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close this book Boiling Point No. 22 - August 1990
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Self-help For Forests

Reproduced from an article by Nigel Hicks in Asia Technology News, May 1990.

Ten years ago, the World Bank predicted that by 1995 Nepal would have no accessible forest left. Fortunately, a 1988 study, also by the World Bank, has shown that such a pessimistic assessment was flawed, and that the situation is not nearly so bad. Indeed today, with the country on the brink of widespread implementation of community forestry schemes, there are grounds for optimism.

While more than half of the forest in the Tarai lowlands had undergone extensive conversion to agriculture and industrial land since the eradication of malaria from the region, the heavily populated Middle Hills has lost very little forest land since at least 1950. The same is true for the High Mountains. Within the forests of the Middle Hills, however, there has been a steady decline in quality owing to felling of mature trees for building and fuel, and excessive cutting of the remaining shrubs for animal fodder and firewood. As a result, many of the forests in the worst hit areas have been almost wholly reduced to shrublands. The High Mountains, on the other hand, because of their low population density, still support extensive ranges of mature forests.

Community Forestry

Early attempts by government to conserve the forests assumed that the trees had to be protected against the farmers. The forests were nationalised in 1957 and this was followed in the 1960s by legislation that gave rangers powers to arrest forest trespassers. Despite this, the rural people continued to use the forests; it has recently become clear that since the 1960s many villagers have run their own forest management schemes. Recognition of this, coupled with the farmers' total dependence on the forests to supply their basic needs, and realisation that the government does not have the resources to mount a massive policing operation, led to a shift in policy during the 1970s and the eventual development of the concept of community forestry (CF).

Under development for 10 years, CF is today becoming the catchphrase of Nepalese forestry; management of the forests for the people by the people, with the aim of conserving the forest so they can sustainably support the lives of the subsistence farmers.

The approach did not always work out. One of the main causes of failure was the unrepresentative nature of the public meetings. "They were usually attended by men, most especially the wealthy and the local politicians, whereas of course the people who enter and cut the forest are mostly women and the poor. Those at the meetings simply did not know the facts about the forest, and did not represent the opinions of the forest users," explained Bob Fisher of the NAFP. "In addition our early approach was too top heavy, with outside people trying to tell the farmers what was best, instead of the farmers telling us their needs. Besides that, plantation forestry was not working; it is just too expensive and labour intensive for the conditions under which we are working".

Today's CF encourages the farmers to increase the planting of trees on edges of their own fields, and to implement management of local forest lands. Project workers feel that the management schemes the farmers have used over the past 20 years, typically consisting of cyclic protection and heavy cutting of designated areas, can be improved, perhaps by adaptation of time-honoured European-style coppicing techniques. "Their methods are often too conservative, and concentrate too much on protection and not enough on continuous controlled use,)' explained lan Thompson of the Nepal-UK Forestry Research project (NUKFRP). "We need to develop ways that enable the farmers to make continuous, but sustainable use of forest land."

The technical side of management is the relatively easy part of the project work. With implementation come the community problems: identifying the forests' users, getting them to express their opinions, ensuring their fair representation on forest management commitees, getting everyone to agree on access rights, cutting and grazing controls and gaining acceptance of new techniques.

Solving these problems is the job of extension, a painstaking process whereby the foresters befriend the local population, find out everything they can about the locality, and convince the farmers of their desire to help them. It is a time-consuming approach, but its strengths are becoming apparent, as more and more rural communities open themselves to the forestry workers' approaches.

Local Participation

Begun in 1986, the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) involves a range of measures designed both to promote development of the local economy and to protect the natural environment. "Through a lot of extension work by ACAP staff'', said Chandra Gurung, acting director of ACAP, "the local people now have, for example, their own forest management rules and a complete ban on hunting; they are running a medical centre and have conservation education in the schools".