A revolution is unfolding in the foothills of the Himalayas: trees are coming back to areas run by communities.
Over the past quarter century, the foothills of the Himalayas have seen a radical transformation. A pattern of destruction that unfolded over decades is steadily but irresistibly being reversed.
Remarkably, this change has sprung from the needs of the people who live there. It has also been led by them.
“About 25 years ago the forest here was so sparse one could see people walking on the hills. Our people had to go a long way to get to water and find fodder for livestock,” explains Ramhari Chaulagai, the chair of community forest Piple-Pokhara in Makwanpur district, which lies in central Nepal.
Standing across the hills of Piple-Pokhara forest with Chaulagai looking out at the lush green hills, it’s hard to imagine this area was once blighted by deforestation and forest degradation.
But it’s been transformed in a way that’s helped the community in numerous ways: offering a renewed source of water and boosting their livelihoods by enabling them to use forests for timber and goods, from handicrafts to fragrances, brooms and candles.
How has it happened? The answer is restoration done by the community.
The turning point for forests was 1993, when Nepal’s visionary Forest Act created 17,000 autonomous community forest user groups, and gave them rights to manage and control access to the forests. Since then, Nepal’s forest cover has increased by a fifth, one of the fastest rates of forest recovery in the world. A recent paper used satellite imagery to chart how previously barren terrain has been revitalised.
In Piple-Pokhara, where 1,600 households take care of 235 hectares of forest - and in many other community forests - this has meant that harvesting, gathering of firewood and animal grazing was restricted. This reduced pressure on the forests helped regeneration, often naturally, but also with the help of tree planting.
The user groups must also follow rules, including spending at least a quarter of the money generated on forest management, including planting seedlings.
Social justice for women and marginalised groups
In the afternoon sun a group of women gather next to the Piple-Pokhara community forest to make wood handicrafts. Some have travelled far from home to be here. With the support of three forest communities they are starting a micro-enterprise together.
The message from the group is clear: “Before we had no occupation besides home chores and child care. Now we are recognised and respected for our skills outside the home”.
A woman’s life in Nepal is not always easy. The society is traditionally hierarchical and in Makwanpur district, incidences of human trafficking and domestic violence have been high. So local NGOs and the government have been working to support women’s rights.
“Before women weren’t aware of their rights, but through our training they gain skills to earn their own income and gain independence”, explains Aarati Pathak, chairperson of Ashmita Nepal, a group working for women’s empowerment and supporting the handicraft workshop.
Part of community forestry’s success is that women, the poor and marginalised people from the lower castes, have equal rights to shared resources.
This is crucial as they depend more on forests for food and water. The Forest Act promotes positive discrimination so that women can gain leadership in their communities.
At Piple-Pokhara, forest men and women participate equally in all tasks, and if additional help is hired, women are promoted.
People newly connecting to forests support biodiversity
Homnath Gautam is retired but worked in the Piple-Pokhara forest for 35 years. Yet he still climbs the hill behind his house every day to see the trees he planted and to admire the natural regeneration that’s now taking hold. He says that walking in the forest improves his health and brings him happiness.
As we walk through the forest we encounter a deep hole in the ground.
Gautam is evidently proud of it: This is a nest of the endangered pangolin, considered one of the most hunted animals in the world. Two different species are found in this area, explains Gautam. These nocturnal insectivorous mammals are covered in scales and have become threatened due to their widespread use for decoration and the destruction of their natural habitat. But locals (supported by NGOs) are working to protect them.
Leopards, porcupines and deer are also found in these woods. Restoring forests and stopping deforestation help this wildlife survive by protecting their habitats. These new forests buzz with life - even if the old growth forests are lost forever.
Several studies contrast the growth of community forests with the deforestation which remains rampant in government-managed areas.
They show that community forests suffer fewer fires and less illegal logging, and that community planting of trees and management has increased forest density by an average of 30 per cent. Soils have also improved and watersheds have been protected from soil erosion and landslides.
The management methods and the people’s knowledge of the restored forests surely matter.
In Piple-Pokhara the trees that the community has identified as being rare are not felled, but left to increase in number.
Species selection, even aged structure and lack of decaying wood are detrimental to biodiversity. To sustain biodiversity in the long run is a balancing act between answering the needs of the community and those of nature. Forest restoration can help us defeat the sixth mass extinction, an era of massive loss of species, but only if at the same time destruction of existing forests is stopped.
Restoration is the safest way to suck carbon from the atmosphere
Restoration in Nepal has sprung from local needs, not international objectives.
But community forestry also brings a climate benefit: stopping deforestation avoids emissions and restoring forests can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Both need to happen as climate scientists are clear that if we are to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, we will need to bring carbon dioxide emissions to net zero by mid-century and in addition suck roughly 500 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the air.
To remove that level of emissions will be difficult and there are risks, but recent researchsuggests that restoring the world’s forests has the potential to remove roughly the needed 500 billion tonnes. Working with local communities is the answer. It could improve biodiversity, provide livelihoods for some of the world’s poorest peoples and (as the Nepal example shows) improve women’s life opportunities.
Yet so far, it has attracted remarkably little attention from the climate community.
Governments everywhere need to learn from communities in Nepal who are leading the way and showing how forest restoration offers a climate solution that benefits biodiversity and local people. It’s now up to others to follow.
The report Return of Trees published by Fern and Rainforest Foundation Norway explores how community led forest restoration can benefit the climate.
The film Putting Down Roots explores the grassroots revolution in which communities are restoring diverse forests to areas which were once stripped of their trees