Livelihoods in Nepal - No longer an uphill struggle
Handing over publicly-owned plots of degraded forest land to Nepal's poor may appear to be an empty gesture, but it is reversing environmental damage and improving livelihoods.
For centuries, Nepal's forests have provided fuel, food and fodder for nearby villages. But, by the late 1970s, the extent of forest destruction had reached crisis point, setting in motion a potentially cataclysmic chain of events: villagers, having to spend more time collecting firewood from the ever-shrinking forests, were reducing the availability of agricultural labour. Production slumped, food insecurity increased and lack of forest cover reduced soil fertility and brought about more frequent landslides. With villagers left with little option but to continue to exploit the dwindling forest resources, the situation went from bad to worse.
New leases of life
Enter the Nepali government and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). In a scheme now set to become a beacon for developing countries struggling to contain forest destruction, some of the poorest households in Nepal's Mid-Hills districts were offered 40-year leases on small plots of degraded forest. Initiated in 1992, the Hills Leasehold Forest and Forage Development Project has demonstrated that temporary "ownership" of the forests by landless or near-landless villagers can provide the incentive for regeneration of this precious resource.
The main thrust of the initiative was the banning of livestock grazing on the leasehold sites, with stall-feeding introduced to protect the forests. User Groups comprising between five and 15 households were established and supplied with livestock, fodder and forage. Higher household incomes from sales of goats, milk and fodder resulted in greater food security and improved nutrition. And school attendance increased as children spent less time herding and gathering fodder, while adults were able to spend more time tending crops and livestock.
Subsidised high-yielding grasses, legumes and fodder tree seedlings were also introduced with varying degrees of success. Improved breeds of goats and better access to veterinary services, community training programmes and subsidised agricultural credit also featured strongly in the programme, while infrastructural grants have helped communities build bridges and footpaths, renovate schools and establish drinking water facilities.
Spurred by its overall success, the initiative was introduced across a wider area in Nepal. By 2003, around 8500 ha of degraded forest land had been handed over to more than 13000 households and over 2000 leasehold forestry groups. The leases are initially for 40 years, and renewable for a further 40 years. The second phase of the project - the Leasehold Forestry and Livestock Program - is already underway, addressing issues of access to veterinary services and establishing microcredit schemes.
At a cost of around US$800 per Group, or US$1400 per hectare of degraded forest, the initiative has not been cheap to initiate, and there have been teething problems: frequent flouting of the grazing ban has affected some areas, and rapid regeneration of tree canopies and competition from unpalatable plants has hindered progress in some areas. Furthermore, some of the imported grass and tree species have been slow or unable to take hold, often due to variations in soil quality, terrain and altitude. The Nepalese government's Department of Forest and IFAD are now working to smooth out some of the problems.
The need for site-specific responses and the importance of local knowledge is likely to shape the future of leasehold forestry schemes in the region. Kati Manner, IFAD's Country Programme Manager for Nepal, said: "The performance of the programme varies across districts and communities. We have made good progress so far, but all the time we need to pay attention on the ground."
Spreading good news
With up to 1 million ha of degraded forest land, leasehold forestry is set to expand in Nepal. The scheme also has great potential in other Himalayan countries, and has the potential to be introduced in the forests of South America. Govinda Kafley, of the Department of Forest has seen the benefits of leasehold forestry in his own country: "Previously the poor people were seen as degrading the land," he said. "Now they're seen not as liabilities but as assets.The issue now is to tell this story to others."
Date published: March 2008
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