Salvaging Nepal’s Silviculture
Nepal is the second richest country in South Asia in terms of proportionate area of forest. However, till date forests have grossly underserved the society. The popular narrative of 'Hario ban, Nepal ko dhan' has proved wrong.
Last year, a study supported by the Finish government showed that Nepal’s forest area has increased to 44.7% of the country (a 5.15% increase in the last 21 years). This is indeed a good news, but what meaning does this hold when we still struggle for basic livelihoods security for millions of people? For a poor country with limited industrial activities, and with about 2,000 youths leaving the country for jobs every day, the largest public asset has delivered too little to the society.
While Nepal’s tumultuous politics is the main reason for the lack of progress in every sector including the forestry, an equally serious reason is the problematic framing and application of forest science and silvicultural technology. Since the establishment of Ban Janch Adda in 1934, a protectionist mindset is dominant in the forest sector. Nurtured by the colonial power, this western worldview of keeping forest out of use, or at the best-managing forest for timber, underpins the failure in harnessing the potential of this vast resource. Nepal’s forests could have generated jobs to millions of desperate youths, but the entire system of forest governance remains de-linked from the massive economic and livelihoods crisis Nepalis are facing.
Besides limited technological development, forest ownership and tenure regimes have also remained not too conducive to innovation in forest management. Much of the forest in the country is government-owned, and the official strategy has always been to ‘preserve’ and not manage forests. Over the years, part of the national forest has been brought under community management as community forestry, but little has been achieved in terms of improving people’s lives. The same ideology of protectionist management prevails in community forestry system too. Much has been written about political centralization and bureaucratic control over forestry, which is a global problem in forest governance. In addition to this, what concerns me in Nepal’s case is the lack of creativity and innovation in the science and technology field. People blame politics as the problem, but in many situations, important social and technological innovations have happened even when the policy environment is not that enabling. Just recall the way community forestry itself started in the early 80s in Nepal, without a priori policy in place.
Imposing scientific generalities
The tendency to adopt and impose scientific generalities is a key barrier to innovation. Forest management is guided by generic principles--acquired from the Western science of forestry--without adequate ‘contextualisation’ in Nepal. Do not get me wrong--I strongly believe in the science of forestry and its established principles. What I am skeptical about is applying these principles mechanistically without an attempt to adapt to the specific context. Let me illustrate how I learned this through my own experiences as a forester. Several years ago, I was advising a community forest user group that had a dense pole size plantation forest of Utis in the eastern hills of the country. Together with community leaders, I assessed the forest density. From the standard silvicultural lens, I could easily notice that the pole size trees were extraordinarily dense. As an expert, I suggested the group cut several trees (heavy thinning) so that there is enough growing space for the remaining trees. The community leaders did not accept my expert advice. They said, “If we cut so many trees this year, we will not have enough to cut next year, and this will create the problem of fuelwood shortage in our community. So we will cut only a few poles this year so that we will have some left for several years.”
It took me a while to explore how their vision could fit with my understanding of forestry. My view was rooted in the generic principle of silviculture that I learned at university. What I had learned was that when there are too many trees, they cannot grow well, and as a result, timber yield will surely be compromised. Clearly, I was imposing timber production goal, while villagers had a mix of timber and fuelwood objectives. Besides, villagers were careful in ensuring a steady supply of fuelwood over time, and they were happy to trade off some quality and quantity of timber to be produced at the end. Their strategy reflected a delicate balance of intermediate fuelwood needs and ultimate timber demand. I was aware that in silviculture, there is also a principle that enhances firewood production. However, the community strategy fits neither with timber and firewood silviculture I learned. As far as I know, it is not common in Nepal to find a procedure in silviculture that considers such unique sets of community needs across a span of time, whilst also optimizes the net benefits at the end.
In a case of an even more radical imposition of scientific generalities, I recall a training session some years back in which a forester was teaching villagers on how to decide how many trees to cut in a forest stand. He suggested a formula, “Measure the girth of the trees, multiply by sixteen and measure that distance between the two trees; this is the distance between the trees to be retained while thinning trees.” What a universal formula! If all the communities in the country are given this training and are compelled to apply the formula, then all community forests of Nepal would look perfectly similar after some years, irrespective of species, community needs, and environmental conditions. In this and many other practices of forest science and silvicultural technology development, we are cultivating ‘monocultures of mind’, to use Vandana Shiva’s phrase. What we need to recognize instead is that not only every forest ecosystem is unique, but that each community managing it has specific sets of goals and expectations from the forest. However, studies show that management plans of community forests are too often exact duplicates, which means that there is little consideration of such diversity across forest and community needs while developing the management plan.
Thinking beyond the box
Besides timber, Nepal’s nearly 700 medicinal plants have commercial value, yet their silvicultural technologies are developing at snail’s pace. Again, sporadic attempts of generating species-specific silviculture are not adequate, unless ecosystem-based strategies are developed for different ecoregions. Under changing the climate, forests’ role in carbon sequestration has become prominent, and we do not know a silvicultural technology through which carbon and fodder can be optimized in the same forest stand. On the adaptation side of the climate change challenge, forests’ role has become even more important in water conservation, but hardly there are any efforts to generate water oriented silvicultural solutions. Research shows that a protected forest is not necessarily the best land use for water yield. Discussions on whether and how a forest can contribute to water yield still remain limited in Nepal. Just take the case of Dhulikhel forest - it is very well protected without any consideration into how the forest is impacting water conservation. Dhulikhel residents have tapped water from a source 12 kilometers away, but no advice has been given on how local forested watershed can be modified for augmenting water yield.
For long forests have been seen as a component of a farming system that supports livelihoods, at least in the hills of the country. But agriculture and forestry continue to remain isolated from the state system to the local community level. Forest technology is not being developed to cater to the commercial farming needs of rural people. For example, in a forest user group with a pole stage Sal forest in Dhading district, fellow foresters (as I did in the above case of Utis) prescribed timber-oriented thinning. Because of easy road access to Kathmandu valley, many of the smallholder farmers in the area cultivate cash crops such as beans, cucumber, and others, all of which need small supporting sticks. Before the establishment of the forest user group, the forest was de facto open access and farmers could collect sticks for their vegetables without any restrictions. But now, the local leaders and the technical forestry staff developed a forest management plan, which prescribes clearing of all bushes in the Sal forest. When the bushes were cleared, the forest has become a clean monoculture of Sal trees. In effect, a large majority of the smallholders who were trying to maximize the production through cash crops had no supply of the small sticks from the community forest.
Even in community forestry with a clear plan for timber-oriented management, the problem of protectionism persists. You may like to take a look at a piece discussing the lack of cutting in over mature pine plantations (see The problem of not cutting trees, Setopati). In that case, the basic scientific wisdom of silviculture is taken hostage by power, fear and the lack of willingness to act, on the part of all involved. All of these examples illustrate how silvicultural wisdom has become fixated with timber or a firewood products, nurtured through the lens of professionals trained on reductionist and disengaged scientific method. This paradigm needs to change.
Reframing the silvicultural paradigm
One important step towards harnessing the potential of Nepal’s forestry to the society is to invest in reframing the current silvicultural paradigm, that responds to social needs, adapts global science to Nepali context, and fosters an open and deliberative learning. There is an urgent need to silvicultural innovations, embracing the idea of reflexivity, adaptiveness and deliberative practice, which I explain here. First, we need new breeds of silviculturists who can act as reflective practitioners (just like Donald Schon’s ‘Reflective Practitioners’ in organizational management contexts). Silviculturists should be able to transcend the current education system which teaches how to conduct an experiment on the forest, without offering clues on how the person involved in the work can harness the power of his or her own reflexivity, in any professional practice in clouding forestry. Second, the science of silviculture has to be adaptive, with its principles always being subjected to the specific contexts of application (and a silvicultural theory is simply a guide and not a blueprint). Adaptation requires a reflective capacity to iterate between principles and practice in the specific context of forest management. Third, the new paradigm of silviculture needs deliberative spaces for co-learning and co-production of the technology, by bringing different purposes and world views into planning and management. All of these together could help managing forests as complex adaptive systems for a range of products and services, and also attend to the risks of climate, now and in the future. To stimulate this approach, an autonomous public agency could be created at national (and provincial level) to facilitate the community of research, practice, and innovation. At a local level, community silviculture schools could also be promoted.
Dr. Ojha is an expert on forest governance associated with the University of New South Wales. He is also the Editor of Elsevier Journal of Forest Policy and Economics.