Nestled in Nepal’s southern subtropical Terai lowlands, Chitwan National Park looks worlds away from the country’s famous Himalayan north. Historically lush and home to impressive biodiversity, Chitwan served as a favorite holiday and hunting destination for the country’s wealthy at the turn of the twentieth century. But by the 1960s, 70% of its forests had been cleared by logging, and wildlife poaching was rampant.
In the 1970s, Nepal began an ambitious nationwide forests rights devolution program, eventually seeing a significant range of forest uses and management taken out from the purview of the national government and put in the hands of Community Forest User Groups (CFUGs). Not only did this program give Chitwan and other degraded forest areas second lives, but it also brought about huge social benefits – particularly for women.
Research from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) looks at the changes in ecosystem services following the shift to CFUGs, showing a host of improvements. At a landscape level, there have been increases in forest cover, firewood and non-timber forest products. At a social level, Nepal now has 32% of its forested land overseen by more than 20,000 CFUGs, involving 40% of the country’s total population.
Additionally, the team of scientists behind this research found that many of the community forest agreements ensured that members of lower social castes and indigenous groups received a fair share of livelihood and other benefits. But when it comes to forest-based enterprises – which CFUGs have the prerogative to create – it’s women who have gained the most.
“It turns out women are quite often the community members who collect the non-timber forest products,” says Steven Lawry, Director of CIFOR’s Equity, Gender and Tenure program, of which this research is a part. “Women are the principal beneficiaries of the [devolution of forest] rights.”
THEN AND NOW
Prior to having legal access to forests, many women took charge of maintaining the household and contributed considerable labor to fields and farms. The devolution of rights opened new ways for women to contribute to household livelihoods, taking to the forests to harvest and process various new kinds of forest-based products such as lemongrass and wood apples which, with the rights reform, became available to communities for processing and marketing.
Now, women have grown to play important roles in CFUGs and their enterprises, either as members of management committees or, oftentimes, as leaders. Many interviewed women say the work and added responsibility has given them both a sense of pride and more ways to provide for their families.
Take, for example, the village of Chisapani in the Nawalparasi district: lining a quiet dirt road extending as far as the eye can see are abundant stalks of lemongrass ready to be harvested and turned into essential oil by the local CFUG. Not only is the CFUG staffed mostly by women, but the farmers who supply the CFUG are predominately women too.
“We have planted lemongrass, palmarosa and citronella on the land provided by the Chisapani Community Forest User Group,” says farmer Dadhikala Poudyal. “The Community User Group buys the oil extracted from those plants, for which we get paid [by the CFUG] USD 15 per kilogram.”
Poudyal also added that the profits are shared equally among the women, regardless of caste, which is another positive characteristic Nepal’s CFUGs, following national law that mandates equal distribution of benefits.
But more than the money, Poudyal says she values her new role in the community. “Before I was known as somebody’s wife. Now people recognize me for who I am and what I do, all because of the rights I have. That gives me a lot of confidence and pride.”
In the nearby village of Binayi, a women-powered CFUG turns a healthy profit by composting organic green fertilizer made from the invasive species Lantana camara, which is then sold to urban farmers in Kathmandu.
“If we didn’t have tenure rights [to our forest], we wouldn’t be allowed to access those resources,” says Binyani CFUG member Mandhara Paudel. “It is because we have these rights that it is possible to run this enterprise.”
Like many other enterprises, Binyani’s green fertilizer operation is still burgeoning, and the women face logistical issues. Pau Kumari Paudel, Mandhara’s sister, said the challenge now is how to better access markets and increase the fertilizer’s price. Currently only a few middlemen with the right contacts to sell the fertilizer visit the enterprise, giving the women no choice but to sell at their prices. The women are hopeful for a wider reach in the future, with other buyers offering higher prices.
But despite the start-up issues, the benefits are still big.
“In the past, women didn’t have the courage to ask our husbands to even go out of our houses,” says Mandhara. “Tenure rights devolution has promoted the rights of women too. We have rights now.”
This research was supported by funding from the CGIAR research program on Policies, Institutions and Markets.
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