By: Purple S. Romero

The Nepal government, attempting to preserve its forests from illegal timber harvesting and villagers foraging for firewood, is struggling to come up with a plan to bring in its Dalits – the lowest rung of the Hindu hierarchy – who often don’t even know the funds exist.

In some cases funds have been siphoned away by other parties. The government must institutionalize the dispersal of funds to people who have never been involved and who are deeply discriminated against by higher castes.

The United Nations and the Nepali government have had some success in slowing the deforestation rate after losing an average of 91,700 hectares annually between 1990 and 2000, losing nearly 25 percent of its forest cover and woodland habitat by 2005. The government has begun to win the battle in later years, with deforestation rates of primary cover decreasing to 10.7 percent since the turn of the century. However, poverty, ignorance and illegal deforestation have taken their toll.

The government is operating under a United Nations scheme to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation known as REDD+. Under the plan, developing countries like Nepal receive payments from industrialized countries if they are able to reduce carbon emissions through the sustainable management of their forests. The funds from REDD+ were designed to help marginalized sectors who need to be brought into the system to contribute to forest protection.

In Nepal, one of these sectors is the Dalit community. Called “untouchables” as in India, Dalits have limited access to natural resources, entrapping them in poverty. Nira Jairu, a Dalit and a member of the Nepalese Parliament, said there is a risk that these REDD+ payments may not fully reach her constituency.

“Other people are getting benefits in the name of the Dalits,” she said. It’s a concern that is not entirely baseless. In 2012, the Dalit Alliance for Natural Resources (DANAR) came up with a report on how funds from a REDD+ pilot project funded by the Norway Agency Development Fund (NORAD) were distributed and used.

They found out that some Dalits were never informed on how to access the funds – “The majority of Dalits and poor families were not aware of the funds left in the [community fund], the utilization mechanism of the funds, the working mechanism of the REDD+ etc,” wrote Sunil Kumir Pariyar, chairman of the Dalit alliance, adding that in some cases, funds for the REDD+ beneficiaries were left sitting in the bank.

“This was found in case of the Kopila community forest, where the fund has not been mobilized for the poor and Dalits,” Sunil said. A study done in 2017, five years after the program started, signaled a similar problem.

Doma Tsering Sherpa from the Department of Environmental Management, Lincoln University, Canterbury New Zealand, concluded in “Using the “3Es” Method to Evaluate REDD+ Project in Nepal” that there “was an attempt” by some community forestry user groups (CFUGs) to misuse the funds instead of distributing them to poor households, which include the dalits.”

Inclusive funding

The REDD+ Implementation Center, the government body in charge of shaping Nepal’s strategy, said it will seek to prevent the possible misuse of the funds by ensuring that their plan for sharing benefits will be developed in the most inclusive way possible – with Dalits onboard and represented.

“The only mechanism is an inclusive benefit sharing-plan, everything should be spelled out, not just the content of the plan but how the plan is prepared,” said Sindha Dhungana, head of the REDD+ Implementation Center.

The Nepal government can take a cue on how local community forestry user groups were successful in the district of Gorkha, one of the sites of the REDD+ pilot project in Nepal supported by NORAD.  While the pilot project found problems with fund distribution in some areas, community forestry user groups in Gorkha were able to show how locally-owned innovations could help prolong the rewards of a project that has long ended.

We recently visited Gorkha, a six-hour drive away from Nepal’s capital of Kathmandu. Its mountainous terrain was covered by a green swath of trees that in the 1990s would have fallen victim to illegal logging and firewood harvesting.

“This place used to be barren,” said Bhuraman Ghimire, chairperson of one of the community forestry user groups, gesturing to one part of the 114-hectare REDD+ covered area. Now it contains trees, with a park carved out of it.

The park is a concrete symbol of the hard work and aspirations of the community forestry user group, which counts women and dalits as its members. It was funded in part by the money the participants received from the Forest Carbon Trust Fund, a mechanism born out of the pilot project implemented from 2009-2013.

The Forest Carbon Trust Fund set criteria on the allotment of funds, one which puts premium on the implementation of REDD+ safeguards.

The safeguards, which were adopted in 2010 UN climate change negotiations in Cancun, Mexico were put in place to minimize the potential harm of REDD+ to the livelihood, culture and local knowledge of forest-dependent communities.

REDD+ safeguards in particular require the “full and effective participation of relevant stakeholders, in particular indigenous peoples and local communities” and “respect for the knowledge and rights of indigenous peoples and members of local communities.”

The trust fund was then designed in such a way that the payments would be weighted along these standards: the quantity of the carbon stock is maintained, forest carbon is enhanced, indigenous people, Dalits, poor households are included in the initiative and membership in community forestry user groups must include both men and women.

The project, which was implemented in the districts of Dolakha, Gorkha and Chitwan, have been responsible for the sequestration of 8.86 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.

The Asia Network for Sustainable Agriculture and Bioresources (ANSAB) – Kathmandu, one of the organizations that managed the project, said the 1,888 hectare-Ludikhola watershed in Gorkha was able to increase its carbon stock by 28, 469 tons, with 1.53 million tons of carbon dioxide sequestered.

The community forestry user groups in Gorkha received US $26,184 not only because of the improved carbon sink, however, but because they met the criteria that their members must include dalits, indigenous people and women.

They also checked to make sure the members did spend their money for livelihood projects. “If we went to their house and saw no goats, or buffalo or pigs and they told us this is because the animals have died, they will have to show us evidence of their death,” Bhagarith, another leader in the community forestry user group in Ludikhola said.

Progress and a promise

To be sure, the use and distribution of benefits among the community forestry user groups even in Gorkha can still be improved. They themselves said they need a long-term business plan, one which will take into account the lack of infrastructure for some livelihood projects.

“We distributed pigs, but some us don’t even have pigpens,” Bhagarith said.

But in terms of ensuring inclusive participation, the Nepalese government can integrate the local practices in Gorkha in their benefit-sharing plan.

Gorkha showed that Dalits can be viewed or treated better in community forestry initiatives, with their participation maximized. That was a big improvement from what Nira Jairu experienced in 2009. As an officer in the community forestry user group in the far western district of Dadeldhura before, she experienced discrimination.

“There was one time when they would have to pass a notebook to me, as I was the secretary and I had to take down notes,” she recounted. “Instead of giving it to me though, they dropped it on my hand because they do not want to touch me.”

Dharam Uprety, Program Manager at HELVETAS Swiss Interco-operation Nepal and the one who trained Nira’s group on REDD+, said that Nira was distraught with the lack of acceptance from the other CFUG members. “I told her not to give up.”

He recalled how the social barriers created by the caste system made it challenging to educate the stakeholders about REDD+.

“There was one time when other participants will not join in an assembly with other Dalits. They will not also eat with them. What I did was I created a game,” he said. “I asked each person to drink from a glass of non-dalits sharing the same water with other Dalits. That is considered almost an impossibility in Nepal. Water drunk or used by the dalits is considered unclean or impure. But Dharem was able to make the impossible, possible.

“They did it. After the game, I said – see, you can all drink from the same container. No one got sick.”

REDD+ enabled dalits and non-dalits to share water – but the Nepalese government must now do all that it can to make sure they will also share the benefits of REDD+ in a fair manner.

“The process will be inclusive,” Dhungana promised. “The dalits will be consulted.”