products, while locals of the Chure area have been raising their voices against government officials for their inability to control illegal activities. The Federation of Community Forest Users Nepal (FECOFUN) local chapter also condemned the involvement of various political parties, including Madhesi Janadhikar Forum Loktantrik (MJF-L), behind the illegal timber racket, which has been a major driver of deforestation in the region.
Following continued media coverage on illegal timber smuggling, a high level team consisting of the representatives from the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) and MoFSC had been formed for investigation. During the inspection, the team found that around 1,200 trees each with 100-150 cubic feet of timber had been cut illegally in more than 12 community forests in the Chure region alone.
Apart from arresting representatives of Community Forest User Groups (CFUGs) and confiscating their documents, no further action has been taken against the smuggling masterminds as they have alleged political party backings. FECOFUN Chairman Shobhakar Sapkota observed, “There is a politically-backed group behind the smuggling of timbers. Police and forest office are helpless.”
Experts argue that the proposed revision of the Act goes against key recommendations of a high level task force formed by MoFSC in August 2006, consisting of representatives from various I/NGOs, donors, expert groups, and relevant stakeholders. The task force recommended government structures and forest management systems within the newly-minted Federal Democratic Republic state that would uphold the rights and responsibilities of local people towards management and governance of forests and forest resources.
Criticism has been rife from various corners, including civil society and national and international forestry stakeholders, following FECOFUN’s outright rejection of the proposal. In fact, the issue is likely to trigger serious public debate challenging existing public policy processes in Nepal.
Department of Forest data show that 1.1 million hectares of the total forestland has been handed over to local community groups under the Forest Act, which effectively guarantees non-interference from the government as long as CFUGs comply with community forestry operational plans, the Forest Act 1993, and the Forest Regulation 1995.
If handled well, community forestry offers an opportunity to a country like Nepal to help its poor rural communities in a number of important ways. Recently, climate change adaptation and carbon trading schemes have emerged as two important sources of value for Nepal’s poor and its forests. Community forestry is gaining momentum on the premise of reducing deforestation and degradation of forests resources, with studies suggesting that community forests are better carbon sinks when local men and women are entrusted to grow, harvest, and manage forest resources in a sustainable way.
A couple of years ago, Laxmi was told that she and over 100 other groups like hers, who had been sharing forests as community property, can be awarded cash incentives when they keep their trees intact. Laxmi then couldn’t believe that CFUGs like hers would be paid money for not cutting trees.
In fact, last year more than 100 FUGs in different western districts made money by protecting their trees. This money was used for enhancement of their wellbeing by establishing revolving funds. “More than that, this kind of incentive encourages local users to manage and conserve their natural resources in a more sustainable way,” said Laxmi. Going by the FECOFUN claim that over 50 percent of their 15,000 plus FUG members are women, these funds are likely to enhance access of women to resources and subsequently their livelihood options.
It is worth noting that the Nepal government has recently signed a joint Funding Agreement of USD$62 million with the governments of Finland, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom for a multi-stakeholder forestry program. The program envisages covering 61 districts over a 10 year period, engaging different stakeholders in building local capacities in emerging areas like carbon trading and impact of climate change.
As I write this, I am reminded of a point made in one of the 2009 IFPRI studies that Nepal’s government and policymakers need to be responsive to community concerns, given that more than 70% of the country populace is dependent on agriculture. The report emphasized that community forest management would be an increasingly important option in the coming years.
Rather than rushing to make yet another regrettable policy decision, it is advisable for the Nepalese government to take time to make an appropriate judgment: which incentive is more rewarding in the long run for the forest-dependent Nepali people—carbon money or the felled timber?