2010: Forest for Sustainability

On March 12, 2009, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite caught a glimpse of a relatively rare event: large–scale forest fires in the Himalaya Mountains of Nepal. Caption and Image: NASA.

On March 12, 2009, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite caught a glimpse of a relatively rare event: large–scale forest fires in the Himalaya Mountains of Nepal. Caption and Image: NASA.

2009 and the COP15 hype has been good for one thing, if nothing else, in Nepal: the issue of environment conservation has suddenly reemerged in the media and consequently the public psyche. And at least some politicians are forced to talk about it because donor funds and junkets are tied to it. The year saw a lot of climate change related activities that focused on the phenomenon’s impact on the Himalayan glaciers. Now, 2010 and ahead, Nepal needs to translate all that noise into action, and nowhere is this action needed more urgently than in Nepal’s forests.

Earlier this week, on December 28, the Minister of Forest and Soil Conservation Deepak Bohara gave an extensive interview to a national daily. He talked in great length about COP15 and the Himalayas, and what Nepal plans to do about climate change. Unfortunately, the Minister of Forest and Soil Conservation failed to even mention forests for their role in environment conservation and climate change.

Forests naturally keep microclimates in check, they prevent erosions and desertification, they help maintain ground water tables, and they help reduce the degree of natural disasters. Speaking about the melting Himalayan glaciers, which has been Nepal’s climate change platform, without mentioning the disappearing forests is an irony. Forests, by design of nature, function as carbon sinks. This is why it is critical that the cause of forest preservation and restoration in Nepal becomes our climate call this year onwards. If COP15 made one thing clear, it is that even at this late hour waiting on the nations of the world to agree on a set of rules is not easy to negotiate. So it is upon ourselves to take domestic step that builds climate adaptation and mitigation methods. Here in Nepal, forests are our best option.

The Climate Disaster In Making:
Nepal has a chip on its shoulder about its ‘successful’ community forestry. It earned it too. However, not everything is right with our community forests today and the country needs to reassess this seriously. Nepal’s unstable socio-political transition makes this a uniquely volatile time where there is a concoction of both free-for-all and every-man-for-himself mindsets. Illegal activities and corruption is rampant at all levels, community forests included.

This lot of Illegally produced timber from a community forest was seized by the local District Forest Office in Dang in 2010. Photo: Kashish Das Shrestha

This lot of Illegally produced timber from a community forest was seized by the local District Forest Office in Dang in 2010. Photo: Kashish Das Shrestha

No longer is Nepal’s deforestation an issue of firewood; today deforestation means unforeseen scale of timber smuggling, conversion to farmland, and the worrying trend of squatters with political backing. Recently, a community forest user group in western Nepal even divided the forestland for themselves.

All in all, Nepal has lost over 25% of its forest in the last two decades, ranking number 7 spot on a recent list of Top 10 Countries for deforestation published by TreeHugger.com. According to Federation of Community Forest Users-Nepal we lose as much as 60,000 hectares (148,000 acres) per year. The Department of Forest says we lost 88,367 hectares (218,359 acres) of forest in 2008, and 74,558 hectares (184,236acres) in 2007.

Then there is the ravaging of the Chure hills, home to a large expanse of fragile forest ecology.  Illegally scavenged for sands, rocks and timber, it is one of the most dangerous climate changing actions taking place in Nepal right now.

At this rate of deforestation in Nepal, it won’t be long before vast erosions begin the process of desertification in parts of Nepal. Floods would have deadlier effects, and ground water tables would deplete, wetlands would dry. The industrial revolution of the developed countries, or China and India’s greenhouse gas emissions are not responsible for this domestic climate catastrophe in the making. This one’s all ours.

2010+
With the Himalayas, we can do nothing to tackle climate change except use it as a spectacular example of its impact. However, it is our forests that can make a distinct contribution to slowing down climate change impact at large. If in the process we can institutionalize REDD, then great. But that shouldn’t be our incentive.

We have less than 1,100 forest rangers in our national parks and protected areas. This is a joke. That number needs to go up significantly, and they need to be better trained and equipped. We cannot blindly increase protected areas either, policies regarding farming and community user groups need to be clearly worked out. We also need to develop programs where whistle blowers are given protection and maybe even rewarded, instead of being politically ostracized. Let us not forget that government officials abet a vast amount of these illegal activities. Nobody said this will be easy, and it won’t work without real commitment at a policy level.

For 2010 and beyond, we must ensure our national policies are firm on this issue not for climate change and donor funds sake but for the sake of our country’s food and water security, for the sake of managing our farmlands and reducing degrees of natural disasters. And of course to protect the intricate natural ecology that makes this planet tick at levels most of us can’t even begin to comprehend. We must begin active forest preservation and restoration because it matters to us at every level as a society, from the air we breathe to the water drink, regardless of what international policies and politics about climate change may say.

As published in the print edition of Republica national daily's January 1, 2010, special issue.

As published in the print edition of Republica national daily’s January 1, 2010, special issue.

 

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