Collective right practice in the forest still has to walk a long way despite legal victory in recent years. Grassroot campaigns remain weaker against mighty bureaucratic interference.
In 1997, a year after Nepal officially acknowledged community forest, two community forest user groups in the district of Sindhupalchowk allotted three hectares of the total forest land to six poor families reliant on traditional farming considering agro farming could support their livelihoods. The forest user groups–Shree Chhap Community Forest Users’ Group and Sansari Community Users’ Group–were among a few community forest user groups to ensure collective rights for economically poor and marginalized people.
Six households having less than 10 kaththas of land from the tiny mountainous village were identified as collective right beneficiaries. Granting community forest land to poor families under collective rights was a unique beginning in the face of forest authorities not interested in such practice. It was aimed at giving a positive message to other forest stakeholders so that they could support underprivileged users in the community in practice.
Like other five poor villagers identified as beneficiaries under collective rights practice Anju Maya Shrestha, 51, from a village near Chautara, the district headquarters of Sindhupalchwok, was genuinely excited to get forestland as her property for 40 years. This the first community initiated pro-poor program that was implemented in grassroot level for the first time in Nepal’s forest conservation history.
Anju Maya and her teammates loved their common forestland more than their own parental properties. Encouraged by the local support they demarcated the forest land, planted sal, pine and chhap trees among others and prepared forest land to plant cash crops such as orange, lemon, lapsi, cardamom, and ginger.
Things changed so quickly. Once barren area was filled with tall trees. “Only 204 trees were found within the land given to us when they counted,” said Anju Maya, recalling, “We all worked hard and it paid off.”
These days, one can’t go to the forest alone due to fear of wildlife—tiger, boar, monkeys and porcupines.
Beneficiaries began to earn a few thousands by selling brooms using tiger grass (thysanolaena maxima) grown in their forest, bamboo baskets and lemons. But ago-farming didn’t work as expected after trees grew taller.
And then 2015’s earthquake devastated everything, not even leaving a single house standing tall in the village. Panicked by the devastating earthquakes, users shifted their priorities rebuilding those houses reduced to the dust to ensure livelihoods.
This slowed down the pace of forest conservation so was their earning. To overcome the crisis and rebuild quake damaged houses, debt-ridden forest users wanted to sell old-growth trees. But district forest officers didn’t allow them. Rather they warned of taking action even if a single tree was cleared.
“We converted barren land into a dense forest. They stopped us from selling trees,” said Anju Maya, “Our pleas are not heard despite our several attempts made to convince them.”
The forest land given to exercise collective rights had greatly helped them in earning. Local women had learned skills to collect forest products, harvest fruits and sell them to make money.
Women had learned skills to waive bamboo baskets from nigalo and bamboo trees, and boomers from tiger grass. The forest-based income generation skills helped the poor families to live a dignified life.
Understanding the importance of forest conservation, six families who were awarded for enjoying collective rights planted more trees in barren land.
For Anju Maya, a single woman, who is responsible for taking care of her aging parents and her own livelihoods, selling old-growth trees is the need of the hour to meet her household needs. She believes it’s her right to sell hard grown trees as per their need.
As many as 2000 pine, chaap and sal trees among others are growing in their land. “If we are empowered as the real owner of these trees, we will be millionaires overnight,” she expressed her happiness, “But the government wants to take back our forest. Please help us to create an environment so that we poor people can get maximum benefit by practicing collecting forestry rights.”
Nepal’s participatory community forest is well-praised across the globe for its participatory conservation model. Being the first community organization to ensure 33 percent women inclusion in its organizations structures and promoting rights of indigenous communities the community Forest Users Groups united under the banner of Federation of Community Forest Users’ Group Nepal (FECOFUN) had been working hard to ensure collective rights in the community forest. It’s struggle for ensuring collective rights for marginalized, poor, women and ethnic communities are now translated in real practice.
Under community collective rights scores of community forest users’ groups have allotted certain chunks of land to users by analyzing their economic conditions. Forest Users can use the land as their property and earn their livelihoods by initiating joint farming or other business initiatives.
Community rights activists were lobbying to ensure collective rights to community forest users’ groups from the very beginning of its inception so that poor, marginalized, ethnic communities and women could benefit further from it.
Some countries like Vietnam are far ahead in terms of implementing collective rights. The Vietnamese government has started to provide certificates for forest users listed as beneficiaries under collective rights for 40 years.
In Nepal, the government has ensured collective rights in law. But its implementation remains still less effective mainly in empowering them with legal ownership of designated forest users and ensuring their right to sell hard grown forest products.
More and more women, ethnic and marginalized communities have started to claim their stake in community forests since Women Rights and Resource Network started to lobby to ensure women’s access to natural resources in Nepal. Community Forest Users’ groups are allotting forest land to poor women.
“It was a long struggle to ensure community and collective rights in community forest,” said Dil Raj Khanal, one of the community forest rights activists, leading the legal campaign to ensure collective rights in community forest, “An amendment to Forest Act in 2019 formally addressed our demand.”
Since then, various community forest users have allotted land of community forest for forest users based on their economic condition and need. They can use the land as per their need and make livelihoods.
“Community forests have allotted forest land to Mushahars in Saptari and Mahottari districts. They have grown mango trees in the forest,” said Khanal, “Other community users are also enjoying their collective rights within the community forests by planting locally suitable crops in the granted community land.”
Community forest users’ groups in Baglung, Sindhupalchok, Kaski and Parbat have also leased out forest land to poor users based on their economic condition and gender perspective. These criteria were fixed to ensure equal rights to discriminated people in the society.
“By using forest land and growing cash crops grown within the land granted to poor people several users are doing good,” said Daya Laxmi Shrestha, chairperson of Shree Chhap community forest users’ group in Sindhupalchok, “This helped poor people to rise from back-to-back disasters—devastating earthquakes and Covid-19.”
For poor community forest users land given within the community forest is everything for their survival. Apart from other support and employment opportunities created by the community forest groups, the earnings received from the community somehow boosted their confidence to move ahead.
Both FECOFUN, the umbrella organization of community forest users’ groups, and government haven’t yet been able to get details about how many community forest users of the total 22,266 community forest users’ group have practiced it or how many poor users are benefitted from this.
Bharati Pathak, the chairperson of FECOFUN, says even as some community forest users have been practicing community rights, the practice of using the community land as property and getting other economic opportunities are yet to be achieved.
“Such land given to the poor people needs to be legally certificated. Community forest users haven’t been able to obtain land certificates of such forest land,” she said, “If those legal provisions were ensured in real practice, they could get loans from banks and financial institutions ensuring their more economic power.”