Course:FRST270/Wiki Projects/Co-Management with Indigenous Tharu Communities in the Buffer Zones of Royal Chitwan National Park Nepal

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Co-Management with Indigenous Tharu Communities in the Buffer Zones of Royal Chitwan National Park, Nepal

Royal Chitwan National Park (RCNP) presents a deviation from a broad trend where state power is successfully devolved to local communities in the management of forest resources in Nepal (Jones 2007; Iversen, Chhetry, Francis, Gurung, Kafle, Pain, & Seeley 2006; Nagendra 2002; ). The high-value forest resources of the Terai floodplains in which RCNP is located are an important source of government revenue, causing hesitance in the devolvement of state power to local communities, and motivating the enforcement of protectionist management policies (Iversen et al. 2006; Nagendra, Pareeth, Sharma, Schweik & Adhikari 2007). This has been particularly detrimental to indigenous Tharu communities in the buffer zones of RCNP, whose customary forest use rights have been limited by the national park, and who are marginalised under the social hierarchies established by settlers (Jones 2007; Nagendra et al. 2007). However, a lack of downward accountability within communities, coupled with the prevailing social hierarchies, makes decentralised management problematic due to elite capture (Iversen et al. 2006). In light of this context, forest resource management in RCNP may be improved by the removal of protectionist policies – particularly the restrictions set by the Grass Cutting Programme (GCP) – to allow local communities greater access to valuable resources. In addition, agreements and statements from state authorities reinforcing support for community based forest management may help allay concerns among communities that their forests or revenues will be reacquired by the government. Meanwhile, further studies regarding social hierarchies and mechanisms of elite capture within the communities are prerequisite in the successful implementation of further decentralised community forest management strategies.


Nepal is widely regarded as a leader in conservation and community forestry among developing countries, and has seen considerable success in the implementation of decentralised forest management policies in its many hill forests (Jones 2007; Iversen et al. 2006; Agrawal & Ostrom 2001). However, established in 1973 as Nepal’s first national park, Royal Chitwan National Park (RCNP) lies in the fertile subtropical Terai floodplains, outside of the hilly regions which constitute the majority of Nepal’s forests (Stapp, Lilieholm, Leahy & Upadhaya 2016; Jones 2007). The unique geographic and political realities of this regional context lead forest management in RCNP to deviate from a broader national trend of well-integrated community management.

National Context

The contemporary shift in Nepalese national policy towards the promotion of community based forest resource management is a relatively new development. Recent decades have seen increased pressure from international donors calling for the devolvement of state power to local communities in light of poor outcomes under centralised management (Jones 2007). This section seeks to situate this shift within the context of key events and decisions in the history of Nepalese national parks policy discourse.

The Private Forests Nationalisation Act of 1957 saw all privately owned forested land brought under the control of the Department of Forestry (Stapp 2016; Jones 2007; Agrawal & Ostrom 2001). While this policy was been framed as a measure to minimise forest degradation by private loggers, it is apparent that the policy presented the state with monopolistic access to timber revenues (Stapp 2016; Jones 2007). However, this undermined customary usufruct rights of forest dependent communities, who responded by regarding the forests as de facto open access areas (Stapp 2016; Jones 2007; Agrawal & Ostrom 2001).

The deforestation resulting from open access use challenged the conservation objectives which had motivated the nationalisation of forests, and decentralisation was seen as a solution (Jones 2007). Thus, the National Forest Act of 1976 was an initial attempt at decentralised forest management within existing administrative structures set by the government (Jones 2007). However, failure to accommodate the structures underlying customary management practices made this policy largely unsuccessful (Jones 2007).

Finally, the Master Plan for the Forestry Sector of 1988 initiated a process whereby the management of all accessible hill forests was transferred to forest user groups (FUGs) (Jones 2007; Agrawal & Ostrom 2001). The strategy espoused holistic long-term objectives, with consideration for social, ecological, and economic dimensions of forest management at both the local and national scale (Jones 2007). The community forests that emerged from this process were widely regarded as successful, and are largely responsible for the international reputation of Nepalese forest management practices.

Regional Context

While policies surrounding decentralised forest management are national in scope, the regional context of the Terai differs greatly from the hills, and influences policy implementation. Indeed, while the Terai constitutes 17 percent of forests, 47 percent of national population resides in the floodplains (Jones 2007). This places a greater demand upon regional forest resources. Meanwhile, the relatively high value of forest resources and the higher quality infrastructure make them profitable to the state (Jones 2007; Iversen et al. 2006). This is a primary cause for resistance in the devolvement of state control of forests in the region, alongside claims that the prioritization of anti-smuggling activities have left forest officials little time to oversee the implementation of community forests (Jones 2007).

The presence of indigenous Tharu communities is unique to the Terai, and further differentiates regional policy implementation from the hills. Despite representing a diverse range of peoples, the Tharu have been ascribed a common identity based on their aboriginal habitation of the floodplains (Jones 2007). Shifting policies and conditions have slowly stripped them of their customary rights to land since the 1950s. In particular, the Nationalisation Act of 1957 resulted in the loss of important rights as forests were brought under state control (Stapp 2016; Jones 2007). In addition, malaria eradication in the 1960s led to increased settlement and conversion of forests to farmland as hill communities migrated into the region (Jones 2007; Nagendra et al. 2007; Iversen et al. 2006). Consequently, the Tharu who once dominated the region on account of their immunity to malaria have come to represent only half of the population of the Terai (Jones 2007). This further reduced indigenous access to forest resources, and led to marginalisation along ethno-caste lines as the Tharu were assimilated into the social hierarchies of the settlers (Jones 2007; Iversen et al. 2006). Finally, centralised forest management policies saw the forced resettlement of Tharu communities under military enforcement between 1962 and 1999 (Jones 2007; Nagendra 2002)

It is apparent that the implementation of community forests in the Terai has been less thorough than in the hills. This is evident in the contrast between national level policies and those particular to the Terai. For example, the Conservation Area Act of 1989 created a new category of protected area to grant communities greater decision making power and access to natural resource extraction (Stapp 2016; Jones 2007). As a national policy, this primarily benefitted hill communities (Jones 2007; Iversen et al. 2006). In contrast, the GCP, which is intended to allow communities surrounding RCNP limited annual access to the park for resource extraction, has become increasing restrictive (Jones 2007; Stræde & Treue 2006; Stræde & Helles 2000). In addition, the continued presence of the Royal Nepal Army in RCNP is illustrative of the continued emphasis on centralised management (Jones 2007).

Administrative arrangements

The Buffer Zone Act of 1993 is central in defining contemporary administrative arrangements in the buffer zones of RCNP. In particular, the act handed over administration of the forests surrounding the park to RCNP authorities, and designated areas as private, state, buffer zone forests (BZF), or buffer zone community forests (BZCF) (Jones 2007; Iversen et al. 2006; Nagendra 2002; Agrawal & Ostrom 2001). Under this new arrangement, private land rights remained relatively unaltered, while high-value sal forests were generally designated as state forests (Jones 2007; Nagendra 2002). Meanwhile, BZFs were characterised by high biodiversity and conservation value, and were subject to the same rules as the park (Jones 2007). Finally, the remaining areas that were allocated as BZCFs were of relatively low value, and primarily served to reduce stress on BZFs by facilitating the management of consumptive resource uses (Jones 2007).

After areas had been designated according to the four aforementioned types, forest user groups (FUGs) as identified by District Forest Officers were permitted to map the precise boundaries of the areas, and to develop a constitution to govern management practices (Jones 2007; Agrawal & Ostrom 2001). Management was then verbally passed down to communities in an informal agreement, and executive committees of 10 to 15 members would be elected to oversee community forest management (Jones 2007; Agrawal & Ostrom 2001). However, “management ownership” would only be officially passed down to the communities once a five-year operational plan was ratified by the RCNP chief warden (Jones 2007; Agrawal & Ostrom 2001). The plan was developed based on rules set by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC), local communities represented by the FUGs, and the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation non-government organization (KMT) (Jones 2007). Household surveys of FUGs conducted by KMT are particularly important in the representation of community values within the planning process, as well as the establishment of inventories noting initial forest conditions prior to implementation of the management plan (Jones 2007).

With administration of forests surrounding the park bounds handed down to RCNP, and management practices in these forests being determined by rules set by various institutions, it is worth noting that there are rules specific to BZCFs that do not apply to community forests outside the Terai. In particular, the DNPWC specifies that BZCF products may not be sold outside the buffer zone area, no timber may be felled without consultation of a park ranger, 40% of revenue should be reinvested in forest management, and 60% should be used for community development (Jones 2007). Meanwhile, communities get little to no access to the revenue generated by commercial timber extraction within the bounds of the BZCF (Jones 2007).

Tenure arrangements

While the nationalisation of forests has historically resulted in state forests being regarded as de facto open access areas, contemporary arrangements have come to feature elements of decentralised management in attempting to minimise forest degradation at the hands of malcontented local communities. Thus, while contemporary tenure arrangements have devolved less power to BZCFs than is granted to those in the hills, Terai communities still express a high degree of perceived ownership (Jones 2007). However, FUGs voice concerns that the government will reclaim BZCFs if they are managed too well or too poorly, or attempt to reallocate forest revenues (Jones 2007). A particular limitation to community forest use rights is apparent in the rights provided by the GCP, which offers very limited rights to withdraw important resources from the park (Jones 2007; Stræde & Treue 2006; Nagendra 2002; Stræde & Helles 2000). In addition, it should be noted that the marginal status of Tharu community members leads them to be excluded from many of the factors that contribute to the high levels of perceived ownership within FUGs more broadly (Jones 2007).

Table 1 illustrates the extent to which tenure has been decentralised community forests and areas surrounding RCNP. In particular, rights to withdrawal, management, exclusion, and alienation are considered per Agrawal and Ostrom’s typology of property rights (2001). Meanwhile, Table 2 focusses on the same parameters of decentralisation in the case of BZCFs in RCNP.

Table 1: Illustration of the extent to which tenure has been decentralised in community forests and areas surrounding national parks in the Terai (Jones 2007)
People and parks programme buffer zone user groups Community forestry in the hills Community forestry in the Terai
Rights to National park resources Community forest resources Community forest resources
Withdrawal Limited rights (Grass Cutting Programme ) Transferred, but forest clearance for agricultural use is not permitted Transferred subject to guidelines that can be fairly relaxed subject to approval from the Forest Department
Management Retained by state Transferred – user groups play a direct role in the preparation and implementation of management plans, but 25% of cash income must be spent on development activity Rights of user groups to modify management systems designed by state bodies is somewhat limited
Exclusion Retained by state Transferred – user groups are involved in day to day forest protection and allocation of benefits Largely retained by state – membership decided by district forest officer
Alienation Retained by state Retained by state Retained by state
Table 2: Decentralization of tenure in community forests within the buffer zones of RCNP (Jones 2007)
Rights Community forestry in the buffer zones of the RCNP
Withdrawal BZCF user group committees make their own decisions about the withdrawal of most non-timber forest products all year round (negotiated and agreed in Management Plan). Restrictions exist on selling produce outside the buffer zone
Management BZCF user group committees are involved in the initial design of the Management Plans and have considerable scope to modify management, in consultation with other stakeholders. Restrictions exist on how funds can be used
Exclusion BZCF user group committees police their own forests and decide on the forest and user group boundaries and distribution of withdrawal rights but the state has ultimate authority and enforcement responsibility for exclusion regulations
Alienation Retained by state

Affected Stakeholders

The diverse range of indigenous peoples who are collectively referred to as the Tharu are affected stakeholders within RCNP forest management discourse, as they are particularly dependent on forest resources for their livelihoods (Jones 2007). While the Tharu dominated the Terai and practiced a form of shifting cultivation within the area, they have slowly been stripped of their customary rights through shifting land use policies since the 1950s, as well as the influx of hill migrants following malaria eradication in the 1960s (Jones 2007; Iversen et al. 2006). Consequently, the Tharu occupy a marginal position within the social hierarchies established by hill migrants, and have relatively little power within their communities (Iversen et al. 2006). Assimilation into the Hindu caste system has been particularly detrimental in this regard (Jones 2007; Iversen et al. 2006). In light of this context, the Tharu primarily wish to obtain greater access to important customary forest resources, as well as the socioeconomic benefits derived from RCNP.

In addition to the Tharu, the settlers from the hills are also reliant on forest resources, albeit to a lesser extent. The majority of the Terai population are dependent on forest resources to some extent, with fuel wood serving as an important energy source in bother rural and urban settings (Jones 2007). Moreover, two-thirds of Nepal’s population relies on forests for food, indicating that there are also non-indigenous affected stakeholders within RCNP forest management discourse (Jones 2007). These actors have a less marginal social position, and have more power than the Tharu. Similarly to the Tharu, they wish to acquire greater access to forest resources such as dead wood, thatch, and grasses for fodder.

Interested Outside Stakeholders

The government, as represented by the Department of Forests, is an interested stakeholder due to their central role in forest management. While the acquisition of revenues from forest resources has historically been a primary state objective, this has been counter balanced by the need to accommodate donor pressures that are in favour of community based forest resource management, and the need to adequately protect the ecological integrity of RCNP (Stapp 2016; Jones 2007; Agrawal & Ostrom 2001). In light of the historic emphasis on centralised management, the state retains a significant amount of decision making power.

RCNP authorities, such as the DNPWC and military enforcements, are interested stakeholders as administrative authority and policing have been passed down to them by the state. Accordingly, they must adequately enforce the law, minimize conflict with local communities, and manage consumptive use of national park resources (Jones 2007). While these institutions have considerable power, they are largely answerable to state bodies.

The United Nations is an interested stakeholder, largely through its involvement of the UNDP People and Parks Programme. Key objectives include the protection of ecological features through positive people-park relations. While they are not as involved in management planning and decision making, the UNDP exhibits significant power through its programme, as well as the significant role of donor pressures in influencing state objectives.

Finally, KMT is an interested stakeholder through involvement in the development of management plans. As a strong advocate for positive people-park relations in the achievement of conservation objectives, KMT is an important representative for community stakeholders, and an influential actor.


Deforestation caused by unregulated use of forest resources was a primary concern motivating the shift towards decentralised management (Stapp 2016; Jones 2007; Nagendra et al. 2007; Iversen et al. 2006). Thus, the extent to which community forestry mitigates forest degradation and fragmentation may be seen as a parameter in evaluating the success of decentralised forest management. Analysis of land use change based on Landsat imagery indicates that community forests and participatory management programs are capable of slowing degradation and even revitalising forests (Nagendra et al. 2007). However, it has also been noted that the species composition under community-based management is altered to increase instrumental value, and may have implications for biodiversity despite increased biomass and canopy cover (Nagendra 2002). In addition, the quality of forests set aside for community management are generally of lower quality, further complicating the consideration of forest revitalisation as an indicator of successful management (Nagendra 2002).

Success of community forest management may also be evaluated in terms of benefits to the communities involved. The high levels of perceived ownership consequently indicate some degree of success, and suggest that there is sufficient motivation for continued participation in community forestry (Stapp 2016; Jones 2007). However, concerns that revenues or the forests themselves will be reacquired by the state if management proves to be either too profitable or inadequate challenges these perceptions (Jones 2007). Meanwhile, stringent regulations set by the GCP greatly limit access to valuable national park resources regardless of perceived ownership among community members (Jones 2007; Stræde & Treue 2006; Stræde & Helles 2000). This highlights the constraints on benefits derived from community based forest management. In addition, indigenous Tharu community members are not equal beneficiaries of decentralised management, and are marginalised along ethno-caste lines as introduced by settlers from the hills (Stapp 2016; Jones 2007; Iversen et al. 2006).

Finally, the success of forest management may be evaluated based on the extent to which benefits are equitably distributed within communities. This is a particularly relevant parameter in evaluating the community forests of RCNP, as high levels of elite capture have been documented (Jones 2007; Iversen et al. 2006). This is largely due to underlying biases in rents created by FUGs, and social hierarchies such as those created by ethno-caste distinctions (Iversen et al. 2006). In addition, it has been observed that elite capture is largely conducted through hidden economies, with hidden transactions and hidden subsidies serving as primary mechanisms by which benefits are diverted (Iversen et al. 2006). Hidden transactions consist of illicit acts, with the illegal harvesting of timber, accepting bribes, and embezzlement or theft from FUG-funds as common examples. Meanwhile, hidden subsidies are subsidies which are not accounted for in FUG accounts.


The stakeholders involved in community based forest management discourse of RCNP have varying degrees of relative power, and utilise their power differently. The Tharu have very little power in influencing management decisions, and primarily wish to have access to important customary forest resources from which they have been excluded. In comparison, settlers from the hills have more power than the Tharu through their imposition of a new social hierarchy, and their higher socioeconomic status through involvement in the tourism industry (Pandit 2012). Consequently, despite also relying on forest resources to some extent, the settlers primarily wish to gain economic benefits from the forests and tourism development. This can also manifest as elite capture when regulations fail to combat the skewed power dynamic of the social hierarchy. Both the Tharu and hill migrants are subject to RCNP authorities, who have a high degree of power conferred to them by the state. This power is used to oversee forest management and militaristically enforce national park regulations. The state has a very high degree of power, as historic centralisation of management decisions has given the state great influence in the devolvement of power to local communities. This power is primarily used to obtain revenues from forest resources. This power is counterbalanced by donor pressures that are in favour of decentralised management, with the UN serving as a particularly powerful actor to this effect through the UNDP People and Parks Programme. Finally, the KMT demonstrates a fairly high degree of relative power through its ability to influence state management approaches, and its involvement in the development of operational plans.


Having examined community forests within the buffer zones of RCNP, and considering forest management practices at the national scale, a number of recommendations can be made to further various stakeholder objectives.


While there is a high level of perceived ownership reported within community forests, concerns that forests or revenues would have to be returned to the state detracted from this. Consequently, the implementation of agreements to alleviate these concerns would further community forest management objectives. However, difficulties may arise in formulating such agreements, as further decentralisation does not appear to be feasible at this time. Furthermore, the implementation of an independent body to monitor adherence to such an agreement by state and park authorities may be difficult. Thus, consultations and public statements from state authorities reassuring communities that they will retain rights to forest resources may serve as a feasible compromise.


While the GCP minimised people-park conflict at its inception, it has been widely criticised for its restrictions which prevent communities from accessing important forest resources (Stræde & Treue 2006; Stræde & Helles 2000). In particular, the GCP may better serve its function in managing consumptive use of national park resources through the distribution of days on which the park is accessible across the year, and an increase in the number of days on which park resources may be accessed. Moreover, priority should be given to Tharu, who have a greater dependence on forest resources, and have less access to community forest benefits on account of their marginal status.


As a key representative of community interests in management planning processes, KMT should further study the social hierarchies which give rise to elite capture and marginalisation of Tharu. This may be done with the support of the UN or donors who are in favour of community forestry as a component in maintaining ecological integrity. As an essential component in ensuring equitable distribution of benefits and the attainment of community forest objectives, this should precede any attempts at further decentralisation of forest management to community forests.


Agrawal, A., & Ostrom, E. (2001). Collective action, property rights, and decentralization in resource use in India and Nepal. Politics & Society 29(4), 485-514.

Iversen, V., Chhetry, B., Francis, P., Gurung, M., Kafle, G., Pain, A., & Seeley, J. (2006). High value forests, hidden economies and elite capture: Evidence from forest user groups in Nepal's Terai. Ecological Economics, 58(1), 93-107.

Jones, S. (2007). Tigers, trees and Tharu: An analysis of community forestry in the buffer zone of the Royal Chitwan National Park, Nepal. Geoforum, 38(3), 558-575.

Nagendra, H. (2002). Tenure and forest conditions: community forestry in the Nepal Terai. Environmental Conservation, 29(04).

Nagendra, H., Pareeth, S., Sharma, B., Schweik, C., & Adhikari, K. (2007). Forest fragmentation and regrowth in an institutional mosaic of community, government and private ownership in Nepal. Landscape Ecology, 23(1), 41-54.

Pandit, S. (2012). Marginalization of the Tharu ethnic group in tourism development in Nepal. Turizam, 16(2), 40-49.

Stapp, J., Lilieholm, R., Leahy, J., & Upadhaya, S. (2016). Linking attitudes, policy, and forest cover change in buffer zone communities of Chitwan National Park, Nepal. Environmental Management, 57(6), 1292-1303.

Stræde, S., & Helles, F. (2000). Park-people conflict resolution in Royal Chitwan National Park, Nepal: buying time at high cost?. Environmental Conservation, 27(04).

Stræde, S., & Treue, T. (2006). Beyond buffer zone protection: A comparative study of park and buffer zone products' importance to villagers living inside Royal Chitwan National Park and to villagers living in its buffer zone. Journal Of Environmental Management, 78(3), 251-267.

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