Money on trees

  • Legalising commercial harvest and sale of timber by community forest user groups will help quake-hit households
Money on trees

May 4, 2015-

Emergency teams are gradually reaching rural areas devastated by the Great Earthquake. The government, along with various NGOs and the international donor community, seems to be working hard to overcome logistics constraints to move available supplies of medicines, tents, food and clothes into disaster-struck districts and villages. At these early stages of the disaster, the priority is to ensure shelter, treat injuries, and make sure that food and water is available to the affected population. Efforts and discussions are currently focused on how donors, I/NGOs and the government can help quake victims in the rural areas. These efforts also include providing long-term assistance, such as supplying seeds for the upcoming planting season, as stocks have, in many cases, been destroyed.

Alternative incomes

A key question, however, remains to be asked: what can we do to help rural families help themselves? Many rural families are resilient and resourceful. They will not simply be waiting for assistance; they will also pursue their own solutions. Hundreds of thousands of households have lost land, livestock and other assets essential to their incomes and wellbeing. They will not sit back and do nothing. They will look for alternative incomes.

Research conducted over the past 10 years, following around 1,000 households in the hills and mountains and mapping their total household income and how it changes over time, has given us a good understanding of rural livelihood strategies. This research included households right at the epicentre, in Gorkha district. We know that half of their income is derived from non-farm sources (remittances, pensions, businesses) that are, in many cases, less vulnerable to quake effects. Still,  around half of the income for many households already at the poverty line is derived from farm and environmental sources such as forests. In particular, crop and livestock incomes will suffer from the quake.  Based on recent research, we point out two solutions that can be quickly implemented at a very low cost to the direct and immediate benefit of quake-hit rural households.

Forests for livelihood

First, as documented in a paper published a few months ago in the international journal World Development, rural household incomes from forests can be increased up to ten-fold. This can be done simply by changing legislation and making it legal for community forest user groups to commercially harvest and sell timber and firewood. This could arguably have nationwide poverty- reduction effects. And the additional good news is that this can be achieved while keeping harvest levels within sustainable limits. Yes, that’s right: keep harvests sustainable and increase household incomes from community forests up to 10 times. This would directly allow local communities in the quake-hit districts and villages to help themselves. This would provide much-needed cash income that will supplement the subsistence importance of forests: we know people turn to forests after suffering shocks. Forests will be of key importance in delivering fuel, agricultural inputs, fodder and food in the coming hard months and years in all the disaster-struck rural areas.

Second, many households will turn to collecting commercial environmental products other than timber and firewood in response to the lack of income following the quake. We know that low-income households are most reliant on earnings from environmental resources such as forests and meadows. We know that environmental resources such as various jadibutis (medicinal and aromatic plants) like kutki, jatamansi, and chiraito are found throughout many of the quake-hit districts, including in Gorkha. Here, again, changes in legislation could immediately serve to help households.

Do away with the legal requirements for collection and transport permits, and thereby with rent-seeking along trade routes; do away with royalties, at least for a grace period of five years in the affected districts. This would directly allow families in the quake-hit districts and villages to help themselves.

Change the law

Given political will, these changes can be implemented tomorrow, with direct and immediate financial consequences for the quake-hit rural families. It would help the affected rural population to help themselves before a second wave of death and destitution hits them. The changes could also be accompanied with a campaign aimed at emphasising the importance of sustainable resource utilisation, for future incomes and future protection of villages in exposed locations. All it requires are a few legislative changes. No need to rely on the centre or any kind of relief infrastructure already under huge pressure—farmers and the market will work together for positive and immediate change. It can be done right now.

Smith-Hall is professor at the Department of Food and Resource Economics, University of Copenhagen, and Rayamajhi is associate professor at the Institute of Forestry, Tribhuvan University


Published: 05-05-2015 09:05

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