TODAY, on World Environment Day, there is little to celebrate. In the wake of COVID-19, rising economic uncertainty, loss of jobs, and the unprecedented influx of repatriated migrants have led to an alarming rise in forest-related illegal activities within protected areas, especially those that are tiger-bearing. Terai, a region that houses 14 trans-border protected ecosystems and all of Nepal’s prime tiger habitats, is also emerging as a major epicentre for COVID-19 outbreak, with new records in cases being documented daily. In this environment of growing pressure on people and on parks, urgent attention is required for economic revival. This is especially vital-- for marginalised communities including the vulnerable, poor, and indigenous living in buffer zones-- have alternative livelihood options to illegal forest activities and wildlife crime. Though buffer zone communities have historically served as one of Nepal’s ‘first line of defence’ in terms of environmental protection, much more could be done to maximise their participation, knowledge and their role in our legislative framework. For local communities living within Nepal’s biodiversity hotspots, community-based organisations (CBOs) offer a critical source of alternative livelihood by providing a legal and sustainable means to generate equitable benefits from natural resources. Against the backdrop of emerging issues stemming from COVID-19, CBOs could serve as a critical entry-point for jobless repatriated migrants who could economically benefit from sustainable natural resource management. However, while Nepal’s community-driven approach to conservation is globally lauded, the full capacity of CBOs has not yet been realised, especially in the politically and economically decentralised context. A prerequisite in this endeavour is legislative empowerment. A pending area of attention that has limited communities from exercising their full potential as members of CBOs has been a lack of legislative recognition and clarity regarding roles. Under the Local Governance Operationalisation Act, 2017, all buffer zone management responsibilities — including maintaining wetlands, leading Buffer Zone forest management, and mitigating human wildlife conflict have been given to local governments. These responsibilities overlap with Buffer Zone management rules outlined in the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1973, which provides “buffer zone management responsibilities” to community-based organisations such as the Buffer Zone Management Council, Buffer Zone User Committees and Buffer Zone User Groups. There are also no provisions that delineate the working relationship between local governments and community based organisations. Over time, this lack of clarity and the overlapping legislative provisions can contribute to a lack of ownership at all levels of governance. The situation requires a multi-pronged approach: On the one hand, the capacity of local governments for integrating biodiversity into local development planning and budgeting in buffer zones areas needs to be strengthened. And on the other, the role of CBOs in participatory planning needs to be empowered. By framing policies that clearly delineate working relationships between government authorities and community-based organisations, more meaningful participation could be ensured, ultimately leading to a larger number of households benefiting from natural resource management. Furthermore, crafting a clear mechanism to address community issues such as land encroachment in protected areas, unsustainable management of sand, gravel and stones, and crop loss to local communities, among others, would also allow government agencies and community organisations to work more effectively with shared ownership to generate meaningful and community-centered responses. While community organisations have been central to Nepal’s conservation approach, translating their contributions to the local governance framework — complemented by clearer working modalities for further involvement between local governments — will help facilitate in further recognising and mobilising their decades of experiences and contributions. Once the enabling environment is created between local governments and CBOs, only then can we hope for long term sustainability of conservation successes, especially as we face a global crisis that has only raised the stakes and challenges in environmental protection across the world. In this critical juncture of Nepal’s history — one that is seeing rapid infrastructure development and a global economic fallout — it is important for our recovery approach to leverage natural resources in sustainable and community-centric ways, rather than compromise on them in the name of development. Nepal is a leader in global conservation efforts and sustaining this position will require even more commitment and action. To address the emerging issues of COVID-19, urgent policy interventions for effective mobilisation of CBOs under the leadership of local and provincial governments, backed by an effective coordination framework with all other stakeholders, could not go overstated. In the path ahead, clarity and legislative empowerment is key for a clearer roadmap towards recovery — of health, of local economies, and of nature.
(Sigdel is the Policy and Governance Specialist at WWF Nepal.)