About two decade ago, when the Department of Forests and Park Services (DoFPS) under the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests (MoAF) first initiated the establishment of Community Forest (CF) at Dozam under Mongar Dzongkhag, people were apprehensive about such new ventures. For them, the forest and other natural resources were more of a natural occurrence and not something that requires management or ownership.
It took the department officials quite an effort to create awareness, educate and win the confidence of the people in the program. The people were initially adamant that the natural forest resources are inexhaustible and need no protection or management.
The age-old tradition of forest being looked after by them was too good for them to forgo. But slowly; the programme picked up and gained momentum. More and more villagers were willing and came forward with proposals to manage the government reserve forests near their villages.
They ultimately realized that by protecting nearby forest resources, they have more to gain than lose. Community Forest (CF) is the concept of participatory forest management, whereby the chunk of government reserved forests is handed over to the group of local people for ownership, sustainable utilization and management.
Till then, the forest and its allied resources were protected and managed by the state with very little participation of the people living with and depending on it. Hence, it was very challenging for manpower-starved agencies to keep a close vigilance of forests in the whole country.
As per the data maintained by the Social Forestry and Extension Division (SFED), under the Ministry of Agriculture and Forest (MoAF) as of June 2015, there are 600 CFs approved and established across the country and they have all been handed over to the rural communities.
From 2,705,291 hectares of total area under forest cover about 66,933.83 hectares or 669.34km square are managed under community forest.
Trashigang Dzongkhag has the highest area covered under CF management with about 13.8 percent distribution followed by Mongar, Tsirang and Wangdue Phodrang.
Wangdue dzongkhag has 67 CFs and the highest number of CFs established with about 11.2 percent distribution in the country. Gasa has 7 CFs and is the least area under CFs management followed by Dagana with 15Cfs , Haa with 15 CFs and Lhuentse with 22 CFs.
In the year 2014-2015 alone, the Department has approved 46 CFs management plan which adds up to 600 CFs in the country.
The CF established in 1997 in Dozam, under Drametse gewog in Mongar was the first CF established in the country. The 600th CF, or the latest one was established in Goenkha community forest under Phangyul Geog in Wangdue Phodrang dzongkhag in June 24, 2015.
In terms of rural households involved in CF management, there are about 25,663 rural households registered under the CF management group and Trashigang Dzongkhag has the highest percentage distribution of rural households’ involvement in CF management followed by Tsirang, Pemagatshel, Wangdi Phodrang and Samdrup Jongkhar.
From the total of 600 approved CFs , 19 CFs were approved by the Department for Non-Wood Forest Products managed by the rural communities.
The Non-Wood Forest Products (NWFP) that are thriving in CFs across the country are bamboo species, cane species, daphne species, pipla (Piper species), lemongrass (Cymbopogon flexuosus), Bhutan star anise (Illicium griffithii), species of mushroom and chirata (Swertia chirayita).
Among all the CFs in the country, Mongar Dzongkhag has the highest number of CFs approved for NWFPs management followed by Trashiyangtse, Zhemgang and from a total of 125 NWFP management groups or cooperatives approved, Pemagatsel and Samdrupjongkhar has the highest numbers of groups followed by Mongar and Sarpang Dzongkhags.
According to an official with SFED, T.B Rai, ever since the community forest was established the rural Communities have reaped immense benefits and so they learned to take ownership of the nearby forest area and ensure its sustainable utilization.
He said rural communities have shown interest in natural resources management and participation in forest conservation.
“Both the rural communities and local environment has benefited from Community forests” T.B Rai said.
Meanwhile the Ura Gup, Dorji Wangchuk said that the farmers in Bumthang dzongkhag has benefited from the CF due to their willingness to invest in activities spearheaded towards poverty reduction.
He said that the people now find it convenient to get access to timber and firewood without having to get approval from forest officials.
He added that the communities are abiding by the CF rules in procuring timber and firewood in which the forest resources are helped harvest sustainably.
In Lhuntse the farmers have a CF fund lending scheme which is an initiative of the CF management groups to revolve the CF generated fund rather than hoard it in the bank. The CFMGs can avail the maximum of a Nu 50,000 soft loan from the CF fund at the nominal interest rate of 5% per annum. The installment can be deposited at their convenience but not by delaying it for too long.
The formulation of a by-law will also ensure that there is equity in availing such lending among the CFMG members. The drafting of such a by-law has been facilitated by the Gewog Forest Extension and Dzongkhag Forestry Sector in order to streamline and regularize such lending. The scope of expanding the loan to non-members is also being revised and needs to be inculcated in the by-law.
Samphelling geowg under Chukha dzongkhag Community Forestry Programme has enabled communities to generate income through sale of excess timbers and other CF sources. This has helped reduce poverty which is predominantly a rural phenomenon.
Samphelling Gup Mani Kumar Rai said that the handing over a chunk of Government Reserved Forests with sustainable management, utilization and ownership rights to the group of communities has not only helped the farmers reap benefits but also helped preserve the local environment and harvest its natural resources sustainably.
The programme was incepted with the belief that the forests and natural resources within the proximity of the community are best managed by themselves and so the benefits should also flow to the communities themselves.
The people in Samphelling gewog as per the Gup has stressed on planting trees and other NWFPs for future use.
Gasa Dzongkhag’s Khamoed Gup Karma Tshering said that, there is a need to standardize and encourage more CFs for timber sale which is long overdue. He said this will have a far reaching impact not only on the poverty reduction but also in closing the timber shortage gap.
“When the communities are entrusted with the responsibilities and the power to protect, utilize and manage certain portion of the forests, the overall health of the forests improves,” said the Khamoed Gup Karma Tshering said .
The Social Forestry and Extension Division (SFED) is putting up concerted efforts towards creation of enabling environments for CF establishment and they have developed a CF strategy in Bhutan which is being implemented.
SFED also claims that pursuing such a people-centered forest management regime has brought about a positive impact. Such a programme, they said, has contributed immensely in building social capital in terms of strengthening social cohesion. This is especially important when Bhutan is increasingly experiencing social degeneration and breakage of family links due to modernization and other factors.
Already major positive impacts have been witnessed since the program started. For instance, there has been drastic reduction of illegal activities while the number of forest fire incidences has also dwindled significantly.
Officials claim that such programme has also helped bring degraded land under plantation while other major impacts are institutionalization of governance in such a way that CF provides a fertile breeding ground for local leaders needless to mention enhanced access to forests products through the shortening of delivery procedures.
A positive trend is that the majority of the CFs in Bhutan has done the harvesting, way below the Annual Harvesting Limit (AHL). This is further substantiated in the studies done in the past which mentions that Community Forest Management groups are harvesting timber conservatively and at levels below the prescriptions in the CF management plan, which means that CFMGs are very careful in harvesting forest products from their Community Forest.
This story was made possible due to support from the Department of Information and Media.