Oped

Through the forest

  • It is now time to review and reimagine the role of forests in sustainable development
- HEMANT R OJHA
We need to switch from ‘scientific forest management’ to ‘democratic forest governance’, in which who controls forests becomes more important than how a forest is managed, scientific or otherwise

Aug 13, 2018-In recent years, Nepal’s forest stakeholders have had some good news. A globally reputed community forestry has been established across the country, conflicts between the public and parks have been settled, and medicinal and non-timber forest products have enjoyed promotion in the international market.

But under the shadow of these success stories also exist some dire facts. Almost all of 6.6 million hectares of forests remain under protectionist regime, while four million youths have fled the country for menial jobs, mainly to the Gulf countries. More than half of the country’s timber demand is met through imports from various countries, while mature trees decay in the forested areas, apparently due to lack of proper management systems. Forest conservation activities have at times worsened the livelihoods of the poor and marginalised peoples, when standard, and protectionist modes of forest management undermine their traditional, forest based livelihoods. Forest landscapes, thus, remain far removed from the prosperity agenda of the country.

With over 500 commercial products and a variety of crucial forest ecosystem service, the forest sector is central to the sustainable development of the country. As Nepal embarks on the prosperity agenda after the settlement of political issues, it is high time for the forestry community to review and reimagine the role of forests in sustainable development. If the current trend continues, it will do tremendous injustice to the millions of youths looking for jobs at home. It has never been so urgent than now to think of ways to integrate the vast forest resources into sustainable development, but is Nepal’s forest sector prepared to confront the challenge?

Three dominant worldviews

The core of the forest sector is largely resistant to change. This fact has been established by some of the most experienced Nepali forest officials who became researchers of public forestry institutions late in their career. Three dominant worldviews are preventing the forest sector from creating jobs, reducing timber imports, and contributing to overall sustainable development of the country.

First is the radical conservation worldview that has been adopted from the West. Influenced by this alien view, nearly half of the forest area is under protected area. With majority of the population depending on agriculture and forested landscapes for livelihoods, Nepal cannot afford to set aside half of its forest area for future.

No doubt, biodiversity and natural landscapes need to be conserved for future, but such conservation has to happen without compromising the needs of the present generation. This balance can be achieved through the integration of conservation and development strategies at every type of forested landscapes, and the rationale of protected areas should be judged on the basis of benefits to present generations. In fact, conservation can be encouraged across all types of forest landscapes, and innovative practices are emerging at all regimes of forest governance in different localities, but these are waiting to be recognised and upscaled.

Second, the widespread successes of community forestry in Nepal has led to community authoritarianism, hindering entrepreneurial and other context-specific institutional innovations. No doubt, community-based governance reform has made tremendous success in reverting forest degradation caused by nationalisation policies, but this system has now reached its limit, especially to foster effective management and marketing of forest products. Many development agencies and NGOs have supported community based forest enterprises, but very few successful examples have emerged. It is now time to move ahead with another paradigm of resource governance and innovation, that nurtures more entrepreneurial management of forest resources.

A new institutional structure that allows small scale and community owned enterprises is urgently needed, in order to enhance the productivity of nearly 25 percent of the forest area that is under community management. Although this proposal may sound too ‘neoliberal’, Nepal needs this shift to benefit from its vast resources. Of course, stronger safeguards are needed to ensure equitable access to benefits so that the poor and marginalised groups get their fair share in more market oriented models of forest management.

Third, the idea of scientific forest management has re-emerged in response to the lack of active management of forests, across all regimes of forest governance. Some innovative foresters have championed this idea with the good intention to promote the active use of forests. However, this approach masks the crucial question of governance. While offering to produce more timber from a given a forest patch, this approach establishes technocratic control over forest governance.

Of course, scientific method and technology are key to boosting productivity, but any technology should be injected within the overarching system of democratic governance, by decoupling technology adoption from the process of decision making. Part of this technocratic resurgence is rooted in the lack of professional service providers in Nepal’s forestry sector, so service providers could be directly contracted by forest managers and owners, without any influence from the public authorities.

Moving ahead

Just as developed countries do, conservation areas including the national parks should be managed for jobs, revenues, and incomes by identifying and operationalising the limits of sustainability. Obviously, as Chitwan National Park has demonstrated, it is possible to market aesthetic services creating economic opportunity for the public as well as individuals involved.

Forested landscapes need to be managed as a socially responsible and environmentally sustainable business, regardless of whether we like the word ‘business’ or not. This includes simultaneous application of concepts such as forest farming, marketing, and job creation as well as incentivising the management talents and investors.

We need to switch from ‘scientific forest management’ to ‘democratic forest governance’, in which who controls forests becomes more important than how a forest is managed, scientific or otherwise. Policy should focus on defining forest ownerships and then catalysing forest service industry that can supply needed technologies and advisory services. The role of state forest agency should be limited to regulating and monitoring functions, rather than direct provisioning of technical services. The structure of state forest agency needs to be aligned with the three tiers of federal system of governance, and any cross-scale cooperative agencies should play facilitative role and not exercise an executive authority.

We should recognise the success of community involvement in forest restoration, but must also recognise the inherent limit of community governance. Given the climax of community forestry achievement, it is now time to catalyse innovative partnerships between the community and small scale enterprises, or catalyse community based forest entrepreneurship.

Ojha is an expert on forest policy @ojhahemant1

Published: 13-08-2018 09:53

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