ALL PICS: RUBEENA MAHATO
Political fluidity and a breakdown in the rule of law has led to rampant logging nationwide and is threatening to undermine Nepal's internationally recognised community forestry program.
Trees are being felled by logging groups that enjoy political patronage and protection from district forest officers (DFOs). Community forestry user groups, on the other hand, have been colluding with timber poachers and corrupt local officials to harvest trees.
Illegal logging is now so rampant and blatant that Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal summoned the Minister of Forests and Soil Conservation, Deepak Bohara, and asked for clarification. The ministry then recalled DFOs from two districts, but no one has been charged. "Elections for membership of community forestry user groups are now more hotly contested than VDC elections ever were," says Raju Ranjan of the Deusathala Community Forestry User Group in Nawalparasi.
Nearly 30 years after the state began to hand over Nepal's forests to local communities for protection and management, the program appears to be a victim of its own success. The adult trees that the villagers nurtured have become so valuable that unscrupulous village elders have been tempted by the timber mafia to plunder woodlands.
The destruction is most visible in the Tarai, but even forests in the midhills that have road connections are being denuded. In Dadeldhura contractors, with the help of district forest officials and users, are trying to get large tracts of national forests handed over to the communities so they can sell the trees. "When the regulators and protectors of forests are hand-in-glove in destroying the forests, who can stop them?" asks Resham Bahadur Dangi, joint secretary at the Ministry of Forests. He is a helpless witness to the rife corruption in the appointment of DFOs by his ministry.
History has shown that Nepal's forests have always suffered during periods of political transition. The current weak state and the breakdown in the rule of law have allowed a nationwide network of timber mafias to flourish. Since timber harvesting is allowed inside community forests, they have become a vulnerable target.
In community forests across Nawalparasi, community forestry user groups pay up to Rs 60,000 to government rangers to get amendments to their by-laws approved. There is also corruption in getting felling permits from forestry officials. "We have no option but to comply with the demands of the range post office, or they will not give us permits," says Krishna Prasad Aryal, who heads the Deusathala Community Forestry User Group.
Richer user groups, however, have found ways to bribe officials to fell more timber than their permits allow them. Nawalparasi DFO Shahirat Prasad Thakur is among 16 officials who are being investigated by the CIAA for graft.
The biggest challenge facing community forestry at the moment is internal governance, says Popular Gentle of Care Nepal.
The Community Forestry Guidelines of 2009 require villages to set aside 35 per cent of revenue for the poor, marginalised and Dalits, and also require half the members of user groups to be women. Very few of the community forests in Nawalparasi, or even in the rest of the country, have fulfilled this quota. Community mobiliser Bhumisara Phal says it is nearly impossible to get the powerful people in the village to agree to the provisions. "The few women and Dalits who are elected to user groups have no role but to work for the influential members," she says.
Surbit Sthapit of HImalayan Community Development Forum says that there is policy level corruption in the community forests. "The user groups set the price of the timber at as low as Rs 10 in their operational plans when they are being sold in the market for Rs 800 to Rs 1200. Legally, they are not at fault but this is a kind of hidden corruption."
The newly-elected head of the Federation of Community Forestry Users in Nepal (FECOFUN), Apsara Chapagain, is aware of the problems her member communities face, but blames the government for trying to smear the community forestry movement.
"It may be true that user groups have been infiltrated by unscrupulous persons, but by and large community forestry is a successful model," she says. "The government has a vested interest in proving that it is not."
* Total forest cover: 25.4 per cent
* Annual deforestation rate (2000-2005): 1.4 per cent
* Between 2000-2005, Nepal lost about 2,640 sq km of forest
(Source: FAO, 2005)
Still going strong
There are still some community forests that have resisted logging. Sitaram Community Forest in Nawalparasi, which is completely run by women, is an example. With years of nurturing, they have turned a barren river bank into a dense forest. But they are content with felling old tress and collecting fallen branches, even if their yearly income is far less than the neighbouring user groups that harvest timber.
"We planted these trees with our own hands. We will not fell them for money," says Sita Thapa, head of a user group that relies more on non-timber produce like fodder grass and amriso (broom grass) farming for income.
In Shree Kumarwarti Adarsha Buffer Zone Community Forest at Pithauli, growing forest cover has provided safe habitat for the wildlife of Chitwan National Park. Despite frequent attacks from the animals, the users are committed to conserving the forest. "We are building electric fences to ward off animals at night. But the forests will not be destroyed," says Indra Bhusal, head of the user committee.
Community forestry has never been as successful in the Tarai as in the hills of Nepal because of commercial logging and the pressure on land.
"In the hills, forests are needed for subsistence but the Tarai has more of an industrial demand," says Resham Bahadur Dangi, joint secretary at the Ministry of Forests.
Forest ownership is also not as well defined in the Tarai as in the hills. The high prices for Tarai hardwoods meant that the state was reluctant to transfer ownership of forests to local communities. The government's alternative for the Tarai is the concept of 'collaborative forests', which involves traditional users and greater state control.
But community forestry advocates are not happy with this model. "This will create rifts between traditional users and recent migrants in the Tarai," says FECOFUN's Mohammad Kar Khan.Not just Tarai, even hill districts like Kaski and Ilam have fallen prey to timber trade.