All bark, all bite

  • 30/01/1995

All bark, all bite WHILE Indians hotly debate whether common folk can be entrusted with the management and control of their forest resources, local communities in several other developing countries are already entrenched in their idyllic fortresses. The results have been, to say the least, positive, even dramatic. In Nepal, village communities have been efficiently managing forests handed over to them in 1993. In some Central American countries, local women have struggled alongside their menfolk -- a no-nonsense equal participation in policymaking, planning and forestry management.
NEPAL: outside the Bastille In this pacifist mountain country, the Forest Act of 1993 decentralised forest management, once a state monopoly with sweeping, often tinpot dictatorial, powers for administrators. The act, almost radical in content, prioritises community forest management and other innovative participatory measures.

The Forest Act came as a gift of democracy -- nominal though it might be -- which was ushered into the Himalayan kingdom in the early '90s. "The community forest management in Nepal is an integral part of the democratisation of the country," affirms a World Resource Institute (WRI) paper, Handing It Over, by Kirk Talbott of WRI and Shantham Khadka of Leaders, a Nepalese NGO.

King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev had to terminate the partyless, centralised system of government in April 1990 following a countrywide mass movement for democracy; after a bruising public hue and cry, a new constitution and elections followed. In 1993, legislation that delineated the new mode of local selfgovernment gave considerable authority and responsibility to local communities. Forestry became one such responsibility. The Forest Act of 1993 mandated "the hand-over of community forests" to local user groups.

The act, along with its bylaws, outlined a functional approach to forest management. Under the act, each community recognises its forest user group by consensus. Each group applies to the district forest officer (DFO) for management responsibility of a particular part of forest land, and submits a comprehensive "operational plan". The operational plan delineates the proposed boundaries, access and usage rules, enforcement mechanisms and decisionmaking guidelines. The act makes it mandatory for the user groups to annually report to the DFO, but gives the group the wherewithal to revise the plan.

Community forests may be reverted to the government only under special circumstances -- such as when the user group fails to implement the operational plan or violates the Forest Act. If any community objects to the DFO's decision to abrogate its rights, it can complain to the regional director, whose decision is binding and final. These measures gave a lot of confidence to local communities and went a long way in turning them into effective executive bodies.

But despite its trendsetting progressive components, the act attracts criticism for certain lacunae, especially at its implementation stage. The critics argue that the act has not provided guidelines on the relationship between leasehold forests, private forests and the community forests which the government is now zealously promoting. This lapse, in large part, only protracts legal proceedings.

For instance, unlike in the case of leasehold forests, the users do not get land rights over community forests, only rights of management over the trees and the forest products. This legality leaves earthshaking questions hanging regarding the rights to branches separated from their parent tree or organic gunk that rots into compost. This may sound like bureaucratic sophistry of sacrosanct import, but for a simple farmer such natural resources are of prime importance.

Also, as the government gives priority to community management of forests over leasing them out, it becomes difficult for small cooperatives to obtain long-term leases over certain forests. Another drawback of the act is that only limited tenure rights are given under the community forest scheme, discouraging full-hearted participation by the peasants. The farmers would like to get rights over the forest land, too, and not just on the produce, as several WRI studies in developing countries -- including Securing Community-based Tenurial Rights in the Tropical Forests of Asia -- indicate.

There are operational problems, too. One of the greatest constraints, as pointed out by Talbott and Khadka, is bureaucratic resistance, especially from forest officials. "As in many developing countries, few government foresters in Nepal believe in the unqualified rights of local people to own or manage forest resources," they say. After all, traditional forestry training emphasises the role of an enforcer.

The Nepalese government is taking an initiative to rectify the shortcomings of the Forest Act by introducing amendments. The challenge now is to link the philosophy of decentralisation with community forestry initiatives.

Another major initiative in community forest management is incorporating traditional forest management systems, the value of which has been recognised worldwide.

The success of the traditional systems depends on how far they can work in concert with the government's new-fangled schemes, studies sponsored by Nepal's agriculture ministry reveal. For instance, at the Institute of Forestry Project in Pokhara, which is assisted by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), researchers who use traditional management systems have made substantial progress, says Sher Plunkett of USAID-Nepal.

Moreover, NGO activity in Nepal has soared after 1990, and over 4,000 of these organisations are currently registered in the country. Many of them, including those with a worldwide network, such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and CARE, now work in community forestry. Observers feel that many prominent Nepalese NGOs like the legally-oriented Leaders and the Nepal Law Society will play an increasingly significant role in environment and forestry policymaking.

Despite the constraints of both a complex geography and a democracy still finding its legs, the Himalayan nation has a solid support base for community efforts. The Nepal government is now accepting the efficacy of working closely with donor organisations, NGOs, and especially with the local people themselves.

CENTRAL AMERICA: gender equity
In Central American nations such as Nicaragua, the Honduras and El Salvador, the stress is on ensuring the equal participation of women in every aspect of forest management. Through an innovative process, women in the region are building on their grassroots experiences in forestry and agroforestry in collaboration with scientists and administrators. They even have a say in the tropical forestry action plan, referred to as TFAP, and other forest policies. "Gender equity in planning, policy and actions" is almost a sacred creed.

What consolidated the present efforts was a regional workshop in December 1992, organised by the Regional Gender Advisory Group in Forestry, TFAP of Central America, and the Nicaraguan Institute of Natural Resources.

Although impediments remain, the Central American experience provides relevant lessons to other regions, according to a WRI paper titled Engendering Central American Forestry Management, by Lori Ann Thrupp of the Centre for International Development and Environment and Arleen Mayorga of the Institute de Recursos Naturales de Nicaragua. "This gender strategy is working toward sustainable development," say Thrupp and Mayorga. The changes in forest management in the region were the outcome of collective, feminist-oriented alternative brainstorming on forests.

In Central America, half the ruralfolk still burn wood to cook and heat. Women are largely responsible for collecting fuelwood (see map) -- a scenario similar to Himachal Pradesh in India and the Congo in Africa.

According to a report, Women and Forest Resources, compiled by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the women in the region plant, transplant, protect and maintain trees. They also gather and manage forest produce like nuts, fruits, foliage, medicines and oils and put them to multiple uses -- including food, animal feed, health and, of course, income. The FAO notes that in many parts of the region, trees are integrated into subsistence farms and agroforestry systems, often maintained by women.

Thus, rural women have come to acquire information on various trees and their uses. Studies show that even illiterate Central American women are knowledgeable about the comparative merits of various trees for cooking, fuel and medicinal value.

Womanist initiative
The Central American women's initiative in forest management was activated by years of harrowing experience. As environmental stresses caused by commercial felling and clearance for agriculture -- predominantly male agressions -- grew, the work of rural women became tougher. The World Resources Report 1993 notes that in the '80s, deforestation continued at the rate of 400,000 ha per year. This huge loss of forest cover aggravated soil erosion and other forms of environmental degradation. Women from poor families suffered most as the forest resources dwindled. (In Panama, the Honduras and El Salvador, 22 per cent of the households are headed by women). Compounding it all were archaic bank policies that often favoured only men for loans.

The one recourse to managing these stresses that the Central American women discovered was forceful and better forest management. NGOs that promote and aid reforestation, nurseries, distribution of seedlings and agroforestry then began several projects to bail out the women.

"The emphasis is on wisely managing resources to fulfill basic needs, protect rights and build opportunities for the rural poor," says Mayorga. In these activities, the lead role, if not the major role, is played by women. For instance, in a Honduran Forest Development Agency women have clung on to the responsibility for setting up nurseries and supervising reforestation measures. In Costa Rica, women set up nurseries for Associacion Andar, an NGO. In Nicaragua, women professionals working in forestry formed a national advisory group, a lobby with no mean clout at their summons.

One of the key programmes in which Central American women have found a niche is the TFAP. Set up in 1985, PAFT aims to protect tropical forest resources. The establishing of its regional branch (TFAP-Central America) meant that the forest users had a say in planning and policymaking. What women's groups had to fight fang and claw for was a greater "political role". What followed was a framework for women's involvement in forest management.

A 1991 consultation meet on women's role in forestry plans held in San Salvador set up a Gender Advisory Group. Later, this group was called in to participate in the TFAP-CA International Roundtable in the Honduras. The group highlighted the women's grassroots experience, especially gender biases and the constraints they faced. Workshops on gender issues followed as a logical corollary.

Despite the spirited moves by the women, there are obstacles. A 1993 regional workshop on gender issues lists several hurdles: forestry projects often ignore the different role played by women; in community projects, women's special needs are often ignored; the technologies are designed mostly for men; and there is hardly any provision to train the women in forest management.

But, overall, there has been a change for the better. Now the governments of several Central American nations and TFAP are trying to adopt forest policies that emphasise the integration of women. Says Thrupp, "Women have unique insights and roles in this field, which can broaden and complement the perspectives of men."

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