Instead of allowing the people to build houses in the forest areas, they can be leased under the leasehold policy

Forests and other wooded land represent about 44.74 per cent of the total area of the country, and the Tarai region holds only 6.90 per cent of the total forest cover. Although Nepal has made tremendous progress in protecting its forests in terms of protected areas and outside the protected areas, encroachment of forest lands by the landless people is on the rise despite the government's rigorous efforts to protect them. It is outside the protected forests that are under constant threat from the encroachers, mainly those who are landless, those who are displaced by floods, landslides, fires and other natural disasters as well as by those who are displaced when the government acquires their land for development purposes.

Various reports conducted by government agencies reveal that it is the Tarai forests which are being encroached by these people, who lack other means of survival. As the local communities do not allow the encroachment of the community forests, landless and displaced families often resort to building their houses and huts and engaging in agriculture outside the protected forest areas that are located close to the highways and have easy access to markets.

A report from Rautahat states that many landless families have built houses or huts in the district forests in Brindaban Municipality by felling hardwood trees such as sal and sisau. Locals said houses and huts are being built in collusion with employees of the Baleri Range Post Forest Office under the Division Forest Office (DFO), Chandranigahapur. Concerned authorities are turning a blind eye even though huts are being constructed at the site, where the Division Forest Office had made a nursery and planted trees.

More than a dozen new houses have been constructed after clearing the forest at Baleri due to the silence of the DFO. The landless people have also built huts in other forests.

Division Forest Office, Chandranigahapur Chief Amardev Yadav said his office was having a tough time vacating the people from the encroached land due to pressure from the major political parties. The political parties use the squatters as their vote bank by assisting them to encroach forest land. Nepal has been earning millions of dollars due to its forests which absorb millions of tons of carbon dioxide.

During the recently-held COP26 Summit in Glasgow, the UK, Nepal's efforts to protect its forests was widely praised by the international community. The country is poised to earn at least Rs 5 billion by selling 9 million tons of CO2 by 2025. This is a huge amount of money which can be better utilised not only to protect our forests but also to support the landless people to lift them out of extreme poverty.

Instead of allowing people to build houses and huts in the forest areas, they can be leased under the 'leasehold policy', which is already in place. But they should not be allowed to build permanent structures in the forests, which play a vital role in protecting the environment, ecosystem and biodiversity as well as in minimising effects of carbon emission.

The money to be earned from the carbon trade deal should be used to generate employment opportunities in the non-agriculture sectors that absorb a large number of people.

Promote handicraft

Nepal has few products to sell to the outside world, and until recently, handicrafts, namely handwoven woolen carpets, made up the bulk of its exports.

There is a very big market internationally for Nepali handicraft goods, and we could reduce the huge trade deficit if we could export them in bulk at competitive prices. Woolen carpets apart, pashmina, lokta paper, silver and other jewellery, and dhaka cloth are already popular among foreign buyers. But we can't always be promoting the same items year after year. There is a need for developing new products and designs. This calls for investment in research and skills training, all of which requires money.

Apart from exports, it is high time handicraft goods were popularised among the Nepalis also, as demanded by Vice-President Nanda Bahadur Pun at a programme organised to mark the 50th anniversary of the Federation of Handicraft Association of Nepal on Tuesday. In neighbouring India, handmade khadi clothes, for example, are popular among the middle class, even though they are very expensive. The use of handicraft goods by the Nepali middle class would give a boost to the industry, which employs about a million people.

A version of this article appears in the print on December 16, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.