Despite the mountain of problems in this country, and the list of urgent to-do’s for the government, Nepal’s officialdom tends to get bogged down trying to fix things that ain’t broke.
In this edition of Nepali Times we carry two reports. One is of the unique eco-tourism conservation project in the Annapurnas that has become a model for other parts of the world. The other is Nepal’s successful effort in protecting forests over the last four decades by handing over their management to local communities.
Both success stories have some things in common: local communities owned the projects and made them an integral part of local development. They are also brilliant examples of grassroots democracy at work, where elected sub-local committees collectively decide what is best for the people, for nature and for the economy.
Who now owns Nepal’s forests?, Sonia Awale
Municipalities want to manage Annapurna, Yuvaraj Shrestha
These accomplishments of the post-1990 democratic era survived the NC-UML polarisation, ten years of war, kleptocratic coalitions, and the instability of the post-conflict decade. But now both are threatened by the utter confusion and disarray wrought by ill-thought out federalism.
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The Annapurna Conservation Area (ACA) project was conceived by naturalist gurus like Hemanta Mishra, Chandra Gurung and Mingma Sherpa. Nepal could not adopt the national park model because, as the most densely-populated mountain region in the world, its wilderness areas had villages embedded in them.
Mishra, Gurung and Sherpa came up with the novel idea of turning the Annapurna area into a model zone where nature could flourish in harmony with human habitation, indeed conservation could lift living standards of the inhabitants. Tourism income was ploughed into making households energy self-sufficient, in upgrading agro-forestry, replacing firewood in lodges, maintaining trails and building micro-hydro plants.
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The concept has worked brilliantly since 1985, retaining its main feature of conservation with a human face. The result can be seen in the lush regrowth of forests, the proliferation of wildlife, and in the relative affluence from tourism of villages in Manang, Mustang and Kaski.
But change is afoot. The Annapurna Circuit now has a motorable road up to Manang village on one side and to Muktinath on the other. The Annapurna Base Camp trail now exceeds its carrying capacity in the peak season, new trails like Khopra and Mardi struggle to cope with a new influx.
The other success story is Nepal’s community forestry exercise. It is a vivid example of how just one piece of legislation combined with grassroots democracy can directly help preserve the natural environment. The program nearly doubled the country’s forest cover in the last 40 years, and this was solely due to the dedication of the 22,000 local forest committees all over the country.
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But now, both the Annapurna Conservation Area and the community forestry project have collided head-on with Nepal’s new federal structure. There is utter confusion about who is going to manage projects like ACA and community forests: will it be rural municipalities, provincial governments, Singha Darbar, or all three?
The 16 rural municipalities in the Annapurnas have been on warpath for the past month, demanding that ACA hand over the project to them. They complain about tourism fees not being used in their villages, and strict rules about cutting trees, building roads and new hotels. The National Trust for Nature Conservation which manages ACA is under pressure to devolve its powers, but to whom?
A new Forestry Bill seeks to curtail the rights of the community forestry user groups to sell forestry products on their own. The Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal (FECOFUN) is up in arms, but in the absence of clarity about who owns and can manage forests, there is a danger that it will be free-for-all plunder.
With devolution of political power under the new federal structure, there has also been decentralisation of corruption. Since it is the same political parties at the village and provincial levels, the kleptocracy has trickled down to local governments. Instead of handing control of forest conservation to rural municipalities, it may be more prudent to retain sub-local user groups at the grassroots. Allowing forests to be ‘managed’ when corruption is so pervasive will open up protected areas to wholesale logging, as has happened with quarrying and sand-mining on river ecosystms.
Nepal cannot afford to squander its hard-earned gains in conservation by trying to fix something that is not broken. It will be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
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