Nepal: Forestry and agriculture and the story of their fake divorce

While many Nepali subsistence farmers happily combine forestry and agriculture on their land, there is little integration between the two sectors in the country’s policy and administration.

Two rice terraces with a small forest growing between them in Nepal.

Subsistence farmers have traditionally happily married forestry and agricultural practices on their land, and have done so for generations. Fragmented forest plots on the edges of farms have provided farmers with commodities, such as fuel wood, timber and fodder, and the standing trees conserve biodiversity, control erosion and consume carbon dioxide. In fact, according to these FAO statistics, forests supply about 90% of the total fuel wood used and more than 50% of the fodder used to feed livestock, such as buffalo.  

Agroforestry is the mainstay of the country’s economy with agriculture and forestry together contributing 32 per cent of the country’s total gross domestic product. Nearly 80 per cent of rural Nepalese households depend on subsistence farming for their livelihoods.

In rural areas livestock-rearing, forest product collection and agriculture go hand in hand. Yet, despite this ancient, obvious and economically-important connection between forests and agriculture, there is little integration between the two sectors in the country’s policy practice, and in most donors’ interventions. Nepal is in the process of crafting two new separate strategies, one for the agricultural sector and one for the forestry sector. The administrative arrangements and policies tell a story of a divorce between the two sectors that is not reflected by the reality on the ground.

Where did this divorce come from? When did administrators stop considering subsistence farming as an interconnected, integrated production system that comprises growing crops, raising livestock and sustainably managing forests?

Misconceptions on key causes of deforestation

A mix of factors contributed to create this misconception. In the early 80s subsistence farming, the production of wood fuel and population growth were identified as the main drivers of deforestation. Most policy makers and donor agencies still see subsistence farming as one of the major threats to healthy and thriving forests.

However this misconception is not backed up by recent global research. A study has shown that commercial actors, producing goods to supply international commodity markets and growing cities, have become the real main drivers of deforestation (DeFries et al. 2010, Boucher et al. 2011. See endnote for full reference).  

Deforestation statistics help to clarify things. Nepal is divided into three main ecological zones: mountains, foothills, lowland grasslands and savannah, called the Terai. Most of the country’s forests, which cover around 39.6% of the total geographical area of the country, are located in the foothills and the Terai.  

Major forest land losses have not occurred in the higher mountains or the foothills where most of Nepal’s subsistence farming takes place, but rather in the Terai. In fact,  the forested area in the foothills grew (up +1.8%) from 1965-80, while the forested lowland areas in the Siwaliks, a mountain range of the outer Himalayas, and the Terai experienced high levels of deforestation:  -15.1% and -24.4%, respectively.

The increase in forest cover in the foothills is mainly due to the sustainable management of forest resources promoted by Community Forestry schemes. Since the mid-1970s Community forestry has enjoyed a high profile success, improving local people’s rights to their forest resources, and in turn the health of forest ecosystems in Nepal. Currently, 68% of forested land is managed by Nepal’s Government while 32% is managed by communities. Over 18,000 Community Forest User Groups (CFUGs), (40% of the national population), manage 1.65 million hectares—benefiting almost 2 million households [PDF].

But major problems still remain. Between 1990 and 2005, Nepal lost 1.2 million hectares of forest representing about 25 percent of its total forest cover. Virtually all of Nepal’s forests have been thinned during the last 10-30 years.

Bridging the gap

The Forest and Farm Facility initiative (FFF), launched in January 2013, seeks to bridge the gap between the agricultural and forest sectors, not only in Nepal but also in four other pilot countries (Guatemala, Nicaragua, Myanmar and the Gambia). FFF aims to strengthen small producers groups and create networks of forest and farm-based rights-holders to create cross-sectoral alliances, improve people’s livelihoods and tackle deforestation through sustainable agroforestry management.

FFF intends to work in rural areas where household food insecurity and poor nutrition are major concerns, there is a willingness to actively participate in the project and agricultural and forest products (such as timber and fuelwood) are managed sustainably.

The mission of FFF is easily spelled out, but not as easily achieved. The discussions held during a workshop held in Kathmandu on 2-3 July have shown that the divorce between the agricultural and forestry sector is still rooted in the administrative system (both at national and local levels), land tenure arrangements, and in people’s minds. Participants found it challenging to envisage community forest user groups, small holder farmers, women’s groups and groups representing marginalised people, advocacy organisations, government officials and the private sector joining efforts and carrying out pilot case studies that could show the advantages of working together.

And yet all participants invited to the workshop agreed that such an initiative was crucial, especially in Nepal. Despite some progress in poverty reduction in the last twenty years, the country remains one of the poorest countries in the world. It’s placed 157th out of 187 countries listed in the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Report 2013. Participants also agreed that the agricultural sector is the key to the national economy, and the standard of living of the majority of the population depended on its development.

A new 10-year national initiative, the Multi Stakeholder Forestry Programme (MFP), aims to reduce poverty and tackle climate change by working together with a range of groups who are connected to or use the forest (called stakeholders). It could help to solve some of the FFF implementation’s bottlenecks related to bringing together the different actors working in forest landscapes.

Over the last year the MFP has successfully tested a multi-stakeholder approach and has created forums where civil society, non-governmental organisations, communities and the private sector will work together towards improving the livelihoods of rural communities through forest-based activities. As the agricultural activities foreseen by MFP do not feature forestry strongly, FFF was asked to collaborate with the MFP and pilot some agroforestry projects together to address this gap.

At the end of the workshop a group of 16 participants from different organisations – including representatives from the private sector and marginalised groups – expressed their voluntary commitment to further discuss ways of delivering sustainable forest management through agroforestry.

The group will further develop some ideas flagged during the workshop, such as having three agroforestry pilot projects in each of Nepal’s three main ecological zones: mountains, foothills and the Terai. In each pilot site, the project would aim to develop an implementation plan involving the private and public sector, marginalized groups, smallholder farmers and community forest groups.

Perhaps once the activities are up and running, FFF will begin to move policymakers and administrators from divorcing the two sectors to telling stories of how an estranged husband and wife were happily reunited.

Endnote:  Defries, R.S., T. Rudel, M. Uriarte, and M. Hansen, 2010. Deforestation driven by urban population growth and agricultural trade in the twenty-first century. Nature Geoscience 3: 178-181. Boucher D., Elias P., Liniger K., May-Tobin C., Roquemore S., and Saxon E., 2011. The Root of the Problem, What's Driving Tropical Deforestation Today, Union of Concerned Scientists, Washington DC.

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