Course:FRST370/An exploration of women’s roles within community forestry in Nepal

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This case study assesses the roles women play in community forestry in the country of Nepal. In Nepal, women are the primary forest user group, making them most affected by forest management decisions and forest condition. As forest products such as fuel wood and non-timber forest products (NTFP) become more scarce, women are required to travel greater distances in order to acquire the products on which they depend. However, the women in Nepal are facing a positive feedback loop in which the top down structure of governance excludes them from decision making, thus dis-empowering them even more. This study will discuss the devolution that needs to occur in order to give responsibility and decision making power to women directly. Involving women in decision making and tenure agreements is not only needed for social equity, but it is needed in order to improve the physical condition of the community forests. Due to women being the most affected stakeholders (as they do the majority of firewood gathering and NTFP harvesting), they will be able to provide insights and management suggestions solely focused on forest health and sustainability. 


Map of Nepal

The cultural, religious, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of Nepal creates a complex system of community forestry arrangements.  Nepal has a painful history of oppression by dynasties and kingdoms, all of which follow a patriarchal management structure[1]. Nepal’s regional context is heavily influenced by outside forces because Nepal is squeezed between two historically powerful countries: India and China.  Both countries have a significant influence on community forestry and gender roles in Nepal. The People's War (1996-2006), also known as the Nepalese Civil War, was a successful attempt to overthrow the Nepalese monarchy and create a federal republic. The war was initiated because of rising tensions of Nepalese citizens over the poor socioeconomic conditions in Nepal during the 20th century[2].  Women and lower caste groups were in favor of this war initiated by a Maoist communist party because the creation of a federal, peoples’ republic would result in an increase of women's rights to life and rights to their community forest products. The suppression of the Nepalese monarchy at the end of the People’s War resulted in a boost to gender equality and human rights throughout Nepal.

Tenure arrangements

Freehold was the primary form of tenure controlled by loggers and forest elites before the 1950s.  In the 1970s community forestry was established to attempt to address the deforestation crises occurring at the time.  Women were excluded during the developmental stages of community forestry, and therefore excluded from Community Forestry User Groups (CFUGs)[3]. CFUGs in Nepal today have tenure over approximately ¼ of forests in the Nepal, the remaining forests are controlled by the state[4]. In these community tenured forests, the CFUG representatives primarily discuss allocation of forest resources and REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) initiatives.  Women are the more frequent forest users, yet women have less tenure over forests than men do, primarily due to historically patriarchal gender norms.  Educating women on their local forest tenure is needed in order for the tenure system in Nepal to allow equal rights to NTFPs (Non-Timber Forest Products) and other forest resources.  

REDD+ is an initiative for communities to sustainably manage forests in response to the threat of climate change.  The system change regarding forest tenure that needs to occur to solve the climate crisis, can be done while addressing the marginalization of women in communities such as the ones in Nepal, yet the current structure of REDD+ initiatives fails to incorporate feminism into the proposed implementation processes. Only 15% of REDD+ organizers in Nepal are women, therefore inhibiting the proper amount of input needed from women regarding CFUGs and REDD+ initiatives[5].  To make matters worse for these Nepalese communities, some forest bureaucrats are using the duration of CFUG tenure to their advantage.  Forest bureaucrats wait for tenure of xxx to expire and work to centralize community forests to fulfill bureaucratic benefits, therefore taking more rights away from affected stakeholders and giving less of a voice to Nepalese women.  The result is a forest that is less sustainably managed because women cannot contribute enough of their knowledge of NTFPs due to the centralization of the forest bureaucrats[6].

Administrative arrangements

In 2001, women comprised 3.5% of CFUGs in Nepal[7].  That number has been steadily increasing since then due to the shift from monarchy to federal republic, as well as the collective action of governance systems working towards gender representation for the benefit of community forests.  Administrative arrangements have a common pattern of gender bias because of flaws in the authority and reporting system of CFUGs. Historically, upper caste men held the authority in decision making for forest tenure even though women and marginalized community members are more reliant on forest products than higher castes.  Improved systems of reporting as well as an increased awareness of the benefits of female participation globally have led to a better distribution of genders in CFUGs across Nepal.

Nepalese women collecting fuel wood

In West Bengal, India, JFM (Joint Forest Management) thrives as a mechanism of decentralization of administrative agreements through the roles of elected panchayats.  A common critique of JFM in India is the cultural barriers that inhibit women from participating in JFMs[8]. Women in both India and Nepal have household and NTFP related chores throughout the day that contradict the structure of the reporting system.  The timing of JFM meetings clashes with a woman's work schedule, yet it complements and caters to that of a man’s typical work schedule. Another cultural barrier in India and Nepal is that speaking up in CFUG meetings is not womanly, and can be ridiculed by men, leading to a male dominant power dynamic[3]. Administrative arrangements can be better managed if gender mainstreaming occurs, resulting in a more sustainable forest due to the added value of women's first hand knowledge of forest ecology and NTFPs [provide reference for this statement].  The rules regarding Nepalese community forests are primarily determined by a state initiated general body, and an executive committee. Another positive externality of gender mainstreaming is that women adhere more often to administrative agreement rules than men do, thus creating a more just community forest[7].

Affected Stakeholders

The affected stakeholders in Nepal’s Community Forestry program are both the members of the Forest User Groups and the local communities that those user groups represent. The communities in Nepal are comprised of both men and women of different social statuses correlating to both caste, as well as wealth rankings[3].

Forest user groups are constitutionally required to uphold fair representation of their local communities, however de facto forest user group’s leadership is mainly held by men of wealthier, higher caste status[3]. The original intention behind Nepal’s switch to a community forestry program was to address an increasing rate of ecosystem degradation and deforestation [9], as well as to address the increasing demand for forest products[3]. Therefore conservation is a main focus of these user groups, and is used as a key indicator in assessing the user group's ability to uphold their functions[9]. Forest user groups have a lot of responsibility and authority over their local forests. Forest User groups hold de jure decision making authority and control over forest use, management, harvesting, protection, and even marketing inside and outside the community[9]. Forest user groups hold independent de jure decision making authority, but management plan functionality re-evaluations, along with significant bureaucratic interference from the regional government has granted less de jure control in recent years[9]. This struggle has been re-centralizing forest management in Nepal and reducing the power that affected stakeholders are legally intended to hold[9].

Women in Nepal are an extremely affected stakeholder as decisions on forest policy directly affects not only their surrounding environments, but their daily schedules and workloads. One of the biggest concerns around how women are affected by the decisions of the Forest User Groups is local access to non timber forest products and fuelwood[10]. In Nepal 90% of households use fuelwood as a primary resource for cooking. Women spend approximately 4 hours a day collecting both fodder and fuelwood[11]. Women are also responsible for caring for children, household chores and occasionally even agriculture[11].  The Forest User Groups determine restrictions or allowance of local fuelwood collection and non-timber forest products use[10]. If local areas are restricted it is up to women to venture further to find wood in less protected areas[10]. Since the amount of wood needed at home is inelastic, fuelwood scarcity and distance don’t affect quantity, but solely labor time[10].  As labor time increases for women, their ability to participate in planning decreases causing further perpetuation of existing inequalities[3]. The more that women get to participate in planning, the better local access to fuelwood becomes[10]. Women’s participation in planning also increases regeneration and canopy coverage[12]. It is important to note that changes in local access rules, and distance of fuelwood sources only directly affects poor households, as wealthy households can hire help to address challenges[10].

Interested Outside Stakeholders


Within Nepal’s forests, which encompass a vastly bio-diverse 29% of the total land area, there are multiple interested stakeholders at work [13]. An interested stakeholder being a person, or organized group of persons, whose livelihoods do not ultimately depend on the resource in question. Someone who is on the outskirts, although they may be interested in the outcomes and success of a forest. In this specific case of forestry in Nepal, several interested stakeholders, or actors, converge making the seemingly bottom-up system of community forestry all the more complicated.

The most significant interested stakeholder acting upon this forest would be the government of Nepal. Although The Forest Act of 1993 handed full authority and responsibility for management decisions over to Community Forest User Groups (CFUG), there is still significant involvement and pressure from the government placed unto the managers of community owned land. The specific interested actor in this case would be a branch of government managing Nepalese districts, the District Forest Officers[14]. The employees of these offices do not live in the communities they oversee, their livelihoods do not depend on the health of the ecosystem. No matter how successful or unsuccessful they are at the end of the day, their paycheck comes from the government regardless. These factors make them interested rather than affected. This group of Forest Officers have been provided the authority, by the central government, to oversee CFUGs and their management plans which are required to be revised every five to ten years[14]. The Forest Officers have the power to fully investigate and inject themselves into the plans and meetings held by CFUGs, even with some power to make alterations to strategic plans[14]. Although consent must be given by the CFUG, and support is even given by the government to implement said changes, some unfavorable strategies are used to achieve their goals. This has been seen as a method used by the government to prohibit the transfer of power from themselves to the people, while still appearing as though they are implementing bottom-up strategies. There have been reports of coercion and incentives being used by the government aided groups in order to achieve maximum economic benefits from forests[14]. After-all, the government is trying to become more a more powerful global player, and in order to do so they require funds and gross domestic product. And in the case of Nepal, “it is estimated that the forestry sector alone contributes 15% to the GDP of the country” [15], meaning significant amounts of government funding come from the forests. This stakeholder group’s goals include “maximizing their power, enlarging authority, maximizing budgets, and enlarging staff numbers”[14].

Overall, the government is acting like a business; trying to make the most money and bring in the most benefits while appearing as though they are “for the people” in the public eye. The interested stakeholder group made up of Forest Officers may not legally be in control of management, however, they develop loopholes in order to be able to act as though they do.

Timber harvesters

Unusual trees in mountains forest - Langtang region, Nepal

 Additionally, there is another interested stakeholder group having a significant role in community forestry in Nepal. This group, comprised of many independently acting individuals, are not members of the community therefore they do not hold the right to use community land. However, there has been a significant issue with poaching, or illegal timber harvesting in Nepal. With 30% of the population of Nepal living below the poverty line, many are forced to find illegal means of income in order to survive[13]. Unfortunately, for many this has meant the participation in illegal timber harvest from forests managed by CFUGs[13]. Although there is legal framework combined with tenure agreements put in place in order to prevent such thing, the demand for timber and money resulting from timber has resulted in the formation of a timber smuggling operation[13]. Although communities have developed watch systems, the sheer amount of forested land, shortage of village people able to volunteer time, and minimal aid from the government, has resulted in severe degradation. In-fact, “8% of the high-value Terai southern plains forests are being lost each year due to illegal cutting and forest clearance” [13].

Timber companies, another interested stakeholder group, has even begun to participate in this illegal activity by bribing the communities members that are supposed to be on watch duty[13].  This illegally harvested timber is being brought from the mountains of Nepal, meaning possible income for the forest community members, is being brought to the trade markets of neighboring India [13]. These people, whether they be acting alone, or as a part of a timber corporation, have the sole goal of making money.

With this trade occurring in India it introduces a new set of interested stakeholders; purchasers of the stolen timber. These individuals are very removed from the community forests, both spatially and emotionally. They do not rely on the forest for the wellness of their families, they have other options besides buying/selling timber. Their only concern is making an income, and using those stolen products to do so, even when “forests are being continuously degraded as valuable species are illegally cut”[13]. These buyers hold some power, for instance if their demand increases it could influence the amount of timber that companies or individuals try to collect.


November 2017. Musahar women collecting ferns for personal consumption. The Musahar are a socially marginalized and poor community that relies closely on the forest for subsistence. Bagmara Buffer Zone. Sauraha, Chitwan District, Nepal. Photograph by Jason Houston for USAID

There is limited research in the role women play as interested stakeholders. Most of the individuals working for the District Forest Officers are men. The timber harvest companies also almost only employ men. The women in these men’s families however would be considered interested stakeholders. As a significant amount of income would be presumed to come from working for the Nepalese government or timber companies.

The most significant female interested actor group would be women from one Community Forest User Group encroaching on the land of another neighboring CFUG. Many CFUGs and government agencies have recognized the destruction taking place in forests, hence forest closures have been introduced[16]. Meaning that the forest around a community, or a portion of the forest, is closed off to human use and collection of timber [16]. This has caused women, who for generations have been allotted the task of fuel wood collection, to venture out of their communities forest into a neighboring one. Due to rules written by CFUGs, people from outside the community are considered outsiders and do not have rights to their specific forests. Women are being forced to participate in the illegal collection of timber in order to survive. Although these women do not live in these communities they do still depend on the forest for their livelihoods. This makes the definition of whether they are affected or interested slightly more complicated. However, for the purpose of this discussion it will be presumed that they are interested due to the legal implications that name them as outsiders. These women traveling to other CFUGs in order to harvest illegal timber have a lower level of care than the women who reside in that particular CFUG. If the forest were to face complete destruction, say to a wildfire, the women harvesting timber illegally would simply move to another community forest to gather timber while theirs is still under complete conservation. This is similar to the Naidu community forest case study in which people from outside the Naidu village would illegally enter the forest to harvest mushrooms[17]. Although the outside harvesters did make a living from their unlawful activities, they did not depend on the resources given in the same way as residents of the village did. Their level of care for the mushrooms and forest health did not match the level for village residents, making them interested stakeholders. Similar to the women in Nepal whose community forests are inaccessible due to conservation efforts, resulting in them becoming interested stakeholders to nearby community forests.


In order to address the rising demand for forest products[3] and the increasing deforestation crisis, Nepal established the Community Forestry Program in 1980[9]. The program was established to include broader participatory management, as it was seen as “a must for success”[3]. Unfortunately, the planning process made a critical mistake by overlooking equity in its implementation[3]. Women and the poor were both heavily neglected in the planning process[3]. This led to their exclusion in the later formation of the first Forest User Groups[3], with women making up about 3.5% of total membership[18].  This only adds to the many per-exisitng cultural barriers faced by women of Nepal which virtually silence the small fraction of participating women in the Forest User Groups[18].

Many cultural barriers exist opposing women’s equality and participation in Nepal. A significant barrier to participation in Forest User Groups is the expected cultural roles of women as home keepers[3]. Due to the time frame in which meetings occur, women are expected to tend to the home while men participate in meetings[3]. Rich women often do not experience the same barrier as they can hire help, but still rich women seem to withhold from participation[3]. This is likely caused by deeper cultural barriers around the perception  and roles of women in Nepal. Typically, Nepalese women lack literacy and therefore they frequently lack the confidence or knowledge in order to participate in discussion[3]. Furthermore, men are not willing to share information on the process and decisions taken in meetings with non-attending women which often leaves women oblivious to the decisions or activities of the Forest User Groups altogether[18]. Women who are members are almost always passive participants and even sometimes oblivious to their roles [18]. This is enforced by the cultural belief that it is not polite for a women to speak up[3]. Attempts have been made to overcome these cultural barriers like all women Forest User Groups[18], however the land granted to these user groups is typically the most degraded and seen as less consequential[3]. New legislation was passed in 2011 requiring 33% female representation, however this process will be slow to achieve its goal as it fails to address the underlying social barriers that still discriminate against women[19].

Assessment of Power


The power of the government is unmatched by any other social group in Nepal due to the oppressive nature of the caste system on citizens, cementing the wealth inequality. As mentioned previously, 30% of the citizens in Nepal live below the poverty line[13]. The transfer of management power over community forest land, from the government to Community Forest User Groups, was thought to be a possible solution to this issue, as communities would be in complete control of forests and the associated income generated. It was also believed to be a solution to the severe degradation caused by poorly managed state forests that were operated in a top-down system[16]. However, due to the high demand for timber, and limited supplies, the forests in Nepal have continued to face severe degradation over the past 30 years[16]. This has caused the need for heavy conservation efforts to be put in place, such as no access even for members of that community forest group[16]. These management practices have severely reduced the amount of income flowing to members of CFUGs, consigning them into deeper poverty. All the while, the government is still able to collect an income from government-run timber operations, resulting in a wealth inequality that parallels power inequality[16]. The government is able to use the desperate state of its citizens to their advantage. As mentioned, the government requires CFUGs to rewrite their management strategies every five to ten years[14], and during these meetings there have been reports of heavy coercion by the government officials present for communities to alter the plans in the government's favor[14]. For example, strategic incentives have been implemented by the government in order to maximize their economic profit from community forests. In other words, the government wants more tenure agreements to be given to their commercial logging sector[16]. The government will offer some financial assistance in exchange for a higher annual allotted cut, which sometimes may not be the most sustainable option in the long run[14]. In this way, the government is able to keep their control in practice, despite their lack of power in law.

Timber Harvesters

The timber companies, and freelance timber collectors, that were previously discussed also have a significant amount of power over forest communities in Nepal. Although there are legal tenure agreements between forest communities and timber-loggers, which provide permits detailing the amount of timber available for their harvest, the recent increase in demand for timber has abolished this[20]. In the past 20 years the demand for timber has increased significantly, with most of that demand being a result of a boom in the house building sector[20]. More demand for houses means more demand for timber, which caused a rift between timber companies that hold tenure agreements with CFUGs. These permits are being used by the companies to gain access to the forest, and once they are inside they venture beyond the agreement and collect more timber than the tenure arrangement permits[20]. These illegal activities have sparked outrage in communities that depend on the health of their forest for their daily survival, an outrage that has been smoothed over by the use of bribes[20]. Timber companies will bribe a village watchman in exchange for his silence as they steal from a common pool resource. Timber companies have found a way to benefit from the severe wealth inequality occurring in the public domain, making them seem almost “all powerful” or above the law. This once again causes the CFUGs to lose power and say over their forests.

As for power held by the freelance illegal timber harvesters, meaning people who enter a forest without permit with the intention of only stealing, their power is not as extreme. Many of these people are simply coming from neighboring community forests in which their demands cannot be met, possibly due to laws or forest degradation. In many cases, these outsiders hold less power than the actual community members due to laws put in place by the particular CFUG’s Executive Committee and General Body[16]. These self organized bodies determine punishments for rule breakers, such as fines or expulsion. This gives the CFUG some power over outside lawbreakers. However, there is inequality occurring at the internal level within these bodies.

Internal Inequalities

Nepalese Hindu Caste System, a direct derivative of Varnashram model of Hindu social code.

The state initiated Community Forest User Groups have grown to encompass an impressive 1 million households since implementation, and have sparked a bottom-up system[16]. These are programs of inclusion and exclusion, or in other words, power or incapacitation. Nepalese citizens have taken initiative and self organized CFUGs into two sections; the Executive Committee and the General Body[16]. Due to years of caste inequality that has been ingrained into the minds of Nepalese citizens, these two bodies do not hold equal power. Those of higher caste, or social status, typically have the largest presence on the Executive Committee and their voice carries the most weight[16]. In contrast, those of lower caste are often times not even present on the General Body. To compound this inequality, when meetings are self organized, they often occur in the homes owned by those on the Executive Committee. This causes a spatial barrier, meaning those of lower castes are not allowed to enter the homes of those of higher caste, they are not even allowed to share a meal[16]. This means when meetings are held those of lower caste are physically excluded from attendance, causing their voice or opinions to be left out. Although this is something that has been addressed by many CFUGs, and in some cases they have found ways to work around this issue, it still creates a large inequality. If a voice is never heard, it will carry no weight, further propelling lower castes into a position of little to no power. At the same time, voices and opinions of higher caste individuals are being heard, moving them into a place of higher power. Once again, there is further power inequality within an already unequal system, this time revolving around women.

Power of Women

Nepalese women face countless inequalities that have pushed them into a powerless state for decades[16]. This power inequality begins with the societal exclusion and disgust of women for their roles in childbirth and menstruation, both needed for human survival[20]. There have been practices of excluding women from society during these natural times, in which women’s bodies are considered to be “polluted”, forcing them to sleep outside the home with the livestock and not enter any public spaces, for fear of them contaminating public resources[20]. This exclusion places women on the lowest societal tier, rending them almost powerless during these times. In regards to community forestry, women hold little power there too. In Nepal, only 3.5% of CFUG members were recorded to be women[20]. Of that small percentage of women who show up to meetings, they have reported to experience fear of speaking up due to the belief that their opinion will be discounted, ““What's The Point of going Meetings. We Would Only Sit silently’ (women to author, Khedipadavillage, Gujarat)”[16]. As for the wives of men who attend meetings, they have reported their husbands won’t even report back the results of the meetings, leaving women completely out of the conversation involving decisions made regarding their forests. Due to women’s lack of participation in CFUG’s, they also received little to none of the income generated from the forests. With no money comes no power, continuing the inequality regime. In order to combat this issue, some all-women run CFUGs have been created, however, they only account for 3.8% of total CFUGs and often, “They typically receive small plots: some 50% control less than 10 ha each. Often this is barren land needing tree planting”[20]. This is in stark contrast to the male-dominated CFUGs which receive larger areas with lush forests. Even women-dominated groups are not able to receive an equal payout, and with less money in Nepal comes less power. Rendering women almost powerless in the sexist system of community forestry.


Our three main recommendations to improve CFUGs in Nepal and their associated inequalities are to continue decentralization, education, and gender mainstreaming.

In order for the system of CFUGs to truly be decentralized the government needs to pull back their involvement in management plan creation processes and related coercive processes. With continuous government involvement, whether it be in law or policy, it prevents complete self organization by community forest groups. In order for Nepalese people to feel empowerment and control, they cannot be “babysat” by the government. Once complete, or at the very least, further decentralization is achieved, it will open up opportunities for women. Women have been proven to prefer tree species that have domestic uses like fuel and fodder while men want trees that give more of an economic cash yield crop[12]. Women, in general, hold a stronger grasp for understanding their local ecosystems, as they are the main collectors of forest products. Women will only be able to push their knowledge into the mainstream once the government takes a step back from their control. This will open up gaps, giving women the opportunity to fill those gaps with their newfound knowledge.

In order for women to feel the empowerment and confidence of filling those gaps they should receive a formal education. As of right now, women are not as involved in cash crops because they have less access to technology and education needed[21]. This knowledge gap contributes heavily to the income inequality seen between men and women. We believe that if women were able to receive an education from early childhood this would naturally lead them to more employment opportunities. With employment comes money, power, and a voice, all of which women need in order to have the impact on community forestry in Nepal that they deserve.

Gender mainstreaming is the act of assessing how a planned policy act will affect gender equality. It is crucial for CFUGs in Nepal to adopt this strategy of feminism if Nepal is to succeed in representing all genders for the betterment of community forests.


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  17. Menzies, N. K. (2007). Our forest, your ecosystem, their timber: communities, conservation, and the state in community-based forest management. New York: Columbia University Press, 7-15.
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