For everything that goes wrong in this country, our leaders always have someone to blame. Usually it is some opposition figure, an invisible enemy or the foreign hand. But it is clear we don't need outsiders to bring the nation down, we're doing pretty well by ourselves.
The Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation is preparing to amend the Forest Act of 1993, which if endorsed by the parliament, would effectively demolish Nepal's successful, and globally-recognised community forestry program. A quarter of all forests in Nepal are managed and protected by over 17,000 community forest user groups.
But fearful of losing control and tempted by profits from the timber trade, the amendment proposes new restrictions that would undermine the fundamental principle of community forestry: manage local resources through grassroots democracy. Communities have been running health posts and repairing bridges from proceeds of the forests they have protected. The government wants to take that money away from them.
The amendment will restrict community forests to only those areas which cannot be developed as 'block' or 'collaborative' forests. There will be limits on the maximum area for community forests, user groups will not be able to fix rates for forest products anymore, and they will have to pay half the proceeds from sales to the state. To top it all, communities will be at the mercy of DFOs (district forest officers), who have acquired a well-deserved reputation for corruption, to renew their operational plans.
The ministry says it had to act because there is illegal logging in community forests. But there are plenty of examples of how the forests are the first to go if the state gets involved. User groups throughout Nepal have proved that they are perfectly capable of managing forests, raising local living standards, and protecting watersheds. Bringing in a corrupt and callous state is to guarantee the destruction of Nepal's forestry success story.
To be sure, the philosophy of community forestry has never really caught on in the Tarai, and the prolonged political transition has tainted some user groups. Illegal logging has been reported mostly from the Tarai districts which account for 5 per cent of community forests, and in the midhills in some forests which were in the process of being handed over. But corruption in a few villages is no reason to dismantle the entire program.
If the government really wants to control illegal logging, why not go after corrupt ministers who have amassed wealth in 'pre-paid' transfers of DFOs and local groups who run protection rackets? A well thought-out government propaganda is in place to prove that community forestry has failed in Nepal and is being fueled by local media and pseudo experts.
A study conducted by the Swiss group, HELVETAS, however, has shown that there is 33 per cent more forest cover in Dolakha district than 20 years ago, and the growth of canopy cover in community forests was double that of government or privately owned forests. Unlike what the ministry wants us to believe, the model remains a success.
User groups across the country have built schools and roads with the profits of the forest and an obligatory provision to reserve half the membership in user committees for women and disadvantaged communities has made local democracy more inclusive.
It is not hard to see who benefits from the smear campaign against community forestry. They are the same crooks who plundered Nepal's forests to near extinction during the Panchayat, and are now eyeing the savings of user groups that run into billions.
The new legislation is a case of medicine being worse than the disease. If the government is really serious about saving Nepal's forests, it should stay away and leave them in care of the communities.
Before and after
The hills of Kavre, Sindhupalchok and Dolakha used to be barren in the 1970s. But after the community forestry initiative took hold in the region, the districts have been transformed. This dramatic change is illustrated in a new book published by the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) to mark 50 years of being in Nepal, Kathmandu to Jiri: A Photo Journey.
This book consists of 19 pairs of before and after photos that clearly show changes in landscape over three decades along the highway from Kathmandu to Jiri, and what is most striking is the increase in forest cover because local communities and forest user groups have been protecting their forests.
The book also details how forests have helped agriculture by preserving watersheds, protecting the mountains from landslides, and promoting tourism.
Kathmandu to Jiri: A Photo Journey
Dr Bharat Pokharel and Anupama Bhatt
Nepal Swiss Community Forestry Project
Also available online on pdf:
Uprooting grasrroot Democracy
Nepal's community forests survived the war, now they are threatened by peace.
Out on a limb, DEWAN RAI
Nepal's forests are threatened by politicians protecting illegal loggers and corrupt forest officials
Village forests go through midlife crisis, RUBEENA MAHATO in NAWALPARASI
Nepal's community forestry movement is threatened by corruption and greed
Seeing neither forests nor trees, KUNDA DIXIT in UDAYPUR
Political uncertainty is wiping out Tarai and Chure forests