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Extension for community forestry development in the Midhill zone of Nepal

Buddhi Rejal & R.J. Petheram

Institute of land and Food Resources, University of Melbourne,
Parkville, Vic. Australia.


The move to community forestry in Nepal was an important policy shift in the 1980s - from state control of forests to management by ‘Forest User Groups’ (FUGs) comprised of local residents. This new policy has markedly changed the role of the government forestry official - from a police person to a community extension agent. Significant outcomes have been achieved through these changes in policy and roles, and the hand-over of about 700 000 hectares of forest to more than 9000 FUGs. However, achieving more equitable utilisation of community forests presents a huge challenge for extension in the future. This paper, based on recent research in the Midhills of eastern Nepal, argues that community forestry has had spectacular success in terms of protection of forest. However, the intended livelihood benefits from community forests to disadvantaged groups, such as women and the poor, have yet to be achieved.

The study showed that different groups within communities differ in their access to forest, and in their priority for use of different forest products. Because the FUG decisions are highly influenced by FUG leaders who are mostly male and rich, the needs of disadvantaged people are often neglected. Most FUGs still practise conservative closure regimes to regenerate forest and to produce commercial timber that will benefit richer members - rather than products that are most important for daily use by the majority.

The role of forestry officials as extension agents becomes crucial in promoting changes that will empower the disadvantaged groups in forest management and utilisation. It is proposed that this aim may be best achieved mainly through the facilitation by forest department staff of the development by FUGs of more fully participatory forest operational plans.


In recent years there has been a significant paradigm shift in approaches to rural development and natural resource management, following the failure of the prevailing top-down approaches to resource management, particularly in the developing world (Arnold, 1992). This paradigm shift represents a move from resource control by the government to resource management by local communities. In the 1980s, the Nepal Government initiated community forestry (CF) program, based on the idea that citizen involvement in management is essential for forest protection and environmental conservation. The emergence of community forestry in Nepal has largely changed the role of forestry officials from ‘police-person’ to that of community ‘extension agent’.

Community forestry in Nepal involves formation of Forest User Groups (FUG) from local communities, following a participatory process and hand-over of government-owned forests to the FUGs for management and utilization. The Forest Act of 1993 legitimised the FUG as an autonomous institution of the local community, set up to control and manage local forest, including harvesting and pricing all forest products independently. Forest Department staff remain as facilitators to help organize FUGs and to support the FUGs in preparing and implementing forest operational plans (FOPs). Presently (June, 2000) about 663000 hectares of forest has been handed over to about 9000 FUGs and about one million beneficiary families are involved in community forestry in Nepal (HMG, 2000).

The community forestry program of Nepal focuses primarily on the Midhills physiographic zone. The Midhills lie in the central band of the country, bounded by the high mountain range to the north and the Terai (Gangatic plain) to the south. They range in altitude from 1000m to 3000m, cover about 30 percent of the country and support about 45 percent of the total population. The lives of people in the hills are hard because of difficult physiography and limited access to services such as transport, education, health and safe drinking water. In addition, natural hazards such as landslides and floods can impede normal activities at certain times and add to environmental dangers and problems. (HMG/ADB/FINIDA, 1988).

This paper, based on recent research in Dhankuta District of eastern region of Nepal, argues that community forestry has had spectacular success in terms of protection of forest, but that the intended livelihood benefits to disadvantaged groups have not yet achieved. Some factors affecting management of community forest and the need for more effective extension through sound participatory planing are discussed.

The forest resources, deforestation and livelihood nexus in Nepal

Because of its very diverse topographical conditions, Nepal has unique ecological diversity and contains a range of vegetation, from tropical to alpine, with about 5160 species of flowering plants, 380 ferns, 465 lichens, 181 mammals and 844 bird species. A large number of flora and fauna species are on the verge of extinction because of rapid deforestation and poor management of natural resources (HMG/GON, 1995).

Deforestation and land degradation is widely acknowledged as a serious crisis in Himalayan region. The rate of deforestation has increased in Nepal because of the high demographic pressure and expansion of agriculture. Sussan et al (1995 p 5) states “…the conversion of forests to farmland in Nepal is, as is true worldwide, a long-standing historical process, and is one in which the state played an active part”. It dates back to the18th century when crops like maize and potatoes were introduced and was further accelerated by the military activities in the period of unification of Nepal following King Prithivi Narayan Shah, the founder of greater Nepal (1743 – 75 AD). Deforestation in the Terai is a relatively recent phenomenon, gained momentum during the first half of the 20th century following the eradication of malaria in many areas (Mahat et al, 1991; Sussan et al, 1995). Estimated forest cover in Nepal in 1964 was 6.5 million hectares (45 % of land). By 1978 forest had been reduced to 37.4% and by 1999 to 29 % of total land area. The area covered by shrub land increased from 5% in 1978 to 10 % in 1999 (Sussan et al 1995; HMG, 1999).

The livelihood of people in the hills of Nepal is strongly linked with the health of forest resources. More than 90 percent of the population rely on forests as a major source of fuel-wood, animal fodder, construction materials, as well as some food and cash income. Forests are an integral component of subsistence agriculture in the hills and meet about 42 percent of the fodder requirement for cattle, and are important sources of compost materials. Highly technical and commercial management of forests in the hills has limited scope because of the highly fragmented distribution of forests and difficult physiographic condition (New ERA, 1992, Malla 1997).

The significant inter-relationship between forest resources, livestock and crop production in traditional subsistence agriculture in the hills is emphasised by Ives and Messerli (1989 p 67), who state, " One or more hectares of forest are required to ‘support’ one hectare of arable land". They also claim that if deforestation is not checked, the existing farming system in the hills would completely collapse. The inter-relationship of forests, farm and human life sustenance in the Midhills of Nepal is illustrated in Figure 2.2.

Women are the main fuel-wood and fodder gatherers. The declining local availability of fuel-wood and fodder places additional burdens on the already heavy daily workload for women, who usually work three to four hours more than the men. Environmental hazards such as soil erosion, landslides, and water wastage are also important consequences of loss of forests, that can markedly affect the livelihood of people (Sussan et al, 1995 and UNDP, 1998).

Figure 2.2: Inter-relationship of forest, farmland and people in the Hills of Nepal

[Modified from Gilmour and Fisher, 1991]

A study of management and utilization of community forests by FUGs

Research for this paper in three FUGs in Dhankuta District of Eastern Nepal found that forest condition had markedly improved in all the study sites after hand-over to FUGs in 1993. The improvement in forest condition was a result of effective protection measures taken by the FUG committees (FUGC), who play the critical role of monitoring and implementing FUG rules and regulations. Local people believe that the Forest Department has transferred its power to the FUGC, which can therefore impose legal restrictions and take action against offenders. The high penalty rates that are imposed by FUGCs are an important means to prevent users from illegally over-exploiting forests.

The study revealed, however, that the management of forest in terms of product utilization and distribution of forest products among the users was highly inequitable. Forests have become dense through growth of trees and regeneration of saplings. But thinning and utilization of forest products was highly inadequate, despite the high demands for fuel-wood by the majority of people. The maintenance operations by FUGs were confined to limited areas, with the aim of cleaning weeds, but no view to extraction of sufficient fuel-wood. The poor effectiveness in utilization of community forests appears to be linked with a number of socio-economic factors that have affected decision-making in the FUGs.

In the all three FUGs, the FUGC was unwilling to utilise forest products to the full potential. The FUG leaders felt more comfortable in closing access to the forests, than in attempting to manage for product utilisation for all members. This attitude is partly attributable to different preferences of different groups of people for different forest products, and partly to management complexities such as conflicts in product distribution, risks of over−exploitation, and lack of technical know-how.

The rich and male members strongly dominated in all three FUGCs. The FUGs’ decision-making on forest management is therefore heavily biased towards interests of the rich and male members in the community. Differences between males and females in their priority for different forest products are largely ignored. Males prefer timber while females prefer non-timber products. In addition, the rich can often fulfil their fuel-wood and fodder needs through private sources, whereas poor households have to rely entirely on community forest as a daily source of fuel and other products. The CFs studied were managed mainly for protecting the forest - for high yields of timber in the long term. Such management has created much hardship for families who had been collecting forest products freely before the FUGs were formed around 1993. Although timber may have value as a commercial product in future, it does not necessarily meet the majority of users' main or immediate needs.

Forest management by FUGs was also found to be influenced by the location of different groups of people in the community. The users living nearest to the forest have highest opportunity to use many products intensively, while the distant residents use the forest for more limited products. In particular, the distant users collect less non-timber products because of high requirement for time and labour. Hence, the distant users were keen for their FUG to restrict access to the forest and to promote timber products, as a strategy to obtain more equal benefits from the forest. Different groups therefore exerted different pressure on the FUG, depending on their location in relation to the CF.

Distribution of work and benefits among different group in communities

The distribution of benefits from CF to different sectors in the community is critical for the sustainability of community forest management. Management of a community forest involves considerable labour, time and resources of the users. FUG members contribute in planting, cleaning, forest watching, meetings and assemblies, and pay a regular royalty and taxes to the FUG. Even where the contributions by members may be more or less equal in quantitative terms, the value of the contribution to the poor is much higher than that of the rich, particularly when poor people have to forego days of labour and wages to the FUG duties. One group of poor people in one FUG had given up their membership because of ‘burdensome’ duties, though they were highly dependent on the community forest. The rich families are often further privileged in product distribution, as the poor cannot use timber because of high harvesting and processing cost. In addition, the rich often gain benefits of improved social status and political power through being committee members of the FUG.

Inequitable benefit sharing among different groups in the community can lead to a breakdown of group cohesion and a decline in peoples' interest on community forestry, as well as greater conflict and inefficiency in forest management, and this poses a serious threat to sustainability of the CF movement.

Fully participatory CF operational plans

FUGs have a clear need for a simple and practical mechanism for planning the utilisation of forest products in a way that will fulfil the daily requirements of all their different user groups. This requires a fully participatory planning and CF management process, which in turn needs skilled facilitation by extension staff.

But although community forestry regulations and guidelines suggest a participatory process at formation of the FUG and for preparation of forest operational plans (FOP), such a process is seldom properly followed in the field. Table 1 lists some main problem areas identified from the current research, in participatory planning and implementation of FOP by FUGs. Some possible solutions – intended to guide extension agents who are involved in facilitating improvement in this area are also outlined in Table1.

The FOP is a legal document required by the Department of Forest (DoF) from FUGs for their management and development of community forest, and is prepared mainly by government staff in consultation with the members of FUG committee. The FOP contains (a) a description of forest resources including a map of the forest and infrastructure (b) map of forest types and regeneration status (c) information on soil and other features of the forest. (d) It divides the forest into different blocks based on vegetation type for silvicultural and other management purposes. (e) Lists are provided of different forest products and (f) roles and responsibilities of users are also outlined. However, the plans seldom reflect the needs and priorities of all different groups of people and so usually fail to provide management strategies that will benefit the majority of people.

Table 1: Main problem areas and possible solutions in achieving fully participatory planning and implementation of community forest operational plans

Main problem area

Problems in current process

Proposed solutions – to guide future extension effort

Identification of different users and their needs, within the FUG

The step of identification of different groups within a FUG at FUG formation is seldom completed properly, so the different needs of groups is not documented in the plan

All user groups and their particular needs should be identified before FUG formation (or urgently in existing FUGs). This should be a major part of the plan, and must be presented to the community for their comments at an early date. In large groups, intensive (primary) and casual (secondary) users should also be clarified - to allow responsibility of users and distribution of products to be planed.

Participation of all groups in CF planning and management

The rich and male, and people from “higher” castes mainly dominate the FUGCs.

Forest management issues are only discussed in committee meetings and in general assembly, where poor people and women usually do not participate.

FUGCs must provide clear evidence of representation by all main groups. The views of all these groups must be heard and documented at the start of planning, and regularly during the management process.

Major forest management issues should be discussed with different groups (poor, women, occupational caste and location) prior to formal decision -making in committee and in assembly.

Provision of advice by extension staff on technical matters

Extension staff tend to provide advice from their perspective – without understanding needs of poor groups and other gender, castes etc.

Extension staff should be made aware and sensitive about the problems of equity in CF management through training and workshops.

Lack of extension staff

Forest extension service cannot reach all FUGs on continuing basis to provide advice on participatory planing and CF management.

Priority must be given to seeking and training locals (women & poor) to take on roles in extension and facilitation in participatory planning and management. Government staff should have a strategy to supervise all FUGs – planing a regular meeting with FUGs.

Lack of skills in resource assessment and planning

FOPs are prepared without proper assessment of resources. Usually FOP is prepared for five years, but are seldom updated or modified over time based on proper resource assessment.

Ensure preparation and revision of FOP in time- based on participatory assessment of resources. Government staff should make be more responsible about technical aspect of CF - through training and monitoring and evaluation.

It is clear that fully participatory FO Planning is a critical requirement to overcome most of the existing problems in community forestry. FOPs are best prepared by the FUG through active participation of all sectors of the community, with the support of extension staff. The ‘active participation’ of people means the involvement of all groups in the community at all stages of group identification and resource assessment, group needs assessment, and setting strategies for management and utilisation of forest products. The participatory FOP is fully owned by the people, not only by the FUG committee or government staff. Each person in the community should be well acquainted with the plan and have commitment towards its implementation. A comparison of a typical FOP currently found in FUGs and a proposed fully participatory FOP is shown in Table 2.

Table 2: Characteristics of a typical existing FOP and a fully participatory FOP

Characteristics of typical existing FOP

Characteristics of fully participatory FOP

Prepared by government staff consultation with FUG committee.

Prepared by FUG by the support of extension staff.

Describes forest condition through conventional inventory and/ or estimates by staff.

Describes forest condition through a participatory assessment process.

Needs and priorities of different groups are not properly assessed and considered.

Needs and priorities of different groups are assessed and described through a participatory process.

Management and silvicultural strategies are made on basis of resource condition perceived by staff and committee members.

Management and silvicultural strategies are made on basis of resource condition and needs of people through participatory assessment.

Needs of poor and women are ignored.

Needs of poor and women are sought, documented and considered in planning.

Management strategies are not well defined and decisions are highly influenced by FUG committee.

Management strategies are discussed, agreed and explicitly defined on the plan.

Most people are not aware about the provisions in the plan.

All FUG members are aware of the provisions in the plan.

FUG committee members implement the plan.

All FUG members play active roles in implementation of the plan.

A participatory FOP is useless without a fully participatory implementation. An equitable representation of different sectors of communities in an FUG committee and adaptation of participatory procedures in decision-making are two important indicators of fully participatory FOP planing and implementation.

Conclusion: Role of extension in community forestry

The success of the CF model in Nepal demands effective advice and facilitation by forestry staff – who are the main extension workers to communities. Most of the problems in community forestry discussed above are closely linked with lack of proper communication of the FUGC with the people, and with poor participatory practices in planning and implementation of the activities. Active participation of poor, women and disadvantaged groups in decision-making is critical for effective CF management and equitable benefit distribution among the users. Adequate levels of participation cannot be achieved without the empowerment of the disadvantaged groups; a situation that can only be attained through implementation of supportive legislation and also effective extension processes and activities. On the other hand, the power held by certain groups and individuals cannot be ignored, and the support of the powerful needs to be harnessed in the extension process.

Empowerment of disadvantaged groups is challenging in societies like that in Nepal, where caste and gender inequality and poverty are very common. Conventional extension approaches are inadequate to address complex social problems. Participatory extension programs that enhance the peoples’ capacities to carry out the planning, implementation and evaluation of their own activities are essential. To achieve such practices government needs to offer appropriate incentives to both FUGs and extension staff.

Continuous extension support to all FUGs is not always feasible by government because of limitations of DoF resources. It is suggested that a scheme should be developed in which some FUG members are selected as local ‘extension agents’, preferably from disadvantaged groups. These local agents would be given training in relevant topics for their particular roles in extension, and can be fully involved in the CF management process, possibly in more than one FUG. Such an extension approach could be economically viable and effective in communities where the level of literacy is poor. However, the government has responsibility to design a proper extension strategy, including incentives, training for staff and community extension agents, and priority for implementation of a participatory FOP process in the field.


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