Nepal's Environment Is Getting Better...Really!

Features Issue 182 Feb, 2017

In many regions around the world, more so in less developed countries, ecological degradation is usually considered to be a given. But Nepal’s scenario is quite different, it’s quite encouraging, actually!

We are used to bemoaning that everything is getting worse in Nepal. Oh yes. Politics? Down the tubes! Economics? Forever poor!  Pollution? Oh, the air is unbreathable in Kathmandu!

And the environment? Ooops … deforestation, denudation, glacier melt, erosion, fragile mountains, losing ground, and wasn’t the Nepal Himalayas getting washed away to the Bay of Bengal to make new islands off Bangladesh? But, no! Evidence is accumulating that the environment, as we know it, is actually getting better, much better. One such recent evidence is the increase in forest area over the last 20 years (1994-2014), a little over five percent1. This number looks modest, but it is an unmistakable turnaround from decades to centuries of deforestation in Nepal.

Scholars claim that deforestation was a process and policy ever since King Prithvi Narayan Shah decided that he needed more revenue flow to support his standing army. So, he exhorted his subjects to increase the population and labor to clear up the remaining lands in the hills and vales for agriculture. As a result, the modern nation could thus support a population increase from about three million in 1768 to eight million by 1952/54.  To support the extra five million more Nepalis, a lot of forests were cleared: environment deteriorated!

After Nepal opened up to the outer world in the 1950s, and the advent of pesticides such as DDT, an explicit policy was adopted to release the population pressure from the ecologically dense mid-hills and mountains, where more than two-thirds of Nepalis lived, to the Terai, where by 2011, now, more than half of the Nepali population live. In 60 years of “development”, Nepal witnessed massive deforestation, denudation, soil erosion all over the landscape; some estimate that half of all Nepal’s forests was lost due to “development”, in what was then known as the great Himalayan environmental degradation theory of 1976, but the exact figures were open to dispute.

Getting good quality data is difficult and expensive, and thus, far-in-between. The first large scale measurement of Nepal’s forests was done for the Terai forests only by USAID supported aerial photography in 1964/65; but the hills and the mountains were excluded. Only three national-scale measurements of entire Nepal’s landscape (or the environment) have been made so far: a) 1978 Land Resource Mapping Project, b) 1994 National Forest Inventory, and c) 2014 Forest Resources Assessment. Progressively, these techniques used the latest technology available for periods of four-five years.

These large scale, multi-year studies are considered the most reliable dataset, more so than the smaller scale studies done at village, district, watershed, or regional scales. From 1978-1994, the forest area decreased at an average annual rate of 0.5%, from 42.7% to 39.6% of the country’s area. However, from 1994-2014, the forest area increased at an annual rate of 0.27%. The State of Nepal Forests, 2015, reveals that we now have 6.61 million hectares of forests, or an increase of 5.31%, or 780,000 hectares more even after we account for patches of deforestation still occurring in some parts of the Terai.

A major claimant to the credit of forest area turnaround is the community forestry scheme Nepal launched in 1978 to arrest deforestation and degradation by handing over all degraded forests, some 70% of the total forest area, to the communities using them, and persuading them to take care of them with legally guaranteed promises of the shares of benefits from such rehabilitated forests. Now, in 2016, nearly 35% of Nepal’s forests are managed by nearly 35% of Nepal’s population, participating in over 18,000 community forestry user groups. The role of community forestry in turning denuded hills to verdant slopes is not disputed, as the pictures below show, but in the Terai, the claim is more contested.
There are other macro-processes beyond the government schemes, such as community forestry or hariyo ban, multi stakeholder program, landscape conservation approach, to name a few. All the state policies, or failure of policies, driving out-migration and emigration have a net result of reducing the population pressure on rural natural resources, including forests. These processes have increased in scale to result in net depopulation (i.e. decline in population) in over a third of Nepal’s 75 districts, and the official count of absentee population was nearly two million in the 2011 census. 

So, it is quite reasonable to expect the forests to come back. And it has come back with resilience, due to the ecology of warm monsoon climate and relatively milder scale of environmental degradation, according to a study done by Clark University in 19952. Many recently rehabilitated forests are reporting top carnivores like leopards coming back, as they can find prey such as deer, and the deer can find food. Nepal’s environment would have come back even if community forestry had failed!

Going from forest recovery, Nepal can even claim gains in climate change environmental mitigation. In 1994, the Initial National Communication of Nepal to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) estimated a total contribution of 0.025% of the global greenhouse gases. By 2014, Nepal’s contribution to total greenhouse gases at 0.027% ought to be even less, according to the country brief submitted to the UNFCCC3,  since it has increased forest area by  5.3%, which means there are now more forests to take out the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 
The agricultural sector of crops and forestry contribute over 80% of the greenhouse gases by Nepal, so even with an increase of carbon dioxide from the fuel burning in less than 20% of total emissions, Nepal’s contribution to global greenhouse gases ought to be less than reported.  Further, global carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased from around 350 parts per million to a little over 400, so  Nepal’s contribution ought to be a lot less proportion of global greenhouse gases, and doing better than 135 other nations to make the global environment better.

The environmental discourse in Nepal, as across all over the globe, is too alarmist, and there are inherent political interests driving this trajectory. For the global players and their Nepali enclave of officials and experts, the alarmist discourse ensures the flow of global dollars ‘to save the world and humanity’, but really to mask excuses for hitherto colonial powers to maintain their leverage in Nepal; and for Nepal insiders, the money helps alleviate unemployment for the environment and sustainable development manpower, as pointed by Professor Judith Guthman of University of California in Los Angeles in her 2002 article4. 

Such a discourse has done an overall disservice to the environmental advocacy worldwide, including Nepal, since they tend to be dismissed as ‘crying wolves’. And, we have in Nepal examples of respectable INGO reports predicting that all trees would disappear by 2000, and all glaciers would melt by 20355. What such discourses lack is the role of human agency in responding to such environmental degradation; such responses first appear as too little, too late, but these do gather momentum and efficiency, and do turn around the trajectory of environmental degradation, as has happened in forestry in Nepal. So, the environment in Nepal is getting better. Really!