Community forestry is a conservation solution in Nepal: Q&A with Teri Allendorf


Nepal’s community forestry program has been hailed as a success for helping increase the country’s forest cover from 26% to 45% in 25 years. As part of the program, pioneered in the 1970s, communities manage their forests for their own use and benefits based on an operational plan approved by the divisional forest officer, a representative of the provincial government. Community members are allowed to collect wood up to a limit prescribed by the government based on the availability of wood and the prevailing conditions of the forest.

Teri Allendorf, who holds a Ph.D. in conservation biology, has worked on issues of local communities and conservation since 1994 and has closely observed community conservation projects in Nepal, including community forestry. Allendorf, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal, currently leads Community Conservation Inc., an organization dedicated to promoting community-based approaches around the world.

Allendorf in Lumbini, Nepal, in 2022. Image courtesy of Community Conservation.
Allendorf in Lumbini, Nepal, in 2022. Image courtesy of Community Conservation.

Mongabay’s Abhaya Raj Joshi talked to Allendorf over a video call recently about the state of community forests in Nepal, their challenges and future prospects. The following interview has been edited for clarity.

Mongabay: Could you tell us a bit about how Community Conservation as an organization was born and what is its main philosophy?

Teri Allendorf: Community Conservation was founded by Robert Horwich, an ecologist and primatologist. He had gone to Belize to see the endangered howler monkeys in 1984 when he first met the local community and he started working with them.

When he started working with the communities, he switched from being a natural scientist to a community-oriented conservation scientist after coming to a conclusion that communities are the solution to the biodiversity crisis.

Talking about me, I got my Ph.D. in the ‘90s and was in the U.S. Peace Corps [an independent agency and program of the U.S. government that trains and deploys volunteers to provide international development assistance] in Nepal. I also made the switch like Rob did. This means that we understood that communities are really necessary to conserve biodiversity.

To put our philosophy in a sentence, we’d say it’s “Communities are the solution.”

Mongabay: How does it relate to Nepal, especially in the context of community forestry?

Teri Allendorf: Communities have always been the solution. So, if you remember the Himalayan degradation theory in the ’70s, they literally predicted Nepal would have no forest left by 2000. They said there would be no elephants or rhinos by the 1980s.

Certainly, protected areas are what mainly saved the tigers and the rhinos, but if you look at the increase in forest cover, it has doubled, up to 46% from the low of 23%. A huge portion of that is because of the communities, and the pieces of land linking the protected areas are governed by communities.

So, I think Nepal is amazing because it’s a country where you can look over a period of 50 years and really see what communities have done.

I think the current-day issue in Nepal is that sometimes you’re in that world where conservationists and social scientists talk all about the problems. Because that’s how we think. We’ve got to make this better, we need to talk about equity. There’s not enough income, the right access. There’s all these that have always been issues and probably will continue to be. But if you look at the trajectory, it’s amazing. What Nepal has accomplished is because of so many champions. It wasn’t easy. No government ever wants to give up power to communities.

Women from the Binayi Community Forest User Group collect lantana for green manure. Image by Chandra Shekhar Karki/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Women from the Binayi Community Forest User Group collect lantana for green manure. Image by Chandra Shekhar Karki/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Mongabay: In Nepal, everything is politicized and questions have been raised about the way community forestry is run and the way it elects its leadership. So, do you think that is going to affect the future prospects of the program?

Obviously, politics is core to anything happening in governance or the management of natural resources. So yeah, we see it every day and we’re kind of in the middle of it because it’s always been political. I’m not a political scientist. So, I wouldn’t want to say too much about it. But obviously every time we go to the field, I try to remain unaware because for me, which party someone belongs to is not critical, but you have to know all that stuff.

I would say over time there’s always issues like that. Like now, we tend to be politicized because of decentralization and the way the government and the politics have gone, but you had elite capture back in the ‘90s, right? So, there’s always this issue of who’s controlling the resources and who has the power.

Mongabay: So, what do you think is one thing that made the community program work, because a lot of other efforts in conservation, such as the management of protected areas and in the economic front, also the country couldn’t make a lot of progress during that same period — but community forestry was an exception. What was the one thing that made it work?

Teri Allendorf: Because it meets a whole bunch of people’s values. So, if you look at individuals and communities and what they need, they need to help the environment. They need natural resources. That’s the forest. They rely on that for the air they breathe.

People know they need to protect the forests. I always say we don’t need to convince people to conserve natural resources and the environment. We have to help support them to provide ways.

Communities are not homogeneous. When I look at people’s values and attitudes and communities, it’s not that every individual feels the same. It’s just that those values are there and different people hold them in different ways. But everyone basically wants their environment to be better.

Mongabay: To clarify your statement, could you please give a tangible example for our readers?

Teri Allendorf: In Nepal’s Bardiya [in the western part of the country], I met a woman, Laxmi Gurung, in 1994. I was wandering into the communities doing my interviews for my Ph.D. We sat down and I asked her, ‘Why do you think we need protected areas?’ and she started talking about the elephants. When I asked her if the elephants come and eat her harvest and cause problems, she said, ‘Yeah, but they’re so amazing.’ She said, ‘They’re strong and just awesome to look at.’ I just appreciate that.

She was surprised when I told her that we don’t have elephants in the U.S. So, we can say that she was valuing the elephants without even knowing that they were rare and needed to be protected. If you walk into any village, the people will give you the whole diversity of values for their biodiversity from recreational, aesthetic, to even economic and social.

Allendorf with a community-based anti-poaching unit in a village in Chitwan National Park’s buffer zone in 2014. Image courtesy of Community Conservation.
Allendorf with a community-based anti-poaching unit in a village in Chitwan National Park’s buffer zone in 2014. Image courtesy of Community Conservation.

Mongabay: What about the lack of conservation expertise in the local communities? Conservationists say that community forest user groups focus on harvesting timber alone and don’t know much about conserving the wildlife?

Terri Allendorf: First, let me talk about the incentive for working on conservation projects. We’ve seen that people volunteer to participate because it gives them a social standing. For example, when we trained members of the communities as conservation volunteers, their social standing improved. The same model has been applied to the community-based female health volunteer program, which is another success story for Nepal. I would love to see the same sort of idea applied to conservation so that each community has conservation experts.

So, when people say communities are only interested in making money from timber, it’s like saying they don’t want to or they’re not really interested in other revenue generation things. I don’t think that’s true. I think certain individuals want to make money and extract money if they can, but then there are going to be people who say that’s not sustainable.

The reason people don’t link community forests with wildlife is because the government isn’t talking about that piece of it and they’re not supporting it at the local level.

Mongabay: There’s also this issue of caste in Nepal. People from the so-called “lower castes” don’t have access to resources and the so-called “upper class” people run the show.

Teri Allendorf: Well, certainly it’s something that needs improvement. But it’s something that has improved greatly since the 1990s. We can see progress in ensuring that the requirements of the poor are met.

Mongabay: In Nepal’s southern plains, we have a network of interconnected protected areas that provide corridors for animals such as tigers and elephants to move from east to west and vice versa. But a crucial corridor in the east joining the Parsa National Park and Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve doesn’t have a protected area. How can communities step in to address this issue?

Teri Allendorf: There are different models people are starting to use these days for protection happening in more nontraditional ways. And I think that that’s our vision for that corridor. If you look at the maps, you can see where the good forests are, and during our interviews with people, they said they are ready to work on conservation. We can link these community forests across the landscape. They can be sharing data about what wildlife they have and do their own camera trapping. It doesn’t have to be a national park or NGO staff doing this.

Mongabay: In Nepal, we’re seeing this mass exodus of young people going abroad for work and study in the past decade. With so many people leaving the country, what would be of the next generation of community forest champions?

Teri Allendorf: Yeah, it’s hard to know. I think the glass is half-full and half-empty. We can think about all the problems that we’re going to have and we are having, on the other hand. If you look around the world, the more exposure and education and income people have, they often go home. They often want to go back to their roots. They often want to support projects where they came from to do good things.

So, the more exposure Nepalis have to the wider world, I think the more they’re going to want to bring those things back home.

That just reminds me of Wisconsin where we, at one point, were losing all the family farms as all the young people were moving out and the big corporations were buying. We thought we’re going to have no small farmers left, and the whole culture is going to be destroyed.

But in the last few years, we had all these young people come home. They bought a bunch of small farms and they did like goats and cheese and middle-class type farming, right? They were producing corn and things.

I’m trying to stay positive, as people like their environment. They will protect it if they have the chance to do so.

This article by Abhaya Raj Joshi was first published by Mongabay.com on 20 December 2023. Lead Image: A rufous sibia, a bird commonly found in Nepal’s forests. Image by Martha de Jong-Lantink via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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