“Nepal has set an example of decentralized forest governance in whole South Asia. It’s not that other South Asian counterparts haven’t realized the role of community participation to effectively manage the forest resources, Nepal was the first to legalize it through Panchayat Forest Rules and Panchayat Protected Forest Rules in 1978. Since 1978, Nepal has left no stone unturned to devolve authorities to the communities for sustainable use and management of forest resources.
The need for decentralized forest governance in Nepal dates back to 1950s when all privately owned forests were brought under state jurisdiction by the 1957 ‘Private Forest Nationalization Act’. The aim of nationalization was to protect the valuable forests in Terai which at that time were recklessly deforested for agriculture land expansion. In contrary, the act rather triggered forest clearance both in low lying Terai region and the hills. The primary reason for this was the lack of ownership among people as after nationalization people began seeing forests as ‘public goods’. The forest Act of 1961 endorsed strong bureaucratic arrangement with objective to ‘protect forests from people’. Government started prohibiting people from the forests and penalizing the offenders. This agitated people which led to even severe forest clearance behind the back of government officials. Coupled with population growth and government’s continued inability towards effective protection, and misappropriations all led to consistent decline in the forest cover.
Having failed to manage the forest resources through bureaucratic machinery, the government started looking for alternative forest management regime that could effectively address government’s need for Timber and people’s need for basic forest products. The National Forest Plan of 1976 listed major constraints and proposed policies to tackle them. The plan envisaged the need for decentralization in forest governance and increased people’s participation in forest management. Government immediately started piloting community based forest management. Within a year or later, government formally recognized community involvement in forest management as the key to effective forest management. The ‘Panchayat Forest Rule’ in 1978 hence made provisions to govern the handover of limited areas of national forests to community as ‘Panchayat Forests’ and ‘Panchayat Protected Forests’. After the establishment of democracy in 1990, the term ‘Community Forests’ was used instead of ‘Panchayat Forests’.
Community forestry through forest users groups is the major policy initiative for the forestry sector in Nepal. Forest Act of 1993 institutionalized community forestry and recognized forest user groups as autonomous and self-governing bodies with their own constitution and regulations. The act defined community forests as parcels of national forest handed over to community for sustainable use and management. The Forest Regulation 1995 elaborated the procedures for community forest formation and governance. Under this regulation, forest users group are allowed to find ways to achieve financial sustainability. The regulation required that forest users group spend a quarter of their income in forest conservation and management activities, while the rest to be spent on community development and income generation activities. All the forest user groups are voluntarily united under the umbrella of the Federation of Community Forestry Users of Nepal (FECOFUN) to ensure their rights are protected and not curtailed by the government. Other policies that supported decentralized forest governance are Decentralization Act 1982 and Master Plan for Forestry Sector 1989. People’s participation in forest management is being continually recognized since the 8th ‘5 year Plan’ in 1990.
Since the enactment of the Forest Act in 1993, government of Nepal has gradually been handing over the national forests particularly in the mid-hills to local communities based on an agreed forest management plan between the District Forest Office and the forest user groups. As of 2012, over 2 million hectares of national forests have been handed over to more than 16,000 community forests users groups across the country. The community forestry program has helped government to achieve the twin goals of forest protection and poverty alleviation.
In general, there are plenty of reasons to call community forestry in Nepal one of the most successful decentralized modes of forest governance, but more attention needs to be paid to make forest user groups more equitable, inclusive and pro-poor oriented. The existing policies and legislation have provided a legal framework for decentralization, but frequent unilateral governmental policy amendments make forest user groups skeptical about their rights in the future. Major challenge for community forest users group now is to keep their autonomy in a changing political context of Nepal. They need to ﬁnd a way to become politically neutral, but committed to democracy and protection of the rights of forest users.” – Pradeep Baral – Pathumthani, Thailand