Securing community forest rights

To safeguard community forest rights as envisioned in the Constitution, local governments in Nepal are enacting their own forest laws.

(Photo: Department of Forests)

Nepal’s community forest has global fame.

The globally acclaimed participatory conservation model brought trees back to once deforested areas. The resurgence of forests has helped locals in many ways. Because of the successful forest conservation of the forest, Nepal has earned a new identity: the country of community forests.

In the 1990s, the Nepal government entrusted the communities with the preservation of the forest after failing to preserve precious resources. It was just a trial. The community involvement in forest conservation paid off. Consequently, the country’s forest coverage has now increased to about 45 percent of its total area from 26 percent in 1992.

Nepal is known as the country with the second highest forest coverage in South Asia, after Bhutan.

A community forest in Kulekhani of Makawanpur. Photo: Department of Forests

To make this possible, 14 million people from more than 22,000 community forest user groups have been working as voluntary forest warriors.

Despite their significant contribution to forest conservation, frontline community groups were rarely credited adequately by the government, mainly when there comes to the issue of exercising power and benefits sharing. The government often revises laws to convert community holdings into national forests and curtails community rights going its own commitment.

Ever since they got involved in the greenery revival campaign forest administrators with a centralized mindset remained a major hurdle. Frontline workers are consistently denied full autonomy to manage and reap benefits from hard-grown forests.

The bureaucratic reign, however, is gradually coming to an end thanks to constitutional provisions made to transform unitary Nepal into a federal set-up. This has ensured equal constitutional rights for all governments—local, provincial, and federal. And local governments are utilizing this as an opportunity to ensure their full-fledged rights to natural resources. 

Under the new federal setup, 119 of the total 753 local governments have enacted local forest acts. This was made possible only after some organizations working for community rights guided local governments in the law-drafting process. 

The Federation of Community Forest Users’ Nepal (FECOFUN), the umbrella organization of community forest users’ groups, Green Foundation Nepal (GFN), and the Center for Indigenous People’s Research and Development (CIPRED) encouraged local governments to promulgate community-centric local forest laws. Based on inputs from the rights advocacy groups, local governments enacted their own forest laws, identifying local needs and enforcing them in practice.

A community forest protected by Chepangs in the district of Makawanpur. Photo: Department of Forests

The federation supported 89 local governments, while the foundation facilitated 25 and the center helped five.

The local law promulgation process started in Tulsipur Sub-metropolitan City. In 2017, former FECOFUN chairman Ghanshyam Pandey was elected Tulsipur mayor. Being a veteran community rights advocate mayor Pandey initiated the local forest act promulgation process in line with the Constitution shortly after he came to power. The move was for addressing local grievances, and demands and ensuring full-fledged access to natural resources by avoiding centrally guided bureaucratic red tape. 

The presence of community forest leaders in local government was also an opportunity to institutionalize forest rights at grassroots level. Since hundreds of community forest leaders were elected as people’s representatives in 2017’s local elections, it was easier to initiate a new forest promulgation process.

As many as 2,000 people’s representatives were elected as elected representatives of local governments in 2017’s local elections, according to the federation. Of them, 40 percent were female. 

So is the case in 2022’s local elections too.  About 3,000 representatives elected in local bodies are from community forest backgrounds. 

The strong presence of community forest leaders as people’s representatives made the local forest law enactment process faster and easier. It is believed that community forest leaders say those elected leaders elected to power through the recent local election will expedite the law-promulgation process.

Local governments are now in a rush to promulgate forest laws to ensure community rights and sustainable management addressing long-pending social issues. Shortly after Tulsipur enacted its own forest law as envisioned in the Constitution Dhulikhel Municipality in Kavre and Sundar Bazaar Municipality in Lamjung promulgated forest law. Laws are now being executed. 

Photo: Bhadra Sharma/Breaknlinks

Other local governments have also followed their path.

In June 2020, the organizations advocating for forest rights began local forest law promulgation as a nationwide campaign. The rights groups organized interaction programs in the presence of forest stakeholders, forest users’ groups, and local people.

Considering issues and their priorities, such orientation programs were organized separately; one for people reliant on community forests and another for buffer zone community forest users.

Encouraged by support from organizations working in the field of natural resources local governments are successful to ensure their rights in forest laws.

These local forest acts are focused on ensuring community people’s rights to natural resources, sustainable forest management, the continuation of customary practices, income generation, and the promotion of green enterprises. Customary practices are given high priority in view of ensuring ethnic people’s access to natural resources. 

The capacity of local people, supporting enterprises, income generations, and plantations are also prioritized. 

For example, in its forest act, Sundar Bazar Municipality, Lamjung, has ensured poor, ethnic, and marginalized forest users’ right to natural resources by introducing a leasehold policy. The community forest users’ group can lease out forest land for a maximum of 15 years to needy people so that they can grow agroforestry products or do forest-based enterprises. Local communities are empowered with the right to collect forest resources and fix prices on their own. The forest groups can obtain permits from local authorities if any of them establish forest-based industries and run community homes to promote tourism.

Dhulikhel Municipality of Kavre has prioritized offsetting carbon, biodiversity conservation, promotion of eco-tourism, and benefit sharing from natural resources. More importantly, it wants to become the first local government to achieve a zero-carbon target by 2030.

“We have already achieved some targets related to maintaining greenery, drinking water, and greenery set under local forest law,” said Ashok Byanju, mayor of Dhulikhel municipality, “Our target of making this the municipality as the first carbon neutral local government by 2030 may sound a bit ambitious. I’m confident we will achieve this goal.” 

In Salyan, Kapurkot Rural Municipality has guaranteed the right to forest clearance to the community. Under this act, the local government can issue forest clearance permits. Previously, heads of divisional forest offices or district forest officers were entitled to issue such permits. 

Local governments where ethnic communities reside have prioritized issues related to forest conservation, agroforestry, wetland area management, benefit sharing of community forest, relief and compensation for those killed or injured in human-wildlife conflict, benefits for distance users, customary practices, fines and punishment, forest enterprises, and export of sand and pebbles. 

In a bid to ensure customary practices, Bhimsen Rural Municipality of Gurkha, Uttargaiya Rural Municipality of Rasuwa, and Sundar Bazzar in Lamjung have ensured customary practices for ethnic people. 

In Lamjung, Gurungs use graveyards or chihandanda to bury the deceased. 

Those graveyards are preserved as forest areas. Trees grown in those areas are not used for other purposes other than the funeral process. Also, ethnic Gurung preserves medicinal herbs and water resources in a sustainable manner. Their rights to forest resources and customary practices are ensured in local forest laws.

Issues of gender equality and social inclusion are also equally prioritized. Some local governments have endorsed the policy of ensuring 50 percent female participation in forest groups. 

Local governments are grateful to forest rights advocacy groups for the support they received to institutionalize the forest law at the grassroots level. The rights advocacy groups had promulgated model forest laws and distributed them to local governments before mentoring them to address local needs by enacting their own forest law. 

“Being the umbrella body of community forest users, we designed some model laws. Based on those model laws local governments identified resources and formulated laws,” said Sita Aryal, executive director at the federation, adding, “This helped communities ensure their right to natural resources.” 

Local governments, like federal and provincial governments, are constitutionally empowered to exercise their right to law promulgation and implementation. These laws were promulgated under the provisions of the Local Body Mobilization Act.

But law implementation seems not an easy task. Deployed as representatives of federal government forest officials (with a centralized mindset) skipped the law formulation process. Their non-cooperation is considered an obstacle to implementing the local forest laws. 

What happens if they stay unsupportive of local governments?

Forest rights activists, who think their current position is far better as compared to their early campaigning days for rights, say they will easily overcome any challenges lying ahead. 

"Forest officials deployed at divisional forest offices are still not fully supportive of supporting local government. People’s rights to natural resources are already guaranteed in the Constitution, and local governments are constitutionally defined as a separate government, we will overcome them easily," said Pandey, adding, "We can challenge any sort of move taken against the federalism, constitution, and people."

Publish : 2022-10-02 12:21:00

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