Dynamism of Forest Commons: Learning from Nepal’s Community Forestry

By Dr. Bishwa Regmi

The commons1 refer to resources that are collectively owned or shared between or among populations. These resources are said to be “held in common” and can include everything from natural resources to knowledge to software.

Forests have been and continued to be the foundation for human survival, livelihood and prosperity. Forests cover2 31% of the world’s total land area. As forest can generate large number of products and services, forest users’ interests often contradict, become diverse and competing. The question of who owns the forest, who claims them, who has access and control to the forests have been hotly debated in many forest regions of the world. These are often the main concerns of indigenous/local people who are directly dependent on forest resources. In this context, the aim of this paper is to review contemporary studies about forest commons in particular to Nepal’s Community Forestry.

The common property resources continue to decline3 in size and productivity due to the trend of privatization and commoditization. In the past, in many continents, it was believed that indigenous management of the commons was based on exploitation by all and maintenance by no one. Garrett Hardin4 named this as “tragedy of the commons” where commons as open access systems have no rules to manage resource use, gives opportunity to anyone to exploit the resource as per their wish and that leads to resource degradation and depletion. In contrast to Hardin’s notion of commons, Elinor Ostrom, Nobel winner, articulated for the need of social control mechanisms5 for successful governance of the common forests. Ostrom6, suggested− clear group boundaries, local needs and condition specific governing rules, participation of those affected by the rules, recognition from the authorities, effective community monitoring system, graduated sanctions for the rule violators, transparent conflict resolution process in place, and building an interconnected responsibility− for effective governance of common resources.

In the pretext of Hardin’s conjecture of open access resource, indigenous management systems were condemned as destructive and state intervened in the management of the commons. State took rights from indigenous/local people and gave management authority to the public forest agencies. As a result, state owned most of the forests. It is estimated7 that about 77% of the world’s forest is owned and administered by the state while approximately 7% is owned by the local communities. In the western world, the tradition of state ownership began in medieval Europe and was later transported to many colonies across Africa, America and Asia. This legacy opened the ways for privatization and nationalization of common forest resources. Policies, regulations, and agencies were developed favouring state ownership and management of forest resources. Enclosures of many kinds, ranging from ranches, protected areas, crown forest and game reserves, etc. were established limiting access to land and resources for many peasants and rural people who were dependent on forest resources for meeting their daily livelihoods. Consequently, indigenous forest management systems were further weakened and were replaced by technocratic model. Agencies that were distant to forest have got permits to manage common forest resources. This form of management brought disappointment because these agencies possessed neither the necessary knowledge nor the experience of local forest management. In this process, local indigenous knowledge was lost and forest users were increasingly marginalized. For example, indigenous8 forest management systems have existed in Nepal for many years. However, the nationalisation of forests in 1957 destroyed indigenous institutions turning forest resources into open access resources.

Ostrom9 argues that local communities are better manager of forests than any other state agencies and there is increasing involvement of indigenous/local people in the management of common forests. Over the past two decades, huge efforts have been made by international agencies, international conventions and national movements to put pressure on states to recognize the traditional ownership claim of the local people. As a result, local people role is becoming vital and are getting recognition to manage the common forest resources. In the late 1980s10 international policy focused more on Community Forestry development programmes. States all over the world have shifted their forest management strategies towards decentralization and bottom up approaches to bring about greater participation of the rural households in forest management. A new participatory forestry management programme in the name of Community Forestry, backed by the FAO and other international organisations, emerged across the nations. This shift provided more flexibility and rights to the local users contributing positively to the rural household economy.

The trend of global development greatly influenced the development of Nepal’s forestry sector. The Community Forestry11 initiative began in the late 1970s. In the late 1980s, the Community Forestry Policy focused more on handing over government forests to user groups for the purpose of protection, management and to benefit the rural households. Although the Community Forestry Policy has gone through considerable changes since its initiation, the community-based forest management system allowed that those who are dependent on forests could be good carers of the forest where access and use is regulated by the users themselves. In accordance with the latest official12 records, 35 percent of the total population of Nepal is involved in Community Forestry management program and more than 1.2 million hectares of forest have been handed-over to more than 14,000 community forest user groups, benefitting more that 1.6 million households. Nepal’s forest policy is recognized13 as one of the best examples in the world for leading the community-based forest management. In conclusion, community-based forestry management system continues to be seen as one of the best instruments in sustainable local management of forest resources.


  • [1]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_commons (accessed: August 1, 2011)
  • 2FAO (2010) Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010, Main Report, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Forestry Paper 163.
  • 3Jodha, N. S. (1995) Common Property Resources and the Environmental Context: Role of Biophysical Versus Social Stress. Economic and Political Weekly. Vol. 30, No. 51. pp. 3278-3283.
  • 4http://www.sciencemag.org/site/feature/misc/webfeat/sotp/pdfs/162-3859-1243.pdf (accessed: August 1, 2011)
  • 5http://www.yesmagazine.org/new-economy/the-victory-of-the-commons (accessed: August 8, 2011)
  • 6http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/america-the-remix/8-keys-to-a-successful-commons (accessed: August 8, 2011)
  • 7http://areweb.berkeley.edu/~antinori/whoowns.pdf (accessed: August 1, 2011)
  • 8Fisher, R. J. (1989) Indigenous Systems of Common Property Forest Management in Nepal. Working Paper Number 18. Honululu, Environment and Policy Institute/East-West Centre.
  • 9http://www.cifor.cgiar.org/publications/pdf_files/OccPapers/OP-20.pdf (accessed: August 9, 2011)
  • 10 Arnold, J.E.M. (2001) Forest and People 25 Years of Community Forestry. Rome: FAO.
  • 11Gilmour, D. (2003) Retrospective and Prospective View of Community Forestry in Nepal. Journal of Forest and Livelihood 2(2). P. 5-7.
  • 12http://www.dof.gov.np/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=95&Itemid=121 (accessed: August 8, 2011)
  • 13http://www.gacfonline.com/2011/07/future-policy-award-nepals-forest-policy-one-of-the-best-worldwide (accessed August 8, 2011)

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