Nepal: space to debate, opportunities to act
A first visit to a country is often the time when we ‘see’ the most, and our recent brief visit to Nepal certainly afforded some lasting impressions. High Himalayan ranges glistening in the sun contrasting with the air pollution and traffic congestion of Kathmandu; immense cultural, religious and architectural wealth side by side with acute poverty; roads without streetlights or traffic lights, and shops in the city centre lit by candles, (power cuts were increased from 12 to 14 hours per day during our visit).
In the forest sector, perhaps the most lasting impression is of the energy and commitment shown by those seeking to improve forest governance.
We often look for policy opportunities, ‘windows’, ‘spaces’ where there is room to manoeuvre — and some such spaces do occur unexpectedly. Those seeking to influence policy have to be opportunistic, ready to respond quickly when that ‘policy window’ opens up. There is just such a space in Nepal now, under a rare or even unique set of circumstances. Years of conflict and widespread civil unrest led to the ending of autocratic rule by the monarchy and the transfer of power to political parties in 2006, such that the country is now moving towards being a democratic federal republic. A new Constitution has been drafted, though its progress has been hampered by delays in electing a leader for the caretaker administration — February saw the 17th, and finally successful, attempt to vote in a new Prime Minister.
The Constitution will enable a new legislative framework to be put in place, and it is this that provides an opportunity for amending current sectoral policies and legislation. There are of course differing views, and lively debates, on the form such amendments should take. Some parties have difficulty letting go of old agendas and entrenched ideas; others see possibilities for positive change. There is hope, optimism, energy — and frustration.
There is intense contestation over how forests should be governed. Currently, debate is focused around the Government of Nepal’s attempt to revise the Forest Act of 1993. This is the Act that recognises and formalises the devolution of rights to local communities, a progressive approach for which Nepal is well known internationally (there are around 18,000 organised community groups actively managing forests). The draft amendment would reverse part of this process, re-instate some of the powers that currently lie with communities back to the government, and drastically reduce the share of benefits given to communities. The alleged lack of consultation during the drafting of this amendment is in contrast to the lively debate that it has now generated. And while that debate has become rather polarised, it has also opened up opportunities for new alliances to be forged, and for different perspectives to be shared and respected. Pressure from civil society has also caused the government to re-consider the amendment.
The Growing Forest Partnerships (GFP) initiative was established in Nepal at this fascinating and challenging time for the forest sector. GFP initiatives are already active in Mozambique, Ghana, Liberia and Guatemala, where in each case the support and activities are tailored to the country’s priorities. In Nepal, a civil society consortium (including Forest Action, FECOFUN, Asmita Nepal and the Nepal Foresters’ Association) was formed through GFP and is developing the country’s own GFP initiative. Unlike many implementation projects, GFP has helped to give the Nepali consortium the opportunity to use the policy spaces, to foster a constructive process of well-informed discussion, dialogue and deliberation. In the few short months since GFP-Nepal began, it has enabled those active in debates about forestry to start to see each others’ points of view, if not necessarily to agree with them.
During our visit, the GFP consortium hosted a policy forum, with a panel of speakers and an enthusiastic audience. Amongst the lively debate there were impressive and surprising moments — strong views expressed with passion and vigour, a government official questioning the wisdom of the amendment put forward by his own ministry; open and straightforward discussions of corruption, with clear recognition that it is a problem. And most importantly, respect for each other’s viewpoints. It is this kind of healthy debate that could determine the way forward.
In the future, GFP Nepal is considering facilitating an informal, national level forum for further policy discussion of this nature, which would be based on good scientific evidence and research. The consortium will decide what form this will take, and it may yet look a little like an ongoing initiative called the Forest Governance Learning Group (FGLG). FGLG teams in ten countries seek out and make use of policy spaces to foster good forest governance, and there is much potential for mutual learning and sharing of tactics and constructive ways forward.