Last Dasain, villagers in Gaurikhan of Dadeldhura were woken up by a fleet of bulldozers roaring through the thick sal forests nearby. They were happy because it shortened their trip to Mahendranagar.
A 25-km road was constructed through the community forests on Chure hills, but suspicions were aroused because a road for just four households seemed fishy. The corruption watchdog, CIAA, started investigating.
"All evidence point to a premeditated plan involving political leaders, forest officials, user group members, contractors and local authority," says Krishna Prasad Dhungel at the CIAA. "It is impossible for smugglers alone to successfully carry out a plan of that magnitude without political protection."
Dhungel's investigation team visited the field last month and found loggers used chain saws to fell trees and truck them away on the newly-constructed road. He counted at least 25 trucks in Jogbudha valley alone. The team found that timber worth Rs 12 million was cut from six community forests in two months.
Federation of Community Forest User Groups (FECOFUN) President Apsara Chapagain blames the Chure Conservation Program formed under President Ram Baran Yadav's initiative in 2010. The program aims to conserve the fragile Chure landscape, but community forestry user groups suspect the government wants to take back the forests they nurtured.
"It was natural for the villagers to be worried if the government decides to take over the forest they preserved for years," she explained. "Political parties in cahoots with smugglers and local administration cashed in on this fear."
Chapagain is critical of the government's proposed amendment to the Forest Act which will levy a 50 per cent tax on timber sale, and other provisions that would undermine the community forestry concept. The District Forest Officer (DFO) is given the power to decide on the future of community forests.
"Even today, DFOs are demanding bribes, imagine what will happen if they are given even more discretionary authority?" asks Chapagain.
Yagyanath Dahal at the Minsitry of Forests defends the amendment, saying it aims to regulate forestry. "We found the involvement of community forests in illegal logging particularly in the Tarai," he told the Nepali Times, "to argue that we are trying to take over the user groups is ridiculous." But Dahal readily admits that only five per cent of community forest user groups could be involved in illegal activities.
Former forest minister Dipak Bohara had proposed the amendments to the act because he feared the user groups had 'captured' forests across the country. His two successors did not move the amendment file until the Baburam Bhattarai government came to office last year.
Current minister, Mohammad Wakil Musalman came up with a provision of setting up a monitoring mechanism and lifted the logging ban three months ago after which the Dadeldhura clear-cutting went through.
Dhungel at the CIAA is adamant to bring those who committed the environmental crime to justice. He told us: "It is too early to say for sure, but the political parties are directly involved. No matter who they are we will bring them to justice."
Uprooting grasrroot Democracy
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The government's proposed changes to the Forest Act are handcrafted to sabotage Nepal's widely-acclaimed community forestry movement