Through a mixture of hard work during the day, and door-to-door campaigning in the evenings, the eleven women who make up the committee of Dumrithumka Adarsh Mahila Community Forest User Group—2017 BirdLife Nature's Heroes—have changed their community's attitude towards the forest they all depend on.
This story was written by Nick Langley, and originally featured on the Birdlife International website, to see the article in its original setting please click here.
Dumrithumka Adarsh Mahila—their name translates, roughly, as “the exemplary women of Dumrithumka”. The improvements to health and living standards they have brought about have inspired neighbouring forest villages to follow their example. At the same time, the transformation of habitat quality in the forests they manage has led Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN) to recognise them as BirdLife Nature's Heroes.
“When it comes to integrating conservation, good governance and the development of sustainable local livelihoods, Nepal’s community forestry programme is regarded as one of the world’s success stories” says BCN's Kriti Nepal.
Forest in Nepal is owned by the state, which often lacks capacity to monitor and manage it, leading to overuse of resources. Community Forest User Groups were introduced to empower local people to manage their forests, which are key to the livelihoods of many such communities, providing them with food, fuel, building materials and medicines.
Satellite pictures of areas managed by Nepal's CFUGs show a steady restoration of tree cover. Under the advancing canopy of leaves, the roots of trees and undergrowth are reimposing their grip on the soil, and with the disappearance of bare, unstable hillsides, erosion and landslides are diminishing. Riverbanks once again blanketed with lush vegetation are less prone to undercut and collapse.
Inside the houses of forest user group communities, the air is cleaner. Improved cooking stoves have reduced smoke by up to 90%, and fewer people suffer respiratory diseases. Use of these stoves has cut demand for firewood by more than half, which as well as helping keep the hills green, means women spend less time gathering fuel, and more time on subsistence and livelihoods activities such as vegetable growing and the sale of non-timber products from the forest.
For reasons both cultural and economic, some of Nepal's community forest user groups were founded by women, and are led by women. Women traditionally carry out household tasks such as gathering firewood and fodder for livestock, while their menfolk are likely to be working abroad. (Opportunities to earn money at home are limited, and remittances from men working in India and elsewhere make up almost a quarter of Nepal's GDP.)
Established in 1998, DAMCFUG were beneficiaries of HIMALICA programme supported by Bird Conservation Nepal and ICIMOD between January 2014 and December 2016. Under BCN's guidance, the group's executive committee oversaw the implementation of actions such as restriction of overgrazing and replanting of forest, the installation of improved cooking stoves, and the promotion of home gardening.
Prior to the intervention by the programme, the community was facing loss and destruction of land and resources through preventable disasters like landslides and floods. Sustainable land use and management, including restriction of overgrazing, has led to an increase in vegetation cover and root structure, protecting against erosion and increasing stability by binding the soil. Reforestation near streams has reduced bank erosion.
Among the trees and plants the women are helping to protect some of cultural value, such as Khayar (Senegalia catechu), Belpati (Aegle marmelos), Amla (Phylanthus emblica), and Sal tree (Shorea robusta), which are sources of food and medicinal bark and leaves, and trees which are targetted by illegal loggers, such as the globally threatened Indian Rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia). Globally threatened mammals such as Indian Pangolin (Manis crassicaudata) and Leopard (Pantherapardus) occur in the forest.
“The majority of the population depends on the forest for their daily livelihood, and were facing scarcity due to degradation of the forest”, explains Kriti Nepal.
“DAMCFUG played a major role in the long-term success of the conservation of their forest, by organising door-to-door awareness campaigns within the community about the importance of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Community members were trained in the protection of ecosystem services and management of the forest. This enabled the community as a whole to use natural resources more efficiently and sustainably, minimising their dependence on help from state agencies.”
The promotion of home gardening has helped community members increase their income, and rely less on forest resources. Planting and regeneration of non-timber forest products such as bamboo (Dendrocalamus sp.) and broom grass (Thysanolaena maxima) has not only created extra income for the community, but provided additional protection against soil erosion.
By supporting fair and sustainable benefit-sharing, DAMCFUG has made a major contribution towards reducing inequalities. Following awareness training from BCN, their initiative has given the same access to resources to all community members, including people from different backgrounds and cultures. They have undertaken public education to sensitise the community to the rights of minorities and marginalized people, encouraging them to participate in all aspects of forest use and management.
Kamal Aryal, Natural Resources Management Analyst from ICIMOD says the initiative has empowered the poor and vulnerable by involving them in decision-making.
The protection and management of ecosystems has also offered a highly cost-effective mechanism for climate change mitigation. Enhancing and protecting essential life-supporting ecosystem services for the community will help them adapt to climate change.
Two neighbouring community forest user groups are now modelling themselves on DAMCFUG, with a view to the long-term conservation of their own part of the forest. In addition to their Nature's Heroes award, the women of DAMCFUG were singled out for praise by Nepal's government on World Environment Day 2016. Mr Agni Sapkota, the Minister of Forests and Soil Conservation, presented Mrs Kumari Alle, the chair of the group, with a letter of appreciation and a cash award of 25,000 Nepali rupees.