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The Terai Forests

The Terai Forests The Terai or the plain areas of Nepal lie in the South of the country adjoining India (Fig 2). This region refers to the southern lowlands of Nepal, which form part of the Gangetic plains, and also the river valleys located between the Shiwalik and Mahabharat ranges (generally referred to as the Inner Terai) (Fig 2 and 4). Strategically, the Terai has been identified as the region with the greatest immediate economic potential for the forest sector in Nepal, as the region possesses forests of high economic value and is one of the more biologically diverse areas in Nepal. The continuous stretch of dense forests from east to all the way to the west of the country was popularly known as Char Koshe Jhadi, and the rhetoric Hariyo Ban Nepalko Dhan (Green forests are Nepal's wealth) reminds of the vast resources that existed41. The Terai plains still possess about 487300 ha of forestlands, which are predominated by high value hard-wood species such as Sal (Shorea robusta) (43 percent of total stem volume); a single mature Sal tree may fetch US $ 1000 or more (Winrock 2002; also see Fig 3). It has been proposed that, if managed efficiently, the Terai natural forests could boost the local economy of poverty stricken areas and could also be one of the most significant revenue sources for Nepal, changing the cost-intensive forestry sector to an income and surplus sector42. However, given the consequences of political instability and the weakness or lack of governance mechanisms, it is not clear that the regulatory framework and institutional capacity needed to ensure a transparent, accountable and sustainable forestry industry is achievable in the current political climate. The danger of promoting timber extraction without a suitable governance framework, which includes state and civil society, is that Nepal will squander the Terai forest resources with no long-term benefit to the country and its people.

Fig 3. Map of Nepal showing distribution of forests (1991-92 data)43

Fig 4. Nepal: Terai Region
(Source: http://www.cipec.org/publications/cipec_brochure_120001.pdf)

The history of forest management in the Terai differs sharply from the experience of the hill forests. The dense Sal forests of Terai with substantial populations of elephants, rhinoceros, tigers and other large mammals resisted settlement and logging for centuries due to the prevalence of endemic malaria throughout the region. Before the 1950s, only a small number of indigenous people, primarily Tharu community who developed some resistance to the disease lived in the area practising hunting, gathering and shifting cultivation. With the eradication of malaria, migration from the hills to Terai and from across the border (India) resulted in a dramatic rise in the population of Terai. Over the past forty years, as roads have opened this once remote region to the outside world, the dense Sal and Teak stands of Terai forests have come under intense pressure from migrant farmers from the Nepal hills and India, while experiencing increasing commercial logging pressure44. Forests were cleared for cultivation and new settlements and, during that period, heavy deforestation occurred. It is estimated that about 24 percent of the total area of 593,000 ha has been cleared45. The government's resettlement programme (under Nepal Punarvas Company) was encouraging the clearance of forests in some parts of the Terai during 1960s and 1970s as the programme was aimed to 'help solve the immediate population problem' and to bring 'additional lands under cultivation' for that purpose (Elder et al. 1976, p. 27)46. While the area covers only 17 percent of the total land area of Nepal, nearly half of the total population lives in the Terai now.

The Terai forests have undergone rapid transformation and degradation due to a lack of a proper forest management policy. Despite considerable international and government interest currently being focussed on the forestry sector in general and on community forestry in the mid-hills in particular, little focus has been given to the Terai forests. Unlike the well-established forest development strategy for mid-hills forests under community forestry, no definite management plans have been adopted in the Terai. Policy makers seem to be confused over forest management strategies for the Terai. The focus of government management within the Terai is for timber production from the natural Sal forests. From the early 1960s, emphasis was given to exploitation of the Sal forests, including significant exports to India and the nationalisation of the forests in Terai provided the Government with a major source of income. Planned and active forest management is poor and forests are under-utilized or not utilized within the legal framework. At the same time, illegal logging and cross-border smuggling of Sal timber is continuing in an unsustainable and destructive way.

In order to check the depletion of forest resources, and to improve conservation and management of forest resources in Terai in a sustainable way, the government introduced a concept paper in May 200047. Its main provisions are: i) continuous large blocks of forests in the Terai and Churia hills will be delineated, gazetted and managed as national forests; ii) a collaborative forest management system following natural processes will be applied to improve forest and biodiversity; iii) green trees as such will not be felled for commercial purposes at least for the next year; iv) the barren and isolated forest lands of the Terai, inner Terai and Churia hills will be made available for handing over as community forestry; v) the Churia hills will be managed as a protected forest as they are geologically very fragile and moreover, they absorb raiwater and recharge groundwater for the Terai; vi) twenty five percent of the income of the government managed forest will be provided to local governments- the District Development Committee (DDC) and Village Development Committee (VDC)- to implement local development activities, the remaining 75 percent of the income will be collected as government revenue; vii) 40 percent of the earnings from timber sales by FUGs in the Tearai, inner Terai and Churia hills will be collected by the government for programme implementation when surplus timber is sold by FUGs. In line with this policy, the government has recently made a controversial decision through a Finance Ordinance (2003-04) which states that 40 percent of the sale of forest products from all the national forests handed over as community forests should be deposited in the government fund as revenue. Remaining 60% of the amount from the sale of forest products from such forests should be spent on forest protection, forest management, environment protection and activities related to local development. There was hue and cry among the FUGs and civil society when this controversial decision was made in a hasty manner without proper homework and consultation with the stakeholders48.

Most area of forests in Terai are under the state's control with a monopoly on the harvesting and marketing of timber by the government's agency, the Timber Corporation of Nepal (TCN). Recently, although the monopoly of TCN has been removed, the sale of timber is still far from a free market situation49. Though the timber is currently shared 50:50 between TCN and District Forest Office, endemic corruption and mishandling of the collected revenue by the top officials in TCN have been reported recently. There have been concerns about the politicization of the Terai forests from time to time and its misuse for financial and political benefits. Massive, illegal concessions have been handed out to the local contractors to win political favours and elections. Though there has not been any reported case of granting concession rights to multi-national logging companies so far, there have been various attempts to do so in the past. For example, due to huge public and media uproar, the decision to grant a Finnish Company, Enso International, concession rights in some parts of Bara forests in Terai in the name of Bara Forest Management Plan was dropped in 199650.

Most national forests in the Terai are still either within protected areas or under government management. Though the forests fall under protected areas and national parks, illegal logging and poaching of wildlife from there are common. While park boundaries are guarded by the Royal Nepal Army, park-people conflicts are frequent. In order to mitigate this, large sections of the forest in the vicinity of the park have been converted to Buffer Zone Community Forests. However, in recent years due to the increase in the Maoists' violence and mobilization of the army, the conservation of the protected areas has been hit hard and many districts of Terai -such as Parsa, Bara, Rautahat, Chitwan and Dang- have seen a sharp rise in the incidents of logging recently. The deployment of the Royal Nepali Army for counter-insurgency duty has reduced its presence guarding the national parks and nature reserves, leading to a rise in timber and wildlife poaching in Chitwan, Bardia (in Terai) and Dhorpatan (Myagdi, not in Terai). For example, 600 standing Sal trees in two community forests in Dang- Kalika and Sarekhola were logged illegally within a span of just four days51. Elsewhere, Maoists have deliberately targeted ranger posts and forestry officials, giving the illegal loggers a free hand in cutting trees for timber. In the absence of officials, large parts of remaining non-protected Char Koshe Jhadi (huge wild forests) along the Terai have been destroyed in recent years by timber smugglers52. Depopulation from the hills has increased pressure on forests in the Terai. In other parts of Nepal, the Maoists have shown a conservation streak by hunting down timber poachers or regulating forest use. There are frequent reports of Maoists apprehending timber smugglers heading towards the border whereas in some areas they have been controlling the forests and regulating the forests products sale by slapping a fixed tax on the rare medicinal plants53.

Attempts have also been made to translate the success of community forestry in the mid-hills to Terai region but without any positive results54. The challenge for the Terai forests has been to support the creation of new institutions of community forest management. Larger forest sizes, increased user group heterogeneity55 and proximity to the timber market across the border in India, create additional obstacles in the way of community management in this region. Due to these problems and the Department of Forests' desire to maintain its control over high revenue forests, community forestry has been widespread only in Mid-hills with low-value degraded forests while in the Terai where the Sal forests are of much higher value, its take-off has been more problematic. The handover process has been slow and has been stalled for the last two years. Now new initiatives are afoot to experiment with 'co-management' models (as in the forests in India) in which district-level stakeholder consultations are conducted56. However, confusion over what collaborative forest management should be (Forestry Sector Policy 2000) and resistance of concerned groups has meant that there has been little practical movement on these issues57.