The most serious side-effect of Nepal's prolonged political volatility is the way it is undermining the dramatic progress since 1990 in community forestry.
In the past 20 years, even with the country mired in short-sighted politicking, corruption, war and its aftermath, not everything fell apart. The country's once sub-Saharan levels of maternal mortality have dropped by 40 per cent, under-5 child mortality has been halved, female literacy has nearly doubled and nearly 80 per cent of the population now has access to safe drinking water. Imagine how much more progress we'd have made if there hadn't been a ruinous war, if the government had been cleaner and more efficient, and we actually ended up spending the development budget to deliver services.
It has been said before, but merits repeating: everything that has worked in this country since 1990 has the word 'community' in it. Our network of community radio stations, community-managed schools, community-led women's cooperatives, community irrigation schemes, community-run electricity distribution are all successful models of decentralised development.
However, systematic corruption in the Ministry of Forests due to unstable and unaccountable leadership threatens to unravel Nepal's internationally acclaimed success with community forestry. As reported by Rubeena Mahato in the last issue of this paper ('Village forests go through midlife crisis', #509) District Forest Officers are parcelling out rich sal forests in the Tarai to loggers, or handing over government land to corrupted user groups. Despite the flood of coverage the rampant and blatant logging has received in the national press, caretaker officials are either looking the other way or are plundering what is left as if there is no tomorrow.
Nepal's forests have always been pillaged during periods of political upheaval: for resettlement during the Panchayat, around the time of the 1980 referendum, and during successive elections after 1990. In the past four years there has been a deliberate attempt to pad vote banks by settling party supporters from the hills in the plains. Encroachment encouraged by various political parties, but now mainly the Maoists, has not even spared the national parks.
The Minister of Forests seems to think his job is not to save forests but to raze them. With the entire government machinery out to fell what is left, the trees don't stand a chance. Before it is too late, and even if it is the last thing he does as prime minister, Madhav Kumar Nepal needs to stop this disaster.
The community forestry program needs to be revitalised, and the rewards we can reap in the future from carbon sequestration under the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Land Degradation (REDD) scheme can be ploughed back into the program.
The central state has no right to destroy what communities throughout Nepal have protected and nurtured for the past 20 years.