Nepali Times
"Hariyo ban Nepal sarkar ko dhan."


When the government nationalised the country's forests in 1961 it took away control over resources from local communities. Within 15 years, Nepal had lost much of its midhill forest cover, the country was sliding towards desertification, and there were dire predictions that all forests would go by the year 2000.

Luckily, in the 1980s along came the community forest initiative which allowed villages to lease the commons, protect their forests so they could use it sustainably. Villagers started protecting their forests again, they stall-fed cattle so the animals wouldn't forage in the undergrowth. Soon, mountains that had been nearly denuded, started to regenerate and by the year 2000 Nepal's midhills actually had more forest cover than in the 1950s.

Nepal's community forestry experience is regarded as one of our greatest success stories, and is being replicated throughout the developing world. The model was built on the need for grassroots democracy, environmental protection and decentralised decision-making to strengthen each other. And it worked.

Unfortunately it seems to have worked so well that the central government now wants a share of the revenue from the forests that the villagers have protected.

In 2001, the government promulgated an ordinance to collect 40 percent of the income from community forest users in the tarai area. Following a writ petition by the users, the Supreme Court ruled against the decision. Now, far from withdrawing the rule for the tarai the government has extended the 40 percent requirement to all community forests all over the kingdom through Royal Ordinance in the budget.

Environmentalist and grassroots activist, KK Panday shakes his head in dismay: "It took us 30 years to correct the mistake of nationalising forests in 1956, now we are going to repeat that same mistake."

There are now more than 13,000 community-based forest user groups covering 1.4 million families throughout Nepal. Their members are elected by the community, and most are effective and accountable looking after the villagers who entrusted their forests in their hands. There have been numerous cases of village men, women and children staying awake all night to guard their forests when the saplings are young. Some villagers have paid with their lives to guard their trees, others have been burnt trying to save their forests from fires.

Revenue from community forests generated local income for VDCs which they ploughed into building schools, paying teachers, and repairing health posts. Farmers originally didn't like tying up their cattle and buffaloes, but suddenly found that if everyone stall-fed there was enough grass and fodder in the forest for everyone. In almost every survey done since community forestry went into effect, family incomes and wellbeing have improved.

"We told the people, this is your forest, protect it and you can use it for the good of your community, and they did. They trusted us. Now we are going back to them and saying sorry, boys, it's not yours after all," says Hari Prasad Neupane, the fiery leader of the federation of forest user groups, FECOFUN.

With his white moustache and patriarchal bearings, Neupane has been leading communities from throughout Nepal to agitate against the ordinance and is determined to see it quashed. At a recent public hearing at the Nepal Forum of Environmental Journalists (NEFEJ), Neupane got into a heated argument with government officers from the Department of Forests, an exchange that was broadcast on all television channels.

It was clear there is a wide gap in the understanding of forestry between government and grassroots groups. The Department of Forests sees the trees only as a source of timber and revenue. Community leaders have seen with their own eyes that the forests they protect gives villagers fodder for livestock, thatch for roofs, it protects their springs and water sources, it protects the slopes above their villages from landslides, it brings back wildlife and helps tourism.

The government's arguments in support of the 40 percent ordinance is lame: officials say communities are depriving other migrants from using the forests, that there is corruption in the user groups and that the commons are not just the property of a local community but national property. In short, the same arguments that were used to justify the nationalisation of forests back in 1961. It is clear that the unspoken reason for the ordinance is that the government is broke, and forests have traditionally been seen as a source of revenue. Nepali political leaders have always parcelled out forests to crony contractors to finance election campaigns, and used trees to dispense political patronage.

"Communities should not see this as the government taking away their earnings, the government will invest the money back in the villages for the common good," said Jamuna Krishna Tamrakar from the Department of Forests at the NEFEJ hearing. There were howls of protest from the audience.

Apsara Chapagain is a member of a local forest user group with FECOFUN, and says rumours of the ordinance have already reached her village and people are saying they may as well cut down the young trees since the government is going to take it away anyway. "These are trees we planted, nurtured and protected for 20 years, are not going to just hand it back to corrupt officials in Kathmandu," Chapagain said. The communities have a formidable array of respected big names to back them up, like Mohan Man Sainju the ex-head of the National Planning Commission, and Nepal's foremost naturalists Tirtha Bahadur Shrestha.

Donor threat
If the government decision is implemented, international donor agencies are reportedly planning to pull out funding from the community forestry sector, with grave implications for other aid projects as well. "The forest users will suffer irreversibly from the government's action. We cannot support this further if there's no chance of community forestry development," says Karl Schuler of Swiss Development Cooperation, Nepal.

Eight key donor agencies from Denmark, Australia, UK, Switzerland, USA, Germany, Netherlands and Japan have supported Nepal's community forestry programme, and officials are said to be furious about the government decision. Their projects cover 69 out of 75 districts. In addition, UNDP, the EU, ICIMOD, World Bank, Action Aid, Oxfam, ANSAB, and UMN have also been involved in promoting community forestry. The donors held an emergency meeting on Thursday to decide on their involvement in Nepal's forest development.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)