Topic Area: Deforestation
Geographic Area: Nepal
Focal Question: What are the historical causes of deforestation in Nepal and what is the current situation?
(1) Metz, John. "A Reassessment of the Causes and Severity of Nepal's Environmental Crisis." World Development 19.7 (July 1991): 805-20.
(2) Salamat, Ali. "Economic Squeeze: India ends transit agreement for Nepal's trade." Far Eastern Economic Review 143.13 (March 30, 1989): 26.
(3) Salamat, Ali. "The big squeeze: India prepares to wear down Nepal over trade treaty." Far Eastern Economic Review 144.24 (June 15, 1989): 26.
(4) Singh, Kedar. "Forest Policies: former minister in remand over timber permits." Far Eastern Economic Review 140.26 (June 30, 1988): 27.
Reviewer: Alane O'Connor, Colby College '96
It is estimated that ten trees are cut down for every one tree planted in the world today. Although, much of the third world, including Nepal, is largely responsible for this rapid deforestation, the whole world suffers. Global warming, decreased biodiversity, soil erosion, and desertification are only some of the problems associated with deforestation. For Nepal, it's forest degradation has led to stagnant economic growth and extensive exploitation of a valuable natural resource. Deforestation has deep historical roots for Nepal that stem from inefficient and inappropriate government policies. These policies vary from taxes on labor to land taxes to collection patterns, but all have distorted incentives for the landowner. Population growth has deepened the deforestation problem, but the underlying causes of the population growth can even be linked to adverse government policies.
The major loss of forested land has not occurred in the higher mountains, as one might expect because of Nepal's history of floods, but rather in the lowland areas. In fact, studies have shown that during the period of 1965-80 the percent change in forested lands for the high and middle mountain regions has been positive (+1.8%), while the percent change in the Siwaliks and Terai regions (both lowland areas) has been -15.1% and -24.4%, respectively. Still, virtually all the forests in Nepal have been thinned during the last 10-30 years, and much of the mountain regions were cleared earlier in history.
Government policies have historically had the largest impact on forest degradation in Nepal. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Nepal had taxes on both land and labor. Land taxes amounted to the payment of one half of a land's produce to the government. These taxes were collected by ijara farmers who bid for the right to collect the moneys. Because these rights were only short term, the system produced "insecure tenure, minimum investment, and maximum short-term surplus extraction" (Metz 808).
These stiff land taxes could be avoided in three different ways. If a farmer chose to convert forest into agricultural fields, he could enjoy a three year tax holiday. Secondly, a farmer could obtain a jagir which was an assignment to the military. The compensation for the jagir was the right to the taxes from a particular land. Jagirs were necessary because of the uncertain political climate in Nepal. The military was financed almost entirely by land and labor taxes. These appointments were also renewed annually and provided for insecure land tenure. Thirdly, a farmer could obtain a birta, which was an assignment of a piece of land as a bonus for some work done for the king.
The labor tax in Nepal during the 18th and 19th centuries required each family to work at least 75 days per year for the state. The tax could be avoided if the family was willing to supply a fixed quantity of fuelwood, iron, charcoal or other materials. This policy often increased the degradation of forests as one village, for example, had to supply 2.4kg of charcoal each day. The process of producing the charcoal necessitated the consumption of 3 hectares of forest each year for that village alone. To further exacerbate the situation, ad hoc labor taxes were levied at irregular times when the government needed funds. The forests became a major source of the revenue.
As Nepal moved into the 20th century, the growing population and diminishing land led to a reduction in the tax rate, which is now a small cash payment. The stress put on the forest in the more recent past was largely in the hands of the subsistence farmers, however their behaviors are still strongly influenced by government policies. For example, in 1957, the forests were nationalized, which worsened the already existent problem of insecure tenure. Then in the 1970's, the government required farmers to register individual private lands. This encouraged many farmers to clear their land in an effort to make the boundaries more clear. During the early 1980's the government finally took notice of their inappropriate policies and allowed each village to control their own forests, but this practice is "inconsistently implemented by government officials" (Metz 808).
The misuse of labor combined with the excessive taxes used to finance lavish spending on the military and a lack of investment in land kept Nepal from developing economically. The inefficient policies gave families underlying incentives to have more children. During the period of labor taxes, families would have as many children as possible so that they could send their sons abroad where they could earn greater wages. This behavior stunted the economic growth because the most valuable source of wealth, the strong and healthy young men, were being removed from the labor force.
In addition to the desire of families to have many children so that they could "export" their sons, families needed as many hands as possible to farm the fields at home. Since the land tax required one-half of a families' produce, having as many children as possible increased the overall wealth of the family because they were able to generate greater output. Because 80% of Nepal's population is involved in this type of farming, population growth is a very serious problem. The population growth rate per year during the 1960's was 2.1%, 2.6% during the 1970's, and over 3.0% during the 1980's. Population control schemes have been largely ineffective as only 4% of the Nepalese women have ever used birth control and only 2% are using it currently. The average family gives birth to 5.4 children. A move needs to be made so that children "absorb rather than generate family income" (Metz 813). The underlying reason that families choose to have children, or the way that children often become an invaluable source of income in a subsistent household needs to be addressed.
During the 1990's Nepal's forests are still being degraded but for somewhat different reasons. Trade problems with India resulted in US$312.5 million worth of timber being smuggled into Asia in 1991 alone. This 15 month trade impasse with India in the early 1990's shut off petroleum supplies to the Nepalese, which forced them to switch to wood consumption. The result was 200 hectares of forest were destroyed each day. Trade problems with India have been a problem in the recent past because of the fact that India was losing control over their monopoly of trade with Nepal. As recently as 1970, India controlled 95% of Nepal's exports. Today, India controls only 40% of Nepal's foreign trade but most of the goods that Nepal exports to other countries need to pass through ports and facilities on Indian soil. This fact allows India significant leverage in the Nepal economy.
The forestry sector in Nepal hasn't been immune to government corruption either. In the early 1990's forestry minister Hem Bahadur Malla was thrown in jail on charges that he issued unauthorized timber permits and sold government timber at 1/3 of the market price. Malla was allowed to issue permits of area up to 5000 cubic feet, but was found guilty of issuing permits of area equal to 542,000 cubic feet. Tourism has further aggravated the forest degradation problem as almost 60,000 persons visit Nepal each year. Many of the nation's forests have been cleared to build resorts for these guests. Government agencies have also been unable to implement development projects. Very little international aid even reaches the villages, some say that figure is as low as 10%. The money is either stolen, used to help those that are not in need, or spent on inappropriate infrastructure.
One method that has been implemented in Nepal to aid the deforestation problem is the use of fees generated from the nation's parks to benefit the citizens. This has been especially successful around the Chitwan National Park where many villagers are actively involved in conserving the forests by leading tours for international visitors. The practice both conserves the forests as well as generates income for the villagers.