Cutting down a luxuriant stand of 200 trees was a sad occasion for the inhabitants of this verdant mountain hamlet 35 km east of Kathmandu. But the electricity lines it paid for more than recompensed them.
Every night, Khushadevi now glitters like a jewel on the mountain slopes of Karve district. People in neighbouring hamlets still use dim, smoky kerosene lamps to light up their houses. "My two school-going boys now study longer and we have even got a television set," says Balkumari Shrestha as she takes off the load of livestock fodder and kitchen firewood she has brought home from a nearby forest.
It is barely two months since electricity came to Khushadevi. Locals often forget that they have to switch off the light and not blow at the bulbs as they used to do with the kerosene lamps. "It is all very new but now we cannot think of life without electricity," says Balkumari, who enjoys watching television every evening. Her schoolteacher husband, Mohan Kumar Shrestha, thinks it was a wise decision by the villagers to allow the trees to be cut. "We can always grow the trees back but we need electricity right now," says Shreshta.
The decision was taken by the forest user group, which, under a seven-year-old law, has the power to use and manage the local forest. Similar stories abound elsewhere in the mountain hamlets of Nepal. The residents of Thulaban village, in the adjoining Lalitpur district, have installed a drinking water system and carried out urgent repairs to the local school building. The money for this came from the sale of Christmas trees every season to luxury hotels in Kathmandu. The hamlet of Karkitar, also in Lalitpur, earned $2,044 by selling timber and used the money to build farm irrigation canals and a drinking water system. In the village of Baghmaney in Dang district, locals are building a secondary school with money gained from selling forest produce.
These success stories have been made possible by the 1993 law, which has given control of 621,942 hectares of degraded forest land to villagers for rejuvenation. As an incentive, they have been allowed to sell timber or other forest produce from these lands. According to top government forest official KB Shrestha, a leading expert on community-managed forests, the decision to hand over degraded forest areas to local communities was taken keeping in mind both the needs of locals and the health of Nepal's green cover. "One can already see the difference between community forests and government-run ones," he says.
However, the villagers may no longer be able to use degraded land because the government is now trying to undo the 1993 law. "We heard of the new law banning further tree felling and other activities over the radio, but we are yet to see a formal notice.
We are not going to hand back the hard earned rights of the people," says Bhim Neupane, who heads the Khushadevi village council. A member of the main opposition Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist), Neupane believes that corrupt government bureaucrats have made the change. "Now that we have improved the forests they want a share in the timber profits," he says.
Experts at the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) too have criticised the reported government move. Giving a stake to the locals in their forests is the best way to ensure their protection and nourishment, they say. According to ICIMOD community forestry expert, Anupam Bhatia, Anupam Bhatia, it is important to clarify rights and issues because vague laws can lead to a spurt in tree-felling with people moving in to fell trees and sell them while they still can. "But if groups of people are assured a long-term stake in healthy forests they are hardly likely to cut them down," he points out.
Responding to the growing criticism, the government insists that the ban on tree felling applies only to forests in the southern plains of Nepal. It is meant to deter the growing smuggling of commercially valuable timber from forests in this area, say senior government forest officials.