Emulating the past

  • Chure conservation could learn from the experiences of community management in Dhankuta’s Sildhunga forests
Emulating the past

Jul 31, 2014-

Even as many forests in the Mid Hills (or hills) are rejuvenating under the community forestry regime, an adjoining region is witnessing a contrary situation. I am referring to the Chure range of hills in the south. When every single attempt at conservation failed, the government finally resorted to intervene by way of declaring the Chure region a conservation area to be handled by the high-level Chure Tarai-Madhes Conservation Committee (CTMCC). This situation requires an explanation. Why did a supposed panacea to conserve forestry through participatory mechanisms, such as community forestry, fail in the Chure region?

Answering this probably requires a glance into how forests in the Chure are different from those in the other hills. There appear two major dimensions, both associated with what can be termed complexity in ‘resource-people dynamics’. First, Chure forests are segregated to the north of the populous Tarai plains, which depend on the Chure’s resources despite the great distance. This, unlike in the Mid Hills, is where small forest patches dotting the region are accessed by a small number of communities for protection and use. Second, and linked with the above, it is hard for these large numbers of stakeholders with multiple interests to converge

on a required response. No wonder, the modality of community forestry, which was innovated in the hills, failed to work in the Chure. This situation, this, requires measures meant exclusively to addressing the Tarai-Chure condition by taking a cue from the hills.

Panchayat experiences

I am reminded of my piloting experience in Dhankuta in the early 90s when I was a District Forest Officer (DFO) there. Realising that the Panchayat system of community forestry (called PF/PPF) was not working, I, along with Forestry Advisors Jane Gronow, NK Shrestha and our regular staff, decided to try a new initiative in Dhankuta’s Sildhunga forests. We had discovered a clear flaw in the PF/PPF system of forestry, where the administratively-defined political boundary of the Panchayat (now VDC) was not necessarily commensurate with the user group boundary. We realised that we had to entrust the forest resources to indigenous users by way of empowering them with necessary social processes.

But soon, we met a much bigger impediment that needed crossing first. Existing legislation required us to handover the forests to the Dhankuta Town Panchayat (now municipality), not to the real users we had conceived of. We did a lot of brainstorming to get around this problem. In the end, we were able to figure out a way that, though justifiable, wound be extralegal. We held several deliberative sessions with the municipality chief, Rajendra Pradhan, who eventually came around. After much homework, we figured out a way through which the forest could be legitimately handed over to indigenous users. The District Forest Office would first handover the Sildhunga forests to Dhankuta municipality, which, in turn, would transfer the same to its de facto users.

As soon as we reached an agreement on this framework, our crew started the social empowerment processes with the community on a war footing. True users were first identified; their needs and aspiration figured out (this involved separate meetings with the poor, Dalits and women); a forest inventory was done to see how and to what extent the forest resources could meet their expectation; and an operational plan (OP) was written that captured the people’s aspirations with respect to what forest could offer.

Something similar

I, as DFO, approved the OP to be eventually countersigned by Pradhan as municipality head. Subsequently, a mass meeting in the community was organised, where Pradhan handed over the OP to users amidst a function, thus providing them with a formal title. Anyone could note that we had circumvented the existing legislative arrangement, which mandated us to handover the forests to the Panchayat and not its de facto users. To our relief, the plan actually worked. Quickly, the Sildhunga community started managing their forests as per the agreed operational plan—something that was not at all common then. Community ownership soon reflected in improved forest conditions. Now, the news became the talk of the town!

Many people from across the country started visiting us with keen interest to see how this community-centred (rather than Panchayat-centred) forestry actually worked on the ground. It gives me big pride to say that the experience in Dhankuta (and similar initiatives carried out around that time in places like Kabhrepalanchok, Sindhupalchok and Dolakha) laid the virtual foundation for the promulgation of the current community forestry policy, which allows the ‘handing over of government forests to the extent that they are willing and capable to managing them’. This very policy eventually shaped the current landscape of community forestry in the country, through which over 16,000 communities are now managing their forests in the hills alone.

Maybe we require a similar bold piloting project in the Chure/Tarai too. This is not to say that nothing is being done towards conserving the local resource base. ChFDP (GTZ), BISEP-ST (SNV), LFP-Terai (Dfid) and Precedent Chure Conservation Program (GoN) are among such initiatives. The most current programme is the MSFP, under the partnership of several donors. Apparently, these initiatives tend to lack the type of process we followed in places like Dhankuta in those days. But, in contrast, maneuvering room is much bigger now than back then. Then, we had to risk doing something extralegal as we lacked a clear mandate, unlike what is available to the high level CTMCC, which has all the authority to try something innovative. So why not do it? Here, a quote might help: ‘If you wait to do everything until you’re sure it’s right, you’ll probably never do much of anything.’

Baral is a former joint secretary at the Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation

Published: 01-08-2014 10:52

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