Knowledge Systems thinking to initiate Nepal’s forestry sector reform

October 29, 2006 at 1:37 pm Leave a comment

Knowledge Systems thinking to initiate Nepal’s forestry sector reform

May, 2002, by Frank van Schoubroeck[1] and Jan Brouwers[2].

Abstract. The forestry sector in Nepal is well known for its Community Forest management modality in the hills. In the lower Siwalik hills and flat Terai no such singular forest management modality is in place. The Terai has valuable forests and wildlife reserves, and is home to an increasing part of Nepal’s population with an on-going history of (illegal) forest clearing. In the 1990s, the Terai forestry sector was in a stalemate over the choice of a best forest management strategy. The Netherlands’ new policy in favour of sector-wide support allowed for a radical change in donor’s programme making: the donor is there to support the Forest Ministry’s sector reform programme aiming at sustainable forest management and phasing out donor support. The article shows that with sector-wide approaches, emphasis shifts from direct working on the donor agenda (poverty alleviation, gender, environment) towards building on ownership and existing institutions and thereby initiate institutional and governance development. This allowed stakeholders in the forestry sector to jointly develop a sector reform agenda and implement the associated programme. The soft system framework provided a systemic perspective, focusing on networks and clusters of organisations, and enabling them to improve the broader capacity of society as a whole.

Terai forestry stalemate.

Forestry in the Terai.

Nepal is best known for its snowy peaks and mountain trekking. Less noted is the southern flat and sub-tropical belt, covering about one quarter of the country. This area is called the Terai. In the north it borders the Siwaliks, the low and fragile hills, geologically composed of uplifted moraine; in the south it borders the Indian Plains of Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. The control of malaria in the 1950s made an active forest-clearing-and-resettlement policy of the Kathmandu government possible, and now around a quarter of the Terai people are migrants from the hills. By 2001 around half of Nepal’s population live in the Terai.The migration-and-clearing must have been quite an experience for the original Terai inhabitants. “Strangers” from the hills cleared the forests and got ownership over the land the original inhabitants traditionally used. After a few decades up to the Siwaliks most forest had been turned into agriculture land and settlements. In the places where still plain forest was left, weak law enforcement resulted in further encroachment and illegal felling, and today the deforestation rate in the Terai is an alarming 1.3 % per year. Following the replacement of the official policy to clear forests for a pro-conservation policy in the late 1970s, a few initiatives have been taken to stop deforestation. The new migrants brought the concept of community forestry that was so successful in the hills. Community forestry gives responsibility of forest management to villages of primary forest users. After settling in the Terai area, hill people communities started requesting concerned authorities for control over nearby forest areas, and in some cases had forests handed over to their Community Forest User Groups. This process often excludes “outsiders” such as the original Terai population from access rights; while in some cases large areas of valuable forests were handed over to small groups of influential people. Paudel and Pokharel, 2001, give a balanced overview of the Terai Community Forestry issue.Turning forests into parks is another management option. Nature NGOs and also some segments in the government favour this type of management with a major focus on wildlife preservation through protection of their habitat. In this view, people are best seen as necessary development partners, worst as intruders hostile to nature preservation. Although tourism brings in some revenues to the area, one can hardly expect the Terai population to set aside the valuable forest resources as parks alone. In this tradition, nature groups proposed the “Terai Arc Landscape”-vision that foresees connecting a few Terai parks by restoring and maintaining corridors.Another alternative was developed by a Finnish project in the mid-1990s (FMUDP-team, 1995). Commercial block forest management was developed and detailed in a comprehensive project proposal. It encompassed the division of large forest blocks into compartments of around one hectare each, felling individual compartments and having trees regenerate in an 80-year cycle. However, the local population was not involved in the (technically outstanding) design and literally chased the programme’s experts away. This is why since 1996 few donors wanted to burn their fingers on the contentious Terai forestry issue. The government tries to protect and rudimentarily manage the forests. The sale of fallen trees still brings in some revenues, but 90 % of these go to the national cashier and little money is being ploughed back into forest management. There is no link between production and investments. 

Economic opportunities of the Terai forestry sector.

To say that the Terai forestry sector is not performing optimally is quite an understatement. Studies reveal that potential production of the Terai Forestry Sector is many times higher than its present performance (e.g. Kanel, 1994). The main tree species is sal, a tropical hardwood, which can yield up to EUR 1400 for a single mature tree, equivalent to three years salary of a labourer. The World Bank estimates that annual profits from timber production in the Terai could value around 160 million US$ (Hill, 1999). However, presently the sector is a net budget spender. In the informal sector, forest is utilised partly by a well-organised timber mafia, partly by small users. Indian timber markets over the border are flooded with timber illegally harvested in Nepal (C. Kumar, New Delhi, pers. comm.). In Bara district, central Nepal, the District Forest Officer (DFO) estimates that every day 10,000 head loads of firewood is harvested from the national forest (S.P. Joshi, pers. comm.). Vast mature sal forests are still present, so every stakeholder is keen to participate for a piece of the cake. This also explains why the government does not want to loose control over these resources, and why Community Forestry organisations so vehemently propose Community Forestry as a best alternative to government forest management (e.g., Mahapatra, 2001). In absence of a proper timber harvesting and marketing policy, the majority of sawmills in the Terai get their raw materials from private forestry rather than the national forest, while timber remains a scarce commodity for people with no direct access to forests.Around seventeen percent of the Terai is under forest coverage. A clear ambition then could be that around seventeen percent of the Terai population, around two million people, get a direct or indirect livelihood from forests. That would mean increasing legal forest-based jobs to around 350,000 (six people per household with one earning family member). What measures would be needed? A co-ordinated mix of the following agenda points would certainly contribute to this development:

  • strong regulating government;
  • all management modes yield revenues for developmental activities and sustain forest management regulating institutions;
  • forest land-use planning to allow for a best mix of various management modes: community forestry where it can be effective; government managed forest for industry and redistributive revenue sharing; private forestry for distant users and industry; parks for tourism and wildlife conservation;
  • privatisation of forest operations to licensed enterprises, timber marketing, distribution of forest products to distant users;
  • regular raw material supply to forest-based industry; export of processed products to distant users, cities and
    India; and establishment of eco-tourism;
  • reconciliation of biodiversity and productivity: use productive forests as corridors between national parks and manage national parks so that a variable habitat for wildlife is guaranteed.

As illustrated above, the Terai forestry sector has a huge potential. However, earlier attempts to save or manage the forests did not succeed. Main reason is that singular agendas were put forward. For example, the Nepal Biodiversity Action Plan was formulated with extensive stakeholder consultation. The final editing was in favour of wildlife conservation, and even consulted stakeholders did not endorse the plan. Some NGOs propose the Terai forest to be handed over to nearby users, on which distant users and the Ministry do not agree. Similarly, even piloting of commercial management did not get sufficient support for a test phase. Thus, no single management modality is likely to bring the changes desired in the Terai Forest Sector. That is why a sector-wide approach seemed a chance for a way out of the stalemate. The general guidelines of the sector-wide approach have been operationalised with soft system thinking.

[1] Dr. Ir. Frank H.J. van Schoubroeck works in a programme to support
Nepal’s Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation to reform the Terai forest sector; c/o SNV-Nepal,

P.O.Box 1966, Kathmandu, Nepal

; e-mail

[2] Dr. Ir. Jan Brouwers worked as NRM-Sector Manager for SNV-Nepal and was instrumental in developing the sector-wide approach in
Nepal’s NRM-sector. He is presently taking up an assignment at the IAC, Wageningen.


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