In the 1970s, Nepal was facing an environmental crisis. Forests in Nepal’s hillsides were being degraded due to livestock grazing and fuelwood harvesting, which led to increased flooding and landslides. Without large-scale reforestation programs, a 1979 World Bank report warned, forests in the country’s hills would be largely gone by 1990.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Nepal’s government began to reassess its national-level forest management practices, which led to a pivotal forestry act in 1993. This legislation allowed Nepal’s forest rangers to hand over national forests to community forest groups. The result of this community-led management, recent NASA-funded research has found, was a near-doubling of forest cover in the small mountainous country.
The maps above show forest cover in Nepal in 1992 (top) and 2016 (bottom). Between these years, forest cover in the country almost doubled, from 26 percent to 45 percent. Using the long-term data record from Landsat satellites, along with in-depth interviews with people in Nepali villages, the research group found that community forest management was associated with the regrowth of forests. Most of the tree regrowth happened in middle-elevations, in the hills between the Himalayas and the plains of the Ganges River.
“Once communities started actively managing the forests, they grew back mainly as a result of natural regeneration,” said Jefferson Fox, the principal investigator of the NASA Land Cover Land Use Change project and Deputy Director of Research at the East-West Center in Hawaii. Before Nepal passed the 1993 forestry act, government management of forests was less active. “People were still using the forests,” Fox added, “they just weren’t allowed to actively manage them, and there was no incentive to do so.” As a result, the forests were heavily grazed by livestock and picked over for firewood. They became degraded.
Under community forest management, local forest rangers worked with the community groups to develop plans outlining how they could develop and manage the forests. People were able to extract resources from the forests (fruits, medicine, fodder) and sell forest products, but the groups often restricted grazing and tree cutting, and they limited fuelwood harvests. Community members also actively patrolled forests to ensure they were being protected.