DEEPAK BOHARA, who was appointed the Minister for Forests and Soil Conservation a year ago, is in controversy now following a massive scale of illegal logging in Terai. Minister Bohara, however, claims that he has made a significant decision to stop illegal logging and protect national parks as well as has made a lot progress in forest conservation. Bohara, who was a science student, spoke to KESHAB POUDEL on various issues at his office. Excerpts:
What is the present state of community forestry and forests in general at a time when a massive controversy has arisen regarding the management of forests in Terai?
Actually, when we started community forests in 1975, our aim was to increase the coverage of forests. The two people involved were: Nil Prasad Bhandari and a DFO, who started work in Thokara VDC of Sindhupalchowk district in 1976. With a basic idea to protect forests through community participation in forest management, the mass scale of involvement of community in forests began. The community forestry stopped the process of deforestation in many areas. Today we have15,000 community forestry user groups.
What does this mean?
The result in the early stage was very successful and now it is slowly deteriorating. The whole idea is slowly changing and a few people, in the name of community forests, are exploiting them for their own interest. This is where the government is worried.
What is happening now is that trees are being cut by user groups.
Is not the District Forest Officer responsible in issuing such permissions?
Though the DFO is given the right to endorse the community’s proposal for forest management, this provision was ignored by community users’ groups. Now the entire game plan has changed. Under the total grip of community forestry users groups, people are completely holding the forest management system to ransom, they even issue tender, auction and log the trees as per their wishes to outsiders.
Can they sell forest products to outsiders?
Although no community forest user group has the right to sell the forest products outside their community, they are selling the forest products to outsiders now. For example, community user groups of Nawalparasi and Sarlahi were selling their trees to Kathmandu. This is against the spirit and act of community forestry. When a community users’ group in Chitwan announces the auction for trees, anybody from Jhapa, Kathmandu or Pokhara could be participating in the auction.
Even as you are saying that the community users are behind the misuse of forests in Terai, there are reports implicating your rampant involvement in a massive scale of logging. What do you say?
The minister cannot order people to cut the trees. Even at the district level the trees are cut under the decision of user groups. The community user groups decide how many trees should be cut after permission of the district forest office. The DFO has to give a final nod. I don’t understand where the involvement of the minister is seen in all these. Since you are deciding which trees need to be cut and which are not, you are getting the permission from local DFO office, the minister is in between the DFO and the community and there is no question of involvement of a minister.
If you are not involved, who is, when it is reported that you have already transferred a number of DFOs in Terai, regarded as a lucrative place for transfer?
Transfer of DFOs is a regular process and there is no question of any hanky panky here. The post of DFO used to be like a musical chair in the past and I tried to change this. Someone will come and some one will go according to bureaucratic practice and norms. They will be rotated. I have tried to give stability to the positions.
If that is so, why have you transferred DFOs in Terai?
To your question, where one should go and serve basically, depends on the need of the ministry and district. Every one has to go everywhere.
How much influence do you use in transfer of DFOs?
Of course, the ministry transfers the DFOs. The transfers are made according to laws and regulations. In the transfer process, I don’t have anything to do. It is a routine. I have not transferred the DFO to cut the trees.
What is this hoopla about rampant cutting of trees then?
There was news of rampant cutting of trees. However, it was done by the users groups. We captured two of community forest chiefs for their involvement in illegal business. A user group in Sarlahi cut the trees and built 40 kilometers road to ferry the logs. We also sacked two DFOs.
What is the state of Terai forest?
Frankly speaking, most of the Terai’s community forests are under a threat from the users groups. As I have already mentioned, we have nabbed the users groups involved in illegal cutting of trees. We suspended the DFOs and some of them were transferred.
If everything is so neat, why is there so much of media hype showing your involvement in the illegally felling of trees?
This is my eleventh month in office and I have made number of major achievements during my tenure in the areas of conservation. Interestingly, the attack against me has started recently. I don’t know why suddenly I have become a victim of such attacks when I have been positively working in the conservation sector that is open to all. I have given explanations and the ministry has also answered the questions. I defiantly say that the ministry’s face has changed during my tenure. What I can say is we need full support from the press, donors, local community and civil society to preserve the forest and endangered species.
Whoever may have done it, there is a rampant cutting of trees. How can you change the situation for the better?
If we can change a few rules of community forestry, we can stop the illegal felling of trees. We have stopped now and we are able to contain it. First of all, we need to stop the selling of the trees of community forests to other districts. The priority of the forest products of the community forestry should be given to the people living in local areas. Forest products should not be allowed to for sale and auction to others. The time has come now to stop that practice. If we are able to stop the practices to auction the trees for outsiders, we will be able to control the cutting of logs. What is happening now is the people from all over the country are taking part in the auction process of the community forestry. Had we stopped the present state of selling trees, it would have changed the scenario.
There are complaints from people and communities living in southern parts of Nepal that they don’t have access to trees?
That is true. Actually, this concept was introduced to share the forests among the people living side by side. The community has the first right to use the resources. However, the national forests of northern Nepal are now used by people living in north not south. People from southern plains have no access to forests in the north. I think the government needs to take care of the genuine demands of people.
It is often complained that the well planted government forests, handed by the government to users in Terai, are the major sources of conflict where the users’ groups are selling trees to outsiders. How will you check this?
Once again, the conflict appears when the users groups try to auction the forest products to outsiders. Had it been given only to the local community, the situation would not have been like the present one. We are coming up with a government decision on selling the community forestry logs to outsiders. That will minimize illegal felling. There are many users groups in Terai who have been doing extraordinary jobs to protect the forests. However, many bad guys are also running the community forestry.
How do you look at the growing number of illegal trans-boundary trade instances involving endangered species?
Nepal is in the midst of transit route of the illegal products of endangered wild animals. There is involvement of all the people of different countries in this trade. For instance, we recently nabbed five illegal poachers in Sindhupalchowk. Interestingly, out of them two are Chinese; two are Indians and one Nepali. We recovered 40 kilos of bone Salak which is much endangered. That proves Nepal is slowly turning into a transit for illegal sale of tiger bones, one horn rhinos and so on.
You recently visited China. Have you signed any trans-boundary agreement?
We have two big neighbors India and China and we must do something with them to solve this problem. During my visit to China this time, we signed MoU with China on trans-boundary smuggling of endangered species and poaching and transportation. Thinning the border and borders town. This will definitely help stop the illegal trade. We also seek support from China to establish the Musk deer farm in Nepal. We have proposed the trans-boundary meeting in every three months. China also agreed. They also feel the urgency to stop the illegal trade of endangered species. This is a big step taken by Nepal and China. We want to do similar kinds of agreement with India.
Killing of rhinos is on the rise if recent instances are any indication. What steps does Nepal have to take to control this?
There is a problem. We have been facing stiff challenges from the poachers in our national parks. If we look at our position compared with our neighboring countries, the situation is much better. Our national park is protected by Army and they have been doing a very good job. We want to build the capacity of the army and the local people living in the buffer zones. We need to convince the people that the national park and wildlife is yours. The benefits from the forest and national park should go to the people.