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PERSEVERANCE – Out of poverty, and towards changing forest policies

Kaushal Shrestha and Lorina Sthapit, IFAD Nepal

Leasehold forestry (LF) is a unique property rights regime that enables poor and food insecure households to gain access to degraded forestland on a 40-year renewable lease, and thereby generate income from forest products, livestock, and ecosystem services. The programme first began in 1992 with the IFAD funded Hills Leasehold Forestry and Forage Development Project (HLFFDP), and now continues in the form of Leasehold Forestry and Livestock Programme (LFLP) under the Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation.

In mid-June 2014, a Regional Workshop on Pro-Poor LF was organised in Kathmandu. With the goal of encouraging productive discussions on the future of LF in Nepal, participants from the demand as well as supply side were invited to the workshop, including representatives of Leasehold Forest User Groups (LFUGs) from several districts, officials of line ministries, regional and district officers, and members of LFLP, FAO and IFAD.

Among the participants was 48-year-old Saraswoti Tamang, Chairperson of the Ramanthali LFUG in Makwanpur District, charged with a mission of her own.

  “We may not have guns and khukuris[1],but we have our unity to fight with,” she ignited the otherwise calm atmosphere at the all-male roundtableof national policy makers. “If you do not resolve the buffer zone issue, and renew our forest lease, we will come to each of your offices with our delegation.”

As the Chairperson of her LFUG, Saraswoti had come to the Regional Workshop on Pro-Poor LF in Kathmandu with the clear intent of voicing her group’s problems and provoking response from the people in power.

Under the National Park and Wildlife Conservation Act 1973, their leasehold forest was declared an ecological buffer zone under Parsa Wildlife Reserve in 1999. However, the current Buffer Zone Regulations do not recognise leasehold forestry, thereby restricting activities and crippling their livelihoods that have depended on forest products for the past two decades under both HLFFDP and LFLP.

“Before we used to cut trees every other day – one tree down in one hour. Now the forest is our life,” said Saraswoti. “The trees are like our children, and we know how to take good care of them. But if we cannot utilize the forests we tirelessly nurtured, what is the worth of our hard work?” she directed her piercing questions at the District Forest Officers present.

Such confidence to challenge authorities is rare even among rural men in Nepal, making Saraswoti an exceptionally empowered leader in a country where women are rarely considered key actors. But she has come a long way from Ramanthali to Kathmandu – from landless to a forest steward, from a day labourer to an entrepreneur, and from a wary housebound wife to a strong leading woman.

“We couldn’t sleep at all,” Saraswoti reminisces the night before she and her group members received the leasehold forest in 1993. “Having a plot of land to earn from was an impossible dream. And it was somehow coming true!” she chuckled, as if reliving those moments all over again.  

Back then, most members of the Ramanthali LFUG, including Saraswoti, lived on less than one US dollar a day. They did not own a house, did not have land for farming, and did not own livestock. They depended on daily wages as labourers. Today, however, their incomes come from various leasehold forest products like livestock forage, grass seeds, broom grass and eucalyptus. Every year, households manage to earn up to NPR 16,000 by selling stylo seeds, and around NPR 15,000 selling brooms. The forest also provides nutritious feed for livestock, making it possible to sell at least three goats each year for about NPR 12,000.

“Mobilizing funds has been much easier now,” said Gunmaya Tamang, also a member of Ramanthali LFUG. “Before, the banks refused to provide loans, and the middlemen charged high interests. But with LFLP’s support, we now know the benefits of group mobilization, and the value of savings and credit.”

With the signing of the lease, and through several trainings and workshops provided by the Programme, they stepped out of poverty, and more. Saraswoti was able to buy 2 kattha (0.07 hectares) of land where she has built a house, grows vegetables, and houses her livestock. Gunmaya Tamang, on the other hand, is proud to be able to send her children to better schools.

But their journey towards a better life was not without struggles. As an all-women group in a male-dominated society, they had to fight to keep their forests safe. Pestered by men who would steal from their forests and even threaten to burn it, they guarded the forests on countless nights. They even had to struggle for 8 long years against the understaffed and ever-rotating district offices to have their 5-year operational plan renewed.

And today, they continue to persevere. They have been regularly visiting government offices, desperately trying to reform the Buffer Zone Regulations to allow leasehold forestry activities. Currently, 330 hectares of leasehold forests provided to 85 LFUGs have beendeclared as ecological buffer zones. Therefore, their struggles to improve Nepal’s forestry policies, to be inclusive and supportive of vulnerable rural communities, will impact the lives of not just their group, but of many others as well.

“We are grateful to the government for starting this programme. They inspired us to fight for our rights. They inspired us to fight for what is right. And we will do exactly that, until we make sure our grandchildren have a better chance at a better life.”

A traditional Nepalese knife, used both as a tool and a weapon

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