Forests provide direct benefits to local people including food, fuel, timber, fodder, construction materials, medicinal plants, bedding for animals and leaves for composting. Indirect benefits include ecological services such as watershed protection, erosion control, soil fertility and windbreaks for farmland. Community forests in Nepal are areas of nationally owned forest handed over to user groups for community-based protection and use. Through community forestry the government in Nepal gives user groups rights of access, use, exclusion, and management but retains ownership of the land so that community forest lands cannot be sold or transferred. When the community forestry scheme began in 1988 it had the aim of meeting basic subsistence needs while protecting forestland. However, these two aims can be contradictory and government forest officials may view the benefits to livelihood as secondary.
New research uses data on seven hill districts in Nepal to explore the reasons why community forestry has made only a limited contribution to improving livelihoods of the poorest members of the community. The study found that two-thirds of user groups had low participation from women, low income or caste groups and that wealthier and higher caste households were more likely to be represented on executive committees. Executive committees may restrict use of forest products for the first five years after setting up a community forest, which has the most impact on groups who cannot afford alternative sources of fuel or food. This is despite the fact that many forests have sufficient resources to meet poorer groups' subsistence needs. Most user groups also miss opportunities to exploit non-timber resources such as herbs, cloth-grade fibres and resin that could generate income for community development.
Huge wealth disparities between community forest member households, limited access to vital forest products and significant power disparities within a community, may be behind the failure to improve the livelihoods of the poorest community members. The research also found a lack of technical knowledge among forestry officials which has led to a large backlog of forest inventories nationally. Furthermore, current policy dictates that inventories can only be carried out by government foresters. The author writes that loosening that restriction, or allowing non-government forest technicians to conduct inventories, would help resolve the backlog considerably.
Conditions of inequality, reinforced by current community forestry policy and practice, severely challenge the development potential of community-controlled natural resources. Bilateral aid organisations may be reinforcing local power disparities and one remedy would be to encourage more inclusive local decision making, for example by requiring user groups to consist of elected representatives from all sectors of society.