Proposed Forest Act amendment could derail community forestry in Nepal

Ganga R. Dahal provides a viewpoint on a proposed amendment to Nepal’s Forest Act of 1993 that would threaten the vitality of community forestry in that country. 

A recent proposal to amend the Forest Act of 1993,  put forward by the Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation of Nepal, has generated concern among people and organizations involved in the promotion of community forestry and the establishment of forest resources rights for  communities and indigenous peoples over the last 30 years.

The proposed amendment primarily aims to limit the expansion of community forestry and take back some of the existing rights given to community forestry user groups (CFUGs) by the Forest Act of 1993. It includes:

  • Imposing 50% tax on any forest products sold outside a CFUG;
  • Limiting community forestry those areas where block forestry and collaborative forestry schemes are not possible;
  • Prohibiting communities from harvesting any products from their forest until after two years from the handover of their community forest;
  • Requiring that District Forest Officers only renew CF Operational Plans if they feel that the proposed plan will not lead to a deterioration in the condition of the forest and environment; and
  • Limiting the area for community forestry by allocating not more than 0.5 ha, 2 ha, and 3 ha per household in the terai (lowlands), mid-hills, and high hills, respectively.

Now, the key question is why is the Government of Nepal attacking community forestry and proposing to impose all these new restrictions?

Such restrictions will no doubt discourage communities from investing as much effort in forest management as they have to date. The amendment is a slap in the face to all those who have invested time and funds into supporting the development of one of the world’s leading community forestry programs.

Some argue that community forestry user groups in the terai have been destroying forests through the illegal harvesting of timber and are guilty of corruption. But it is important to ask how many out of 17,000 CFUGs in the country are involved in such activities? The answer is only four or five user groups. It doesn’t make sense to punish the other 16,995 CFUGs by limiting their rights through the proposed amendment. Instead, the government should make greater efforts to punish those that are not complying with the existing rules on an individual basis.

Furthermore, studies undertaken in Nepal within the last two decades have explicitly shown that forest conditions have improved after a few years of CFUG management. Studies also reveal that the condition of forests managed by the government has continued to deteriorate over the last two decades.

Returning to a 1970s-style state-centric system of forest management would bring with it many of the failures of that approach, which ignored the rights and role of communities and indigenous peoples and other non-state actors in the management of forest resources. If the Department of Forests is currently unable to effectively enforce the existing rules, what makes them so sure it will be easier to regulate an even stricter code?

So, the question now is this: to what extent is the current attempt by the government of Nepal to curtail the rights of forest user groups justifiable in terms of ensuring sustainable forest management and addressing the livelihood needs of local people?

Based on the successes of community forestry in Nepal, we believe restricting community-based forest management is a step in the wrong direction. The government should be addressing the problem at its root – illegal logging and encroachment by the few – rather than punishing the many working diligently for sustainable forest management.

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  1. Beth

     /  February 7, 2012

    I did research on community forestry in the buffer zone areas surrounding Chitwan National Park in 2007 and found that even with the community forestry processes in place, the lower castes and poorer members of the communities were still marginalised and struggling to make a livelihood and meet basic needs. If this change in the Act occurs then not only will this get worse for those most in need, but will start to affect many more people. I had people crying to me in their homes during interviews about how dire the situation is – how they cannot afford to pay to access the Park’s resources, how they do not have the capital or the skills to move into the tourism industry and away from subsistence farming (which is how the richer members of the communities were able to survive), how they don’t have room to graze their livestock anymore – and I don’t see this situation improving with these changes proposed. The community forestry utopia portrayed by much of the literature and advocates of community-based conservation, at least in 2007, was mostly rhetoric and misunderstood policy implementation, and I fear for the people if things become more officially centralised.

    • James Bampton

       /  February 9, 2012

      Beth, you bring up a very valid point. However, it is important to note that CF in bufferzones are already restricted more than others by government writ.
      Nevertheless, social inequality unfortunately continues to persist in Nepali society as a whole and, despite much effort by CF advocates, in many CFs as well. However, this shouldn’t detract from the principles and goals of CF, which is ultimately social justice through equitable management and benefiting from forest resources, and many people in Nepal and beyond are doing all they can to promote this. Instead of limiting the rights of CFUGs the Government of Nepal should be empowering the group members – all of them – to hold their committee members accountable and manage the CFs for the benefit of all.

      In all the discussions I have been party to over so many years, CF is too often looked at in isolation – none of the other forest management modalities credibly offer a better outcome for either poor people or the forest.

      • James Bampton

         /  February 9, 2012

        One further comment is that no one outside MFSC really knows if they will finally propose all the changes raised in the blog – the issue is that there doesn’t appear to be open discussion and debate through a multi-stakeholder approach of analysing the situation and suggesting amendments if agreed necessary. It is open and participatory discussion that we should all push for…….

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