KATHMANDU (AlertNet) - When Reshma Kunda talks about the land surrounding her village, her voice is full of reverence.
“Our mountains and forests are like our gods. They give us grass, wood for fuel, water, medicines and food - everything we need for our lives,” says the farmer who lives in Godavari Kunda village, about 15 km (10 miles) southeast of the Kathmandu valley. “In return, we owe them protection (and must) keep them safe for future generations.”
Other residents of Godavari Kunda agree. They are part of a movement that has seen local communities across Nepal take charge of forest management - conserving and restoring woodland to mitigate the effects of climate change. At the same time, they are receiving sustainable economic benefits.
Today, a quarter of Nepal’s forests are managed by nearly 20,000 community forest user groups (CFUGs), the first of which were established by non-governmental organisations in the 1980s.
The Nepalese government helped replicate the pioneering programme in areas where deforestation was taking place. Now more than a third of the population is now involved in the groups, which collectively manage 1.1 million hectares (2.7 million acres) of public land.
Supporters say the groups, supported by government policies and legislation, have led to a marked improvement in the size and density of forests, and have enhanced soil and water management.
For 35-year-old livestock farmer Hari Maya, forest conservation is a spiritual duty but it has a practical side too.
“Our subsistence depends on our livestock which graze on the leaves and grass of the forests, and the water these mountains send down,” she said, leaning against a tree outside her home in Godavari Kunda. “Clearing the forests means the death of our livestock. It means poverty and hunger for us.”
FROM SCRUBLAND TO LUSH FOREST
The village, which stretches across 150 hectares (360 acres), is located in a lush forest area popular with tourists for its picturesque view of the Phulchowki watershed forests of the Himalayas.
The sub-tropical forest around the village is known for its unique bird species, over 500 types of flowering plants and other wildlife.
But residents recall that, until 20 years ago, most of the area around Godavari Kunda had been reduced to scrubland because of unchecked logging, unsustainable grazing practices and sporadic forest fires.
In 1993, the Danish International Development Agency and the Lalitpur district forest office helped set up a Community Forest User Group in Godavari so that community members could play a part in protecting and restoring their forest resources.
Since then, the forest around the village has gradually returned to its former density, and is now made up largely of several species of broadleaf trees that had previously vanished altogether in the region.
The user-group committee oversees management of the village forest, and represents 120 households, each contributing an annual membership fee of 100 Nepalese rupees ($1.25).
Ganesh Bahadur Silwal, 65, the committee’s general secretary, explained that the money pays the wages of forest guards, and helps finance projects such as a local school.
From October to February, villagers help thin and prune the trees. During that period, they are permitted to collect firewood and timber for roof construction.
Between October and April, they can also gather fodder from the forest borders to feed their livestock, and leaf litter for livestock bedding and compost, said Rama Chettri, vice-president of the committee.
Limits are imposed on the amount of wood that can be gathered. Some households that previously relied on selling firewood have complained they can no longer generate enough income from their allowance, forcing them to seek jobs closer to Kathmandu.
But revival of the forest has yielded other economic opportunities for the Godavari Kunda community, according to Silwal.
The group, for instance, auctions an annual lease to run a popular tourist picnic site, receiving about 65,000 rupees ($810) annually as a result, Silwal said.
The funds help pay for forest patrols, road improvements and bursaries for poorer schoolchildren, as well as covering the user group’s management costs, he added.
POWER TO LOCAL PEOPLE
Samden Sherpa, who manages an information and training centre in Godavari Kunda village backed by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), said that tailoring approaches to local contexts helps promote both conservation and development of forest resources.
“A common outcome of strengthening local organisations, such as Godavari CFUG, is that they help empower local communities, build up a sense of ownership of natural resources, and open up new channels of communication between local people and decision makers,” said Sherpa.
ICIMOD, a non-profit organisation, promotes community-based forest management in Asian countries including Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines and Vietnam. In Nepal, it helps CFUGs with forest management techniques, and offers training on medicinal plants and alternative energy sources.
“The interventions have proven to be unprecedentedly important for Godavari’s economic development and the implementation of essential climate change mitigation and adaptation practices,” Sherpa said.
These include water conservation techniques, renewable energy systems, alternative livelihood plans, and efficient technologies to burn fuel and agricultural waste for cooking and other purposes, according to Sherpa.
ICIMOD’s deputy director general, Madhav Karki, said the community-based approach is an efficient, effective and sustainable way of managing forests.
In countries with degraded forests, it involves four key elements: secure land tenure; state-level policy support; technical and institutional capacity building; and good coordination between sectors.
When implemented properly, it can improve both forest quality and local governance, while reducing poverty thanks to creating reliable income from forest products, Karki added.
Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are climate change and development reporters based in Karachi, Pakistan. This story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.