Community forestry: the regreening of the Himalayas

Commuity forestry aims to mix pine with more broad leaf plants Copyright: Flickr/Dey

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Leafy forests replanted by communities in Nepal are flying in the face of accepted conservation practice, reports T. V. Padma.

The shaded path, insect buzz and distant calls of birds signal the beginning of a small forest in Nepal’s middle Himalayas. Traversing up the mountains, one sees many more such forest patches, interrupted only by red-tiled roofs and tiny terraced fields of maize and rice.

These are no ordinary forests — they are ‘community forests’, entirely rejuvenated from denuded mountain land by the local communities who now manage them.

Community forests have ushered in a paradigm shift in forestry science and management in Nepal and helped conserve one of the world′s biodiversity hotspots.

"This is brahmi (Bacopa monnierii), it helps improve your memory," points out a 70-year-old local villager, Ram Prasad Ghimire, as he climbs the steep forest path like a sure-footed goat. He continues to walk and talk, an encyclopaedia of local Himalayan herbs that get rid of worms or are used to make incense or paper.

He pauses to add, "I know their local names and uses, but don’t know English. The scientists in Kathmandu who know English never bother to come here."

Reclaiming the lost forests

Scientists’ indifference has not deterred local communities from regenerating the forest on their own.

Over one-and-a-half centuries ago, the lower slopes of the mountains that form 83 per cent of Nepal’s land were covered in natural forests. Population pressure, commercial exploitation and mismanagement by Nepal′s kings, government and private owners slowly stripped them away.

Between 1964 and 1985, Nepal lost 570,000 hectares (about nine per cent) of its natural forest, according to government data.

Until 1980, the Jiri Valley in the Dolakha range and the Lamosangu area in the Sindhpalchowk district were two such barren, treeless areas. With their livelihoods at stake, local communities took charge, applying their traditional knowledge of land and natural resource management to regrow trees.

They simply left the hills alone for some time, ensuring the soil contained humus — brownish-black decaying plant and animal matter that supports plant growth — and moisture.

Hardy roots of several forest species soon began to sprout and local communities later planted saplings of their choice. Communities then drew up rules on which species should be grown, cut or left unused, and defined responsibilities and punishments for violating the rules.

By the mid-1990s the Jiri Valley had acquired a greenish tinge, and by 2005 it was dark green.

The extent of forest cover in
the Jiri forest by 1994
Credit: Nepal-Swiss Community
Forest Project

Local communities — such as Ram Prasad’s village, Ghimiregaon — also became involved where other projects had failed. They took control of the 118-square-hectare Hilejaljale community forest after a well-intentioned Australian-aided community forestry programme started planting fast-growing pine trees in the 1970s.

But the sharp pine needles were of no use for cattle fodder or bedding, the branches gave insufficient firewood and no shade, and the soil turned acidic, which prevented undergrowth.

The community started replacing the pines with broad-leaf vegetation. The tactic worked — slowly, smaller plants grew in the trees’ shade. This encouraged people to try growing fodder grass — not part of the original forest — for their cattle.

Local communities now grow different tree species in nurseries to test their growth rate; they cut, thin and prune trees, partially clear areas of dense growth and keep inventories of trees, growth cycles and products.

"We are aiming to achieve 75 per cent mixed forest vegetation and 25 per cent pine in the coming years," says Balram Ghimire, chairperson of Hilejaljale Community Forest User Group (CFUG).

And there are strict policies: it is forbidden to start fires, put up large buildings, dig pits, hunt and catch wild animals or encourage soil erosion.

"Community forestry has revitalised and rehabilitated almost all degraded hilly slopes in Nepal in a cost-effective and sustainable manner," says Bharat Pokharel, programme manager of a Nepal–Swiss community forestry project.

Today there are over 12,000 forest-user groups, he estimates. In fact, Nepal’s success in community forestry has created a new problem for its capital Kathmandu — nocturnal visits from leopards, whose numbers are growing in nearby forests.

People power

Pokharel says his experience with community forestry has made him revise some of the accepted conservation concepts, such as providing ‘protected’ forest areas that are off-limits to local people.

"Forests, people, agriculture and livestock together form an ecosystem that has survived for centuries," he observes.


Dinesh Raj Buzhu, chief executive of the Kathmandu-based environment think-tank Resources Himalaya Foundation, agrees. "We cannot protect forests without people. With community forestry, there has been a paradigm shift from species-specific conservation to landscape conservation."

The World Bank noted in an evaluation report in 2001, "Although Nepal is among the world’s poorest countries, it is a global leader in engaging communities in forest protection and management. With no precedents, the country has had to learn through trial and error and find innovative solutions as challenges emerged."

CFUGs also organise government-recognised forest management training for communities.

An offshoot of community forestry in Nepal is that women are trained for income-generating activities, such as briquette-making. "It is now mandatory to reserve half of any CFUG committee for women," says Shanta Neupane, vice-chairperson of the Federation of Community Forest Users, Nepal, in the Kabure district.

Training courses on small-scale technologies for compacting briquettes, oil extraction from seeds and paper-making are being introduced. There is increasing demand for new technical knowledge to help improve livelihood options, says Balram Ghimire.

Community forestry in Nepal has survived during the past decade of political conflict between the monarchy, democrats and armed Maoist rebels. Even as the conflict paralysed Nepal’s development, CFUGs provided drinking water, built roads and introduced irrigation and education in their areas.

The ‘regreening’ of the Lamosangu area in Nepal
Credit: Nepal-Swiss Community Forest Project

Conserving biodiversity?

Nepal is a biodiversity hotspot, home to 181 species of mammal, 844 species of bird and 7,000 species of plant, over a third of which are not found elsewhere. The country has lost 11 bird species and three mammal species as a result of forest destruction.

Those involved in community forest ventures say that the number of birds is increasing, but views are mixed on the impact of community forestry on biodiversity conservation.

There is lack of baseline information for comparing population changes over time. But officials from the Nepal–Swiss community forestry project say there is an overall improvement in community forests.

Community forestry has impacted biodiversity conservation in a big way, preventing local extinction of species and increasing vegetation and wildlife, says Nakul Chhetri, a scientist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development in Kathmandu.

Critics argue, however, that community forestry aims to supply forest products to local users, rather than to conserve or maximize biodiversity, and that activities such as clearing, weeding, thinning and pruning reduce biodiversity.

A survey in 2005 by the state-owned Department of Forest Research and Survey of two community- and one government-owned forest notes that CFUGs tend to conserve only "useful" species and not low-quality timber trees, shrubs, climbers, grasses and herbs, which could have negative implications for biodiversity.

But some CFUGs have allotted specified areas for biodiversity conservation.


Hurdles to jump

Despite its multiple benefits and proven success, community forestry still faces hurdles in Nepal. Social and caste hierarchies within the forest-user groups exclude the poorest and most marginalised communities from the benefits.

Community forests form only 22 per cent of Nepal’s forest area. The government continues to control the remainder, and its ecotourism and development plans often conflict with the local community’s interests.

Also, the successful model of community forestry in the hills could not be replicated in the plains, or terai, region, where the government is reluctant to hand over the rich forests to user groups (unlike the denuded hills).

And the divide with the formal scientific community remains. "We expect scientists to introduce new findings to forest users, bring their benefits to us, control diseases of forest trees and improve the environment. That is not happening," says Balram Ghimire.

"We do not know what is being lost, as many of the plants are not documented properly," agrees Buzhu.

"We are still describing new taxa and reporting new species," adds Ram Chaudhary, professor of botany at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu.

Nepal’s community forestry also struggles to gain international policy-makers’ attention. A major hurdle is their exclusion from the clean development mechanisms (CDMs) of the Kyoto Protocol, because they are a form of "avoided deforestation", says Buzhu. Only large-scale afforestation programmes qualify for CDM.

Also, CDMs are required to demonstrate reduced carbon emissions compared with a business-as-usual scenario. This has proved difficult for Nepal′s community forests as off-setting vegetation returns very slowly.

The Kyoto Protocol holds little meaning for remote communities in the Himalayas who associate forests with their own survival and not with a carbon reservoir, point out the authors of a report from the nongovernmental organisation Resources Himalaya Foundation.

Nepal’s community forestry gives us a new perspective on forestry science that needs to be documented and debated in developing countries, says Pokharel.

Nepal’s community forests are one of the world’s little-known success stories, so now is the time to turn the spotlight on them.

This article is part of a Spotlight on Science in the Himalayas.