Only patches remain today of what was once a wide ribbon of dense hardwood jungles along Nepal's southern plains. The forests of the tarai are today confined largely to protected national parks. Everywhere else there is encroachment and habitat destruction.
Tarai forests are vanishing at an alarming 1.3 percent a year, and what is more worrisome is that the community forestry formula which worked so well in the hills doesn't seem to do as well here. The reason: recent migrations from the hills have displaced indigenous groups, and there is a need to meet national timber requirements.
"The community forestry concept needs some modifications in the tarai," says Megh Raj Sapkota of the Bara chapter of the Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal. "It doesn't have to be scrapped altogether." And here in Bara, a new project is trying to come up with a modified method to let local communities manage forests.
Even till 15 years ago, Dakaha in Bara used to be surrounded by dense forest. Over the years, as the population grew and settlements spread, forests began to recede. In 1964, forests covered more than six million hectares of the tarai, it has now shrunk to 4.2 million hectares.
The history of this destruction can be traced back to the nationalisation of forests after 1960 and their central management. Timber was seen as a limitless natural resource, and the tarai as a limitless receptacle for hill resettlement. More than 100,000 hectares of forests in the environmentally sensitive Siwalik hills were cleared for resettlement by 1985. Today, the destruction is more from development projects and illegal encroachment.
When the idea of community forestry was tried out, it seemed like this would work just like in the hills. Village groups are leased a patch of forest to be managed, protected and reforested. In turn, the communities have a say over use of fodder, fuelwood and timber from their forests. In the hills, the lesson was that forest protection was impossible without the involvement of local communities.
The community forestry concept involves villagers living in the vicinity of forests as its rightful users and deprive distant villagers of access. In the hills, this is fine since communities and forest patches are usually located next to each other, making the handover relatively straightforward.
However in the tarai, the forests are bunched up on the slopes of the Siwalik hills to the north while the most dependent groups are in isolated clusters miles away to the south. Indigenous people who were traditional users and direct benefactors now no longer live close to forests. The influx of hill migrants that began in the 1960s following the eradication of malaria have cut them off from their traditional woodlands.
Good results from the hills encouraged several of the 20 tarai districts to transfer forests to communities. Jhapa in the east has already handed over more than half of its forests for community management, but the indigenous Rajbanshis have been left out of the process. Their rights to the natural resources are cut off, while new migrants who were responsible for deforestation, directly or indirectly, are now the legally recognised owners.
Unfortunately, there is no alternative to mobilising the communities for forest protection. "Since we are not the officially recognised protectors of the forest, we have seen the forests looted before our eyes," says Ganesh Shrestha, a resident of Dumarwana, near Simara.
In Kailali's Chhatiwan, 4,000 hectares of dense hardwood sal has been allotted to a community of 1,600 households, most of whom are new migrants from adjoining hill districts. This has deprived the indigenous Tharu communities, traditional users of the forest from their source of livelihood. There are bound to be problems when a common resource for indigenous groups is shifted to the control of relatively recent migrants.
Studies show one mature sal tree can fetch an equivalent of three year earnings of a labourer, and the imbalance can be glaring. The indigenous communities are fighting a case against this ruling, but there is little chance their claims will be reinstated.
"Community forestry in the tarai has helped create distrust and distance between the migrant communities and indigenous communities. If nothing is done this could in future trigger ethnic clashes," says former Bara District Development Committee chairman Chhathu Prasad Yadav.
There are already signs of this happening. Last August, Tharus and Pahadis had a confrontation in Bara's Biruwaguthi which locals believe was a physical manifestation of this growing distrust. To be sure, the issue had political overtones since the actual clashes were triggered when the Tharus blamed the Pahadis of sheltering Maoist insurgents to attack a Tharu parliamentarian. But it was the forest that got burnt.
Involvement of communities is vital for not only conservation but also for the smooth forest management. A Finnish-funded project in the mid-1990s tried to introduce commercial block forest management: compartmentalising the stands and harvesting mature hardwood trees in a 80-year cycle.
Though technically sound, this proposal got scrapped because locals were not consulted. The communities realise that without teaming up with the government "their forest" would not be protected from timber smugglers. Seven hundred hectares of tarai and Siwalik forests here are still under government ownership.
Weak management within the official framework and a lack of political commitment is encouraging illegal felling of trees to supply the easily accessed market south of the border. If properly managed, the country could earn up to $160 million a year in timber exports, and some forestry management experts believe handing over this resource rich forest to a small community could create an imbalance in distribution and a loss of government control.
Despite a government directive that slowed down distribution of forests to communities three years ago, district level forest offices are under tremendous pressure to hand over more forest patches especially in areas previously identified for potential community forest. SP Joshi, District Forest Officer of Bara says the biggest challenge remains a confidence crisis between the locals and the bureaucracy.
"If the District Forest Office get control, our forests will never be safe," says Nirmal Bhandari, a promoter of community forestry here. Presently, the government is trying to bring various groups together to discuss a new concept of "collaborative forest management" under the Biodiversity Sector Programme for Siwaliks and Tarai (BISEP-ST) funded by the Dutch aid group, SNV.
This modification of community forestry for the tarai will, the designers hope, eventually prepare the government and local communities to work together. It would also pave the way to implement operational forest management plans in the central tarai. The main thrust will be on commercially harvesting mature trees to contribute to national coffers.
Megh Raj Sapkota concludes that community forestry in the tarai does not need to be scrapped despite its flaws.