Our Forests and Nepal's Institute of Forestry

Features Issue 95 Jul, 2010
Text by Pat Kauba / Photo: ECS Media

Like so many other people around the world my childhood was spent running through the countryside with friends, playing in fields, pretending to be soldiers, cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians (the American ones, that is), climbing up colossal trees and even every now and again falling out of them. The big hardwoods – oak and ash – were like giants to us little people, something to be mesmerized by, to wonder at, and more importantly to build our little wooden forts in and fend off boys from other parts of the village with our homemade bows and arrows. Those were good times, and those forests were the good places to be, and as I look back now with the hindsight of maturity and responsibility they were ‘the best’. Today there is little of that playfulness left; to be honest I can’t remember the last time I climbed a tree. If I went back today to that playground of my youth, would the colossus in which we built our forts still be there? Probably not. It’s a new modern age.

Not so long ago I visited Nepal’s Institute of Forestry (IOF), and for over half a day while researching this article I recalled those carefree days of old (hence, I can write about trees and forests with melancholy). I talked with the IOF faculty and staff about forests, and to students with their bright eyes and smiles about their studies. Some were reading in the library, many were in class, and some were working in science laboratories, mixing vials of chemicals together, striking matches to set Bunsen burners alight and waiting to see the effect of heat on their mixtures. Many of the IOF’s students will go on to become the next generation of foresters, park rangers, environmentalists, rural community workers or   perhaps here we can let our mod flags fly and call them   ‘social workers for the planet’.

The IOF is an internationally noted institute, originally established in 1947 by the Department of Forests and running today as one of five institutes in the national Tribhuvan University system. The IOF operates from two campuses, the relatively new on (since the 1980s) on 50 hectares in Pokhara, and the original heavily forested 150 hectare campus at Hetauda in Nepal’s Inner Terai. Many Pokhara campus students go to Hetauda for special studies, including research and field classes.

Welcome to the IOF, Pokhara campus

The IOF Pokhara campus is comprised of trees and forest and functional buildings. The rectangular shaped buildings are loosely grouped together for administration, classrooms, library, laboratories, faculty offices, men’s and women’s dormitories, and staff quarters. Most faculty members live on campus and for most programs it is mandatory for students to live there, also.

The IOF brochure reads like a What’s What of environmental education, including various physical and biological sciences, management, law and community based subjects. Nepal is a world leader in community forestry, which helps explain the interaction between the IOF faculty and students with local communities, and funding from such big hitters as the World Bank, World Wildlife Fund, USAID, and ICIMOD (the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development). The IOF is also regional home to the Himalayan resources group called HIMUNET, a collaboration of educational institutes located in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Norway and Nepal.

All I see is wood
After touring the Pokhara campus my head was spinning with a long list of technical terms, jargon and nuances. Take, for example, the forester’s critical distinction between timber and non-timber forest products. A visit to the campus museum helped sort that out.

The museum was created with assistance from the World Wildlife Fund. Nepal is home to 84 varieties of trees, with examples of many of them on display and labeled. In one corner there is a special chamber where timber can be seasoned in a matter of days. In another corner is the cross section of a cut log where you can count the tree rings to determine the tree’s age. I now know the technical term for tree-ring dating: ‘dendrochronology’.

The non-timber section is enlightening to anyone who thinks there are only big trees in a forest. On display are hundreds of examples of the forest’s other and equally (and in some communities more) important resources – roots, berries, fruits, seeds and nuts, honey, medicinal plants, gums and resins, bamboos and other plants. The products made from them fill the markets and stores of the nation and the world, including baskets, dyes, oils, medicines and a host of edibles. Charts hang on the walls illustrating plants used for medicinal purposes, including the treatment of snakebite and typhoid fever. Good to know!

On a somber note, the museum is dedicated to the memory of the 24 victims of a tragic 2006 helicopter crash in east Nepal that took the lives of noted Nepalese foresters and environmentalists, other government officials, international dignitaries and conservationists. Their l oss has created a void that is still being filled. (See box.)

Labs and research

In the campus computer room I met a proud teacher who showed us his equipment. The IOF, he said, was the first institute in the Tribhuvan University system to be set up with computers, under auspices of a USAID project in the early 1990s. Here students learn about various relevant computer programs including the widely used GIS (Geographic Information Service, a form of mapping using satellites). Faculty members also have special classes where they learn how to repair and build computers.

A trend began to develop as I met more of the faculty. I noted that many had gotten their degrees abroad, from institutions in America, Russia, the Philippines and Norway, for example. Further education is at the core of the college’s staff. The books that the students use may be dated, the campus a little run down, but the knowledge and background that the teachers bring to it are truly invaluable, especially in the context of Nepal. The teachers are imparting the knowledge that they have gathered about what is happening in the world of forestry outside of the classrooms and the country. Testament to this is one former student’s achievement of receiving the highest marks in forestry at America’s coveted Yale University School of Forestry.

To increase their knowledge on certain aspects of forest life, students on campus can interact with the staff of international environmental and conservation organizations such as Bird Conservation Nepal and Wetland Friends Nepal, who also use the campus grounds. And in some programs and courses, students have a chance to visit forests in north India through the IOF’s connections with Indian institutes.

The bigger picture

Our natural world is changing rapidly; ‘global warming’ is the buzz word of the 21st century. Fear abounds about melting glaciers and icecaps and Co2 emissions, and rising sea levels that threaten to inundate many island nations, and the Dutch and New York City and, not least, to turn the Ireland of my youth into a new archipelago. After realizing what we’ve done to the planet and the ozone layer, we have a pretty good idea of what will happen if we don’t do something about it, soon. Trees and forests are at the forefront of modern thinking about environmental protection, a fact that should keep the IOF busy for quite some time to come. Leading global environmentalists, other scientists and many world figures now know the value of trees and Co2 sequestering. Recently, for example, we’ve seen news accounts of the Pope promoting the planting of 100,000 trees in Hungary, to offset the Vatican City’s carbon emissions.

Reforestation at the community level is popular in Nepal. One of the primary proponents (among many) is The Mountain Institute, working in the Khumbu region around Mount Everest. Other districts have seen reforestation projects funded by various international agencies – USAID, and Australia, for examples. Where reforestation is pursued using softwood pine trees, however, their shed needles tend to cover the ground and stifle understory plants, pushing away wildlife that feed on berries and nuts. Important fauna and flora are more likely to grow in hardwood forests. Graduates from the IOF are more aware than ever of the values of various tree species, given the huge amount of research that has gone into the subject, and all the reports that fill IOF’s library shelves and computer databases.

It was during the late 1880’s that British foresters in India began to realize that the forests that they were cutting down across the subcontinent were becoming unsustainable. Lord Dalhousie, the Governor General of India at the time, issued a memorandum stating that the wholesale destruction of forests was untenable and that scientific forest management was required. He was acting on a report submitted by John McCelland, his Superintendent of Forests in Burma (when it was part of the Raj). This was the beginning of the realization at high levels about deforestation across Asia, including Nepal. It was the first expression of concern for studying, understanding and saving forest environments. (One wonders now, after all these years, why the rain forests of Indonesia, the Congo and Brazil continue to be cleared bare for their timber.)

One must help institutes like the IOF to continue long into the future, and hope that organizations like ICIMOD and the WWF and HIMUNET will continue their work to study and teach and manage the forests of the nation, the region and the world. We need politicians who stand out to promote treaties and accords to conserve the natural forest resources of the planet. Only with their help can our children have the trees to play under and climb (and sometimes fall out of), with a chance to grow knowing forests well enough to become fully informed proponents for sustainable environments. The forests of Nepal and the world are homes and habitats, livelihoods and shelters, sustenance and medicine, fuel and construction materials, playgrounds and research sites and, above all, the natural lungs by which the planet breathes.

See more about the Nepal’s Institute of Forestry at www.iof.edu.np.