Natalie Y.Campbell

How can Nepal’s local communities benefit economically from their forests? Mexico’s “ejidos” model could open new doors

“Community forestry is a great development alternative, it improves green space, oxygen, water, and biodiversity. By doing community forestry we are ensuring a better future for our kids, our grandkids, and the world,” Carlos Pérez Sebastián, our field guide for the week, said from under his wide brimmed hat. He stood on a slope that the ejido—community forestry group—had restored with native tree species in Ejido Cruz de Ocote, Ixtacamaxtitlán, Mexico. Listening with rapt attention were leaders from Nepal, who had travelled across the world to learn from one of the world’s most successful examples of community forestry.

Like Mexico, Nepal is a community forestry success story. In 1993, Nepal passed the Community Forest Act, which recognizes Community Forest User Groups (CFUGs) as the managers of their forests.

After almost 26 years, CFUGs have increased the forest cover in Nepal by more than 20 percent.[1] Despite this significant achievement, CFUGs have limited ability to access the market of forest products due to restrictive policies and regulations on community forest enterprise development.

Nepal’s forests are rich with forest products, yet many forest dependent communities are still living in poverty and face a myriad of challenges—including lack of jobs and income. As the forests of Nepal have spread under the vigilant protection of CFUGs, development through community forestry is central to Nepal’s new phase of governance and growth.

Credit: Federation of community Forestry Users Nepal (FECOFUN) 

In 2015, Nepal adopted a new Constitution which provides for a three-tier structure, with federal, provincial, and local governments. Local governments (a total of 753) have substantial powers to make laws and regulations, including on community forestry.

The first ever local government elections were held in 2017, and the new local governments are now in place, and the complex process of reworking laws, regulations, and governance institutions is now underway.

However, Nepal’s restrictive forest governance regime continues to hinder the real potential of community forestry, particularly through restrictive regulations on harvesting, market access, and community enterprises. With the new constitution, the powers to govern and regulate community forestry are now vested in the local governments. This transfer of powers poses both major risks and opportunities for the future of community forestry in Nepal.

To hedge these risks and focus on the opportunities, in late April 2018, Green Foundation Nepal organized a visit with RED-MoCAF to provide insight for newly elected Nepali government officials on Community Forest Enterprise (CFE) models within the ejido or community forestry systems in Mexico. RRI’s Strategic Response Mechanism (SRM) supported the exchange.

The delegation visited various ejido or communal lands sites, with diverse revenue generating activities ranging from ecotourism to fish farming and plantations in the state of Puebla. Puebla is nestled in the Central Mexican Mountains—a region famous for its forests, timber, and apple production.

Forests make up 72 percent of total land area in Mexico or 141.7 million hectares, an area 20 times as large as Nepal. Almost 80 percent of these forests are owned by ejidos, explained Dr Gustavo Mendoza of CONAFOR during the trip. There are 15,584 ejidos and communal land owners.[2]

Nepal’s forests also covers a substantial amount of land—almost 45 percent of the country. Forests are a major contributor to the country’s biodiversity, increase resilience and adaptation to climate change, and provide a vast array of services to forest-dependent communities. In Nepal, there are over 19,361 CFUGs managing over 1.8 million hectares of land, or 30 percent of Nepal’s total land area, making CFUGs responsible for managing a large part of the nation’s forests.[3]

On a hot Sunday in April, eight Nepali government officials representing all three levels of the new federal system arrived in Mexico City with one goal: to learn from the Mexico ejidos about how the government and communities can economically benefit from Community Forest Enterprises (CFEs), and how to incorporate that into equitable policies and regulations in Nepal.

The government officials who came to Mexico represented the three main political parties of the newly formed Nepalese government, ensuring that the country’s diverse perspectives were well represented.

CONAFOR, the National Forestry Commission, hosted the delegation at their headquarters in Mexico City where Dr. Gustavo Mendosa presented the intricacies of Mexican forestry. He explained that the National Forest Programme (PRONAFOR) provides both financial and technical support to the ejidos when neededwhile simultaneously the ejidos generate enough revenue to sustain the majority of their activities and invest a large percentage of their earnings back into the ejido.

The group was taken to see four ejidos, each one relying on different revenue generating activities.

Ejido de Acholiuia, the oldest ejido the group visited (founded in 1920), spans a vast area of 4,190 hectares—477 of which are forests. There, the ejido members explained to the Nepali delegation how they are dependent on both forestry activities (plantations for timber production) and agriculture. Many of the plantations on their land have been restored from barren pasturelands into lush patches of healthy local pine.

The community normally reinvests 30-70 percent of its monthly income back into the ejido, which allows then to manage and maintain their common property including housing areas, agricultural and pasture areas, livestock, schools, and more.

The mist-shrouded Ejido Cruz de Ocote, founded in 1980, was created on an old hacienda, and covers a total of 1,075 hectares. The ejido generates most of its income from maize production and forest restoration and nurseries. The community members explained how 30-40 percent of their income is reinvested back into the ejido, funds that were used to refurbish the old hacienda into their ejido office and community space.

To get to Ejido del Tuliman, we had to drive down what seems like a never-ending mud road with hairpin turns, but the rough journey was worth it to see the incredible waterfall the ejido manages. 

While the group was at this ejido, they explained that they make around US$100,000 per year and directly employs around 60-80 percent of their community members to support their ecotourism activities. These activities range from taking people on guided tours of the magnificent waterfall with a naturalist; building cottages, meetings house and the like with their own timber; creating and maintaining recreational and interactive activities built into the forest; and providing full accommodation services for their guests.

During the visit, Ghan Shyam Pandey, a champion of community forestry in Nepal and recently elected Major of Tulsipur, explained that, “We have lots of forests in Nepal, but we [Community Forest User Groups or CFUGs] are not able to economically contribute to the development. We contribute largely to the biodiversity and conservation of the country and provide many environmental services.  That is why we came here to Mexico, to see how the CFEs are significantly contributing to the local, regional. and national economies. We hope to use this experience to make policies that will allow CFEs to contribute to the national and local economies.”

On average, the ejidos pay around 5 percent of their annual income in taxes whereas anywhere from 30—80 percent is invested back into the ejidos

The return for both the central government and for the ejidos are high, which is possible because ejidos own their land and the rights to log, process, sell, and gain revenue from their community forest enterprises, which are supported by the government. 

In the ejidos, the ejido members[4] are the owners of their land, and within the ejido area the communities are responsible for the production and income from their forest products.

This is the fundamental difference between community forestry in Mexico and Nepal: not the success nor high production of forest-products or services, but the lack of formal ownership rights over the forests and the forest-products.

There are many policies in Nepal that on the surface support the development of CFEs, by promoting business through alleged investment from the government and private sector, as specifically stated in the Forest Act. The Forestry Sector Strategy in 2016 endorsed forest-based enterprises as a tool to provide economic opportunities and reduce poverty, and the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (2014–2020) went so far as to set a “priority programme for non-timber forest products (NTFP) and other green enterprises within community forests for the improvement of local livelihoods.”

Unfortunately, there remain extensive regulations and obstacles for CFE viability within community forests. The lack of financial subsidies and support from the government, complex registration processes for CFEs, management restrictions on forest harvesting and governance, and the lack of secure tenure rights, were all addressed during this trip to Mexico.

“Only when communities have ownership over their lands, can they truly improve their lands. This is an example of how communities can restore degraded areas and create productive landscapes that will be sustainable.”

—Carlos Pérez Sebastián

Nepal’s community forestry arrangements allow for de facto control and management rights that have led to dramatic increases in forest area, and have also lead to some social cohesion between CFUGs with a shared vision of sustainable, productive forest management. These de facto rights are limited, and do not provide tenurial security to CFUGs and other forest-dependent communities. During this crucial period in Nepal, where new policies and legislations are under discussion, tenure rights for forest-dependent communities and CFUGs need to be a priority in order for CFEs to positively impact Nepal’s economy and people.

With promises of creating new legislation around Community Forest Enterprises, reforming regulations around production, and eventually passing the Forest Rights Law, the Nepali delegation left Mexico with high hopes of making positive change in the arena of forest rights and CFEs. The ejido systems provided successful examples of how community forestry can support productive forest enterprises that benefit the state and community members alike.

About the author: Natalie Y. Campbell is the Senior Associate for the Asia Program at the Rights and Resources Initiative.

[1] H. Nagendra, H. S. Pareeth, B. Sharma, C. H. Schweik and K. R. Adhikari. 2008. “Forest Fragmentation and Regrowth in an Institutional Mosaic of Community Government and Private Ownership in Nepal.” Landscape Ecology 23(1)

[2] As presented by Gustavo Mendoza of CONAFOR in April 2018.

[3] http://dof.gov.np/dof_community_forest_division/community_forestry_dof

[4] Often there are many more community members that reside within ejidos, than ejido members.