Empowering communities for natural resource conservation

Active community participation has proved to be beneficial for conservation and sustainable use of resources.

Members of a community-based anti-poaching unit in Khata Corridor in Bardiya, Nepal. They guard the critical corridor that connects Nepal’s Bardiya National Park with India’s Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary. (Photo: WWF)

Aarati Ulak

  • Read Time 4 min.

The main goal of natural resource management in Nepal is to conserve land, forest, water resources and biodiversity to preserve the ecological functions of the same resources in a sustainable way. High variability in the physiographic and climatic conditions has resulted in a uniquely rich diversity of flora and fauna in the country. Nepal has three percent of flora and one percent of world’s known fauna and stands at 35th position globally and 11th position in Asia for biodiversity richness.

Increasing population has led to land encroachment, overgrazing, and a high dependency on natural resources.  Thus conservation is crucial to prevent further degradation of natural resources and their utilization in a sustainable way for future generations.

Shifting approaches

Over the decades, conservation approaches have shifted from indigenous conservation to modern conservation.

Until the 1950s, resources in Nepal were managed by people with simple, effective and affordable measures with no particular written laws and rules. Indigenous approach was practiced for the management of resources in which local people were responsible for protection, utilization and restoration of community resources. The Kipat system was one of the popular approaches in this respect. Kipat was community land protected by Rais and Limbus on which the state did not levy taxes until recent decades. In this system, resources were distributed equally and community and nature were in harmony. Likewise, Sherpa communities practiced the Singho naua system in the Khumbu region where they would appoint two local people known as Naua—guards—to control the use of resources. Fine would be imposed on those who collected resources without following the set community rules and this money would be used for community welfare. Similarly, customary rules and regulations worked as a moral binding force. The entire forest and pasture management was done by communities. Gurung communities of mid-west Nepal were involved in the management system through customary rules. Indigenous system was a bottom-up approach based on equitability, communal responsibility, respect and welfare.

After the 1950’s political change, the indigenous systems were disrupted but there was no proper legal provision for natural resource conservation. As a result, forests were converted to settlement areas due to migration of people from hills to lowland areas. By 1973, Nepal had entered the modern era of protected area management with the establishment of Chitwan National Park. The National Park and Wildlife Conservation Act (1973) was a very strict, restrictive law which followed the yellow stone model that emphasized the protection of pristine areas and prevented people from living inside the park. The management of protected areas at that time was broadly guided by a “fine and fence approach’. Offenders violating the rules would be fined as per NPWC Act. Local people were prohibited from utilizing the resources due to which their quality of life decreased. This led to the conflict between park managers and local people and the relationship between two became hostile. Several other national parks were declared during the 1980s including establishment of national parks in the Himalayan region.

There followed a shift from the Yellowstone model where local people were seen as conservation stewards essential for conservation. Local people were recognized as integral actors for the management of protected areas. Then NPWC Act (1973) was amended in 1979 which gave them the right to collect thatch and grasses from the reserves. This was a pioneer step towards a people-centered approach in conservation practices. In 1986, Annapurna Conservation was designed as a pilot project. This concept liberalized the rights of local people and involved them in integrated conservation and development planning for the protected areas and for their own communities.

After the political change in 1990 various policies, rules and regulations were revised. Human-wildlife conflict increased due to overlapping demands which also created conflict between parks and people. Revision of NPWAC Act (1973) included a mechanism to allow buffer zones around established parks and reserves. This ensured that the revenue earned by parks would be utilized for various development activities of communities and it would be used to compensate for the loss caused by wildlife. With the declaration of buffer zones, local people developed a positive attitude towards conservation approaches and the relationship between park and people was well-maintained. The fourth amendment of NPWC Act (1973) brought a revolutionary change in protected area management.

Conservation is crucial to prevent further degradation of natural resources and their utilization in a sustainable way for future generations.

As a result, 12 protected areas within Nepal have buffer zones. The landscape scale approach to conservation began in 2000 with the initiation of Tarai Arc Landscape (TAL) program that aimed to conserve both nature and people. As some of the protected areas were too small for long-term viability of flagship and other migratory species, substantial biodiversity areas lie outside the protected areas and all the representative habitat types of the country have not been covered by the existing protected areas.  Landscape scale approach emphasizes roles of corridors and connectivity in biodiversity conservation. It has taken several decades to evolve the conservation approaches from site-based conservation to the landscape-level and with the addition of seven national parks in 2010, the total number of national parks has reached 10. Three of the seven protected forests connect protected areas in Nepal and India and serve as ecological corridors for iconic species like tigers, rhinos and elephants. The protected forests are governed by the Forest Act (1993) and the Forest Regulation (1995) and the Department of Forest is a responsible government body for their protection.

Power to the community

The active community participation has proved to be beneficial for conservation and sustainable use of resources. Community based anti-poaching unit has contributed to conservation of natural resources with the aim of curbing illegal activities like poaching and illegal collection of forest resources around the buffer zones.

The Government of Nepal and non-government organizations have collaborated together to enhance the management of the protected areas and to formulate laws and regulations. The sustainable conservation of resources and the need of local people should be the equal concern for the management strategy.

Local people need to benefit from the conservation activities so that their economic status will also improve. Majority of people are still unaware of the conservation and sustainable use of resources.  Thus there should be an intensive conservation education and awareness program for all Nepali people and for international visitors to Nepal’s protected areas. Research and study in protected areas could provide better policy options to the government which in turn will help it get financial support from the international agencies for effective and better management strategies for natural resources. 

Aarati Ulak is a student of Environmental Science at Kathmandu University.