More than 12,000 villagers from all over Nepal descended on the capital this week to protest a draft legislation that threatens to take away their right to protect and manage community forests. The amendments to the existing Forest Act (1993) and the Forest Regulations (1995) will, they say, turn the clock back on a progressive law that has saved Nepal's forests from total destruction.
This was a historic rally, one of the biggest consumer demonstrations in the capital. It was focused, multi-partisan, multi-ethnic, apolitical and designed to prevent what many consider a colossal mistake that will have far-reaching consequences for Nepali society and environment in future. Old and young, men and women alike, were asking to be allowed to own and nurture their forests, to be able to build schools and health posts from forest earnings. All this was promised by the 1993 legislation, but would be taken away by the amendment. "Why doesn't the government leave us alone and let our forests and children grow together," asked 40-year old Kanchi Gurung of Nigure Community Forest in Dolakha.
Community forestry has been a successful people's participation enterprise in Nepal. It dates back to the implementation of the Forest Act and Regulations after the restoration of multiparty democracy ten years ago. Forests were allowed to be cared for and managed as common property by organised groups of villagers who decided how to use forest products sustainably and use earnings for community development. So far, it has been a resounding success and many developing countries have tried to replicate the Nepal model.
More than half the forests in Nepal today are community-managed, and it is this resource that the government seems to be eying. This week in the capital, simple villagers made the forceful point that they were not going to give up the greenery they have nurtured to "corrupt politicians in Kathmandu". Says Hari Prasad Neupane the chairman of Federation of Community Forest Users of Nepal (FECOFUN): "This is the result of greedy people who were groomed in an undemocratic and unethical environment, and they want to steal our forests." Neupane says a section of the forest bureaucracy is cunningly getting the politicians to enact a law that will push back the clock on decades of conservation. "Nepalis are no more ignorant, we know what is what. We know our rights. They better not try to push us around," warned Neupane, whose federation groups community forest users all over Nepal.
We asked the spokesperson of the forestry ministry, Uday Raj Sharma, what he thought of the allegations. He hedged the question, answering: "We are in the process of devising new programmes to be implemented in different parts of the country to manage forests in a proper way." The Ministry's plan is to let hill communities manage forests, while in the tarai it wants a "block forest" management system called chakla. In the proposed amendment, the government says chakla forests in the tarai, inner tarai and chure exceeding 50 hectares, will not be given out to communities. But the rally seems to have scared the government, and by Wednesday, the clauses in the amendment had been changed and the mention of 50 hectares limit deleted.
The government wants to keep large forest blocks under its control through District Forest Officers (DFO) and Regional Forest Directors who will be granted sweeping powers on registration, renewal, evaluation, management and resource utilisation. This places the community at the mercy of forest officials, even for resources of daily use. "It will be like the Rana regime and the Panchayat era. We will start sneaking back into the forest to fell trees, because we need it," warns 49-year old Krishna Kumar Lama of Nigure Community Forest of Dolakha.
The amendment does allow local communities to grow forests on dead or dying woodlands, scrubland, and degraded slopes. Though the proposed legislation says daily necessities like grass and firewood will be given free to the communities, forest users will have to pay 40 percent of proceeds from the sale of timber to the government. Forest user groups say this is unrealistic, and opens up gray areas for widespread corruption.
Interestingly, even this clause now seems to have been changed after the rally. A new version of the draft legislation now states that the 40 percent proceeds from sale of timber will now be "shared" between the Village Development Committee and the District Development Committee. But it says the rule is applicable only in the tarai, chure and inner tarai regions, which comprise roughly 35 percent of the total forest area in Nepal. There are more than 10,000 forest user groups (FUGs) in Nepal, but only 184 in the 19 districts of the tarai. Deepak Kumar Chaudhary the VDC chairman from Terouta in Saptari says people in the tarai have been denied the right to do community forestry. "If they let us manage our own forests, we will protect it like it is our own. But if it is someone else's people will poach from it," he says.
In 2 November 1999 the Department of Forest (DOF) and the Community Forest Development Programme, both under the Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation issued a circular to all forest officials giving them powers to put a halt on the sale of timber from community forests. It said that the circular was targeted at the tarai to halt the felling of hardwood sal trees. However, district forest officials all over the country bent the rule and issued a different notice asking all forest user groups to stop harvesting trees. This triggered a revolt among FUGs against what they considered corrupt forestry officials.
The government seems confused. If it wants to protect sal why is there a blanket ban on all FUGs? Spokesperson Poudel is unable to clear it up, all he could tell us was: "We are still under the process of finalising the amendment. It is wrong to accuse the government at present."
Another contentious part in the Bill are forest corridors connecting national parks, reserves and protected areas under the Nepal Biodiversity Action Plan which focuses mostly in the tarai. It aims to take over forests-whether community or government managed, and put them under the control of the national park management allowing people to only use the forest resources under the applicable rules. "But once the Bill is passed, the same will apply to national parks in the hills as well. So this forest corridor plan will also affect people in the hills," says Narayan Kazi Shrestha, facilitator for South Asia Forest, Tree and People Programme, which lobbies for community forest organisations and raises awareness among people and policy makers. "Bureaucrats are just bullying the people and it's been quite a while since they've been doing that," he says. Activists fear that people in the tarai won't be given any more forests to manage and even existing community forests will disappear into park boundaries.
"This will be disastrous," says another tarai villager, Bhuvaneshwor Adhikary of Chautari Community Forest of Rajhar, Nawalparasi. "People will be angry and start chopping trees at will. Even I will do it, it's my right. After all if the government wants to take what we have planted and protected, why should we leave it to them?" Adhikary and others at the Kathmandu rally were clearly worried about the future. Said Chandra Bahadur Lama of Tuli village in Dhanusa: "The forest mafia will completely take over people's lives."
Community Forests in Nepal are functioning under the Forest Act (1993) at the policy level and the Forest Regulations (1995) at the operational level. Though the forest remains state property, the use of forest resources and its management is taken care of by the community themselves with the state providing technical support. When the community forestry act was first mooted in 1987, it was futuristic and first-of-it's-kind. Nepal became the first country in the Asia-Pacific with a community forest master plan. Although overall forest cover has gone down because of the destruction of tarai forest, there has been a resurgence in forest cover in pockets along the midhills.