Future of forests

  • The government’s new forestry strategy fails to envision how governance will work in a federated system
- HEMANTA OJHA
Future of forests

Aug 11, 2014-

A new Forest Sector Strategy (FSS) for the next decade is being developed by the Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation (MoFSC) with support from various donors. A complete draft of the FSS was recently released for public debate ahead of the plan to present it to the Council of Ministers for endorsement.

This FSS aims to address a wide range of environmental and political issues, expanding the scope of the forestry sector beyond commonly-held notions of forests or jungles. The FSS covers a range of sub-sectors of wider public importance and global environmental significance such as soil and watershed, biodiversity, medicinal plants, ecosystem services and climate change.

This is particularly interesting as Nepal’s forest policy field is extremely complex and difficult matters must be addressed to come up with a realistic strategy for change. Unlike agriculture, for instance, forestry has a history of the government itself owning over 90 percent of the country’s forested landscape. This makes it interesting to see how the role of the government is being redefined in light of private and non-government actors in forest governance. The current FSS draft has, broadly speaking, addressed these issues while mapping the future of forestry. Yet, there are several important issues that need to be addressed carefully before the draft is finalised and tabled for official endorsement.

Unclear vision

Good policies often begin with a vision for the future and the FSS draft rightly makes this attempt. It seeks to present a vision ‘for the potential of forest ecosystems, biodiversity and watersheds fully optimised for people’s prosperity’. However, this statement does not adequately point towards areas where changes are most needed. It also conceals the ‘products’ of the ecosystem as important contributions to human society. The idea of ‘optimisation’ is narrowly focused on economic logic and fails to offer a wider spectrum of transformative changes that are needed.

A specific translation of this idea is found in the goal to increase forest area over the next decade, undermining the prospect of sustainable agriculture, which is so vital for livelihood and food security. Specific targets are defined without adequate evidence and transparent criteria that reflect reality and the anticipated goals. A major problem in framing the direction of change is that it fails to offer priority in terms of what needs to be done. Some interesting targets are presented for 2025 against the baseline year 2014. But most baseline indicators are not clearly articulated. Desired outcomes are presented very much like a shopping list, with no priority.

The document by and large frames policy problems as being technical—related to forest resource production, soil conservation and others—without adequately mapping out essential regulatory developments needed to ensure diverse, flexible and adaptive institutions to manage forest landscapes across the three ecological regions of the country. Some issues are rightly identified—such as the need for the forest sector to contribute to income and employment, lack of effective coordination between forestry and non-forestry sectors and inconsistencies between policies. But the suggested policy direction is not adequately informed by an analysis of these issues. Suggesting technical measures without addressing contested views could leave the FSS too naive to guide actions once it is enters the implementation phase. The document does not explain how desired changes will be achieved. Suggested policy directions lack accountability mechanisms, financing strategies and clearly defined priorities.

Globally, there is an increasing understanding that policy decisions should be based on the evidence of past practice while also incorporating the voices of the affected people. But amidst a plethora of research on forest governance, livelihoods and biodiversity in Nepal, the FSS draft has failed to draw on peer-reviewed and documented evidence. Of course, this space is limited, as the FSS is a ‘strategy document’ to guide future thinking and action. But the value of the document in terms of persuasiveness and implementability could have been improved if its assumptions, assertions and predictions were cross-referenced with existing bodies of evidence. The document does not seem to have benefitted from the vast range of information relating to forest policy and practice in Nepal, including evidence on the impact of different policy instruments crafted over the past two decades. As a result, the document continues to advance old misconceptions about the conventional ‘protected area’ approach to conservation where local communities are given limited roles in conservation.

Who does what?

Forestry policy processes have become particularly contested in view of an increasing number of actors who articulate competing claims and narratives over rights and responsibilities in relation to forest governance. So a key question through which to assess the FSS draft is, which actors are to be given what roles in governing the forest sector, particularly the government, communities and business groups? Although different groups play lead roles in different regimes, there is still poor conceptualisation of how different actors could be positioned and allowed to contribute to diverse modes of forest governance. The strategy adopts a dichotomous approach to strengthening national government on the one hand and enhancing community tenure on the other. However, there is a lack of recognition of local government systems as an integral part of democratic forest governance, without which neither the state nor community-based solutions alone will be adequate.

The quality of policy decisions can also be judged in terms of the extent to which legitimate and often divergent voices of affected people are reconciled. The document indicates that the drafting team consulted a range of ‘stakeholders’. But it is not clear how these diverse claims and voices were reconciled. The document appears to please every group of actors without formulating ways to reconcile them. For example, diverse and contesting goals are attached to community-based forest management, encompassing carbon sequestration, food security, bioenergy, biodiversity and others.

The FSS mentions that a theory of change is ‘derived’ but it is not clear on what basis this was done and how it actually guides changes in the complex political landscape. Seven thematic pillars are listed but it is not clear how these are linked to the national context and FSS goals.

 Align with others

The forestry sector cannot flourish in isolation as it constitutes a variety of non-forestry sectors such as agriculture, infrastructure and employment that drive or constrain change in forestry. But this fact is only peripherally treated in the FSS, and cross-sectoral linkages are not adequately mapped out. Thinking of forestry in isolation without appreciating the non-forestry influence will not only make the FSS unimplemntable but can also lead to faulty interventions. The FSS, while ambitious on making a wide range of technical recommendations, remains silent on ways to align forestry policy with possible state restructuring in the country. The transitional state of the country offers limited space for the implementation of such a sectoral policy, as the larger political dynamics are fluid and there are constitutional discourses that could override the FSS recommendations.

A policy document also needs to present how actors can realise their vision. To enhance the implementabilty of the policy, it is crucial to recognise challenges arising from transitional politics. The document, however, mentions that political changes are ongoing, including the possibility of federalism, but the actual actions or ‘strategic pillars’ remain silent to such a political context. For example, the onus of leadership for many of the suggested interventions is placed on the MoFSC. The FSS draft fails to envision and guide how forest governance can be transitioned to in a federated and decentralised system.

Ojha writes on public policy issues

Published: 12-08-2014 09:35

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