Nepal imports timber worth billions, while the country has it in abundance. Community forest advocates say it’s happening mainly in the absence of the government’s non-cooperation to sustainable forest management.
When the Division Forest Office, Nawalparasi, permitted Deurali Community Forest Users’ Group to cut down 149 sal trees (Shorea robusta) per year under the Scientific Forest Management Program, Nar Bahadur Magar convinced banks and financial institutions to loan to harvest timber from the forest they were tending for over two decades.
Magar started chopping down trees for three years until the government abruptly scrapped the program last year entirely, citing the complete decimation of community and national forests across the country. The decision put the forest users’ groups in a difficult situation as to what to do with the trees felled in the forest. And most importantly, how to pay back the loans they took from local financial institutions.
Magar, chair of the Deurali Community Forest Users’ Group, has a Rs 2.5 million loan to settle.
“The money was borrowed to pay the daily wages of workers. We were hoping to reimburse expenses and settle bank loans soon after the timbers are sold to the local market,” said Magar, “Now, the program itself plunged into controversy over irregularities and deforestation, this has put us in a difficult spot,” said Magar.
Forest users’ groups have cut down and piled up hundreds of thousand tons of logs in their woods. There couldn’t be a public tender for selling the timber in the past three years. The piles of logs started decaying over the period. By the time the government lifted the ban on collecting fallen trees this year, timber had already decayed.
As per the program, the forest users are required to plant as many numbers of saplings in the same forest as the number of trees felled. The plantation of the saplings has also remained as the logs are yet to be hauled out of the place.
Consequently, community forests have been thoroughly decimated, even without saplings in the denuded land. Neither the government nor forest users’ groups have shown interest in restoring forests for the past year.
The government’s scientific management of forests turned into a timber trading enterprise. Timber traders made out with the timber from local forest users. And now when the government banned logging in community forests, the traders market timbers at an expensive rate from international markets.
Proponents of scientific forest management argue that it was meant to meet local demands and promote forest-based green enterprises. The government implemented the program in the national forest, 52 community forests and 5 collaborative forests despite repeated objections from stakeholders including forest users’ groups.
However, the forest program focused more on producing timber from the hard-grown forest. They were less interested in maintaining the forest in a sustainable manner. And this dismayed local users. Influential people deforested forest areas in collusion with forest administrators, contractors and locals. Reports of irregularities were reported in the media from several parts of the country mainly in the far-western region.
Under enormous pressure from all quarters including lawmakers, the KP Sharma Oli government formed a parliamentary probe committee to investigate the haphazard forest clearance and recommended the government to scrap scientific forest management.
With the scientific forest conservation model controversy reaching boiling point, the government barred the forest users’ group from selling forest products. Forest users’ groups, who borrowed money to manage forest products are now debt-ridden as bank interest remains unsettled for years.
The forestry program promoted deforestation particularly in the far-western region of Nepal, according to Magar. The Covid-19 lockdown created a conducive environment for smugglers to fall the trees and smuggle.
Forest rights activists say scientific forest management should not be repeated. This model, according to them, puts the entire forest biodiversity, customary practices, and sustainable growth of community forest at high risk.
Community forest users’ groups say they are worried about the government’s indecision. “It’s not clear which forest model the government enforces on us. For us, managing forest in a sustainable way is important,” said Vijaya Basnet, an office secretary at the Kankali Community Forest Users’ Group, Chitwan.
Because of the participatory forest conservation model, Nepal’s forest coverage has increased to almost 45 percent from 26 percent in the 90s. The increased forest coverage has helped Nepal to increase the number of endangered wildlife. The tiger population is expected to double in a decade. So is the case of rhino.
Despite massive forest coverage increase in the country Nepal is unsuccessful to meet its domestic timber demand. Rather it imports timber worth billions from mostly Malaysia.
In the fiscal year 2075-76, Nepal imported timber worth 6.60 billion from India, Indonesia, China, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, Germany, Ukraine, the United States of America, and the United Arab of Emirates. These timbers were used for housing construction, furniture and decoration materials. A year ago, or in the fiscal year 2074-75, Nepal had imported timber worth Rs. 5.75 billion whereas timber worth Rs 2.13 billion was imported in the fiscal year 2071-72.
On average Nepal annually needs 30 million cubic feet of timber whereas Nepal produces about half of the total need from the national, community, and private forestry.
“If community forest actions were endorsed in time and users were allowed to use them concisely, our domestic production would be enough to meet our timber demand,” said Birkha Bahadur Shahi, general secretary at the Federation of Community Forest Users’ Nepal.
Shahi said the community forest’s operational plan comprises a participatory plan that acknowledges both women and men as head of the house, uses forest products, follows customary practices, and conserves the forest in a sustainable manner.
The Forest Act has ensured full rights to the community. Since the act was designed in the participation of community forest users it has ensured the rights of community people and sustainable forest management.
As provisioned in the Forest Act-2066 community forests are ensured to protect the forest, develop entrepreneurship, and eco-tourism and support the community in tackling the impending climate crisis. The act envisions making community forest users’ groups autonomous, independent and self-disciplined organizations.
Then the government introduced scientific forest management, undermining the power of community forest users and is now obstructing them from using their hard-grown forest in a sustainable way.
Because of this Nepali people, who are more reliant on forest products, are deprived of benefits.
About 50 percent of the total forest land is state-protected areas that remain largely unmanaged and have failed to ensure livelihoods and employment opportunities as compared to community forests, according to government data.
Unlike poor people’s decisions in the participatory decision-making process of community forestry, bureaucrats remain decisive in every decision. Community forestry users group make collective decisions, allow permits of forest clearance only after analyzing the ground reality, demands of the people, and protect the religious identity of local people.
As part of a relentless campaign for community forest users’ groups prioritize the continuity of customary practices, protection of different endangered species, eco-tourism, indigenous knowledge, and use of only old-growth trees.
But the community forests are not allowed to work on their operational plan because the government hasn’t approved them since the scientific forest management program was canceled. In the lack of a proper plan, Nepal is importing forest products.
Community forest rights defenders say they should be allowed to work independently and focus on participation, and capacity building. For this state should allocate more resources, customary practices need to be protected and such resources should be linked to the livelihood of the community people. They say a new standard must be finalized in consultation with key stakeholders–government and forest users’ groups.
Shahi argued that even if the community played an important role to increase forest coverage, they are not getting the benefits. “Who’s getting the benefit from the forest? Has anyone paid money for their hard work to protect the forest?” he said.
Nearly 3 million households of community forestry have protected 2.2 million hectares of forest land which is almost 38 percent of the country’s total forest land.