Societal honeycombing in forest governance: How does Nepal’s newly restructured state create resource conflict?

As federal political bureaucratic structure is a new experiment in Nepal, questions have been raised as to how it will impact efficiency in service delivery to people. The results are yet to be seen; however, we can anticipate outcomes based on early symptoms, which signal both positive and negative aspects. Both sides are to be analysed and course corrected, as this change is still a work in progress. Like all political projects, this federal restructuring is also to be taken as a process rather than an end in itself. Federal restructuring requires that existing resource governance and management system undergo reform and reorientation. These reforms will impact various sectors in different ways. The forestry sector is an example.

Honeycombing the forestry sector

Honeycombing is a term used in wood science that refers to a phenomenon in which numerous cracks and holes develop inside the trees and deteriorates the timber quality. It is caused by internal stresses developed due to sharp temperature difference inside the trees and outside environment. It is a worst form of timber defect as it is irreversible and cannot be detected by looking at the timber surface.

While state restructuring is underway, the similar phenomenon, which we call a ‘societal honeycombing’, has been noticed in the Nepali society and forestry interface.  In such interface, institutional stresses are developed at different government levels and communities because of sharp different perceptions and mutually exclusive claims regarding their authorities, responsibilities and rights in managing and benefiting from forests. But, these stresses are not apparently visible to the surface.

If this societal honeycombing is not detected and corrected timely, it will cause, like in wood, irreversible damage in the governance of forestry sector. This will lead to unsustainable management of forests and seriously undermine the social and economic contributions of the forestry sector to the country’s benefits.

If honeycombing, in technical sense, is a defect damaging the quality of the wood, the societal honeycombing is an institutional ‘defect’ damaging the socioeconomic potential of forestry sector. Such institutional disputes have developed in forestry sector as the federal restructuring of the state has led to a situation where forest authorities, local governments and communities exercise overlapping claims over the ownership and control of forests resources. Like honeycombing defect in timber, societal honeycombing has put competing organisations into checkmate and has started to seriously impact proper management of forests. Understanding this impasse is crucial in the present day context in which centralised nature of state has been federated, and prosperity has become a central piece of social and political goal.

Forestry has been considered as a most underutilised resource in Nepal. Even though it has a potential to generate large revenue, economic benefits have been suboptimal. There are even estimates which claim that Nepal can generate huge revenue from forest if properly managed that would potentially dwarf foreign aid. On the contrary, Nepal has become a net forest-product importing country. It now imports a large amount of timber from other countries like Indonesia and Malaysia.

The ‘societal honeycombing’ that has led to tensions between organisations has been prominent at two levels: local government versus forest bureaucracy, and local government versus communities. Such tensions are not only damaging the trust and cooperation between forestry stakeholders but also seriously undermining the potential contribution of the forestry sector to present political goal of ‘stability and prosperity’.

Local government versus forestry bureaucracy

After the new federal political setup, local governments, officially known as rural municipality (village bodies) and municipality (urban bodies),and forest authorities are engaged into a flagrant confrontation regarding their rights over forests. Local governments claim the ownership on and control over the forests located within their boundaries. Forest authority, however, asserts that local government is transcending their jurisdiction. Legal showdown between district forest office and local government is reported in Dhading district where district forest authority attempted a court case against chairperson of the village council. A similar conflict turned violent in Udayapur district, where forest official was thrashed in front of the elected local leaders.

Such incidents are not limited to local level. Reports have been widely covered in media when Chief Minister of Province One issued an order to suspend all forest management activities being jointly carried out by communities and forest office under ‘the scientific forest management’ programme. Following the Chief Minister’s order, district forest offices could not continue the forest management operations even though the federal Ministry of Forests granted permission to carry out the planned programmes. The provincial Forest Ministry was not responsive to the Forest Department’s request to uplift the ban on forestry activities. These incidents are just few examples that have begun to appear as a tip of the iceberg, and it is expected that this will continue to rise in coming days when provincial and local governments promulgate legislation governing forests and environmental management.

Local government versus communities

Actions of forest authorities and local governments seem to strategically rip off rights devolved to the communities to protect, manage and utilise their nearby forests. Local governments are envisioned in the Constitution of Nepal, 2015 and have now become functional after the local election 2017. These elected bodies believe that they have absolute right over the natural resources in their vicinity, including forests, and can regulate resource management on their own. They are issuing orders intending to dissolve community forestry groups and suspend their harvesting and distribution of timber and firewood. These decisions are not the informal set of orders. Rather they are taken in formal council assemblies aiming to establish rights over forests and also officially informed to district forest offices. We have had a chance to collect the official letters sent to communities by local governments to this effect.

Forest authority is also engaged in this game to extend its influence and control over the forest resources. Despite reports of longstanding attempt of forest authorities to disempower communities, they are not as visible as village council in stripping off the community rights. Their actions are subtler than those of local government representatives. Forest technicians, by training, want ‘technically sound’ forest management even if such technicality is unachievable through existing human resource availability and community’s capabilities. Inadvertently, such actions empower the forest bureaucracy and make communities hugely dependent and accountable to them. In similar other instances, forest authorities have attempted to taking back ‘community rights’ so as to strengthen their grip in governing the forest resources.

Consequences of societal honeycombing

The consequences of societal honeycombing in the institutional and policy design as brought about by the new federal setup seem far more damaging than that we initially anticipated. This has created disputes between institutions at different levels of governance and has become one of the worst forms of social tensions.

Experiences from around the world tell us that resource degradation is inevitable when stakeholders engage into conflict and tenure security of the resource owner is fragile.Whoever wins or loses in this battle, the sustainable management of forest and prospects of forestry in nation building will undoubtedly become unattainable. Communities are often the weakest actors in this institutional tug of war, and, therefore, will potentially be vulnerable to lose the rights previously devolved to them.

In the present state restructuring project, communities who have been lauded as stewards of resources like forest are gradually losing their autonomy and tenure right. The situation will be savagely unfair to the community forestry programme which became incredibly successful in restoring greenery and enhanced forest productivity even at times when state managed forestry was largely unsuccessful, and the country was at the brink of desertification. The resultant effect is self-evident – the contributions of forestry sector to local and national economy will be severely reduced and livelihoods of people will be constrained. The degradation of resources like forest, which also underpins people’s livelihood, will be unfortunate for a country like Nepal, which has no industrial base and is facing diminishing agricultural productivity.

Paudel is PhD Researcher, School of Social Sciences, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia and Adhikari is Adjunct Faculty, Curtin University, Perth, Australia.


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