Community forestry: Governance the new challenge

The Federation of Forest Users of Nepal (FECOFUN) recently co-hosted with the Central American Indigenous and Peasant Coordinator of Communal Agro-forestry (ACICAFOC) the Second International Encounter of the Global Alliance of Community Forestry (GACF) in Kathmandu with the objective of deciding on the latter’s “structure, modalities and future course of action”.

While the ACICAFOC has been working for the past decade as a “regional network for community forestry movement in Central America”, Nepal’s FECOFUN, with an equally long history and representing the robust network of 15,000 Community Forest User Groups (CFUG) outshone the rest in the dozen-strong Alliance. After all, it was these CFUGs that have been at the forefront of the dramatic rejuvenation of the country’s forest wealth and the end to the desertification alarm of the 80s. The field visit of the participants to the community forests in Chitwan was an overwhelming experience.

One major lesson of the community forestry programme has been that there exists a causal relationship between the trinity of good governance conditions namely, stakeholder participation, transparency of management and accountability of leaders, and the successful conservation and management of forests in the communities. While forest products like fodder, fuelwood and timber are now easily available for the villagers, and financial resources mobilised for local development, the community forestry, as observed by a noted expert, Narayan Kazi Shrestha, has also been “a school” to practice democracy, gender balance, equity, and social justice (THT Feb. 2, 2002). The programme, then called “Panchayat Protected Forest”, stagnated for years becasue the Panchayat members had no sense of personal stake in the dispersed patches of forests.

In mid-80s, however, a forest-related private trust, the Jarajuri Puraskar (Roots and Foliage Award) had been giving out modest prizes to remarkable forests managed by the stakeholders. Taking cue from these examples and as advised by local professionals, the World Bank, then preparing to extend a large Structural Adjustment Loan to Nepal, urged the government to introduce user management of forests, leading to the amendment of the then Panchayat-based forest rules in April 1988 and empowered CFUGs. It was this momentous change in the legal regime of forest management that made the programme demand-driven. While there were already “a few hundred” CFUGs self-managing the forests in 1991, the number steadily increased to 2,756 in 1994, 8,559 in 1999 and to 15,000 at present.

Most CFUGs are 10 years old, and are experiencing pangs of “second generation problems” like sustainability, biodiversity conservation, inclusive management, gender equity, livelihood promotion and poverty alleviation. These are the issues that frequently appear in donor-funded seminars, although little has been done in practice. In most community forests, growth remains more or less arrested.

Given the situation, the apex body of the user supremacy campaign, FECOFUN, emerges as the most fitting agency to provide technical and other support to its constituent CFUGs to ensure their growth and dynamism. However, FECOFUN’s capacities leave much to be desired. For instance, in the recent opening ceremony of “the Second Encounter”, an overview of the evolution of the community forestry programme in Nepal was provided not by one of its own employees, but by a senior official from the Ministry of Forest, obviously from the perspective of the government, and not of FECOFUN. Its proven capacity has been limited to functioning as a successful pressure group to prevent real or perceived infringement of user authority in managing their forests. The need is to go much beyond: to enable users to derive benefits in terms of higher productivity, greater equity and increased livelihood and development opportunities at the core of the “second generation problems.”

The second generation problems are, however, multi-faceted and require CFUGs to work in concert with other government and non-government resource centres at village and district levels and beyond, including the village and district development committees: those agencies must be demand-driven and characterised by good governance. Fortunately, FECOFUN possesses the numerical strength to push for changes. With 15,000 CFUGs as its constituent members (each of them representing hundreds of households) a vast bulk of voters is already within its fold.

Therefore, FECOFUN’s next agenda should be to control the VDCs and DDCs and extend its good governance norm to those bodies without consideration for partisan affiliations. It would go a long way in assuring the responsiveness of the relevant resource centres and in meeting the increasing developmental aspirations of the forest users on a sustained basis.

Shrestha is a development anthropologist