The problem of not cutting trees

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Having worked in Nepal’s forestry sector as a researcher for over two decades, I find it very frustrating that both people and the government in the country keep growing trees in forestlands without sensibly harvesting mature trees. One can see overgrown trees everywhere - from the low-lying Terai through to the middle and high hills - where trees are dying even when they are still standing in forests (except in privately owned forests which are negligible). The reality of dying trees in Nepal’s public forests (both government- and community-managed in area and volume) sits starkly at odd with the data on massive amount of timber imported annually from Malaysia and South America in the recent years (I do not remember the figures but what I do remember is a Nepalese forester S Dangal mentioned that the volume of import logs is very significant and growing every year). 

After all, a forest is a renewable crop, and just like agriculture, one could harvest old trees and then nurture new seedlings to come in the forest floor and to grow into a mature forest again (of course removing trees is subject to environmental limits which can be established through some methods of assessments and planning). But why doesn’t this simple wisdom of cutting and regeneration prevail in Nepal’s forest governance and management circles? Or why is it that just the opposite -  protectionism - prevails? Let me first highlight the consequences of such misplaced protectionism in practice.

Enormous costs

If you consider just 1.8 million hectares of forests under community management (out of the country’s 6 million hectares of forest), the consequences of not harvesting is particularly appalling. Over the past four decades, thousands of community forestry groups across the country have put relentless efforts to revive previously degraded forests, under the globally hailed programme of community forestry.

The impact of community action in forest is evident: a recent survey shows that forest area in Nepal has increased to 44% of the country’s area, which is about 20% increase from the previous decades. In addition, several studies of community forestry cases have confirmed that, over the years, both the condition and the coverage of forests have improved. Reports of increasing wildlife populations across forest and farming landscapes add up to this evidence. Despite such a major improvement in forest condition and areas, the level of forest usage has remained dismally low.

Missed opportunities of not cutting overgrown trees are enormous. For example, in two of the central middle hill districts of Kavre and Sindhu, over 15,000 hectares of pine plantation set up some four decades back  (with the help of an Australia-supported forestry project) have now fully matured, waiting to be harvested. A study conducted a few years ago by Chand and Ghimire (and published by FAO) shows that the potential annual income from the pine plantation in these two districts is over Rupees one Arba, which is double the budget of the entire forestry sector in the country for the fiscal year 2006/7.

Over mature pine forests in Kavre district

At a period when the lack of jobs compelled youths to become violently rebellious (as in the case of recent Maoist insurgency), or to involuntarily leave the country for menial jobs in the Gulf (everyday about 1800 youths leave the country for overseas jobs), the price of not using overgrown trees at home is intolerably high. Let me share an example which I gathered from the past few years of research. Mr Ram Magar (real identity hidden) in the eastern hills of the country joined community forestry user group leadership, retiring from his role as a Maoist rebel. For him, it made perfect sense to come back to a normal community life after the end of the civil war in 2006 (when the Peace Accord was signed). He found community forestry as both an active social platform and also a potential economic resource to create jobs for unemployed youths in the village. He saw such opportunities at the village itself and hence did not think of going abroad for jobs (unlike many of his fellow villagers who left the country for jobs).

Community forests in his area comprise thousands of hectares of mature pine trees planted in the 70’s. With some trainings on law, Mr Magar knew that existing  community forestry regulations can permit local forest user groups to run timber processing enterprises.  With some support from a forestry project, community forest groups worked  to set up a community based timber processing enterprise. After several years of continuous efforts, Mr Magar said “it is impossible to run an enterprise on forest products due to cumbersome rules and procedures of the Department of the Forest”. Clearly, the community’s struggle to cut and sell the overgrown trees continues and are waiting for more substantive support from the government and civil society. In other areas, community leaders and field based forestry staff who rcently made genuine attempts in various districts to revise the restrictive forest management plans for more active management have been highly discouraged. So protectionism prevails. 

The pine trees in many community forests across the hills of Nepal, have matured already and can yield timber which can sell at good prices in Nepal, and also in India and China if export is permitted. The pine timber could also be a good and cheap material for rebuilding houses of  the earthquake victims (and this is true with many other forests types tree species). More importantly, had there been an enabling regulatory and administrative environment, many of the youths could  have chosen to stay in the village and to invest in small scale forestry enterprises through which they could generate incomes at their own villages.  Given such a high level of benefits from  sustainable use of forest, the act of preventing its use, in whatever forms it has taken place, is an act of injustice and even violence of a subtle kind.

Misconceptions

Several forms of misconceptions have led to such highly conservative protectionism in Nepal’s forest governance, preventing the active use of mature trees in the forest. The current regulatory framework is guided by the view that the forest is purely a conservation resource and any use should be kept to a minimum (some recent policy instruments, such as Scientific Forest Management guidelines, have espoused to extend the scope beyond protectionism, but these have little regulatory power on the ground). An underlying institutional reality that reinforces this prtectionaist view is that the mandate of the Department of Forest focusses narrowly on conservation, suggesting an iportant  need for a revision of the Department’s mission towards incorporating both socio-economic and conservation goals.

Furthermore, among the wider conservation community supporting forestry development in Nepal, there is a misconception that keeping the forest (and hence limiting human disturbance) intact is the best way to achieve conservation. This view contradicts a key principle of forest science that ‘sustained yield’ from forest can be extracted without jeopardising the condition of the forest. This yield focussed view of forest science is also counteracted by bureaucratised professional worldview that community based forestry’s goal is to provide basic and substance forest products needs, and not to produce commercial benefits. After 40 years of subsistence use of forest through community forestry, there is now an excellent opportunity to facilitate and experiment commercial use of forest products through testing and creating various modalities of enterprises, if protectionism is abolished in mindsets, institutions and practices.

Looking back to the history, the challenge appears even more daunting.The forest protectionism is deeply rooted in the history of forest governance in Nepal. When the Department of Forest was constituted several decades back and was tasked with the role of conserving forests, its strategy was to keep people out of the forest so forest stay undisturbed by humans. This legacy continued even after the introduction of community forestry in the 80s, which involved the Department gradually transferring management and use rights to local communities.  (mainly in the middle hills). Empowered with new management rights, local forest user groups have also considered that cutting standing tree is a bad thing, partly because they also began to perceive all green stuff in the forest as good. Surprisingly, protectionist ideas shifted to communities from the government. 

Trees on private forest being harvested while community forest remains intact with dense, mature trees. Sindhupalchowk, Jan 16, 2015

More recently, there have been renewed attempts to question protectionism in forest management. When some innovative foresters stood to challenge such ‘forest protectionism’ and begin to establish demonstration plots to show the benefits of cutting mature trees to society and forest ecosystem, the wider public and the media responded negatively, as such initiatives were misunderstood as ‘deforestation’. Not surprisingly, this misunderstanding was in part rooted in the history of illicit felling and deforestation which have marred Nepal’s forest sector.

 

In fact, the idea of protectionism is rooted not only in bureaucratic disposition and public imagination, but also in the political misunderstanding of forests and its functions. In 1991, Krishna P Bhattarai, the prime minister at that time, announced that “no green tree would be felled from anywhere across the country”. No doubt, the santa Bhattarai was innocently committed to save greenery, following his belief in forests as a source of intellectual inspiration and peace, as found in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology.This later came as a policy decision when  the ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation issued a circular to district forest offices across the country. But this policy instrument did not match the reality of Nepal, nor the established principles of forest science concerning the management and regeneration of old growth forests.

Challenging the misconceptions

The misconceptions underpinning forest protectionism cannot be uprooted overnight. Innovative foresters, silviculturists, community leaders, rights activists and officials should come together to discuss and develop strategies to demonstrate how cutting helps,  rather than harms,  the forest. There is a need to educate both the wider public and the policy makers. While Nepal’s forest stakeholders are well accustomed to hold multi-stakeholder forums to discuss issues such as these, many of such forums have become mere talkshows, with limited consequences in tackling problems. I have an experiential insight to illustrate this. During 2008-2010, I worked with colleagues at Nepal government, NGOs and academia to host scholarly discussions on emerging issues in the forest sector in the country, drawing on ongoing research works conducted by various scholars. We also organised fresh policy studies targeted at various issues. Discussions based on these studies had some good outcomes in terms of knowledge sharing but had limited impact on actual policy and practice. A question that remains is: How can a more productive dialogue be initiated on issues such as these and who can take a lead?

What appears to me as almost like a precondition for change is the creation of policy space for experimentation (but this could also be seen as a chicken and egg problem: one could argue how can there be a policy space unless policy makers themselves are educated first?). In any case, such enabling condition cannot be created without an explicit assurance by the political and bureaucratic leadership in the forest sector to agents of change who are keen to undertake critical, experimental, innovative and transformative research and demonstrations on the ground. A nation-wide knowledge hub to showcase emerging practices of active and equitable silvicultural technologies/ forest management could provide a much needed impetus to change. Things are definitely changing in specific localities and there are good studies are also emerging - what is lacking is a an attitude and preparedness at national level to listen to the voice from the field and insights from the scientific community.

Just creating a national forum to share knowledge or doing more community level work are not enough - we need major institutional reform in the state forest administration system. In the long run, in alignment with the likely federal restructuring of the state, a multi-scalar and autonomous research and traning agency is needed in Nepal’s forest sector to harness the benefits from the country’s largest public property of forest representing over 40% of the country’s land area. The agency should, working with civil societies, academia and the forest entrepreneurs, be able to provide a national repository of knowledge and inspire innovations by facilitating academic discussions, action research, policy analysis, and practical innovations. The current Department of Forest Research and Survey is structurally limited to take on such role and a fresh approach to institutional design is necessary. There has been no better time than now to talk about this question, especially because forest administration reform has been high on the agenda, as an integral part of likely federal restructuring of the state. While such major reform requires further discussion, an immediate opportunity to challenge forest protectionism could be to use the upcoming national workshop on silviculture (which is about cultivation and harvesting of trees in forest) as an opportunity to debate options and strategies for actively utilising the aging forests of Nepal. 

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