Community-Managed Forestry and Food Security: Lessons from Nepal

On February 22, 2016:

Recent estimates show that more than one billion acres of tropical forests have disappeared in the last forty years, equivalent in size to more than half of the continental United States. Amid serious concerns over high rates of deforestation and its consequences, forest management issues have been at the forefront of development policy discussions around the world. While this led the Nepalese government to carry out community forestry (CF) initiatives, empirical evidence on equity and distributional benefits from community-managed forests is rather mixed.

The emergent need to undertake an empirical study on socioeconomic repercussions of community-managed forestry is especially relevant in the context of Nepal’s substantial shift in forest management policy over the years. In 1957, the Nepalese government nationalized all forests holdings of greater than three acres in the hilly and mountainous areas of the country. This led massive government revenues from timber exports and ultimately an increase in food production.

However, the government passed the Forest Act in 1993 to reduce deforestation and environmental degradation. The Act led to transfer accessible forestland from the national government to respective local communities through several forest user groups. Currently, forests cover almost forty percent of the country, one-fourth of which is comprised of community-managed forests. Recent statistical figures suggest that there are currently more than 14,000 community forest user groups (CFUGs) throughout Nepal, with some 159, 876 members and covering 1.2 million hectares of forest land.

Given that almost twenty percent of the forest cover in developing countries is currently reserved for community and indigenous groups, the global conservation community is increasingly concerned about the social welfare implications of community-managed forestry. More important, proponents claim that CF program interventions lower ecological degradation and enhance the supply of basic forest products for subsistence needs. Conversely, critics argue that community forestry in Nepal has been more successful in forest conservation than improving rural livelihoods.

Recent findings from Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) show that over 80 percent of rural Nepalese households rely on firewood for cooking. In addition, reports on the evolution of community forestry programs in Nepal have focused mostly on improvement in environmental quality. Specifically, satellite imageries demonstrate that community-based forest management in Nepal has resulted in more efficient use of forest resources, with a significant decline in the incidence of forest fires and the use of slash-and-burn agricultural practices.

Notably, forest use in Nepal is directly linked with food and energy needs of rural inhabitants, particularly the poor. Yet, there remains a dearth of rigorous empirical evidence on the socioeconomic impacts of CF initiatives in Nepal. Even though several qualitative studies have found positive effects of community forests in the middle hills of the country, anecdotal evidence suggests that forest products available from community-managed forests may not be equitably distributed among the forest users groups.

While policy makers laud the CF initiatives as pro-poor, opponents claim that tangible benefits from community-managed forestry programs are disproportionately higher for rich and elite groups relative to poor, marginalized groups. Recent research on the linkage between community-managed forest use and household welfare, however, demonstrates signs of optimism. Specifically, female-headed households and low caste groups appear to benefit more from reliance on community-managed forests than other population subgroups typically thought as possessing higher levels of social capital. Together, these new findings based on the Nepal Living Standards Survey (NLSS) highlight the creation of community-managed forests as an effective means of addressing food security that focuses the benefit on the most disadvantaged.

Unfortunately, poor migrants from the middle hills and internally displaced individuals are sometimes unable to afford the CFUG membership fees, allocated by the committees to account for efforts made by the existing members to further strengthen CFUG. Although still able to gain access to products from community-managed forests, non-members are potentially disadvantaged by having to pay higher prices. While this remains to be validated with documented evidence, potential spillovers with poorer households selectively moving out of villages on account of failure to acquire CFUG membership cannot be ruled out.

It is worth noting that community forestry activities have increased the ability of poorer households to generate a cash income, utilizing the resources offered by land provided in the community forests and soft loans from the community forestry user group funds. Moreover, substantial focus on sound governance has reportedly enabled the poor and socially excluded to raise their voices during discussions on forest management and community development.

In conclusion, one should be cautious when extrapolating from Nepal’s successful efforts to other developing countries, despite positive association between community-managed forests and improved socioeconomic outcomes. While the need for a more comprehensive study on the impact of community forestry on rural poverty persists, there is increasing evidence from numerous regions that forest products are particularly important to more vulnerable members of a community. Under these circumstances, community-managed forests can tremendously contribute to improved food security, specifically for women and low caste households.