Print Edition - 2016-01-10  |  Free the Words

Beyond the trees

  • Forests for human security should be the theme in all practices of forest governance
- Hemant Ojha, Jagannath Adhikari
Community-based forestry management has reached a climax in Nepal, but the time has come to empower local governments to strengthen forest landscape governance in a decentralised way

Jan 10, 2016-The year 2015 was terrible for Nepal. First, there was an earthquake; and before people had a chance to recover from the shock, there was an unofficial blockade by India which cut off the supply of essential goods. Every crisis is a source of inspiration too, and the two consecutive disasters have re-established forests as an ultimate safety net in times of difficulty. This is evident in the way people are desperately looking for timber and fuel wood. Once again, the connection between forests and human security has been brought to the surface. 

Earthquake survivors need timber to rebuild their homes, and lack of cooking gas has forced people, even well-off families in Kathmandu, to queue up in front of the firewood depot. A few desperate people are even reported to have chopped up expensive furniture for firewood. Tree felling has reached an unprecedented scale as people struggle to survive amid harsh circumstances. Only the future will show whether the forest ecosystem will survive this onslaught by humans. 

It is clear that Nepal’s forest policy cannot afford to ignore such fundamental human security concerns that erupt time and again but exist underneath all the time. As a landlocked country in the fragile Himalaya, Nepal has become a humanitarian crisis hotspot. Clearly, 30 million people found themselves living in a risk environment with three axes—beneath their feet (earthquake), across the border (geopolitical) and within themselves (chronic and recurrent conflicts between groups). History has shown that Nepal’s forests absorb much of the heat and stress resulting from such events. 

The current crisis reminds us of the concept of human security, which was popular during the 2000s. Here security means a state in which people are free from fear of hunger, fear of livelihood loss, fear of deprivation and so on. The theory of human security identifies seven components of human security—economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community and political security. The earthquake and blockade have almost eroded all of them as people have lost their livelihood base, access to medical supplies and affordable food, mental and political vitality, collective spirit and ethical economic and social practices. 

Forest and insecurity 

Even when Nepal’s forests were under a protectionist regime, we have seen a variety of ways in which they have cushioned the impact of a crisis. Forests provided relief to the people as they offered building materials like poles to erect huts, fodder for their animals and fuel wood to cook their food and warm their huts. In view of such vital importance, the country’s forests, which cover 30 percent of the land area, cannot be seen just as a means to conserve globally significant biodiversity for future generations. They are an essential foundation for human security against all forms of threats to life. In fact, forested landscapes including terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems have the potential to address multiple dimensions of human security. Biodiversity and local livelihoods—two aspects that dominate the forest governance debate in Nepal—can indeed be integrated synergistically with a much wider but a more urgent agenda of human security. While forests cannot be expected to reduce earthquake risks, positive contributions can be expected on all fronts of human security if they are properly managed. 

With over 100 commercially traded forest products used in the manufacture of medicines, dyes, food, cosmetics, fibre and crafts, forests can greatly contribute to the economic security of the people. But many mistakenly see the forest sector only as a primary sector of production (such as through the supply of forest products), neglecting the role of forests as an important provider of ecosystem services and indirect benefits to a range of other economically important sectors such as agriculture, tourism and hydropower. These services are taken for granted as gifts of nature to mankind. The national accounting system and economic policy do not count the contributions of all the services provided by forests. 

Flawed governance 

The paradigm of forest management in Nepal is fragmented across conservationist, developmentalist and populist spheres, and ignores the human security perspective. Despite the fact that forests are intimately tied to people’s security against a variety of natural and human-induced disasters, Nepal’s forest managers and policymakers cannot see forests beyond the trees—the complex human-nature system that nurtures many properties of resilience and sustainability beyond the sustained yield of timber. Many functions of forests, especially those that support people during times of crisis, continue to go unrecognised. 

Unlike agriculture, which is in the hands of millions of farm households, forestry has remained a highly centralised sector in Nepal. Moreover, forestry is the sector where numerous policies have been formulated to satisfy donor conditions of aid, with too little democratic engagement among forest stakeholders in the country. Forests have largely remained public property and are community-managed to some extent. The private forest industry is too insignificant as the regulatory regime is too restrictive. The forest industry is extremely weak under an oppressive legal structure. As a result, Nepal is importing timber from Malaysia while logs are rotting in our forests. Perhaps a new social enterprise model linking the community, private sector and public agencies could enhance economic security from the forest sector. 

New regime 

In order to reframe forest governance for human security, there is a need for a new discourse on forests for human security beyond the current preoccupation with community populism, global-centric conservationism and timber-focused productionism. We are not against any of these goals imposed on forest management. Our point is that we need to mainstream human security as an overarching strategy in all practices of forest governance from the local to the national levels. Community-based forestry management has reached a climax in Nepal, but the time has come to empower local governments to strengthen forest landscape governance in a decentralised way. Now that the new Constitution has placed forest management under the jurisdiction of state governments, it is vital to speed up the process of electing state assemblies and instituting state forest agencies. We argue that the responsibility of human security should be retained by the national government while decentralising management responsibilities to state and local governments. 

Ojha is a public policy expert; Adhikari is a social scientist


Published: 10-01-2016 08:58

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