How we understand a forest shapes our management objectives, decisions and routine activities.What was the original goal of Nepal’s community forestry program? Why have forests in the Tarai and elsewhere adopted similar management methods irrespective of local conditions and needs?
Out definition of a forest seems to be restricted to having as many high value trees and medicinal plants as possible. There is rarely any attention paid to preserving biodiversity. The status of a forest does not just depend on a tree census, but past management of community sal forests focused mainly on maintaining or increasing tree density and cover. A ‘successful’ forest was one with increased density of sal, overlooking the forest as a complex ecosystem.
Preferential protection of sal is an outcome of our policies and worldview on forests that treats a forest only as an economic resource, not an ecological treasure. The result is promotion of only high value species, be it timber or herbs, and overlooks wider spectrum of forest ecosystem services.
Hariyo Ban Nepal ko Dhan was a popular slogan in Nepal’s forestry development in the 1980s. The word dhan ended up monetising forests. A new motto now is Ban Marfat Samriddi (prosperity through forests)and this is the thinking that has turned forests into a resource to be mined for timber.
Nepal’s decade-long scientific forest management initiative was finally abandoned last year, but not before it hailed regeneration density in logged areas as a success, even when it was found that the original forest had been replaced by sal saplings. Treated blocks were poorer in species diversity compared to the original forests.
The original conservation-oriented approach of forest management in community forests focused on retaining trees, and increasing crown and tree density. But the increase in density of the common most structural species was an outcome of the preferential protection by both Forest Department and user groups.
A native sal forest is truly diverse in its associated flora and fauna with at least three vertical layers of vegetation. The canopy later has the taller trees, medium-sized trees make up the sub-canopy layer, and then there are shrubs and grasses in the forest floor which changes with the seasons.
In tropical forests, liana, vines and climbers make up another important component, with some of them woody, massive and long lived – mainly in sal riverine forests. Old growth trees also support orchids and ferns with some sal supporting as many as seven species of orchids. Some trees have up to four species of ferns.
Old growth forests are also rich habitats for birds, amphibians, reptiles and many insects like beetle and spiders. Old trees have cavities in the trunks and branches which shelter for animals like monitor lizards, owls, wood peckers, parrots and hornbills. Higher up in the food chain are the bigger mammals. Diversity in vegetation entails diversity in fauna as well.
Read also: Protecting Nepal’s forests from fires, Dev Narayan Mandal