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.