The Giving Trees

Nepal’s thriving community forests have provided for rural communities for decades. Now, thanks to a new law, they are giving poor families a means to make a living.

After working across India for years, former migrant worker Jaya Ram Raila finally returned to his home in the small village of Patle, in Nepal’s northern Rasuwa district. It was the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic and he had few options for employment in the rural community. He also lacked enough land to follow his dream of starting an agribusiness, after selling his family property to make ends meet after a few lean years.

Patle, like many villages across Nepal, is surrounded by an expanse of community-owned and managed forest land. These forests are a critical part of the rural economy – providing sustainable sources of fodder and grazing land for local livestock, firewood and timber for buildings, as well as sources of medicinal herbs and other valuable products for harvest. But this wasn’t always the case.

In the mid-1990’s Nepal implemented an ambitious nationwide plan to reduce rampant deforestation and economic collapse by placing management of nearly all forest land plan in the hands of local Community Forest User Groups. Small villages like Patle saw their local forests grow healthy and expand. Revenues from timber harvest and other sources were used to fund community projects. Now, thanks to a recent amendment to the national Forest Act, these forests are giving back in new ways.

Lacking other options, Jaya Ram approached the Community Forest User Group and asked to use a small plot of community land to plant saplings of the cash crops timur (zanthoxylum armatum) and lauthsala (taxus mairei) for sale. Just a handful of months later, Jaya Ram has already partnered with nine of his neighbors to run a full-fledged farm on 5 hectares of community forest land.

Encouraged, he risked his remaining savings to purchase a small plot of land adjacent to the forest.

“I have planted 1,700 saplings of timur and lauth salla—1500 in my private land and 500 in community forest. Those saplings are my last hope,” he says.

But this is also a significant gamble, as both crops take at least four years to bear fruit. Timur, a Nepali cousin of the spicy szechuan pepper, is a bushy plant that can produce up to 50 kg of small peppercorns per year. Global demand for the product is rising, especially when distilled into a powerful oil. Lauthsala, or Marie’s Taxus, is a threatened species of the evergreen yew tree. The needles and bark are a source of the chemical taxol which is used in heart surgery and as an anti-cancer drug. The good news is that, once established, each of these woody plants will continue to provide income for the community for decades to come.

More and more women, ethnic and marginalized communities have started to claim their stake in community forests since Women Rights and Resource Network started to lobby to ensure women’s access to natural resources in Nepal.  Community Forest Users’ groups are allotting forest land to poor women.

In Sepedhand, a neighboring village of Patle, the women forest users’ group has secured six ropanis private forest land along with a small chunk of community forest areas to ensure collective rights in the community forest.

The umbrella Federation of Community Forest Users’ Nepal (FECOFUN) is working hard across the country to help thousands of farmers like Jay Ram gain access to public land. Their goal is to help marginalized farmers including women, ethnic minorities, and the ultra-poor secure rights to over 142,092 hectares of forest land in over 1,200 communities. Some other local governments are providing small incentives for each sapling planted.

Bharati Pathak, current chairperson of FECOFUN, hopes that they can take the process even one step further by giving legal certification to farmers like Jaya Ram. She told Everest Chronicle – “If those legal provisions were ensured in real practice, farmers could get loans from banks and financial institutions, ensuring they have even more economic power.”

Nepal’s community forest model has long been lauded as an international success story – but that didn’t mean much to migrant workers like Jaya Ram, until now. He hopes that as his saplings grow, he will finally be able to earn a decent living in his own community.