Nepal’s infrastructure development aspirations build pressure on its existing green coverLegal provisions that trees felled must be replenished by planting more trees may not be being implemented, experts say and as big projects will be undertaken in the coming years, Nepal is likely to lose a major chunk of forests to them.
Nepal has an impressive forest cover of nearly 45 percent of its total land area.
Forest occupies a total of 5.96 million hectares or 40.36 percent of the country’s total area while shrubland, with shrubs and small trees, covers 0.65 million hectares or 4.38 percent of the total land mass, according to State of Nepal’s Forests, a nationwide forest resource assessment by the Forest Research and Training Centre of the Ministry of Forests and Environment.
But Nepal’s robust green cover is likely to take a toll with its rising development aspirations and construction of new infrastructure projects clearing forest areas, according to environmentalists.
“In the past forests were cleared for agricultural land and pasture and dependence on firewood and timber saw stress on forest areas,” Prabhu Budhathoki, an environmentalist, told the Post. “But now, the trend is changing. The pressure on forests is because of the country’s development ambitions for mega-projects.”
As per the government’s survey, the country has an estimated more than 2.5 billion trees of 443 species belonging to 239 genera and 99 families.
Decades of conservation efforts, particularly on community forests, have been highly successful in increasing the country's green cover to nearly 45 percent but now this success is clashing with the country's development goals.
Forests being denuded is the case the world over. While the world is heavily counting on forests in its fight against the climate crisis, deforestation has emerged as one of the leading environmental challenges.
Forests still occupy about 30 percent of the world’s land area, but they are disappearing at an alarming rate, posing threats to lives, livelihoods, environmental services like drinking water, clean air and timber as well as biodiversity.
According to the World Bank, approximately 10 million sq km of forest cover has been lost since the beginning of the 20th century. In the past 25 years, the green cover has shrunk by 1.3 million sq km—an area bigger than the size of South Africa, shows the World Bank study.
The world lost more than one football field of forest every second in 2017, The Guardian reported in 2018, analysing data from a global satellite survey. Nearly 17 percent of the Amazonian rainforest has been destroyed over the past 50 years.
According to the FAO’ State of the World Forest Report 2020, agricultural expansion continues to be the main driver of deforestation and forest degradation and the associated loss of forest biodiversity.
“Large-scale commercial agriculture [primarily cattle ranching and cultivation of soya bean and oil palm] accounted for 40 percent of tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2010, and local subsistence agriculture for another 33 percent,” reads the FAO report.
But in countries like Nepal, which is still in its early phase of infrastructure development, the driver behind forest loss would be building infrastructures for which forest areas will be cleared, say Nepali environmentalists.
According to Budhathoki, former country representative for IUCN Nepal and former National Planning Commission member, Nepal has not lost a major chunk of the forest in the last two to three decades except a little here and there.
As per the statistics of the Ministry of Forests and Environment, 150,985 trees were felled, and 577.19 ha forest was cleared for a total of 64 projects in 2018-19, the latest fiscal year for which official data is available, most of them to hydropower projects.
That year, 88,166 trees were cut down for the underground petroleum transmission line from India to Amlekhganj. More than 10,000 trees were cleared for Pathibhara Darshan Cable Car in Taplejung. Another 4,421 trees were felled for the construction of Upper Syange Hydropower in Lamjung.
Another 2,722 trees were cut down for Kaveli Corridor Transmission Line and more than 5,200 trees were cleared for Solu Corridor Transmission Line. The highest area of forests—156.64 ha—was cleared for Hongshi Cement limestone mining in 2018-19, according to Forest Ministry data.
More than 11,000 trees were felled for implementing two hydropower projects in Sankhuwasabha—the 900-megawatt Arun III project and 220-KV Koshi corridor transmission line.
While the data for the last fiscal year 2019-20 is not available, the Ministry of Forests and Environment has given nearly 300 hectares of forests for development projects this fiscal year, according spokesman Prakash Lamsal.
“In the coming years, it looks like we will be losing a significant area of forests to highways, railway routes and a proposed airport,” said Budhathoki. “For example, an 8,000 hectare forest area is estimated to be cleared for Nijgadh airport at a time when the world is talking of climate crisis and reforestation.”
Mega-projects like the proposed Nijgadh International Airport have been at the centre of controversy for environmental degradation and catastrophe it would be unleashing with its construction.
Sprawling over an area of 8045.79 hectares, the proposed airport would require felling of 2.4 million trees of all sizes. As per the Environment and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) report, nearly 770,000 trees will be felled in the first phase, which will see the building of one of the two runways, alone, alarming conservationists.
“Not only development projects like highways and railways but allotment of forests areas to the landless also costs forest cover, which is not merely space with trees but also part of the existing ecosystem,” said Vijay Singh Danuwar, another environmentalist. “Forest cover must have shrunk in the last few years already from the national record of 44.74 percent of total area.”
Like Nepal, neighbouring India, another developing country desperate to meet its development goals, is also losing its green cover to infrastructure buildings.
While 25 percent of the country's total land area is covered by forests and trees, it is still struggling to meet its target of having 33 percent of its total area under forest and tree cover as per its Forest Policy. But the threat is not over yet.
Besides rapid deforestation in recent years, the Indian government has cleared 14,000 sq km of forests to accommodate 23,716 industrial projects across India over the three decades.
In Nepal too there will be more industries, economic zones, new industrial corridors and cities, according to Budhathoki.
“If we get more foreign direct investment, then more land will be converted to businesses. Likewise, for tourism-related business and other businesses also forest land will be utilised since there is not much private land,” he said.
Mindful of forests being lost to development, there are legal provisions that make it mandatory for project developers to compensate for the loss by planting trees ten times those felled. The Forest Policy also has the goal of maintaining forest cover at 45 percent of the country’s total land area.
“If we can implement this provision effectively and also do regeneration and plantation, which is the government’s plan, on barren and degraded lands, then we can achieve the target and preserve existing forests,” Lamsal said. “Also, there are active community forest user groups helping protect forest areas across the country.”
But the government rules of compensatory plantation have not been implemented effectively, according to Danuwar.
“No one knows the number of trees planted and when and where they were planted,” he said.
Danuwar also raises questions over the credibility of the data on nationwide forest coverage. He doubts that there is actually 44.74 percent of forest coverage on the ground as the data was based on satellite images and verification on the ground has not been effective.
Lamasl too admits there are challenges in maintaining forest cover.
“When the country is in the midst of development projects, we see a growing demand for forest area for making roads, railway tracks and hydropower, leaving a challenge for maintaining the forest cover,” Lamsal said.
But economic growth in a developing country means big infrastructure projects for which land is needed and that is scarce in a geographically small country like Nepal.
“We should not stop development,” said Danuwar.
But he stresses the need for regeneration of forest cover effectively.
Budhathoki, the former planning commission member, takes an even longer view about economic growth at the cost of the environment.
“I do not know whether we are progressing or regressing,” said Budhathoki.