A participatory research project is developing more equitable forest management policies and practices with local communities in Nepal.

International research into sustainable forest management is improving livelihoods and food security in Nepal. The project is collaborating with community forestry user groups in the Middle Hills to enhance institutional arrangements, social equity and environmental conservation. Through initiatives, such as planning, governance, forestry management, business training and small-scale enterprises, the project is maximising returns for communities and their forests.

The Middle Hills, the foothills to the Himalayas, is home to 44% of Nepal’s population. More than two-thirds of those living in the region rely on a combination of agriculture and forest products for their livelihoods. 

“Poverty and inequality are significant challenges for the region, with many living at subsistence levels,” says Associate Professor Krishna K. Shrestha from UNSW’s School of Social Sciences, one of the project’s chief investigators.

“Adopting more active and equitable forest management (AEFM) can positively impact food security, health, wealth and education.” The environmental and development geographer is himself the son of a farmer from an Indigenous Newar in rural Nepal. A government forester as one of his first jobs, the research has personal resonance for him.

The second of two five-year projects, Enhancing Livelihoods though Improved Forest Management in Nepal (EnLiFT2), is funded through the federal government’s Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR). It extends the partnership between the Government of Nepal’s Forest Research and Training Centre and Department of Forest and Soil Conservation, ForestAction Nepal, the Nepal Agroforestry Foundation, Centre for Forest and People, the University of Adelaide, UNSW Sydney and University of Canberra that dates back to 2013.

The project uses social science research and inclusive planning to reform community forest governance in partnership with national and sub-national officials and community forestry groups. The team engages with community forestry user groups and households as well as many not-for-profit organisations.

“We’re working from a socio-ecological as well as a forest management perspective to ensure efforts target community priorities and reflect community values,” A/Prof. Shrestha says. The focus is on building trust and confidence, “by listening and building research based on their needs, ambitions, and limitations,” he says.

In addition to practical forest management documented through action research, the team carries out stakeholder interviews and focus groups, including with Nepal’s diverse Indigenous groups (who make up 36% of the population) and local communities, and examines existing and historical literature and archival records.

A third of the country’s forest lands are managed by community groups. In 1978, the Government of Nepal recognised villagers’ rights to maintain their forests, resulting in one of the most progressive examples of decentralised forest management, he says. However, inequitable planning and governance along with passive forest management has meant community forests and agricultural systems have not achieved their potential.

Dr Naya Sharma Paudel who is the Executive Director of ForestAction Nepal and the Nepal country leader for this project says this work is particularly impactful for local timber supply, responding to inefficient processing, as well as complexities along the value chain. These can mean timber imported from Indonesia and Africa can cost almost half as much (around 3-4,000 rupees/cubic foot) as locally grown Sal (Shorea robusta) timber (around 6,000 rupees/cubic foot).  

“Introducing silviculture, or science-based forest management, alongside existing local and Indigenous conservation and use practices is helping communities create more market-responsive systems suitable for commercial harvesting,” A/Professor Shrestha says.

Accelerating the trees at a landscape scale is also important for climate change and extreme weather events, the research says. AEFM helps restore forest degradation and soil erosion caused by unregulated land clearing, increases in population and improve forestry’s environmental impact, he says.

Promoting cultural change through co-design

The first phase of the research project, the Enhancing Food Security and Livelihoods though Agroforestry and Community Forestry in Nepal project, worked with 300 participant farms and 30 community forest user groups across six village sites in the districts of Kavre Palanchok and Lamjung. The project sought to improve agroforestry systems and find practical, profitable alternatives for under-utilised land.

The project ran silvicultural demonstration plots and field days that allowed community forest groups to participate in more active and sustainable tree harvesting. These had significant impact in changing Nepalese cultural attitudes to silviculture techniques, A/Prof. Shrestha says. “The trial plots’ success disproved the widespread belief that cutting down trees was detrimental to forest health.” 

The research team also appraised the agroforestry market chain and coordinated training for farmers to develop value-added business models. These workshop interactions enabled them to document barriers to commercialisation of community agroforestry.

“We established a dialogue with farmers and local communities to better understand the links between regulation, institutions, and community forest planning,” A/Prof. Shrestha says. “This improved relationships with the private and public sectors.”

The project’s longitudinal co-design model is key to establishing trust and recognition, he says. “We’re providing a different cultural practice of research where people don't see the researchers coming in and visiting them as tourists. They see them, as part of themselves, [standing together and] trying to understand.”

The project faced considerable obstacles. In 2015, a 7.3 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal, regarded as the worst natural disaster in Nepal since 1934; the project also weathered a protracted fuel blockade, and widespread drought in 2015/16, he says.

However, it successfully demonstrated the value and relative ease of combining scientifically informed and locally accepted forest management practices. In 2018, the second phase of the project started by scaling up activities from plot-level to local government, cluster-level and whole-forest management with the current project. 

Establishing pro-poor small-scale forest entrepreneurship

Developing local entrepreneurial skills through training gives communities the confidence to move away from a subsistence-based harvest model, A/Prof. Shrestha says. The project has created new opportunities for more gender-inclusive forest management, he says.

“Women’s cooperatives are growing high-value, low-maintenance cash crops, such as cardamom, on the forest floors. This has made a significant difference to their ability to support their families and start their own enterprises.”

Additionally, a sawmill, a community-private partnership reactivated through the project, provided 330 local households with sawn timber for house reconstruction following the 2015 earthquake. This is significant because, as late as 2015, Nepal was still relying on importing around 5 million cft timber yearly, even though half its forests could generate far in excess of this (60-120 million cft/annum timber), he says.

Profits from harvested timber continue to contribute through a community development fund that helps the poorest people, women, Dalits, as well as funding upgrades to local infrastructure, such as improved roads and a drinking water system. 

Informing policy through local perspectives

The project brings diverse stakeholders into conversation through facilitated and informal workshops to improve community planning, policy and governance frameworks.

“We try to help the government, bureaucracy and politicians understand the problems better, personally, from the perspective of the local people impacted by their decisions … [and this includes] bringing the Indigenous knowledge into the public,” he says. “I have a deep appreciation and passion for that.”

Policymakers visited demonstration sites, encouraging open dialogue between political decisionmakers, researchers, practitioners, communities and their federations about the problems and prospects of forest management, he says.

A crucial outcome of these visits was recognising Nepal’s knowledge gap in silviculture-based management, galvanising the team to substantially contribute to the first National Silviculture Workshop in Nepal.

The project also runs innovative Planning and Policy Labs to engage senior officials and community stakeholders to influence practice and policy change. Participants have included the Ministry of Forest and Environment, the Department of Forest and Soil Conservation, the Division Forest Office, the Federation of Community Forest Users Nepal, and media. 

“We engage with the diversity of communities… We try to bridge, we try to connect their knowledge and needs with the different layers of decisionmakers,” A/Prof. Shrestha says. “The role of the research becomes to facilitate the discussion.”

The labs have helped to reform policy and regulatory arrangements favouring community-based and market-oriented forest management, he says. The team is currently working with the three tiers of the governments.

“The project is committed to improving legal and regulatory frameworks aimed at institutionalising federalism in forest governance and strengthening livelihoods, expanding employment, and addressing gender equity issues in community forest decision-making and benefit-sharing,” Dr Paudel of Forest Action Nepal says.

To generate real-world change with these communities is a commitment and passion for A/Prof. Shrestha. When he decided to leave his village to study, “the whole community supported me. I was the very first to go to university. And every time I go there, we celebrate like never before…

“Indigenous and local communities are invaluable partners and groups to work with. There are so many opportunities to learn from them. It’s about making a real community engagement and impact. That is what I’m committed to.”

Images: Supplied.

This article was originally published in 2022.

Written by Kay Harrison
Associate Professor in Development Studies Krishna Shrestha
Associate Professor in Development Studies