Community forestry at a crossroads

Community forestry at a crossroads

  • Rahul Karki
  • March 19, 2024

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 (


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