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.

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.