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Nepal: Uprooting Grassroots Democracy

In stark contrast to the foot-dragging in parliament over the ratification of three key international agreements on money-laundering, terrorism and extradition (the deadline lapsed last week, but the government lobbied to buy more time citing political instability) it has displayed unusual speed in pushing through new amendments to the 1993 Forest Act.

There is something very fishy about this. The Madhesi-Maoist coalition's undue haste in legislating amendments could destroy Nepal's community forestry program that has taken 30 years to build, and is accepted internationally as the best-working model for local natural resource management. As is usual with these things, the reason the government and sections of the bureaucracy want these amendments is because the trees local communities nurtured are now fully grown, and there is big money to be made by chopping them down.

Nepal's traditional systems of managing local forest and water were recognised when Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009 for her study in Nepal of the management of the commons. Ostrom has often said that the prize actually belongs to the farmers of Nepal whose management of irrigation for long-term sustainable yields she researched 30 years ago.

When community forestry was first introduced as a pilot project in Sindhupalchok in the 1980s in an Australian-funded initiative, it built on these traditional conservation practices that had then been destroyed by state intervention and nationalisation. Community forestry gathered pace in the 1990s because it dovetailed perfectly with grassroots democracy and local self-governance. The result is there to see across Nepal's midhills where canopy cover expanded by 20 per cent between 1990-2010. Landsat images taken twenty years apart in Sindhupalchok show a dramatic increase in forest cover because of community-based conservation efforts.

But as the trees grew into maturity and acquired commercial value, it coincided with the post-conflict erosion of local democracy, state-sanctioned corruption through all-party mechanisms and the criminalisation of politics. The fact that most community forestry user groups survived the war and pressure from corrupt politicians proves how resilient the model is.

It has to be said that the Madhesi parties and the Maoists never really came to terms with the community forestry concept. The Maoist because it is just too democratic and too decentralised for their liking, and also because of a perception that forestry user groups across Nepal are UML-dominated. The Madhesi parties have seen the Tarai's hardwood forests as timber to be mined, and not as a natural resource to be conserved.

In recent months, forests in Dadeldhura, Sindhuli and Makwanpur, among others, that communities took decades to protect and nurture have been systematically logged. The culprits are either DFOs working in collusion with local gangs that enjoy political protection, forestry user groups infiltrated and corrupted by local businesses, or infrastructure projects that are forced through just so contractors can lay their hands on timber. All these factors have a common cause: the absence of accountable local-elected councils, the political disarray at the centre and state-sanctioned corruption corroding the community spirit.

The proposed legislation will undo in a few swift months what took 30 years to protect. It will weaken the power of community forestry user groups, and legitimise illegal logging across the land. It will further erode grassroots democracy, and profit a few local crooks at the cost of communities.

Nepal's community forests survived the war, now they are threatened by peace.

Source: Nepali Times

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