Those who say they claim the forests

A researcher’s reflections of community-based forest governance in Nepal

those who say they claim the forests - shradha khadka - title image

Humans and forests have long shared a history that is intricate and, in many ways, intertwined with each other. Not only for basic sustenance and tangible means like food, fuel, materials, etc. but also as an energy source for intangible productiveness like inspirations, imagery, aesthetics, religion, culture and spirituality. Zelter (1998) goes as far as to explain that the value of forests are linked with one’s individual as well as collective identity, kindling a sense of belonging, going back to their roots, quite literally. Nonetheless, when compared, the tangible economic, developmental and political values of natural resources like forests far exceeds the nonphysical significance, bringing on the play of money, power and ownership.

Amaha Community Forest, Sunsari - those who claim the forest - shradha khadka researcher - centre for social change
Amaha Community Forest, Sunsari

Since long, conflicts over natural resources ensuing its access, control, and use vested by diverse set of actors and their interests has been an unescapable feature of most human societies (Matiru, 2000). Moreover, instances from around the globe are evidence that depending on the economic scope and magnitude of these resources, conflicts are prolonged and intensified with violence. However, it is imperative to understand that mere existence of forests is never the sole cause of violent conflicts, rather it is the expanding demands of forest product, exploitation of forest resources and systemic corruption exacerbated by poor governance, that fuel violence.

The good news-

In the case of Nepal, the models and practices of forest management has been closely linked to the political, economic and governance changes in the country, mostly adhering to a top-down approach in the entirety of the country’s governance history, especially before the adoption of a federal governance framework.  

A 2020 study says that the forest covers 44.74% of the total land area in Nepal and is linked to livelihood of 76% of the country’s total population[i]. In light of the statistics, it only makes sense that the people whose lives and livelihoods majorly depend on forest resources hold direct responsibility for its conservation too [ii]. Rightly so, community-based forest management in Nepal has about four decades of history and has been commended as one of the most successful democratic forest management approaches in Nepal [iii]. It is estimated that in Nepal, the communities are managing over one-third of the country’s forests, which is significantly higher than the estimated 6% of community-managed forests across Asia, Africa and Latin America [iv]. Experts say that in the past few decades, Nepal has risen as one of the leading exemplars of this participatory practice, as more than two million hectares forests in Nepal are administered under community-based forest management.

So far, community-based forest management sounds like all good news for Nepal. However, my recent research excursion with GMC Nepal on natural  resource governance in Nepal, gave me a peek at a different set of problems brewing underneath.  

The evolution and devolution of  power and ownership-

A historical examination of forest management practices in Nepal shows that rural, especially local and  indigenous communities have had long traditional practices of managing forest products, making rules, choosing leaders and allocating roles and responsibilities. However, a feudal and elitist era during the Rana regime (1846-1950) extremely limited people’s access to resources, claiming power over forests and almost all of the revenues generated from timber exports [v]. After the Regime’s downfall though, post 1951; a few from the Rana clans continued to self-claim their aristocratic dominion but the state’s monopoly on national forests gained prominence, reinforced by stricter terms of the Forest Act 1961 and Forest Protection Act 1967. This made way for forest conservation through government regulation, control and forbiddance of local use, giving powers to Department of Forest (DoF) to enforce legislation with use of armed guards [vi].

It wasn’t until the 1970’s and 80’s that after national and international critique of state-centric, or even pro-colonial frameworks, some decentralized alternatives to development approaches emerged, which brought changes in forestry legislations, especially  introduced between the fall of Rana regime (1950’s) and the Maoist movement (1990’s), like the enactment of Master Plan for Forestry Sector, 1989 and Forest Act 1993 and Forest Regulations 1995. Providing guidelines for community forestry programs, these policies marked a milestone in the course of forest governance in Nepal, but these changes were largely ad hoc in nature.

The community-based forest management approach aims to improve the supply of forest products, generate green employment, empower rural, especially disadvantaged and marginalized communities, and conserving and uplifting environment and biodiversity. So as much as environment and biodiversity are a part of the approach, humans and local lives are equally vital, but the actuality of its impact amid the structural and societal challenges have been futile and honestly, comes off as one-sided.

At present

At present, Nepal is in the 8th year since the adoption of a federal governance structure. One of the most optimistic prospects that arrived with this change was the establishment of seven provinces and 753 local governments, each with their own governing systems and the provision of exclusive and concurrent rights defined by the new constitution (2015). However, detrimental policy and institutional ambiguities that have increased potentials of natural resource conflicts in Nepal [vii].

Firstly, jurisdiction of forests fall under concurrent powers of local, provincial and national, i.e. all three tiers of government. Then after, the Local Government Operation Act (2017) provides the responsibility of environment and biodiversity conservation to the local government and the relevant national budget has also been allocated under local government’s terms but, the Ministry of Forest and Environment has not recognized such unit under local government since the organizational restructuring. Also, while community forest user groups are entitled to the benefits generated from community forests, natural resources are a major revenue source for local and provincial government too. This potentially creates pressure to over-exploit resources for revenue generation.

The greater jeopardy lies within the ambiguities between the forest governance models and facilitation of community forestry at the grassroots, but I observed that even among the stakeholders at the grassroots, power struggles within the forest user groups, women representation as practice of tokenisms, poor participation of marginalized groups in decision- making and lack of accountability in cases of exploitation of natural resources are some of the ongoing problems festering forest management in the larger picture.

The bigger picture

            The current federal structure faces challenges of its own amid the intergovernmental conflicts, ambiguities of roles and responsibilities and lack of conflict resolution mechanisms, and it is casting effects on all areas of governance, forest governance being one, and an important one at that. Also, not to forget the politicization of user groups that potentially influence the priorities of the local areas and of local lives. But vested interests of the people in leadership positions have influenced the fate of the forests in the 80’s and the 90’s too and also, there is the history of elites who had captured the rights over resources, depriving the locals of its benefits. I’d like to reiterate that the mere existence of forests do not cause conflict, rather it is the interests of multiple actors over its ownership and control that brews conflict and leads to overuse and exploitation of forests.

            As I observed an interaction among forest user group in Sunsari and the power struggles among themselves, I wondered if the answer to effective forest management really lies within the communities.

Forest user group’s dialogue, Sunsari

When they are the ones most dependent on the forest products for their livelihoods, their culture and their identity, they should be the most trusted ones, responsible for its conservation too. However, communities are not homogenous. Individuals differ in attitudes, values, empathy, perceptions and objectives. Especially, affiliation with political parties create greater leniency towards the party’s objectives rather than the local needs. Thus, community-based forestry, which was once an exemplar approach to forest conservation in Nepal is now facing multiple governance challenges which is opening avenues for illegal timber trades, wildlife smuggling, and encroachment of forest areas.  

Also, reciting the findings from the ongoing research that I am a  part of, just like the negative impacts of natural resource governance can have spillover effects in the forms of civil unrest and violent demonstrations, cooperation and peace among the multiple level of actors can also have positive spillover effects. Recognizing environmental peacebuilding as one of the  essential tools to address longstanding natural resource conflicts, the notion must be integrated in the interstate level governance strategies to foster peace, stability and sustainability.    

            Nonetheless, during the interaction, I caught murmurs that if there are alternative revenue generation opportunities, green jobs and adequate incentives for the local communities, conservation efforts will be taken seriously by the locals, especially if they target to foster synergetic community ownership of the resources and ensure that the needs of communities, especially of the most vulnerable groups are addressed. Thus, those who claim the conventional ownership of the forests must also adhere to effective and peaceful governance, by creating ample democratic spaces for dialogues among citizens and stakeholders, by increasing civic participation in decision-making processes, upholding human-nature symbiosis.

[i] Jha, S., Kafle, A., Puri, G., Huettmann, F.2020. Forestry Management in Nepal: An Example and a Review of Growth & Yield. In: Regmi, G., Huettmann, F. (eds) Hindu Kush-Himalaya Watersheds Downhill: Landscape Ecology and Conservation Perspectives. Springer, Cham

[ii] Refer to i

[iii] Ghimire, P. and Lamichhane, U. (2020). Community Based Forest Management in Nepal: Current

Status, Successes and Challenges. Grassroots Journal of Natural Resources, 3(2): 16-29.

[iv] Dahal, B. Joshi, R. Poudel B, Panta, M. 2021. Community Forestry Governance in Federal System of Nepal. Journal of Policy and Governance. The Grassroots Institute, Canada.

[v] Paudel, G. Carr, J. Munro, P.G.2022. Community forestry in Nepal: A Critical Review. Environment and Society Group, Faculty of Arts, Design and Architecture, The University of New South Wales, Kensington Campus, Sydney, Australia.

[vi] Pokharel, B.K., Branney, P, Nurse, M, Malla, Y.B. 2007. Community Forestry: Conserving Forests, Sustaining Livelihoods and Strengthening Democracy. Journal of Forest and Livelihood. Nepal Swiss Community Forest Project, Kathmandu.

[vii] Sharma, T. (2020). Federalism: Opportunities and challenges in context of Nepal and its relevancy to Democracy; Subedi, G. (2023). Intergovernmental Interaction in Federal Nepal and Challenges in the Transitional Period. INTELLIGENCE Journal of Multidisciplinary Research.


Matiru, V. 2000. Conflict and Natural Resource Management. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Zelter, A. 1998. Grassroots Campaigning for the World’s Forests. The Social Life of Trees: Anthropological Perspectives on Tree Symbolism. Berg, London