Forest for the trees
- Involving local communities is vital to saving the Chure range
Jun 2, 2014-
The forests of the Chure hills were once so thick that they were made untouchable by royal decree to act as a veritable defensive barrier against invaders. These woods, older than the Himalayas and separating the plains from the mountains, were famous as the char kose jhadi of legend, impenetrable and teeming with flora and fauna. But over the years, a steady decimation of the Chure range has been taking place. Timber smugglers cut down thousands of trees every year while mining and construction companies illegally plunder the riverbeds and hollow out the hills. Settlements, farms and roads encroach on fragile forest areas and instead of animals and trees, trucks, lorries and dozers now dot the landscape. The consequences have been dire—water tables are retreating, flash floods are increasing and the Tarai is on its way to desertification. The consensus is clear—the Chure range is being devastated.
Appalled by the scale of destruction, President Ram Baran Yadav set up the President’s Chure Conservation Programme in 2010. The programme, even government officials admit, has been a failure. It has spent upwards of Rs 500 million, ostensibly for planting trees and conducting awareness programmes. Activists have criticised it for focussing solely on small-scale perfunctory work, like planting saplings without regard for whether they survive or not. The government, supported by donor agencies, has also instituted a number of large-scale programmes, like the Tarai Arc Landscape Project and the Western Tarai Landscape Complex Project. These too have been faulted for being largely ineffective.
In light of these continuing failures, Minister for Forests and Soil Conservation Mahesh Acharya, on Sunday, hinted that the Nepal Army’s deployment in certain Chure pockets for security. No doubt, the Army has played a vital role in safeguarding the national parks. But, as the Federation of Community Forests Users’ Nepal has argued, the deployment of the Army would ‘discourage’ community forestry, the jewel of Nepal’s conservation programme. Community forests have long thrived under the watch of local communities, leading Nepal to serve as a model of forest conservation for the world. Though, lately, there have been grumblings within forest users’ group regarding political influence, nepotism and the monopolisation of resources by powerful members.
For long, Chure conservation has operated through a top-down approach. It is now time to consider the grassroots. Communities know their forests best and hence, must be given significant conservation responsibilities in return for certain resource rights. Furthermore, official responsibilities must be clearly delineated between local state organs; a resource utilisation conflict currently exists between the District Forest Office and the District Development Committee. The deployment of the Army can be effective if utilised in a judicious and targeted manner—as in Chitwan and Bardiya National Parks—in areas where the loot is most concentrated and where populations are sparse. But this should not be a long-term strategy. Even though community forestry might not be viable every where, it remains the most feasible model of conservation in Nepal.
Published: 03-06-2014 08:39