Text by Sajeet M. Rajbhandari
With an exponential rise in global temperatures and CO2 levels, the need to rethink the way we take care of our forests has never been more paramount. Excessive industrialisation and unplanned use of natural resources has rendered a critical hit to not just global ecosystems and greenhouse levels but it is also affecting how the human lifestyle functions. Worldwide, regions such as China and India are on red alert and it is high time we understand how the forest management system works in our country and what we can do to help out.
Understanding the system
For Nepal, one of the key instruments that works towards the mutual sustenance between the people and the ecosystem is the existence of community forests. Simply put, the community forest is a policy in which local forest and green areas are taken care for the people by the people. According to Murari Raj Joshi, Associate Professor at Kathmandu Forestry College, “While community forests are a part of the national forest system, here the communities that live by the forests are the ones responsible for taking care of it. In return, the people of the community are allowed to make responsible use of the resources that the forest areas provide.”
As per Joshi’s statement, the Ministry of Forest and Environment handover the land to the people in the communities along with a set of objectives and rules that are usually designed to work for a period of five years.
Architect and Urban Planner, Kishor Thapa shares, “There are two organisational divisions in the management of community forests, the ‘committee’ and the ‘members’; it is the committee that acts on behalf of the members. Thapa also adds, “The budget for community forests is organised by the user committee whose office bearers have been selected through an election.”
Joshi elaborates that historically forested areas were in dire state during the 1970s with unmonitored use by villagers and poor quality of the fauna and flora. Even the World Bank presented reports entailing the desertification of Nepal. This paired with the rocky politics that the nation witnessed during that era didn’t do much to improve the greens in Nepal. However, when the trend of community forests did start to pick up pace in the 1990s, things started to look better. In 1993, the creation of the Forestry Act and guideline was able to further the community forest movement. Joshi estimates that today there are well over 22,500 forest consumer groups.
The role forests play
Resource Economist for ICIMOD, Bhaskar Singh Karky explains, “A large portion of energy consumption is still met by firewood.” He elaborates, “What communities have realised is that to grow more means to use more.” When the communities grow their trees and take care of their forests, then they can harvest wood for their consumption needs at a minimal cost. This means resources from things such as firewood to fodder for farm animals.
But these are not the only things that the forests provide the community with. According to Thapa, “People not only plant and harvest these forests and fulfill their firewood needs from them, they can also sell timber products to generate and save revenue, all the while generating leadership and entrepreneurial skills at a local level.” Thapa believes that this does indeed help a grass root level communities become self-sustaining.
Getting the most out of forests
Karky, who is also the program coordinator for the REDD+ initiative, believes that we can do more to add value to standing forests. Through REDD+, Karky seeks to provide communities an incentive to conserve and take care of their forests rather than use it up for resources. He states, “Timber is always more valuable than standing forests, but if you add a little bit more incentive to preserving standing forests, then perhaps people and communities will be inclined towards conservation. Increasing the productivity of land, having more sustainable forest management, sustainable agriculture, using forest covers will be much more sustainable in the long run.” When asked about how these incentives might actually work, Karky says, “For instance, if areas such as the Annapurna conservation area were not getting as much forest cover, then it might not attract as many tourists affecting businesses. But because they have been large volumes of tourists coming in and spending time in that landscape, there is a trickle-down effect in which tourists come and spend money on local businesses such as home-stays.”
For Nepal, afforestation has been seeing considerably growth over the past decades. Especially in the hilly regions, both Karky and Joshi claim that deforestation has seen a steady reversal. While community forests and green awareness did help bring about this change, factors such as out migration from rural regions have also played a pivotal role in the resurgence of wild forests in Nepal.
However, it is important to note that deforestation and forest degradation are two interconnected yet rather different problems. “The most common tree that covers the hilly region today is the sal tree,” explains Joshi, who recounts times when the hills of Kathmandu were barren and dusty, “However, when these trees were first planted, they were done so haphazardly. This meant that while the forests are much denser, the quality of individual trees aren’t as good as they used to be. These trees might be tall but they are also thin in diameter.” Joshi further adds, “If 1300 saplings survived from a plantation of 1500-1600, they needed more space to grow, but they couldn’t do so because of congestion.”
To combat this degradation of the quality of forests, Karky claims that certain parts of the nation have started opting for what is known as ‘scientific forest management,’ “This process divides the forests into 80 blocks and harvesting is done on a rotational basis. You also use naturally regenerative species to take place over a long-time cycle.” Joshi provides a similar solution to forest degradation, “Putting around 25 trees in a hectare area of fertile land as the ‘mother plant’ and then allowing a natural cycle of growth to new saplings can be a solution to forest degradation.” Joshi also points out the importance of thinning and regenerating trees in order to maintain healthy and high-grade forests.
Finding balance between the city and the greens
While the forests of Nepal show positive growth, the cities and urban areas in the country show a decline in terms of natural ecosystems. Unmanaged housing and plotting of land has started to chip away the little greenery left. What can we do to find balance between nature and urban life? Thapa, who has also served as Secretary at the Ministry of Urban Development explains, “As the demand for land escalated in urban areas, private lands that lied near forested regions were sold at a very high land value. The trees that were on these lands were then cut down for plotting. While the process is totally legal, the impact it had was bad.” He adds, “Municipalities didn’t make regulations and policies to combat this because plotting these lands and building houses brings revenue into these communities while trees do not.”
Thapa also acknowledges that urban areas such as Kathmandu are in dire need of open spaces along with parks. “We can accomplish bringing greenery into the cities on an individual level by planting a few trees in each household, or on a bigger scale through urban forestry,” suggests Thapa. He shares that the concept of urban forestry includes anything from creating large scale parks within the city’s core to road side plantation of trees and shrubs.
Issues such as the construction of the Nijgadh Airport generated a lot of backlash due to the forest destruction that it will cause. However, both Thapa and Joshi feel that the construction of infrastructure in Nepal is just as important as the preservation of forest area. “Every nation in the world needs a full-fledged international airport,” claims Thapa, “Given Nepal’s mountainous topography and biodiversity, there are only a number of places where such an airport can be achieved. One of these few select places included Nijgadh.” So, when the proposal for the construction of Nijgadh international airport had been put forward, it had already taken into account the viable topography, low quality of forest, and lack of private land and national park territory. Joshi adds, “When it comes to developing infrastructure, the loss of forests and natural systems is unavoidable. But if there is to be destruction, it is best to be somewhere it can be controlled.”
Although Nepal has seen a healthy growth in terms of forested regions, a lot of this growth is spread across particular areas. Regions such as the Terai plains and the major city areas have been witnessing gradual encroachment of forest land. However, completely disrupting infrastructural growth is not the best route to take. Rather incorporating greenery and a more eco-friendly approach to urban lifestyle is something that is both necessary as well as beneficial.