Community forestry at a crossroads

It is often believed that crises open up avenues for opportunities. The whole world witnessed the global health crises of Covid-19 that triggered widespread panic and resulted in loss of lives, while businesses closed down due to the economic downturn. Yet, several governments and people learnt and developed strategies to cope with such situations, and many of them worked well. On the positive side, there is a realization that we need a certain strategy to cope with a certain crisis. This is because crises often trigger a sense of urgency, thus actuating solutions. And when crises mitigation strategies are explored through collaborative deliberations, that would certainly cultivate perspectives for change. A perfect example of this was the International Community Forestry Conference held on March 4-5 in Kathmandu.

The conference was conceived to not only bring together national and international researchers, practitioners, activists and policy-makers, but also to reflect on the achievements and emerging challenges facing the community forestry in Nepal.

An innovative program

Nepal’s community forestry has witnessed four decades of experimentation, adaptive management and expansion across the country. Not only has it evolved into a robust system of devolving management and resource use rights to local communities through legally-recognized and perpetually self-governed institutions, it has also functioned to sustain and improve the lives of those who rely on forests. More than 22,000 registered groups operate across the country, and have benefited 16.6m people through the management of over 1.8m hectares of forests. With decades of experimentation and institutionalization, there is a wider consensus on the positive contributions of community forestry in Nepal. Yet, with fundamental shifts in the socioeconomic context of the country, due mainly to increasing outmigration, demographic changes, shifts in agricultural practices, whether people-forest relations still remain the same is a moot question. One of the central highlights of the conference was that Nepal’s community forestry is at a crossroads, while some emphasized that it is struggling to overcome ‘crises’.

At a crossroads

In recent years, there is a growing concern over efficacy and impact of community forestry, mainly in terms of its economic rationale. In fact, a large body of research has emerged, confirming that community forestry’s contribution to the livelihoods of people is currently much less than its actual potential. Most of the problems have been attributed to arbitrary policy decisions and lack of institutional capacity, both on the part of the government agency as well as the community forest groups themselves. Nevertheless, the problem does not end there.
The community groups seem to lack enthusiasm to capitalize on the legal space that has been progressive in the last few years, especially following a federal restructuring of the country. Several presenters at the conference argued that we are battling with a crisis, and most importantly the crisis of dwindling ‘collective action’, the fundamental pillar that community forestry of Nepal stood up on four decades ago.

While some presenters underlined the successful contribution of community forestry and ongoing shifts in the priority, others accentuated the factors leading to shifting forest-people relations. Most importantly, the outmigration and remittance economy has dominated the subsistence use of community forests, emerging livelihood opportunities in the domestic market are allowing people to shift their interests to city centers. On the grim side, economic returns from community forests have not been able to compensate for the people’s efforts in managing their forests. One of the presenters stated, the normative shift in people’s priority from “when will the forest open” to “no one comes to the forest these days” is an illustration of changing preferences in engaging with the forest. That has taken a toll on the traditional farming practices that we had for decades, including a decline in the number and type of livestock in rural areas. Several other presentations foregrounded proximate and underlying factors responsible for this, including increasing instances of human-wildlife conflict resulting in economic losses to rural households, forest fires, expanding invasive species within the forests and many more. All these factors, compounded by expired operational plans and lack of local capacity and support for their renewal, have resulted in a declining interest in community forestry.

The legacy

The narrative on the theory of Himalayan Degradation, popularized by Eckholm in 1975, sparked a global concern about the impact of environmental degradation in Nepal. This in fact drew wider attention of the donors, giving rise to a sense of urgency to revert deforestation and forest degradation. This brought the donors, namely the Swiss, Australian and the British, among others, to provide support for addressing the environmental problem, and thus we witnessed the advent of community forestry in Nepal. With support from various donors, the interventions have had a remarkable impact on environmental, social and economic fronts of community forestry.

Four decades down the line, community forestry is still considered relevant, but rather from a broader perspective of climate change adaptation, biodiversity management and other dominant global environmental agendas that have evolved in recent years. However, the fundamental principles of community forestry that have bound the collective action among forest user groups has remained in the shadows. One of the persistent supporters of community forestry in Nepal is the Australian government. Launched in 2013, the Australian Center for International Agricultural Research’s forestry project has mainly focused on contributing to the food security and livelihoods of community forest user groups through research in Kavre, Sindhupalchowk, and Lamjung districts, in pursuit of innovative options to silviculture management as well as have developmental impact through better policy outcomes.

The fundamental question is on whether the legacy of supporting core values and principles of community forestry still continues. Not only would this be important in terms of continuing the legacy, but also in terms of revitalizing one of the well-established local institutions of global reputation. So, community forestry is at a cross-roads of crises both in terms of intertwined problems facing it as well as the continuing support that would be supportive in addressing them.

This article was originally published in Annapurna express on March 19, 2024 (https://theannapurnaexpress.com/story/47999/)
 

 

Economics of forest promotion in private land: A comprehensive enumerator training for survey

For many years, forests have been losing their ecological integrity, biodiversity, and capacity to instate ecological processes and ecosystem services. In this age of such ubiquitous threats and challenges, the restoration of private forests stands out as an effective method for forest management. Forest restoration is an inclusive method that involves the deliberate and systematic process of rejuvenating and revitalizing forests that have been degraded over time. In other terms, it can be called a modified form of reforestation that emphasizes ecological functionality and enhances human well-being in degraded areas. Forest restoration in the private land aligns with sustainable development goals, promoting economic growth, environmental sustainability, and social equity in Nepal. In the case of private land, the implementation of forest restoration supports carbon removal and biodiversity conservation and implies environmental justice.

ForestAction Nepal, in collaboration with SANDEE – IDRC embarked on a research initiative entitled “Economics of forest restoration in the Chure region of Nepal” in May 2023. The study seems to be a crucial step towards implementing effective nature-based climate solutions and accessing financial resources to support forest restoration in the Chure region of Nepal. So, under this, a team of researchers have been performing farm plot-based household surveys to analyze the economics of forest promotion in private land in Madhesh Province. To facilitate this research, a comprehensive training session was conducted on February 10-11, 2024 for eight enumerators participating in the survey in Chandranigahapur, Rautahat. The training focused on equipping participants with the necessary skills in GPS and mapping techniques and the KOBO collect app.

Enumerators participating in the training

Global Positioning System (GPS), relies on a network of satellites orbiting the Earth to pinpoint your location with remarkable accuracy. By receiving signals from multiple satellites and performing complex calculations, GPS determines the precise coordinates of the plots. Whereas, KOBO Collect is an Android application used for collecting data through a form on mobile devices, facilitating efficient data collection during the surveys. Once the data has been configured to connect to the author’s Kobo Toolbox account, forms can be downloaded into the application and ready for data collection of different plots. For generating these location sample plots, the systematic sampling technique was opted by establishing center grids at 10-kilometer intervals and generating 24 points, distributed within 1 km, 2 km, and 3 km radii around each primary center point grid. Then the private forest, orchard, and croplands were identified by hovering over their plots time series of Google Earth imageries. These plots that do not belong to any of the above-mentioned groups were removed from the generated samples. The GPS receiver collects signals from multiple sample plots and enumerators can be tracked with the help of a GPS tracker.

Learning to navigate the coordinates of sample plots through GPS

In the interactive sessions during the training, enumerators were actively engaged in entire learning process regarding the objectives of the project and survey along with the way of reaching the mentioned sample plot through GPS, and the proper technique of surveying with Kobo. Through this, participants had the opportunity to practice sample plot identification and enhance communication skills through role-playing scenarios. Enumerators enriched the learning experience by sharing real-life examples and case studies illustrating effective communication techniques and their impact on workplace dynamics. They were engaged and interested in their work with a sense of fulfillment. Enumerators, even assured us about the confidentiality and security of the data they will be collecting.

General plot outline of one of the sample plots in Parsa

We believe this training will offer a transformative journey to every enumerator as well, for seeking to enhance knowledge and skill in the respective field. Such interactive sessions not only grab students’ attention compared to passive learning methods but also demonstrate practical relevance in the real world. Practical use of GPS activities provides enumerators with hands-on experience with technology and equipment. This experiential learning can foster their understanding and retention of knowledge.

Moreover, open dialogue and knowledge-sharing among participants cultivated a collaborative learning environment, enabling mutual support and collective growth. One of the participants shared his enthusiasm for incorporating GPS devices into training sessions. “GPS devices revolutionize fieldwork,” he remarked. “With precise location tracking and mapping capabilities, they streamline data collection processes and enhance overall efficiency.” echoed by another participant. Participants unanimously agreed on the transformative impact of integrating GPS devices and Kobo tools into training sessions.

Engaging in the demonstration of household survey

We as a trainer feel grateful for the opportunity to share knowledge, expertise, and insights with participants Reflecting on participant feedback and insights gained during the training can aid in our future training approaches. It was a collective effort instrumental in progressing the goals of our research and promoting sustainable and economic practices for forest restoration in the Chure region of Nepal. Moving forward, we remain committed to harnessing the collective wisdom and expertise of all stakeholders to realize our shared vision of a resilient and thriving ecosystem in the Chure region and beyond.
 

 

Neglected weeds economically empowers through rural women’s entrepreneurial initiatives

Nepal’s untapped forest potential has been a subject of discussions on national and international platforms. This holds true for both timber and non-timber based benefits. Women’s preferences for forest resources utilization are largely ignored and often limited to minor forest products. Only 6% women lead the CFUG, which limits their involvement in the decision-making process. One of such minor forest products is the nettle (Urtica dioica) called Sisnoo in Nepali.

Nettle powder enterprise located in remote parts of Sindhupalchowk has avidly sowed the see of empowerment of marginalized women. The abundance of sustainable, high-quality nettles in the forested areas makes nettle collection and processing a sustainable option.

Marginalized women in these regions play pivotal roles as catalysts in the socio-economic, commercial, and cultural aspects, positioning themselves at the core of integrating Sisnoo into various facets of life. This involvement spans from activities such as harvesting and medicine to cultivation, traditional knowledge, embroidery, and trade.

Pictures: Rural site for nettle enterprises.

More than 30 (thirty) rural marginalized women belonging to (Dalits and indigenous groups) won a new identity as “Green entrepreneurs” by actively engaging in the value addition chain of nettle enterprises as: collectors, producers, processors, and marketing agents. These newly recognized entrepreneurs are small-scale farmers and homemakers. These women face multiple forms of discrimination i.e. the combined effects of practices which discriminate based on sex, ethnicity, wealth and physical status including gender-based violence. Engaging in nettle powder enterprise, the women entrepreneurs have travelled a transformational journey of balancing gender relations with increased “say” on ownership of land, resources, and forests.

As said, each drop will collectively become an ocean, this path of empowerment is supported by various institutions, such as District Forest Office, financial institutions like banks and cooperatives, Local Governments, the private sector’s and others.

Laxmi Maya Newar, one of the zealous entrepreneurs, had the biggest collection of raw materials, which was five times more than others, i.e., 15 kg in a week. When inquired about her motivation, she added,

“The main driving force for me was that prior to my entrepreneurial journey, we had to work very hard with mud and sand, covered in cattle manure, for which we were obviously unpaid. I had never imagined that this sisnoo, which was carelessly ignored and wildly scattered, would one day empower us financially and help to create a dignified space in society. I have been constantly putting every ounce of effort into every aspect of this enterprise’s development.”

A short photo story guide to the overall process of the nettle powder Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica, L. Urticaceae) preparation:

1) In these areas, high-quality nettles grows naturally in abandoned sites. It takes 6 months to mature, and is harvested in every three weeks from clean areas more in the rainy seasons. Then it’s cleaned, washed, and drained to sterilize it using safety gear like gloves and tongs to prevent electrifying and chilling sensations.

 

2) Blanching is done afterward by boiling it for 15 minutes to remove toxic substances in it like insects, poisons, eggs, dust, etc. It’s soaked by hanging in a traditional way.

 

3) Then it is kept under solar drying until it is completely dehydrated to form crunchy sisnoo.

 

4) The crunchy sisnoo went through the grinding machine, and the sting venom became nonfunctional, with some mild venoms that actually added more nutritional value to it.

 

And finally, it can be consumed directly without mixing any spices or mixed with coriander powder, cumin powder, garlic powder, and cornflower for taste enhancement

These women entrepreneurs are also equipped with technological backing that operates according to green standards and generate no greenhouse gas emissions. One such example is the use of gender-friendly technology like solar dryers that are efficient, time- and energy-saving, cost-efficient, and less labor-intensive. This solar dryer was designed by The National Innovation Center, that responds well to food security and comply with the goals of SDG 7, Affordable and clean energy,”

Sisnoo has been a blessing for Pabitra Pradhan, who is also an Ayurvedic practioner and a veteran community forestry leader in Sindhupalchowk. She believes that sisnoo has been used as a vegetable since time immemorial. It has been proven that if you cook the root of this sisnoo and feed it to children, it strengthens bones, improves digestion, cleans the stomach, cures constipation, and prevents disease. Nowadays, it occupies a great deal of space in the Nepalese kitchen, and culture is infused into the herbal nettle tea, nutritive vegetables.

Historically, the nettle plant is significant from its utilization in warfare to its therapeutic purposes, has made it an intriguing business idea. This enterprises aligns with the SDGs goal 12 ensuring sustainable production and consumption patterns.

Empowering Rural Economies: A Journey from Informal Channels to International Trade Fairs.

Ticking more boxes when it comes to benefits, this powder fetches a good price, the women entrepreneurs are selling the nettle powder at Rs 600–800 per kg (USD 6.25) and have started reaping benefits from it. . Nettle has a good market in local, national and international markets. They have sold it via local channels to the International trade fairs. The female entrepreneurs are contributing to a revolving fund with money made from the sale of nettles in order to cover their living expenses, pay their children’s tuition, and improve their livelihood.

Various market niches explored were, Local shops and market places haatbazar, local melas, festive occasion, urban market outreach (kosheli ghar, udhami ghar). Moreover they were displayed and promoted in exhibitions, local trade fair , workshops, International Trade fair and even  advertised using online platforms like Facebook and Tiktok.

As Rome was not built in a day, so were these green entrepreneurs. Time and again, they had to face the policy barriers, go through the tedious registration process, and constantly deal with patriarchal mindsets in the family and society. But with their strong credence, their hope to embark on the entrepreneur’s journey has opened avenues challenging the stereotype that enterprise management is not a cup of tea for women.

Through their 2 years of entrepreneurship, various capacity building programs, Co-ordination with the multiple tiers of the government, policy dialogues, internal as well as external exposure visits, series of the skill development trainings have found to be instrumental in their empowerment and enhanced market skills.

This low-carbon green enterprise models have observed a shift in gender values for the cause of social justice, involving advancements in technology, formalization of enterprises through legal registration, as well as the implementation of branding and labeling strategies.

This  enterprises undoubtly comply with the definition mentioned in one of the research of Subedi, G. (2018). that “Green entrepreneurship are the activity of consciously addressing an environmental/ social problem/need through the realization of entrepreneurial ideas with high level risk, which has a net positive impact on the natural environment and at the same time is financially sustainable.”

The  overall research from the inception period of the this enterprises informs that appropriate women-friendly technologies, resource, service and market access, networking, exposure visits, fair trades, low carbon approach and strategic dialogues with the policy makers and implementers remained instrumental to improve women’s entrepreneurial motivation and performance.

Looking forward, There needs to be more clarity on accessible financing, market linkages, business training, and low-tech/low-cost technologies to encourage the development of sisnoo enterprises by preserving the indigenous skills. Public awareness about its uses is needed, identifying the possible competitors, tracking the market flow is vital.

In a nutshell, these green enterprises can be a beacon of hope for the people of Sindhupalchowk with immense potential to grab both national and international markets. It might further strengthen the resilience of the community by improving livelihoods even in post-earthquake and post-pandemic eras like COVID.

Seeing construction through women’s eyes: as a cradle for socio-economic resilience

The trend of constructing gender-friendly infrastructure is systematically ignored in Nepal and elsewhere. Although the government issues a circular to strictly enforce building codes to ensure disabled-friendly infrastructure construction, the practice does not materialise. Yet, mainstreaming women’s needs and accommodating diverse people’s perspectives into infrastructure design has the power to address gender inequalities and increase women’s mobility. It can also link with to efforts to enhance women’s access to and ownership of land, where a great gender gap exists.

In this context, the GLOW project Economic Empowerment of Women through Forest Solutions (WEE-FS) is addressing the vital issue of infrastructure development in sustaining women-led micro enterprises in Nepal. The project has secured six collective spaces for more than 240 women, engaging in 18 enterprise groups from the rural areas of Nawalpur and Sindhupalchok. These six “women entrepreneurs’ homes” were constructed to offer collective working spaces and solve the women’s difficulty in finding workspaces elsewhere.

In Bhujel village, Nawalparasi, where the project has supported bamboo enterprises, the women entrepreneurs wanted to use bamboo-splitting technology to enhance the efficiency of their production. The WEE-FS project supported them to purchase the required machine. However, the women struggled to find an appropriate place to install it. They asked the WEE-FS project to support construction of a building where they could use the machine together.

The women identified land for construction; but a powerful man sought to undermine them. Initially, he pretended to support the women’s group by providing a land lease agreement for 20 years (claiming that he owned the land, although it was never formally registered to him). The women suspected foul play and refused to accept.

He then led a small group of men in threatening the women to dispose of all the project’s capital equipment, if interrogated further on the land issue. In defence, the women are now claiming their rights with the local government and community forest user group (CFUG) – asking them to grant a plot of land for women’s enterprise buildings.

Completely different women’s groups in Sindhupalchok requested a solar dryer and grinding machine to expand their processing of nettle powder and cardamom, but could find no common space to install the machines. They started looking for rental space, but most requests were denied.

One man offered his land for a 20-year lease, the first two years free of cost. The women’s groups received equipment from the project, and started generating income. Then, the landlord began bargaining for rent and he threatened to throw out the machines if he did not receive it.

In another case, the women entrepreneurs running bio-cup and bio-plate businesses had to transfer their equipment from one place to another, paying the charges from their own pockets. There was a shortage of common space for the meetings and other capacity-building programmes. At times, CFUG events would clash with entrepreneurs’ machine operations, training programmes, or other group activities.

These examples illustrate how women entrepreneurs feel insecure due to lack of space for their enterprises.  To meet these multiple needs, the women entrepreneurs decided to muster forces and pull together the legal permissions, materials, the labour and operating rules to construct and run a collective space, together with financial support from the project, local government and CFUGs.

Women entrepreneurs welcome delegates of the municipality to their home | Image source: Aarati Khatri, ForestAction Nepal

The women’s group also managed to leverage timber from the CFUG and cash from the local government. This paved the way for mainstreaming the women’s voices and wishes into the ward level development plans. They reflected that, “we could never go to the local government and demand before, but now we can get budget for construction”. This proactive involvement of government authorities and supporting agencies is imperative for the viability and sustainability of such green enterprises. They hold the potential to boost household economies, ensure societal well-being, and encourage wise resource utilisation while lowering carbon damage.

The women took the lead in the construction work by breaking all the gender stereotypes. Formation of a construction committee, opening bank account, dealing with the contractors and bargaining with the hardware shopkeepers for the best price were all done by women.

After the establishment of the entrepreneurial buildings, the happiness of these entrepreneurs knew no bounds. “I’m proud of our engagement in the construction, my learning with this construction is more than what we I could gain while I was an elected representative in the local government”, said one entrepreneur.

The businesswomen from Bhagar, Gaidakot ward 14, are excited to have their own space. One of them shared, “Earlier, we had no common places for the machine installation, and it was so worrisome to carry the machine here and there in search of a common space. But now we have our own building”. Another entrepreneur added, “We had to pay the rent, but now we are rent-free as we have constructed our own building”.

A woman from a broom-making enterprise shared her excitement: “Finally, we have a space that we can freely call our own. Now we don’t have to wander here and there to search for a rental home for working on our enterprise activities and storage for our raw materials.”

Entrepreneurs of the bio-cup business teach the local mayor how to use the machine | Image source: Aarati Khatri, ForestAction Nepal

 

A space free from violence and trauma

More importantly the “homes” have become a common ground to share the history-long oppressions of gender inequality and countless incidences of gender-based violence and intergenerational traumas. One of the entrepreneurs said that the house can act as a safe shelter for women suffering from domestic violence. She added, ”If there are any disputes in the family, at least I have a new safe home to stay in. This building has been a space to gain mental peace too and this makes me feel empowered.”

The community halls will hold the discussion, sharing, and interactions that help women to socialise and learn, while combating their loneliness through “women for women” counselling and support.

Space to keep materials, machinery and products safe from harm

Where there is economically valuable equipment, there will be security concerns, and the homes provide security from thefts. During disasters, they can be used as rescue homes; also as isolation centers during medical emergencies. In addition, the homes provide safe storage and can save the products from insect attacks and forest fires, too. Entrepreneurs noted that “we encountered losses as our bio-cups and plates were eaten by insects and mice! Now we are happy our products are safe in the newly constructed building”. Furthermore, the homes help to maintain  hygiene when storing edible products such as sisnoo, lapsi, and triphala, which could be easily spoiled under poor storage conditions.

Space for innovation and creation

This space enhances creativity and innovation through the interactions among the entrepreneurs. “The home has helped us to maintain consistency in our products, the bags and mats that we prepare were not consistent in size and shape, but now we can work together”, said a Thakal entrepreneur. These common roofs weave the unity needed to empower marginalised women and people with disabilities to be part of societal and economic development through enterprise development. The women are creating ideas to diversify their products and exchange them with other entrepreneurs.

Space for meetings and cultural exchange

The homes act as the unifying places for the networking of different stakeholders, such as government line agencies, researchers, and other diverse visitors, with women entrepreneurs. They provide a common roof and ground for negotiations, capacity-building training, and marketing that will further enhance connectedness and cohesion. “After the machine and the products are safely stored and the decorated here in the entrepreneurs building, there has been an increase in the number of visitors to see the buildings and the process of bio-cup and plate production”, said an entrepreneur in Sankhadevi CFUG. The group has been motivating others to bring the lapha (leaves weaved together) or leaves with them so that we can buy them and they can reap the benefits as well as visit our enterprises too.

There are numerous women’s festivals and social gatherings, and these buildings can be used as a common ground and recreational space for cultural exchange, uniting the diversity of entrepreneurs having different cultures and religions. They help create a friendly environment, where people can strengthen their social bonds, and celebrate peace and harmony.

Interior of the bio-cup and bio-plate enterprise home | Image source: Usha Thakuri, ForestAction Nepal

Summary: one space, many benefits

There is true inclusion because each building comprises three rooms: one for productive machinery, storing raw materials, and showcasing the final products, a second room is for childcare and breast feeding and a third room is a  kitchen where the women can cook snacks and eat. The building is not only gender-responsive, but also disability-friendly, being wheelchair-compatible.

This infrastructure is not just grey cement and concrete but rather signifies the roof of unity, agency and feminist compassionate leadership development. It also complies with SDG 9, Building resilient infrastructure by promoting inclusive and sustainable industrialization and fostering innovation.

This advancement of gender-responsive buildings that are safe, affordable, and reliable has significant potential for reducing the barriers that hold back the success of women entrepreneurs. Investing in more sustainable infrastructure and promoting gender equality are development priorities of Agenda 2030. These buildings have incorporated the multiple facets of women’s entrepreneurial journey. They are a foundation that will carry the legacy of women’s entrepreneurship, by maintaining sustainability and cohesion with other development actions.

Businesswoman balances her entrepreneurial and family priorities, during the completion of the baseline survey | Image source: Aarati Khatri, ForestAction Nepal

The blog was originally published in CDKN website as a part of the gender equality in low carbon world (GLOW) program funded by IDRC Canada.

Green enterprises are empowering marginalised women and beating plastic pollution

Nepal has an illustrious reputation for its beautiful mountains, but has now been taken over by a storm of plastic pollution, which forms mountains of waste in urban spaces and creates detrimental effects on human health. Nepal generates roughly 2.7 tons of plastic waste each day; 16% of urban waste is plastic. Kathmandu alone uses 4,700,000 to 4,800,000 plastic bags daily, according to research by ICIMOD.

Indeed, plastic pollution is a global scourge: by early 2023, court cases concerning plastic pollution had been reported in more than 30 different countries. World Environment Day 2023 turns a spotlight on the problem and urges collective action to stop it.

While the world commemorates World Environment Day, the 30 rural and marginalised women entrepreneurs of three community forests involved in the project Economic Empowerment of Women Through Forest-Based Solutions have an ecofriendly alternative to the plastic crisis. It is bio cups and plates, also known as Duna Tapari in Nepali, which have been used in the country for food packaging, for time immemorial. The cups are made from naturally fallen leaves and sustainably picked from self-sustaining sources like Shorea robusta (Sal leaves).

Image source: ForestAction Nepal

The women are modernising the once-arduous, traditional occupation of making these plates, by now using low-carbon, women-friendly technologies. To achieve this, the project is empowering women entrepreneurs on gender and social inclusion issues, providing skill-based trainings, and group management training, and forming women’s leadership circles.

Image source: Usha Thakuri, ForestAction Nepal

The women undertook an inventory of Sal leaves in their local forest area. The information was then integrated into the community forest management plan, which opens avenues for the women to establish multiple enterprises based on the non-timber forest products.

The fresh green leaves are collected manually without harming trees and dried to make lapha – a couple of leaves stitched together with bamboo pins which are then pressed by electric machine to achieve an appropriate size and finish.

This process is efficient, timesaving, reliable, hygienic, and easy to operate. What is more, using clean energy technology aligns with the goals of SDG 7, Affordable and clean energy, empowers women, bridges the gender development gap, and helps to build a new identity for rural women as those who handle electric machines.

Image source: Aarati Khatri, ForestAction Nepal

These women entrepreneurs have left no stone unturned in exploring markets for their products. Sal products are profoundly connected with Hindu culture and have strong religious relevance. People use them in all major life events from birth to death, such as weaning ceremonies, birthdays, exhibitions, workshops, social gatherings, marriage, community feasts, ethnic celebrations, parties, and funerals.

In recent years, Sal products have become popular with hotels, restaurants, homestays, event planning organisations, international and domestic non-governmental organisations, tourist attractions, etc. Due to their renewability, non-toxicity, high socio-economic value, strength, and durability, these products have grown commercial markets in both the national urban space and international markets.

In addition, these products have multiple environmental benefits. In many aspects, this eco-product is considerably superior to plastic. Contrary to plastics that are composed of polymers, oil, and fossil fuels, which pose a serious threat to living things, its raw materials are rich in sources of various flavonoids and exhibit anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, analgesic, and wound healing activities . Plastic takes around 20–500 years to decompose, leaving hazardous scars on the Earth that affect generations. But these biodegradable cups are converted into manure and dissolve into the soil, creating more life through their organic manure.

This climate-smart innovation also aligns with the SDG Goal 12: Responsible consumption and production , and Goal 13: Climate action respectively. Since the overall process of preparing Sal leaf products involves manual labour and the use of renewable energy, these products emit less carbon compared to plastic. Emissions are about 6 kg of CO2 per kg of plastic .

Every sector is touched by the plastics that create massive carbon footprints. Replacing the deep-rooted plastic economy overnight in a developing country like Nepal is a herculean task, as numerous livelihoods are connected with it. But it’s critical to take one step at a time.

It’s predicted that by 2050, we’ll be making approximately four times as much plastic as we do now. And based on the current situation, the OECD predicts that by 2060, plastic trash is predicted to triple, with half of it ending up in landfills. In the era of climate crisis, behavioural shifts to eco-friendly consumption and embrace of green attitudes is urgent. There is a pressing need to have zero impact on the environment and for each person to become an eco-champion of their own.

Image source: Kamal Bhandari, ForestAction Nepal

To develop the culture and practice of green packaging use in our daily routine, a robust and comprehensive policy intervention to discourage the use of plastic is a must. Providing incentives, subsidies, and tax exemptions for eco-friendly products would be appropriate efforts by the government. Furthermore, increasing taxes on plastic products that compete heavily with the bio-products would motivate women entrepreneurs to produce bio cups and plates at a larger scale.

These bio cups and plates can be a ray of hope for a sustainable environment, supporting marginalised sections of society, especially rural women, to improve their livelihoods and become economically empowered. Next time you buy these plates, you are also supporting and rewarding the hard work of these women, who have fought countless internal and external patriarchal, wars against gender stereotypes to be entrepreneurs. It is time to accelerate this action and switch to a bio-based circular economy and reimagine a plastic-free environment.

The blog was originally published in CDKN website as a part of the gender equality in low carbon world (GLOW) program funded by IDRC Canada.

Sustainability of women’s access to forest resources is ensured

 

The case of a gender-transformative approach from Nepal

 

Turning weeds into valuable products

“I could not imagine how valuable the Thakal (Phoenix loureiroi Kunth) plant could be for rural women. Today I was surprised to see diverse, beautiful handmade products made from Thakal. Looking at the Thakal products by women of the Namuna Community Forest User Group, I realised the importance of this plant for the rural economy. ”

Those were the words of Mr Mohan Raj Kafle, the Divisional Forest Officer of Nawalparasi at a policy lab organised by the Economic Empowerment of Women through Forest Solutions project, recently.

The lab involved rural women entrepreneurs, the Local Government Chief and officials, private bank officials, a Chief from the Cottage and Small Industry Office, a Divisional Forest Officer from the district government, and project personnel.

Rural women in Nawalparasi district of central Nepal have succeeded in producing bags, hats, and mats from Thakal, bio-cups and plates from Sal (Shorea robusta) leaves, and brooms from broom grass. The lab provided the occasion for Mr Kafle and others to appreciate the initiative and encourage women entrepreneurs with commitments of support.

Not only was this a matter of courtesy, but also of legacy for the project. The words meant a lot for the rural women who have been using leaves, straws, twigs and Thakal-derived fibres to produce handicrafts and increase earnings from their sale.

Handicraft made from Thakal fibres

Creating the legal framework for women’s economic activities

Patient work was needed to reach this level of achievement.

Generally, these women do not face any restrictions in accessing the raw materials in the forest, as long as the products are for household use. However, once the materials are converted into products for market, the women have to meet several legal requirements.

Nepal has a community forestry system whereby registered forest user groups can harvest forest products according to approved operational plans.  The area where the women wish to harvest must have the provisions mentioned and the amount of harvest prescribed in the approved Community Forestry Operational Plan. These explicit permissions for raw material collection would be based on a proper inventory of each resource, to ensure sustainable management and harvest.

During visits to Division Forest Office, the project team discussed the policy issues. Mr Kafle suggested the project team should conduct an inventory of available non-timber forest products (here in our case, Thakal and Sal leaves) and incorporate their management and collection in the Operational Plan. This would not only be an operational issue, but would also create a legal platform for women entrepreneurs to sustainably assess the raw materials for their enterprises.

The project formed a technical team to conduct Thakal and Sal inventory and prescribe the regeneration status and annual allowable harvest in the Operational Plan. Since Thakal is rare in the country, the project consulted experts to devise an appropriate method for carrying out its inventory. The Community Forest User Group and women’s groups members were engaged in the inventory process, which increased their self-confidence and self-respect too. They shared their pride in being a part of such a technical study.

Following the inventory, the team revised the Operational Plan, and Mr Kafle approved these plans with respect. He also provided the women with encouraging words that these were very innovative efforts that he would like to expand to the rest of the Community Forest User Groups.

Women undertaking inventory activities

Transformation in local women’s status – a strong foundation for their futures

The project “Economic Empowerment of Women through Forest Solutions” tried to ensure that rural women have sustainable access to forest resources including non-timber forest products, which are often overlooked as useless grass and other fibres and are left out in the forest, causing fire hazards. The inclusion of these provisions facilitated the use of these materials to create products for sale in the market.

With the official approval from the Division Forest Office, the rural women feel respected for their own choices and decisions, feel much more responsible for conserving the forest and making the most useful application of their traditional knowledge to foster household economies.

In the complete process, besides the role of the project team, experts and the Community Forest User Group executive members, the role of the Divisional Forest Officer remained as a constructive technical advisor. His appreciation and facilitation of the women’s needs, choices and decision-making processes remain commendable.

The initiation will be upscale by the project through different means of dissemination including publication of the blog in Nepali language in a national newspaper and community FM radio. The project will promote the transformation through The Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal (FECOFUN) – a formal network of Forest User Groups from all over Nepal. Furthermore, this experience and evidence will be shared widely in the national policy lab and dialogues to influence the authorities.

This action can be coined as a “gender transformative legacy in action” on how to ensure rural women’s sustainable access and control over minor forest products by raising women’s dignified decisions and choices for forest-based livelihoods.

The blog was originally published in CDKN website as a part of the gender equality in low carbon world (GLOW) program funded by IDRC Canada.

https://glowprogramme.org/news-blogs/sustainability-womens-access-forest-resources-ensured

Combating invasion, restoring forest through turmeric plantation?

Mikania invaded forest patch in Pathibhara Kalika CF, inset: Mikania roots in the air

Turmeric cultivation in the forest

On August 16, Dr. Shiva Devkota was exploring mushrooms while strolling along a trail in Jalthal forest. A little off the trail, on his approach deep into the forest, he spotted a Besar (Turmeric) patch. He inquired with curiosity, “Is there Besar cultivation in the forest?” whilst pointing at the Besar field.

Yes! Turmeric was cultivated in the forest.  For visitors like Mr. Devkota, it was an oddly positioned crop. We’ve had numerous inquiries from other forest visitors wondering why turmeric was cultivated there. In order to understand the background of turmeric cultivation, it would be better to have an enriching virtual-tour of the forest to get insights on the condition of the forest and its biodiversity.

Turmeric cultivation in Durgabhitta CF

Jalthal: A biodiversity ‘hotspot’

Jalthal is a forested island in the agricultural landscape in Jhapa District in southeastern Nepal. It is a relic of a once lush tropical forest that spanned Nepal’s southern plains. In the country known for high mountains, the forest lies at the lowest elevation point and encompasses diverse ecosystems and habitats like swamps, lakes, rivers, hillocks, forests, and open areas. It is a high-biodiversity area with endangered flora and fauna such as the Asian elephant, Chinese pangolin, and Elongated tortoise. The forest is known for its exceptional richness of tree flora in Nepal; it covers just 0.1% of Nepal’s forest but is home to about a quarter of the country’s total tree species. In a fresh article, we claimed the forest as a capital of tree diversity of Nepal.

The forest is also an important source of environmental services, including water and multitudes of forest products for people living around the forest. The forest is currently being managed by 22 Community Forest User Groups (CFUGs) and is an important livelihood source for over 80,000 people, including marginalized indigenous groups (Meche, Santhal, and Rajbanshi).

Jalthal: A capital of Mikania invasion

I never imagined a South American weed would cover a forest here on this scale. It’s bloody everywhere! “And it has covered almost every seedling and sapling in every corner of the forest.

And that’s exactly how Dr. Norbert Holstein described his observations on the abundance of Mikania in Jalthal Forest in the Jhapa District. Dr. Holstein, the curator of the Natural History Museum in London, visited Jalthal forest in the second week of September. He traversed dense bush of Mikania during a hot and humid day of fieldwork in the forest for four days.

Dr. Holstein’s impression  provides insight on the scale and depth of the invasion of Mikania in Jalthal area. When Dr. Him Lal Shrestha of the Kathmandu Forestry College (KAFCOL) examined the Mikania coverage three years ago, he calculated that more than half of the 6100-hectare forest had been affected. When Mr. Ramkrishna Gautam- an MSc student at Tribhuvan University, recently mapped Mikania in the forest, he encountered the weed in  almost all of the sampled points. He spread 228 sample plots covering the whole forest.

Mr. Shyamlal Meche, leader of the Pathbhara Kalika CF and an inhabitant of Jalthal who belongs to an indigenous minority, has witnessed the transformations in the forest over years. During forest transect walk in August 2020, he demonstrated us how terrible the weed is.

He further added,

“I literally have no idea where this Pyangri lahara (a local name for Mikania) came from and now it has blanketed the whole forest. Although its green, but it is a matter of celebration for the environment enthusiast like me. Seedling growth has been suppressed, our trails have been erased, mushrooms, leafy vegetables such as adders-tongue (Ophioglossum) and majur khutti (Helminthostachys zeylanica) have declined, elephant encounters have increased, and wildlife habitat has been degraded as a result of its expansion. Our access to forests and its resources have been limited by it”

Mr. Meche has also witnessed more pyangri lahara-related alterations and added:

Python populations in the forest has surged as the bush cover expanded.” As a consequence of increase in python population, other wildlife species including deer mouse and spotted deer have experienced a decline.”

Extending to 741-hectare area, Mr. Shyam Lal’s forest is the largest CF in Jalthal. More than half of the forest is infested with Mikania and other invasive species, with about half of the forest suffering the worst. If we venture deeper into the forest, there are several spots of degraded forest where trees are sparse and with green floors, the latter actually being a green desert.

With all these observations of the veteran researchers, it’s evident that weed invasions have almost engulfed the biodiversity of Jalthal at its utmost level.

Notoriety of the notorious

Mikania micrantha, a vine of South American origin, is an invasive plant species. It grows fast, produces enormous tiny seeds, disperses seeds easily by wind, and reproduces by both stem and seeds. It can develop its roots in the soil, air and even in water. It’s extremely effective photosynthesis has been noted in a recent study. All of these factors combine to make it an invasive species. Additionally, the weed is included as one of the worst invasive species in the world.

The species is on the move. It’s moving northward and westward in Nepal. Bharat Babu Shrestha, a professor of botany at Tribhuvan University and a pioneer and prominent researcher on invasive plants in Nepal, has lately made observations as far north as the Pokhara valley and as far west as the Dang district. And it’ll probably advance even more into its frontier.

Well! The observations, experiences, and mayhem on Mikania micrantha above tells only a portion of the forest’s story. The forest is not only degraded by invasion; it still holds a legacy of its biological diversity, ecological uniqueness, and socioeconomic significance.

Jalthal unquestionably illustrates an example of significant biodiversity and synchronous forest degradation. This paradox of “diversity and degradation” has been discussed in a paper published by ForestAction researchers last year. Among the many challenges in managing forests, invasive species, especially Mikania micrantha, is  a serious problem. It spreads swiftly when the crown cover is sparse, especially in bare forests. It inhibits the growth of other plants and stifles the regrowth of native species in high-impact areas. Furthermore, it has an impact on how easily locals may acquire fuelwood and fodder, two crucial sources of forest products for people who live adjacent to forests.

Bush control: A herculean task

In September 2019, Mr. Chiranjibi Paudel, the chair of Pathibhara Kalika CF, led our group for a forest walk. He was struggling to go through a dense bush while along the trail.

Only eight months ago, we removed the bushes in this area, including Pyangri lahara, but nobody believes it was cleansed. We attempt to eradicate it repeatedly, but each time it reappears and blankets the floor and vegetation. Nearly the entire area of our forest is covered. It is a cancer of the forest, and I have no idea where this demonic weed originated from.”

Local people have tried to control the weed by using every possible means. Mr. Haka Limbu, a forest guard at Kamaldhap Rampokhari community forest, summarizes their effort to control the weed.

“We are trying to control it by burning, slashing, uprooting, and even using chemicals, but all these methods turn out to be like nurturing it” .

“Shortly after we remove it, it comes again, and more vigorously”.

The community forests and locals have made every effort to bring the bush under control. They had been practicing slashing and uprooting the Mikania out of the ground. Additionally, in the region where Mikania-infested bushes have been removed, medicinal herb cultivation and the planting of exotic tree species like eucalyptus, teak, and mahogany have been done in an effort to eliminate it. In this effort, deliberate burning and weedicide and herbicide treatments is adopted.

Mr Chiran Paudel showing Mikania regrowth in cleared area

However, local efforts remain in vain, as bush control is a herculean task. Community forests and other stakeholders have already invested a significant amount of money and labor to control it, but no appreciable improvement has been witnessed. Local attempts to suppress the weed are not having the desired impact, primarily as a result of ineffective, covert, and irregular activity. Their effort is not coordinated or properly planned, and it is not reinforced by any long term perspective. Additionally, neither the ecological attributes of the species nor those of the native ecosystem are taken into account by the actions aimed at regulating it.

Lessons from the interventions

The project implemented by ForestAction Nepal, initiated piloting invasive species control in several CFs, but we could look into detail in only a few places. At the Pathbhara Kalika Forest, one of the patches was under close scrutiny. The intervention will take place in a 2.5 hectare area of a forest that is extensively infested  with Mikania. In coordination with CFUG, the bush cleanup and natural regeneration rescue were completed in October 2020. It took 20 days and more than 300 labors to clean up the initial area of  Mikania invasion. By uprooting them, the invasive species were eliminated.

The second author of this essay visited the patch while about a dozen local youths were cleaning it. Someone from the group said, “We are cleaning the bush which may be older than I am ” Another member added that people were afraid to enter the area because it was so dense that if a person went inside, he or she would be stuck. The area was cleaned and 400 naturally regenerated seedlings and saplings were released.

We anticipated that after the initial round of intensive cleaning, the weed growth would slow. But the rate of growth surprised us. The vine blanketed the field in three months and began smothering tree seedlings and saplings. After drawing this observation, we concluded that while Mikania’s dismissal is required, it is insufficient on its own. To clean it just once and then leave would be a waste of time, resources, and effort. Therefore, we cleaned the same area again, this time in February 2021. Based on the lessons we learnt, we switched the cleaning process from uprooting to slashing. Slashing was more efficient than entirely uprooting the plant in terms of speed, ease, and most importantly the cost. In comparison to the first time, it took half the labor this time, and cleaning was much smoother. Following the second cleaning, the field opened up and the seedlings started to grow to the point where they could be seen from a distance. The area was accessible to people.

Mikania cleared area in Pathibhara Kalika CF

However, growing seedlings and saplings struggle to survive the strain of biomass collection. Fodder collectors can now find low-hanging fruit in a convenient, accessible area. Unfortunately, saplings were cut down. This was so distressing. The forest provides firewood and fodder to the vast majority of the CF’s 800 users. These users uncovered simple access to fodder after clearing the bushes, which was formerly difficult to reach due to dense mat of the bush.

We investigated additional methods of Mikania control and natural regeneration protection after learning from our experiences and realizing the importance of taking into account local users for our planned restoration. The demand for fodder was so intense that we were unable to manage or control it, so awareness among users alone was insufficient for conservation. We started looking into, researching how to best serve local users while also controlling Mikania and promoting natural regeneration.

Based on our own lessons, users’ experiences, and the traditional dependency of users on forest biomass, we decided to use an agroforestry approach to control Mikania and grow and protect natural regeneration in the forest. Our strategy was to create an environment to grow seedlings and saplings that would eventually control the invasive species. The logic is simple, yet powerful. The weed is light-loving, and any sustained shade would reduce its vigor, growth, and reproduction.

Searching for the most plausible!

A Darwin Initiative UK-funded project entitled “Uprating Community Forest Management in Nepal: Enhancing Biodiversity and Livelihoods” (Jalthal Biodiversity Management Project) has been implemented by ForestAction Nepal since mid-2019 in Jalthal Forest, which has prioritized managing IAPS—one of the most pertinent management challenges of the forest. Among other things, the project’s goal was to restore forests while managing the IAPS. Capitalizing on forests’ natural regeneration for restoration is an important strategy of the project. Natural regeneration protection, in turn, is an easy, reliable, and simple method of forest restoration.

Invasive species problems are often like those in Jalthal. It’s like next to impossible to get rid of them after they’ve invaded. To control them, continuous, well-planned, and ecologically conscious actions are needed. Such efforts are costly because they involve continuous processes rather than one-time interventions. We contemplated about enduring the effort of controlling the weed. Many people suggested cultivating medicinal plants in cleared areas. Others advised planting broom grass, while some proposed cultivating cash crops like lemons. We were seeking a strategy that would control weeds, rebuild forests, and provide advantages to the communities involved in the weed management operation.

Agroforestry was unquestionably a viable option. Mr. Sanjay Raj Tamang, then a field officer at ForestAction, quickly assessed the status of past interventions in Jalthal. He came with the report that such interventions have neither benefited locals nor promoted forest restoration. There was no forest regeneration in areas with broom grass and citronella. Some crops requiring regular care would not qualify in the forest.

In order to benefit the forest and nearby populations while requiring the minimal efforts, we sought out the most promising species for intercropping in agroforestry. In addition, animals like elephants, monkeys, deer, porcupines, and wild boars wouldn’t damage the crop.

Even birds are there, which would bring a notable loss to fruits. We were also looking for something that posed a low risk to the user even in the event of failure.  We were aware that there is a wide disparity (disconnect) between expectations and results for many development programs promoting cultivation of NTFPs. We weren’t looking for plants that need a few, if not many, years to produce, like horticultural trees or perennial crops.

We organized a series of meetings with stakeholders, mainly community forests, to search for the most suitable species for agroforestry in Jalthal.

And finally, Besar (turmeric) qualified for all these screenings!

Yes! Turmeric cultivation appears to be a promising option. As it is short-term and farmers won’t have to wait for years to get a harvest. It’s locally used and traditionally grown at homesteads by local people. It does not require intensive care. It does not require expert knowledge either, as all travelers are experts on it. It just required sowing, weeding, and harvesting! Farmers are happy and enjoy doing it.

The cultivation

With the aim of supporting local livelihoods and bringing local people into conservation, a small portion (0.5 ha) of the Mikania invaded patch (the 2.5 ha cleaning site mentioned earlier) was allocated to the 17 local poor and disadvantaged households of the Pathibhara Kalika CF. The selected portion was divided equally among the interested users with a formal, binding agreement between CF and the farmers. The Forest Act 2019 and Forest Regulations 2022 provide the foundation for allocating degraded parts of forest for poor users in community forests. However, this should be for the benefit of forests and people without changing the land use of forests.

Besar Cultivation and Sal regeneration along with Besar

Turmeric cultivation began in the first week of April 2021, after several preparatory works (from field preparation to paper work) at various levels. Before cultivating the turmeric seed, the users slashed and burned Mikania on their allocation. They also plowed the ground and prepared the cultivation site. The forest soil was rich in nutrients and fertile, necessitating no additional fertilizer.

Some users weeded the turmeric field once or twice, while others did it on a regular basis. They cleaned up the invasive species present in and around turmeric and also protected natural regeneration.

For observers who were unaware of the background of the whole story, turmeric cultivation inside a forest was an oddly placed practice. We had to explain it to several people.

The results

Comparison (before after)

Even while we were routinely monitoring the progress in the pilot area, it wasn’t until July of 2022 that we could thoroughly assess the state of natural regeneration. For the assessment, Mr. Chiran Paudel and a few farmers were also present. Standing next to a Kadam (Neolamarkia cadamba) sapling, Mr. Poudel, Chairman of Pathibhara Kalika CF, was informing the visitors about the site. The expansion of Kadam exceeded our expectations. Using a bamboo stick, Mr. Chiran Paudel began gauging the sapling’s height. In just one year, the specific seedling of Kadam, which was organically regenerated, had grown to an astounding height of 4.5 meters. Majority of Kadam saplings reached above two meters in height within a year.

Comparison (before after)

Mr. Gudanath Koirala a beneficiary of the agroforestry site and Paudel began to count numbers of seedlings and sapling present in the site. They counted seedlings taller than half meter. The figure was staggering!

With the result of the count in hand, Mr Koirala said, “There are so many Kadam Lathra (saplings),  I never thought Kadam seedlings would grow at this rate”.

There were over 680 naturally regenerated saplings of 14 different tree species, of which 470 were of Kadam and the remaining 210 were Jamuna, Kaulo, Kalikath, Malato, Rakbrikhsha, and others.

The land has been available to the users for two to three years. Continued weeding and site cleanup are being done. Only 50% of the users harvested their turmeric this year. After the first year of cultivation, Mrs. Harimaya Tamang collected all of her product. She sold half of her products within her neighborhood. She harvested turmeric equivalent to Rs 25000.  She is delighted with the outcome and intends to continue for another year. The other seven CFUGs in Jalthal are currently implementing this intervention. Government officials and other stakeholders are thrilled with the intervention’s effects as well.

A farmer practicing agroforestry stands with Kadam saplings

 At Last

The piloting of invasive species management through agroforestry in Pathibhara Kalika CF has demonstrated a pragmatic model of forest restoration by engaging forest-dependent poor people. In this approach, people benefit during the transition period of forest restoration through agroforestry and, in the long run, through  enhanced ecosystem services of the restored forest. The approach of suppressing invasive Mikania by fostering natural regeneration of native trees is also ecologically sound, as it capitalizes tremendous natural regeneration potential of our forests. The resounding success of natural regeneration calls into question our traditional strategy for restoring forests through plantations, which includes even exotic species.

There is a dire need to maintain the piloting’s early positive results until the forest landscape is restored. Marketing and branding of turmeric and other produce would not only provide cash return to the farmers but also gain wider support for forest restoration. Provided we produce a good-quality organic product, the public might purchase the product to contribute towards forest restoration.

This very place-based, ecologically sound, socially acceptable, and economically feasible approach to agroforestry can be scaled up as an effective way of restoring forests in other parts of the country too. In order to be effective, this approach should be acknowledged by forest management programs, which should embrace forest restoration as one of their objectives. Currently, forest management is narrowly focused and centered on timber management. The Forest Act of 2076 should be implemented legitimately, especially the provision that at least 25% of funds be allocated to forest management and conservation. This model would also benefit greatly from the effective application of agroforestry.

Last but not least, putting forest restoration at the forefront of forest management would unquestionably help with meaningful forest restoration and advance the UN’s decade on forest restoration.

Bhattarai and Sharma work in Jalthal Biodiversity project in Jhapa!

The hands that weave baskets can transform the climate context

Bamboo rhizome distribution for resource base creation. Photo by Kamal Bhandari

Kamal Bhandari, Srijana Baral, Kanchan Lama of ForestAction Nepal describe the transformation of indigenous women’s wellbeing via involvement in the project Economic Empowerment of Women through Forest Solutions.

 

“The future generation do not have to worry about how to find bamboo for basket weaving anymore. We are proud of having made a sustainable resource base for the future generation.”

These were the words of Manmaya Bhujel to the ForestAction Nepal team, when we interviewed them recently.

The 29 households of the Bhujel community (a caste group in Nepal) appeared to be happy, encouraged and confident in dreaming about the long-term impacts of their bamboo plantation, on the occasion of “National Plantation Day of Nepal” 2022, when we met them on their homestead fallow land.  This is a story about how their confidence and their dreams developed.

The story began more than a year ago, in November 2021, when a small team from ForestAction Nepal visited the village at the invitation of the Deurali Community Forestry Users Group (CFUG), Dhodeni and Ward Chairperson. They visited as part of the work for the IDRC-funded GLOW project entitled “Economic empowerment of women through forest solutions”.

The Bhujels: a migrant community

The Bhujels here have lived inside the community forest for decades. However, they have not yet obtained CFUG membership as they cannot afford to pay the required membership subscription fees to the CFUG. They have no idea if they can make a request to the CFUG for a special subsidy. Moreover, they do not inherit land to be eligible for CFUG membership.

Long ago, the Bhujels migrated from the neighbouring district Tanahu and settled here. One political leader encouraged them to migrate with promises of land and resources. However, later the leader proved selfish and wrong. Once he fulfilled his vested political interest, he did not even look back at them. The migrated Bhujel community could not return but continued to live in the forest as residents, although without obtaining a clear knowledge about how to access their civic identity until now.

Dependent on forest resources – but without clear rights

The community is heavily dependent on the forest. Some timber traders make use of the elderly men and young people as cheap labour for timber harvesting and transportation. The women usually harvest and sell minor forest products, such as, Sal (Shorea robusta) leaves, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, edible seasonal ferns, other wild vegetables and herbs. Besides consuming, they also sell those items in the market, which is located two hours’ walking distance away. During winter, they can reach the market on the three-wheeled “tempo”( a manual tricycle).

Due to their living below the poverty line, and lack of any alternate employment opportunity, the Bhujel community members do waged labour in the neighborhood fields. The men earn NRs. 600/day (USD 6.50) and women earn NRs. 500/day (USD 4.00) for the same work. The prevailing societal assumption is that women cannot do hard work equal to that of the men.

The CFUG occasionally employs them for managing the forest by clearing out the dry leaves, trimming and thinning trees. For three months in a year, they weave bamboo basket (doko-daalo, made from bamboo) and tray (nanglo, Himalayan bamboo).

Despite their reliance on bamboo–based products for livelihood, they do not have procedural access to the bamboo trees. Consequently, they buy bamboo at a costly rate of NRs250/ (USD 2.00) per piece. In addition, they must pay NRs 2000/- (more than USD 15.00) per trip by tractors for transportation of bamboo stems from the distantly-located site of the community-managed forest to the Bhujels’ village.

Research points to the fact that Indigenous Peoples such as this community are often marginalised by development processes which are intended to provide sustainable livelihood and wellbeing solutions. With an objective to reform such practices, the Economic Empowerment of Women through Forest Solutions project responded seriously to the voice raised by this community on their livelihood issues.

Women groups planting the bamboo. Photo by Usha Thakuri

Action research sparks new, collaborative process

At the beginning, the project team was confused by widely-spread rumors, such as, “the Bhujel women are alcoholic, they would ruin the project by drinking day and night, while their men keep working hard to produce bamboo baskets for livelihood. The youngsters of the village are timber smugglers, they would not allow outsiders to enter for project activities,” and so on.

The project team reflected on these negative opinions with empathy and decided to explore whether they were correct, and how the Bhujels are experiencing deprivation.

On one hand, they saw a ray of light – a positive signal – when the Deurali CFUG Chairperson and the Ward Chairperson suggested that the project implement actions with the Bhujels.  They found that it is not the Bhujels themselves, rather certain external social forces that play the game of creating rumours. Such external actors were concerned about their potential losses, with the idea that “if the Bhujels become aware about their rights, they might lose the cheap labour force to continue with illegal activities of forest exploitation.”

A preliminary baseline assessment helped the project team to understand the community better as a “skilled group” in possession of indigenous bamboo weaving skills, but fully deprived of education, health and livelihood related resources and services. Although the Gaindakot Rotary Club supported them to construct small homes with toilets and drinking water supply, the community remains far from being involved in local development decision-making. “Someone” decides everything on their behalf, they just follow others’ prescriptions.

Being under domination of “others”, they remain passive by losing their own creativity and confidence. They sound to feel marginalised, frustrated and depressed. Some even lost the hope of a better life. As a woman remarked, “Can you bring us some magical solution to our hard lifestyle? How long will we go on with bamboo weaving from morning till night?”

Another remarked, “We are held capture by micro finance loans. How can we get free from our loans?” Some others voiced, “How can we have easy access to bamboo bushes near to our village so that we can manage bamboo for basket and tray weaving without paying the high price to buy bamboo stems?”

The project team came up with a creative idea for being much closer to the community by relationship-building with them. By taking women’s reproductive health issues as a central issue, the project team organised a “lifestyle interaction programme”. This comprised a one-day interaction, supported by philanthropists, in which a majority of the community people participated. A general primary-level health check-up, interaction on women’s health issues, problems related to men and youth were identified and provided by a naturopathy doctor.

She checked women’s health and provided some basic treatment for a few victims of uterus prolapses. We also provided dental health orientation to the children who happily used toothbrushes supplied by us after they had taken their snacks. The young men came to get checked up of their basic health condition. It was an unanticipated finding that more male, both elderly and young, had high blood pressure and sugar problems. But the women had no such problem; the women’s problems related to a few of them having uterus prolapses.

Following this event, a household needs assessment survey was conducted for a bamboo plantation near to their homestead to establish a sustainable resource base for the bamboo weavers. A total of 34 households demanded and 29 of them planted bamboo rhizomes. The executives from the local government and the community forestry management group encouraged them by joining the bamboo plantation ceremony.

The bamboo rhizomes have a 95% survival rate. A total of 17 women also participated in the entrepreneurship development and Gender Equality and Social Inclusion (GESI) training held in the Deurali CFUG premises. As their favoured major enterprise, the Bhujel women selected improving their bamboo products. Later, they also began demanding training on bio-degradable cup and plates (duna tapari) production.

Re-setting development dynamics and hope for the future

Aspirations and hopes are back among the women. Today, when we interact with the Bhujels, the women come forward to proudly share about their learning from training and other events. Their confidence level is high, with smiles in their faces. They are planning to expand and strengthen their bamboo stock for enriching access to bamboo for weaving baskets and trays.

The project adopted a feminist approach to build self-awareness among the women. This included:

– empathising and encouraging them to take the lead for year-round enterprise development actions,

– enabling them to get organised for negotiating with the local government authorities, forest authorities, CFUG committee and the market sector to create sustainable access to forest resources and marketing processes.

The project is at a crossroads now to focus its investment more on strengthening the Bhujel community women’s leadership for reflecting on their civic status, status on land rights, right to resources, their potential roles on sustainable forest management and mitigating climate disaster.

The project’s action learning process has begun with such mixed initiatives as: analysis of the gender specific needs; interests of skilled, indigenous women; women’s attitude and knowledge about mitigating carbon emissions; and adaptation initiatives for climate resilience through nurturing the forest resources – by managing a sustainable forest resource base for livelihood and environmental health.

Dream: Can this small beginning lead to an economically viable forest and environmental health? 

Mr. Bhandari is Field Coordinator, Ms. Baral is Project Manager and Ms. Lama is Principal Researcher – Economic Empowerment of Women through Forest Solution at ForestAction Nepal.

(The blog was originally published in CDKN website as a part of the gender equality in low carbon world (GLOW) program funded by IDRC Canada. https://glowprogramme.org/news-blogs/hands-weave-baskets-can-transform-climate-context)

घुम्ती सःमिल – वन उद्यमको एक संम्भावना (Portable saw mill: potential forest based business)

‘हरियो वन नेपालको धन” भन्ने उक्ति हामीले जन्मजात देखि नै सुन्दै आएका छौँ । हुनपनि हो, नेपाल प्राकृतिक स्रोत तथा जैविक विविधताको हिसाबले सम्पन्न देश मध्यमा गनिन्छ । फरकफरक भौगोलिक विशेषतायुक्त जमिन, जल तथा जङ्गल क्षेत्र यहाँका प्रमुख प्राकृतिक स्रोतहरू हुन । बहुसङ्ख्यक नेपाली जनताको जीविकोपार्जन प्राकृतिक स्रोतहरूमा आधारित छ । वन अनुसन्धान तथा सर्वेक्षण विभागको तथ्याङ्कलाई आधार मान्ने हो भने नेपालको वन क्षेत्र बढ्दो आवस्थामा पाइन्छ । यद्यपी, त्यसबाट देशको अर्थतन्त्रमा सोझो प्रभाव भने परेको देखिएको छैन । समुदायले दाउरा, घाँस, काठपात, पानीको स्रोत उपभोग जस्ता दैनिक उपयोगमा आउने सेवा बाहेक थप स्रोत लाई आर्थिक उपार्जनसँग जोड्न सकेको छैन । वनजंगल बढेपनि वनमै आधारित उद्योग, कलकारखाना उल्लेखनीय रुपमा संन्चालनमा आउन सकेका छैनन् ।

सामुदायिक वन क्षेत्रबाट काठहरू परिक्षण स्थलमा ढुवानी हुँदै । (फोटोः कपिल दाहाल)

वन क्षेत्रको विस्तारले माटो, जलाधार, चराचुरुंगी, वन्यजन्तु, हावापानी र जैविक विविधतामा प्रत्यक्ष/अप्रत्यक्ष टेवा पु¥याएको कुरालाई नकार्न नसकिएतापनि उत्पादनशील समेत रहेको वनबाट नेपालले लाभ लिन धेरै ढिलो भईसकेको अवस्था छ । जसले गर्दा, स्थानीय स्रोत (काठ) खेर गईरहेको छ भने काठको आन्तरिक माग परिपूर्ति गर्न हरेक वर्ष हजारौं क्यूबफिट काठ विभिन्न देशबाट आयात भईरहेको छ । नेपालमा वन व्यवस्थापनका लागि सामुदायिक वन एक सफल कार्यक्रमको रूपमा स्थापित भएतापनि उपलब्ध काष्ठ र गैह्रकाष्ठ उत्पादनलाई दिगो रूपमा उपयोगमा ल्याई वन स्रोतमा आश्रित घरधुरी तथा परिवारहरूको जीवनस्तर उकास्ने काममा लक्ष्य भन्दा निकै कम मात्रै योगदान पु¥याइरहेको छ । वन क्षेत्रबाट हुने आम्दानीको मुख्य हिस्सा काठले ओगटेको भएतापनि लामो समयदेखि वन क्षेत्रमा काठ व्यवस्थापनको विषय समुदायको लागि जटिल कार्य बन्दै आएको छ । यस्तो अवस्थामा स्थानीय स्तरमा काष्ठ तथा काष्ठजन्य उत्पादनमा स्थानीयको पहुँचमा वृद्धि गर्ने तथा स्थानीय क्षेत्रमा  रोजगारी सृजना गर्ने सवालमा घुम्ती सःमिल एउटा विकल्प हुन सक्छ ।

सःमिल परिक्षणको तयारी । (फोटोः कपिल दाहाल)

संसारमा काठ चिरानका लागि विभिन्न किसिमका यन्त्रहरु प्रयोग हुँदै आएका छन् । नेपालमै पनि पछिल्ला केही दशकमा काठ चिर्ने काममा फरक–फरक किसिमका यन्त्रहरु प्रयोग हुन थालेका छन् । परम्परागत आरा, बन्चरोको ठाउँमा पावर चेनःस जस्ता यन्त्रको प्रयोग हुन थालेको छ । यस्तैमा, घुम्ती सःमिल काठ चिरानका लागि प्रयोग हुने यन्त्र नै हो । यद्यपी, अवश्यकता अनुसार स्थानान्तरण गरी काठ चिर्न सकिने यसको प्रमुख विशेषता हो । स्थानीय उत्पादनमा आधारित काठ उद्योगको स्थापना तथा विकासको सम्भावना  रहेको हाम्रो देशमा यसको मितव्ययी प्रयोगबाट आम उपभोत्ताको स्थानीय काठमा पहुँच बढ्ने तथा थाकथलोमै रोजगारीको अवसर पनि सृजना हुन सक्छ ।

नेपालमा भएका वन क्षेत्रहरूको दिगो व्यवस्थापन गर्न सकेको खण्डमा काठको उत्पादनबाट मात्रै पनि आम्दानी कैयौं गुणा बढी गर्न सकिने कुरा स्पष्ट देखिन्छ । वन तथा वातावरण मन्त्रालयले सातै प्रदेशमा वनमा आधारित हरित रोजगार सृजना गर्ने उद्योग सञ्चालन/सृजना गर्ने लक्ष्य लिईरहेको परिवेशमा निकट भविष्यमा वनमा आधारित उद्यमको विकास, विस्तार तथा यसका आधारमा हुने काष्ठ प्रविधिको विकास, तथा तराई–मधेस एवं मध्य पहाडी क्षेत्रको भूमिमा उच्चस्तरका काठहरूबाट काष्ठजन्य उत्पादन हुने अपेक्षा गर्न सकिन्छ । यस्तोमा अन्य ठूलो औद्योगिक प्रकृतिका काठ चिरान गर्ने यन्त्र तथा उद्योग स्थापना गर्न जटिल रहेका स्थानमा घुम्ती सःमिल एउटा विकल्प हुन सक्छ ।

सःमिलमार्फत काठ चिरान गरिदै । (फोटोः कपिल दाहाल)

यही परिस्थितीको माँझ मुख्यतया नेपालको पहाडी क्षेत्रमा सामुदायिक वन, कवुलियती वन तथा निजी वनबाट उत्पादन भएका काठलाई उपभोक्ताहरूको आवश्यकता अनुसार कटान तथा चिरान गर्न अन्य देशका ग्रामीण समुदायका लागि सुविधाजनक साबित भएको घुम्ती सःमिल नेपालको परिपे्रक्षमा स्थानीय समुदायको खर्चको कटौती, गुणस्तरको चिरान काठ उत्पादन, न्युनतम बस्तुको नोक्सान आदी उद्देश्य राखी डिभिजन वन कार्यालय, सिन्धुपाल्चोकले खरिद गरेको थियो । स्थानीय सामुदायिक वनका पदाधिकारी तथा उपभोक्ताको यस सःमिल प्रतिको धारणा लिने तथा प्रविधिक पाटो केलाउने साथै स्थानिय समुदायलाई यस घुम्ति सःमिल सञ्चालन गर्न सक्षम बनाउने प्रयास स्वरुप २०७८ साल चैत्र १४ देखि १७ सम्म (४ दिने) घुम्ती सःमिल परिक्षण कार्यक्रम गरिएको थियो । सामुदायिक तथा निजी वन व्यवस्थापन अभ्यासमा सुधार गरी सामाजिक, आर्थिक तथा वातावरणीय पक्षमा सुधार ल्याउने लक्ष्य लिई जीविकोपार्जन सुधारका लागि परिष्कृत वन व्यवस्थापन कार्यक्रम (इन्लिफ्ट परियोजना) विगत केही वर्षदेखि चौतारा साँगाचोकगढी नगरपालिकाको वडा नं ८ र १३ लाई कार्यक्षेत्र वनाई विभिन्न १८ वटा सामुदायिक वनहरूमा विभिन्न क्षेत्रगत गतिविधि संचालनमा सहजीकरण गरीरहेको छ । डिभिजन वन कार्यालय सिन्धुपाल्चोक तथा इन्लिफ्ट परियोजनाको सहजीकरणमा यस क्षेत्रका सामुदायिक वनहरू श्रीछाप देउराली, संसारी डाँडा, बाँझेकपासे लगायतका सामुदायिक वनहरुमा सःमिलको प्रशिक्षण, परीक्षण र प्रदर्शनी कार्यक्रम सञ्चालन गरिएको थियो । यस कार्यक्रमले मुख्य रूपमा प्राविधिक परीक्षणले घुम्ती सःमिलको लागत, श्रम, चिरान समय, काठको क्षती, कार्यसम्पादन, इन्धन खपत, पार्टपुर्जा ओसारपसार, आराको गुणस्तर, दक्षता, परिचालन सुविधा, सःमिलको सामाजिक स्वीकृति परीक्षण, काठको गुणस्तर र सरोकारवालाहरूको सामान्य धारणा इत्यादिको विस्तृत अध्ययन गरी दस्तावेज तयार गरिएको छ । दीर्घकालिन रूपमा यस कार्यक्रमले वन पैदावारको उचित सदुपयोग, स्थानीय अर्थतन्त्रमा टेवा, स्थानीय बस्तुको दिगो उपयोग तथा व्यवस्थापनमा उचित भूमिका खेल्ने अनुमान गर्नुका साथै स्थानीय स्तरमा काटिएको काठको दिगो आपूर्ति सुनिश्चित गर्नेछ भन्ने गर्ने उद्देश्य लिएको छ ।

घुम्ती सःमिल परिक्षणको प्रारम्भिक नतिजालाई आधार मान्ने हो भने घुम्ती सःमिलबाट विद्यमान स्थानीय आरा मिलहरू को तुलनामा स्थापना तथा सञ्चालन गर्न सजिलो देखिएको छ । उपभोक्ताको माग अनुसार निश्चित साइजको चिरान गर्न सकिने तथा अन्य आरा मिल भन्दा कम जोखिम, ट्रलीको उचाई कम भएकोले काठ लोड अनलोड गर्न सजिलो, समथर र स्केल बमोजिमको चिरान काठ उत्पादन, मिल स्थापना पश्चात दक्ष कामदारको निगरानीमा सामान्य कामदारबाट पनि सञ्चालन गर्न सकिने, ध्वनी तथा वातावरण प्रदुषण कमी, करिब ३/३२ इन्चको सानो आरा हुनाले काठमा कम क्षती पुग्ने तथा एक पटकमा ४–८ वटासम्म कडी चिरान गर्न सकिने जस्ता सवल पक्ष देखिएको छ । घुम्ती सःमिल स्थानीय सामुदायिक वन क्षेत्र वरीपरी नै सञ्चालन गर्न सकिने भएकाले काठ ढुवानी गर्न लाग्ने समय तथा लागत घट्ने, गोलाई नै किन्नु पर्ने बाध्यताको सट्टा स्रोत भएको ठाउँमै आवश्यकता अनुसारको चिरान काठ किन्न पाइने साथै विपन्न उपभोक्तालाई रोजगारीको सिर्जना हुन्छ ।

सःमिलमा चिरान गरिएको काठ (फल्याक) संकलन गरिदै । (फोटोः कपिल दाहाल)

यसरी विभन्न फाईदा हुदाँहुदै पनि यसका केही सीमाहरू भने देखिन्छ । सडक पहुँच भएको स्थानमा मात्र संचालन र ढुवानी गर्न सकिने, मेसिन लोड र अनलोड गर्न समय लाग्ने, ब्लेड साट्दा वा धार लगाउन प्राविधिक पक्षलाई ध्यान दिनु पर्ने, ठूलो व्यास भएको काठ चिरानको लागि अनुपयुक्त, बोल्ट, ट्रली, लेभल स्तरको आवधिक जाँच जरुरी हुने, कडा खालको काठ चिरानमा कठिन हुने, फल्याक चिरान गर्दा अन्तिममा ३ इन्च काठ बाँकी रहने, लेभल, ब्लेड, पानी, धार गार्ड, आदि पटक पटक अवलोकन गरी राख्नु पर्ने, मिलमा गोलिया काठ फिटिंगको लागि समय लाग्ने तथा योग्य प्राविधिकहरूको निगरानी चाहिने देखिएको छ ।

डिभिजन वन कार्यालयका प्रतिनिधिद्धारा सःमिल परिक्षणको निरिक्षण र छलफल गर्दै । (फोटोः कपिल दाहाल)

यसरी हेर्दा घुम्ती सःमिल प्रभावकारी देखिएता पनि यसको प्रयोगमा भने केही व्यवधानहरु देखिएको छ । वन व्यवस्थापन तथा स्रोत उपभोगको सवालमा  विभिन्न अध्ययनहरूले यहाँको कानुनी तथा व्यवहारिक अड्चनहरू, अव्यवहारिक नीतिगत निर्णय, कर्मचारीतन्त्र, परम्परागत सोच र व्यवस्थापन शैली प्रमुख बाधकको रूपमा देखिएको छ । लागत कम गर्न, सामाजिक रूपमा स्वीकार्यता बढाउन, नीतिगत, व्यवहारिक तथा प्राविधिक पक्षलाई केलाउन थप नमुना क्षेत्रमा सम्भाव्यता परीक्षण गर्नु पर्नेछ । साथै, पूर्ण मर्मत संभार गर्न सक्ने स्थानीय दक्ष प्राविधिक उत्पादन गर्नुका साथै घुम्ती सःमिल सञ्चालन गर्न सकिने कानुनी आधार विकास गर्नु पर्ने अबको बाटो हो । कानुनी रुपमा दर्ता गरी उद्यमको रुपमा विकास गर्न केही नीतिगत जटिलता रहेको देखिए पनि समस्याको गाठो फुकाउने र उद्योग संचालनमा सहजीकरण गर्ने गरी नेपाल सरकारसँग समन्वय गरी स्थानीय स्तरमा वन उद्यम विकास, रोजगारी सृजना, महिला सशक्तिकरण र गरिबी न्युनीकरण गर्ने वातावरण घुम्ती सःमिल एक विकल्प हुन सक्छ ।

घर नजिकै सःमिलबाट दलिन र फल्याक चिरान गर्न पाउँदा खुसी हुँदै उपभोक्ताहरू । (फोटोः कपिल दाहाल)

 

कपिल दाहाल, फरेष्टएक्सन नेपालमा अनुसन्धानकर्ता हुनुहुन्छ ।

माथि उल्लेखित विषयवस्तुहरू नितान्त लेखकको विचार र स्थलगत अनुभवमा आधारीत हो । फरेष्टएक्सन नेपाल र ईन्लिफ्ट परियोजना नेपालको धारणासँग प्रतिनिधित्व गरेको मानिने छैन ।

Opportunities and challenges for empowering Nepali women in community forestry

Private forest owner in Sindhupalkchok with her son. Courtesy of Ganga Neupane

Srijana Baral and Kanchan Lama of ForestAction Nepal share some of the hardships women face in forest communities in Nepal. They introduce a new GLOW project that aims to empower women entrepreneurs to establish forest-based, low-carbon small businesses to enhance their climate resilience.

The Economic Empowerment of Women through Forest Solutions (WEE-FS) project is being implemented over the next three years in four municipalities in Nepal. The municipalities are in two regions: Sindhupalchok in the hills and Nawalpur in the Terai (Nepal’s lowland region). The project aims to generate evidence-based knowledge for women’s economic empowerment through low carbon, forest and nature-based entrepreneurial solutions that enhance women’s resilience against climate change and external pandemic and economic shocks.

The project is funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), and implemented by a consortium of partners with diverse expertise including ForestAction Nepal – a research organisation, the Himalayan Grassroots Women’s Natural Resource Management Association (HIMAWANTI) – a civic network of women’s groups, the Association of Family Forest Owner’s, Nepal (AFFON) – a network of private forest owners, and the Federation of Forest-based Industry and Trade, Nepal (FenFIT-Nepal) – an association of private entrepreneurs.

Opportunities and challenges for empowering Nepali women in community forestry

The first quarter of the project has involved better comprehending the diverse opportunities and challenges people are facing. Particularly excluded groups in the communities of Sindhupalchok and Nawalpur include women and girls from forest-dependent local communities, single and widowed women, Indigenous groups, Dalits (also known as the ‘Untouchables’) and land-poor and landless groups.

Decades of conservation efforts and changing rural livelihoods have contributed to increased forest area. This, together with male out-migration from the localities (in search of employment elsewhere), offers ample opportunities for women to engage in forest-based businesses that contribute to a low-carbon economy.

Enhanced external development support in these communities has also opened up opportunities for women to participate in ’outdoor’ activities that expose them to more information about government policies. Development activities have included better access to drinking water (through taps installed at the door steps of homes), roads and internet services, and, most importantly, an enhanced presence of local government in the area.

Although living conditions are gradually improving for many, it is not the same for all women and girls, especially those living in poverty and belonging to socially-excluded communities. Forest-dependent communities are deprived of forest resources due ‘gender-blind’ approaches (where gender is totally disregarded) of community forest user groups (CFUGs). Forest guards often prevent women from entering the forest to access basic timber and non-timber products such as firewood, grass, fodder and wild food. We came across a huge collection of sickles and axes seized by forest guards, many of which belonged to women mainly from poor sections of the community, who had entered the forest to collect firewood and fodder. Hence it is of paramount importance to sensitise forest guards and CFUG authorities including women’s groups primarily relying on forests on gender-friendly approaches.

In addition to challenges related to gaining access to the forest, we identified that women and marginalised groups face multiple other risks – both non-climate and climate-related. These include women’s food insecurity, health hazards, unemployment, exclusion from public information, and the barring of women from making important decisions about forest and other productive resources. Communities are also ill-prepared to cope with (un)anticipated hazards such as floods and landslides and risks from a changing climate, including the growing rate of crop failure and food insecurity, and other new crises such as Covid-19. Amidst all of these interconnected hardships, women and girls are the ones to suffer the most.

Although women’s self-empowerment has increased in recent years, patriarchal values are still very active in a society that prevents women from assuming leadership to claim their share of forest benefits.

“Single women face social discrimination, we cannot voice our issues freely, how can we access timber and other materials freely in the same way, like other women get? Our turn seems to come last, although they say that there is policy for us, but we never get any special treatment, rather we have to bear curses from our fellow women in the public” – a Dalit women shared her struggles for obtaining forest products from community forest.

Women in forest-based enterprises

Forest-based enterprises offer economic opportunities to women through nature-based solutions to enhance their safety nets to absorb climate shocks and build resilience. Several women’s groups in Sindhupalchok and Nawalpur are traditionally engaged in forest-based enterprises, although at a small-scale using traditional knowledge and skills. Women-friendly innovations are needed for efficiency in the absence of technological advancement.

Women are engaged in preparing herbal medicines for treating gastritis problems and Covid-19 symptoms. The Bhujel and Thami Indigenous women are skilled at preparing bamboo and cane handicrafts including brooms from broom grass and mats using dwarf fan palm (Thakal). Some have informally begun to operate enterprises making and selling wooden furniture, however it is still challenging for women to get involved in timber-based products, both in their sale and marketing.

Cardamom plantation in Tripurasundari, Sindhupalchok. Courtesy of Srijana Baral

In the Nepalese context, the extraction of timber or non-timber forest products is based on a management plan prepared by forestry experts. The management plan is based on a resource inventory and the management interventions are carried out accordingly. In addition, the women who are engaged in collecting these resources often possess indigenous knowledge on resource management, which contributes to environmental sustainability.

Forests in different management and tenure regimes, including community forests, private forests and leaseholds forests, all hold potential as sources of low-carbon income for women. Many households are found to own private forests and trees on farmland, but family forests are more privately functional and not systematically registered and documented. Many people, however, are unaware of the benefits of registering the forests and using them for commercial purposes.

This was evident during our conversation with Mrs. Kamala Devi Basnet, a private forest owner in Sindhupalchok: “My family owns a multi-storied natural forest on half a hectare of land. I raised the forest and expected it to be a source of income for educating my four children, but now I realise it’s not worth much. A trader came to me and offered a nominal price i.e. Rs 500/tree for medium-sized trees and Rs.1000/tree for big-sized trees. I want to explore the market, but I don’t know where to go and how to get service I want”. She is not aware of any technical support that she could obtain from the Divisional Forest Office. She is now thinking of registering the private forest.

Private and family forests are a huge resource for promoting women’s economic empowerment, but women often lack the skills to fully capitalise on forest assets.

Problems in marketing locally-produced items due to the abundant supply of Chinese and Indian made paper and plastic items, needs serious attention from the district municipalities to discourage it. One option is to impose strict trade regulations to block its supply in order to encourage a market for locally-produced bamboo and cane items.

Strategies for further actions

Forest-based enterprises need adequate policy back-up. Policies introducing subsidies, tax and VAT exemptions might support the women entrepreneurs. Women are active in managing forest resources; well versed in women’s rights and gender roles, but lack adequate power to make decisions over forest incomes. The project can support by introducing women-friendly, low-carbon technologies and skills to support non-timber-based industries that could include a range of products such as handmade paper, Allo (Himalayan giant nettle) prepared clothes, and bamboo and cane baskets that are widely used by local communities.

Several women-led forest-based enterprises are not able to expand their business mainly due to unclear forest and trade policies. They face further challenges, such as lack of negotiation skills as well as opportunities to diversify products and access markets. Strengthening the capacity of women and introducing appropriate technologies to save women’s time and labour, along with motivational entrepreneurship coaching, will be a priority for the project.

Financial institutions hesitate to prioritise women-managed enterprises (and timber-based ones), which needs to be addressed. To support enterprises and women’s economic empowerment, local governments in Sindhupalchok have introduced a policy related to agro-based enterprise and applied through the micro-enterprise development programme in in the district. These initiatives need upscaling at the national and other local government level. The project will support the Ministry of Forests in revisiting and reforming policies and strategies to create opportunities from forests.

Ms. Baral is Project Manager and Ms. Lama is Principal Researcher – Economic Empowerment of Women through Forest Solution at ForestAction Nepal.
(The blog was originally published in CDKN website as a part of the gender equality in low carbon world (GLOW) program funded by IDRC Canada. https://glowprogramme.org/news-blogs/opportunities-and-challenges-empowering-nepali-women-community-forestry)

Advancing community forestry in the new era of socio-economic change

Forty years ago, the emergence of community forestry in Nepal proved to be the solution to subsistence livelihood and ecological conservation. Community efforts in restoring the degraded landscape was fundamental in achieving the intended goals. The advent of community forestry in the 1980s witnessed a massive mobilization of communities in reforesting the hills. Back then, the entire orientation of rural communities, and that of foresters and forestry bureaucrats was in favor of promoting community forestry, which gained a global acclamation. Initiated through few handovers, community forestry spread across as a popular policy movement in the country. Gradually, organizations apart from the government responded to the trend by supporting local communities in strengthening the institution. After forty years, apparently, community forestry is at the cross roads where the spirit of the user groups is languishing.

During my visit to one of the community forest user groups in Kavrepalanchowk, I had an interaction with an elderly, perhaps in his early 70s, who was more skeptical about the future of community forest. His persuasion on declining interest of people over forests was evident through growing number of youths leaving the village. Kavre is not an exception to this. Community forests across Nepal has seen passive management, and the socio-environmental foundations based on which community forestry was introduced have observed many changes. The contribution of community forest in socio-economic and ecological changes in Nepal is not debatable. However, Nepal has witnessed several changes in the socio-economic and political context, wherein demographic dynamics, income levels, agricultural practices, and aspirations of the youths have changed substantially. This has largely met with a mismatch between benefits that community forests can deliver versus what local communities expect from it. Foresters, practitioners, and scholars debate on whether the current model of community forestry is still valid and whether it can accommodate the changing preferences of rural communities in the changing socio-economic context of Nepal.

In 1991, Don Gilmour and R.J. Fisher, both Australians, attempted to share their rich insights on community forestry of Nepal in their book entitled ‘Villagers, Forests, and Foresters: The Philosophy, Process, and Practice of Community Forestry in Nepal’. This book was a dynamo that has been keeping the energy flowing among the foresters, academics, forestry officials, and community forestry practitioners. A collaboration between a forester, and an anthropologist provides a pragmatic approach to technical and social issues circumventing community forestry program in Nepal. Back in the 1980s, the authors were working for the Nepal-Australia Community Forestry Program, a major forestry program in Nepal at the time, where any intervention pertinent to community forest would be an experimentation. 30 years down the line, community forestry has witnessed a transformational shift which is largely attributed to the changing socio-economic, and socio-political context of the country.

Achievements and new challenges

Nepal has been globally acknowledged as a pioneer country in showcasing successful practice of community-based resource management through community forestry. The advent of community forestry was viewed as a huge shift in reversing denuded areas and stabilizing fragile mountain slopes. But most importantly, it generated livelihoods and employment to millions of rural populations, where back then, jobs merely existed in urban centers. Today over two million hectares of forests are being managed as community forests by over 22,000 community forest user groups, across the country. As a recent paper by Ojha and Hall entitled ‘Transformation as system innovation: insights from Nepal’s five decades of community forestry development’ shows, Nepal’s community forestry demonstrates a system wide innovation in governance.

With such an expansion and the systemic change which happened in course of four decades, community forestry now faces a multitude of issues in the environmental, social, economic, and political fronts. In a recent webinar, early advocate of community forestry, Dr Don Gilmour stressed that ‘the socio-economic context of community forestry during its inception and now has changed’. I had an important take away message from the webinar – many forestry enthusiasts who have witnessed the long trajectory of community forestry have noted the fact that the socio-economic changes have driven it to a different direction, and thus requires readjustments. In my own experience, I believe there is a need for readjustments in both policy and forest management fronts. In other words, there is a compelling need to revisit and refine community forestry to make it fully attuned to the changing context, and hence would make it more relevant in the future.

A new collaborative assessment to explore revitalization options

In an attempt to pull together the knowledge in assessing the relevance of current modality of community forestry, a collaborative effort of experts, based in Nepal and Australia, started investigating the areas of (re)adjustments in community forests. In doing so, an editorial team led by Dr Naya Sharma Paudel of ForestAction Nepal, convened a group of over 40 experts specializing on diverse aspects of community forestry to work on this collaborative effort of producing a report. The editorial team members are a part of the Australian supported project EnLiFT2 (Enhancing livelihoods from improved forest management in Nepal) and this report is part of its production.

Following thorough review and reiterations with the group of authors, which took almost a year, the editorial team finally produced this report entitled ‘Revitalising community forestry in the changing socio-economic context of Nepal’. With nine chapters written on diverse themes encompassing policy and institutions, biodiversity, climate change, silviculture, enterprise, and gender, this report largely investigates different areas of community forestry that require adjustment. Moreover, it has also made strategic recommendations, that would allow it to adapt in the new context.

In course of my engagement with these authors and experts, I got an impression of having a consensus on at least one aspect – community forestry in Nepal needs revitalization. In other words, the contextual factors that might have worked for community forestry 40 years ago, perhaps may not be valid now. Our societies have evolved and so have the livelihood priorities of people. So certain future direction to drive community forestry has been imperative, and this assessment reinforces the foundation to this new discourse.

Initiating new discourse based on collaborative assessment

Citing its relevance, the Secretary of the Ministry of Forests and Environment affirmed the idea of formally launching the report. Finally, on 15 March 2022, the report was launched during an event in Kathmandu. The report was jointly launched by the secretary of the Ministry and HE Ambassador of Australia to Nepal in the presence of over 35 participants representing various institutions including joint secretaries from the Ministry, Divisional Forest Officers, Under Secretaries, Dean of Institute of Forestry, University Professors, Chair and representatives of FECOFUN, and representatives from NGOs and INGOs. There was an overwhelming appreciation of the collaborative work wherein the report was lauded for being timely and offering a strong basis to framing community forestry policies.

Beyond this, a scholarly attempt of publishing a book on community forestry is underway. An editorial team led by Dr Hemant Ojha from the University of Canberra, is working on a book that would offer critical insights into how community forestry systems can be better governed and managed in the light of changing contexts and new drivers impacting forest and people relationship in the country. This book will be unique in the sense that it would bring high quality research and deeply engaged experiential reflections of those involved in promoting community forestry at different stages of its evolution in Nepal.

Mr. Karki is a researcher at ForestAction Nepal.

Doing field work in the lowest elevation forest in the Himalayan Country

Photograph of old growth Sal forest at Pathibhara Community Forest

Nepal has the longest elevation gradient in the world i.e.  8000 meters vertical ascend within horizontal distance of 200km. The Himalayan country is known for majestic mountain peaks of which eight peaks cross 8000 meter above sea level (masl) but it also has land as below as 60 masl. Jalthal forest is the forest located in the lowest elevation in Nepal in the south eastern corner of the country in Jhapa district. Jalthal is a relict and remnant forest island in the densely populated region of eastern lowland of Nepal in Jhapa district.  The forest gets its name from a nearby area called Jalthal‘Jalthal’ refers to waterlogged or marshy area.  It is the largest forest island in lowland of Nepal. I had opportunity to learn about the wealth of flora of the forest from different people who have been there earlier. Two year back, I along with colleagues organized a quick visit of the forest and interacted with local people on various issues around the status and management of forest, which further helped me understand the uniqueness, importance and challenges of the forest. After the visit and the interaction, I realized the need for conservation and comprehensive assessment of forest so that we can get better idea about forest status and biodiversity for its evidence based management. With new project supported by Darwin Initiative UK, our plan to work for conservation of Jalthal forest became possible.  After completing preparation, I decided to undertake fieldwork to sample the vegetation of the forest in the beginning of 2020.

I was excited and worried simultaneously for the fieldwork! Compared to mountain, no doubt Tarai topography is certainly a comfort to work with. Wildlife is a threat not to underestimate in some of the Terai forest.  I had worked in the core area of Chitwan National Park. I was much worried to sample Jalthal than Chitwan National park. Jalthal forest has become a habitat of a heard wild elephants.   Jhapa district is the worst affected by elephant attack. During the last one decade, so far over forty people were already killed in elephant attack of which over half dozen were from Jalthal area.  Local reported that elephant roam throughout the forest.

Bigger team for fieldwork

After initial planning I called a community forest leader to discuss about the field work. I requested him to find some local helper for us and informed him that we go deep inside the jungle to work . When I said we are four and want two local helpers. He asked me ‘ is not this group small to go and work inside the core of the forest?  I understood the level of threat and fear. After discussion with locals we decided to work in relatively larger group. Being in larger group would increase our confidence and feeling of safety. It would also allow us to invigilate on the way and around while working. Making too large group of course had resource limitation. As part of the sampling, we also had plan to engage locals in our team so that there will be mutual learning and sharing.

We decided to work in a group of 7-10 people depending on the location.  In the team we four were researchers and other four to five people from local community.  For the ease of sampling, we have two local youths who would work with us for the entire sampling while other three were from respective community forest. Two locals in our team would work with us during entire period of sampling.  Purpose of bringing local people was to share learning and experiences of local people and technicians.  In the team three were Master students namely Yogendra, Ramu and Shankar from Tribhuvan University. They are expected to develop their master thesis out of the plot data.

Local youths and master students in field measurement

 

Learning forest diversity and degradation

I had opportunity to scan couple of paper of floral diversity originating on Jalthal data. These papers highlighted uniqueness of Jalthal forests and provided list of flora. However, from the very beginning of forest sampling I realized that the forest was much diverse than I thought.  Jalthal forest shows paradoxies i.e. degraded and diverse simultaneously. Having worked with other forest of western and central Tarai of Nepal, I thought I would not have problem of identification of trees but I stumbled in several places. Jalthal could be only place in Nepal where one can find forest of Latahar ( Artocarpus chama).  A chama forms a giant tree with spreading crown and is an East Asian species, and eastern Nepal could be its westernmost limit of distribution. During field work I also noticed several male and female individuals of Cycas (C. pectinanata) trees. This gymnosperm has not been reported from other parts of Terai region of Nepal.  The forest is particularly rich in terms of tree flora and wetland flora.

Author standing inform of female cycas plant and male cone of Cycas
Jalthal forest is enriched by diverse habitat; gullies, streams, hillocks, ponds and marshes. We encountered Burmese pythons in couple of occasions. Local field guides informed us there are Salak (Pangolin) as well. We noticed several signs of Salak hunting during our field work. The forest supports high diversity birds and reptiles including golden monitor lizard, a protected species, and Burmese python.
Burmese python in the forest and Lesser adjutant in Simal tree.

The forest is diverse and old growth but a portion of forest is also truly a secondary with recently regenerating trees. Forest consists of pure stand of sal to species mixed stand including riverine forest. Forest was notable in terms of tree diversity but forest floor was relatively poor. Nevertheless, the herbaceous component was compensated by habitat mosaics in the forest.

Champion of plot navigation

I divided Jalthal forest in grids of 500 m * 500 m and placed the plots to be sampled randomly. This was done to cover the whole area while trying to be random to some extent.  We had to find and sample plots already loaded in GPS. Instances they followed an established or temporary trail would be simply a coincidence.  Locating plots in the forest was really a challenge. In many places it took hours to travel between two consecutive plots mainly due to think layer of bush mainly invasive Banmara and Pyangri  lahara. Without local help it would be very difficult for my team to find plots depending on forest location. The problem would be the same for externals who were unfamiliar about local situation. Luckily we got someone who became our great help in this matter.

Mr Bhanu Dhakal is a slim, athletic and cheerful boy  lives in Badabari of Jalthal. Upon a short training and visualization of our plot maps he said that placement of plot was different from community forest inventory in which plots are placed systematic along a line. I thought he got it. My colleague Sanjaya helped him learning GPS and plot navigation. In no time he grasped it. Now GPS, compass and maps were handed to Bhanu. His quick learning about plot navigation and knowledge on forest geography and trails saved our time and made life easy.

Bhanu meuring tree girth at DBH

He used to lead us and we usually lag behind him in the bush. He was so swift and could pass through thick bushes of invasive species in no time. During 30 days long field Bhanu was a very helpful, punctual and honest guy. He was always there to support us. His sense about place and map was impressive and strong. Once we missed a tape somewhere in the pot. After finishing field as 16:00, we were supposed to be out.  But he was really serious about the tape.  In next one and half hour he visited every plot we sampled during the day which were several hundred meter apart separated by think bush and not connected by trails. Finally he came with yellow tape in hand. Friends following him said that they felt that their heart was going to be burst.  He never showed tiredness and was always focused on the work. While walking he used to think about plot for following days. All other workers were special and without their help this field would not be possible.  Another noteworthy supporter was Krishna Kharel, I called him Kharel ji, who helped us in plot measurement and making the access road by slashing the dense layer of shrub and vines. Alost every single day he used to carry and distribute Supari  (betel  nut)to us. About to ripe Supari, was really refreshing, by the end of field work I was like addicted to that. Mr Bikram Baral was also there to help us in the field.

Fear of the giant but chronic trouble of tiny

As mentioned in earlier section, Jhapa district the most affected area by elephant. Local people have witnessed increased activities of elephant in the Jalthal forest. It is believed that occasionally a small heard of elephant lives in the forest for some time. While walking in the forest, I have also seen marks of elephant activities in almost all parts of the forest. Just before field work we also heard about appearance of elephant in different parts in and around the forest.  So I was worried about safety. Local people also suggested visiting forest in little bigger group rather than just 3-4 people.

Every report of elephant sighting during night time used to scare us during days. Every fresh signs (dung, footprints and tree damage) of elephant used to make us cautious and increased our heartbeat. Some movement nearby in the forest used to took our breath. We used to get update about elephant sighting in the night to be cautious next day. As a team leader, I was always worried about safety of field crews. Fortunately, we did not encounter any casualty during the fieldwork.

While we were worried from big beast, we suffered from small creatures every single day. Most terrible was small tick which was hardly visible to naked eyes. In the evening we used to scratch and check body parts. A variety of tick was as small as head of sharp needle and visible in the skin only when they are done. Once I had it inside my ear which was removed by simple medication. Once we recovered it from eyes as well. One of my team members had to visit eye hospital to get it out from his eyes. Our body has full of red spots   in the body and they may take few days to weeks to get recovered.  We also found another larger species of tick which was about half cm wide and local call it as sungure kirna, which means pork tick. In marshy area we had leech but they were not troublesome like ticks. In few place while measuring trees we disturbed ants and got attacked. Rato kamila and Thad kande were red and black ants respectively often encountered in the forest.

Beyond ecological and biodiversity data

While sampling the forest, learning about diversity and ecology of forest was obvious. Sampling forest with local people helped us better understand the people- forest interaction. These learning could be verified while working in the forest. Local people informed about the plants and other products from forest. We observed people collecting forest products, signs of hunting and cases of illegal tree felling. Locals also shared their impression about CF officials and forest technicians. We also learnt different management in different community forest and peoples understanding about biodiversity.

One important insight during field work was about forest use and dependency of people in forest. Many people think that dependency on forest is decreasing during recent decades, in general this may hold true. But this statement may not hold true when you analyses the data across social and economic class. I observed hundreds of people carrying  firewood, fodder and other products every day.  If you think that many people use LP gas, so dependency on firewood has been declined. This also depends on who you are looking about. It appears that for some people dependency on forest has not declined. Analyzing forest dependency should therefore be disintegrated across social and economic class.

In general the forest looks dense and full of fodder but the we observed different cases. One case may explain the dearth of fodder. We encountered many men and women collecting in forest. One day, we were about to return from forest at 3.30, we noticed someone was shouting. Our local assistant listened the sound carefully as he thought people should not be in the interior by this time. We also shouted, a man of around 70 appeared and approached towards us. He lost his way inside forest and became very happy to find us. He was in a group of people from his village but somehow he  not only missed friends but also the way to back home.  He crossed his forest and came to another CF.  We asked him why are you so far from your CF. He replied “it is hard to find fodder and it takes several hours to make a bundle of fodder in our CF so I came inside and another CF. He told “nisha lagyo” which means loss sense of direction. We helped him find way to his home.  Our local assistant requested him to throw the fodder and follow us as it would be difficult to carry the load as there was not a trail. But he refused.

Boring daily schedule but newness everyday

Making datasheet ready, checking battery of GPS, putting field gears in field bag, purchase of snacks for day time, informing local helpers about today’s meeting point and time, confirming auto rickshaw and having dal bhat around 8.30 were our regular schedule in the early hour.  Moving between plots to plots, navigating plot location, passing through dense layer of shrubs, measuring girth of trees, counting herbs, remaining vigilant to elephant,  returning from field, checking ticks, itching body parts were regular activities in the noon and afternoon.  In spite of this regular and boring schedule we always enjoyed field. Everyday some new guys used to be in the field to accompany us. Those new guys used to bring different culture and stories about forest. Some were very frank while others were shy. Everyday something new to learn from them about forest and plants. Next plot used to be different from previous plot and there used to either new species or new stand  story.

Travelling to the forest

After returning from the field Mr. Yogendra used to sort, describe and identify plants observed during the day. We used to discuss each plant about its identity. His plant related activities was very intense during the second phase field work. He closely observed minute flower and parts inside, checked the characteristics with taxonomic literatures and identify species. Finally he used to press the specimen and put them over heater to get them dried. I enjoyed closely observing the hard work and found a passionate taxonomist in him. He was highly motivated and immersed into that. Observing trees and other plants in the field and Knowing about their classification and names in the evening really refreshed me in spite of tiredness of the day. Although our schedule was monotonous with similar activities every day I had new learning and new observation about diversity of forest, trees, plants and forest-people interaction.

Taking notes while talking with local youths

In summary

We worked for 30 days, sampled 220 plots, measured over 4000 tree trunks in Jalthal forest. Forty local people participated from different community forests and they contributed over 120 man day’s work in the participatory field work.  Jalthal forest is very important natural resource for local livelihood. It is unique forest in lowland Nepal and has important area for biodiversity with rich flora. While the vegetation data analysis may take some time it was great learning to work with local people in forest sampling.

Mr. Sharma works at ForestAction Nepal.
Views presented here do not necessarily reflect views of ForestAction Nepal and it’s collaborating institutions.