Lockdown restrictions have hit livelihood of poor families who depend on community forestsGovernment set to lose billions in revenue as forest cutting halted due to Covid-19.
Dhurba Raj KC has been associated with a Jyoti Community Forest in Dang since he was in his late twentie. For the 72-year-old, the forest has been his source for fuelwood, fodder for his cattle and timber to build his cow shed and his house.
Every year during late April, KC along with other members of the community forest group would go to the forest to cut down old marked trees and pick up trees which had fallen down. This year, due to Covid-19, that will not be happening.
“Government regulations say we have to cut down trees by mid-May, before the onset of the monsoon,” KC told the Post over the phone. “How are we to survive when we aren’t allowed to collect wood from the forest which we look after? How do I cook meals when I don’t have firewood? What am I going to feed the cattle?”
KC is just one of many Nepalis, dependent on community forests for their livelihood, who have been affected by the lockdown restrictions.
Seema Rai, is also worried about not being able to enter the forest this year. Rai owns a small enterprise which makes plates from leaves of Saal trees. But now, with the government asking everyone to maintain social distance, Rai says her business will suffer.
“Like all business, all of us are going to face a lot of problems. All of 15 staff have been asked to stay home. It is unlikely that we will be producing any Saal plates this year. According to my calculation, I’ll probably lose around Rs 500,000 this year. But that said, we have to respect the request put forward by the government,” Rai said.
Chairman of the Federation for Community Forestry Users Bharati Kumari Pathak said that the federation has been getting a lot of grievances from the various community forest committees.
“Many people might not know it, but a lot of people are associated with the community forests. According to our estimation, this will affect around 10 million people,” Pathak told the Post. “This is only going to affect the revenue of the government.”
Pathak said that while they have been handing out aid to people who need it the most, they are also holding virtual meetings regularly to discuss how to help the people in need.
“We are trying to talk to the government so that we can cut down trees later on in the year. But for now, people are having a hard time. Especially those from the poor class. And people depend on the forest for their livelihood.”
The Ministry of Forests and Environment says that the government is likely to lose revenue in excess of Rs 10 billion.
“Our plan this year was to cut down 21 million trees,” said Sindu Dhungana, spokesperson of the Ministry of Forests and Environment. “Before lockdown, 11 million trees had already been cut leaving 10 million trees still left to be cut. According to our projection, the state will lose revenue up to Rs 10 billion which came in the form of tax from community forests and as royalty from the district forest offices.”
Pathak said that the Bagmati Province alone collected revenue of around Rs 690 million in fiscal year 2019-20. “The government won’t be generating the expected revenue while the poor families will also be facing financial problems.”
The sheer amount of revenue that is generated from the sector is one of the reasons why the ministry is trying to seek permission from the government to enter forests to cut down trees.
“We are a poor country. We can’t stay in lockdown forever. Which is why we have written to the Prime Minister’s Officer to seek permission to cut down trees or at least give us permission to cut it down later on in the year. If we don’t do that, we will have to import wood which would affect the economy and affect the saw mills and furniture industries,” said Dhungana.
It’s not just the wood that will cause a loss in revenue for the government. A lot of people depend on the forest to collect herbs like Curcuma longa (turmeric) and Azadirachta indica (neem) which Dhungana says will cost the country another Rs 100 million in revenue.
“We’ve been getting grievances from the herbal sector stating that the lockdown has halted the transportation of herbs worth Rs 60 million,” says Dhungana.
The community is also likely to face problems due to this. The funds generated from the community forest are used towards the uplifting of the community.
“We build schools, hire teachers, dig up trails and offer loans to the needy at a very nominal interest rate,” said Pathak. “We will be losing all of that. At least for a year.”