Tree and Land Tenure in the Eastern Terai, Nepal: A Case Study from the Siraha and Saptari Districts, Nepal
by Bhishma P. Subedi, Chintamani L. Das and Donald A.Messerschmidt
Edited by Daniel Shallon



Tenure of trees and land and the formulation of appropriate policies to address problems of landlessness and equity has been a major focus of recent community forestry efforts. This study is an in-depth analysis of two Nepalese communities, revealing how issues of tenure and recent immigration have a direct impact upon the success of community forestry initiatives.

The people of the Terai lowlands, at the foot of the Churia Hills of Nepal, have evolved highly differentiated systems of land and tree tenure in keeping with a complex system of caste and communal rivalry. The ownership of trees in the Terai is regarded as a sign of prestige and an investment in the future. However, in a region with high levels of landlessness and few alternative sources of income, tree ownership is heavily dependent upon the perception of secure tenure. Smallholder and tenant farmers are unwilling to grow trees on land that does not belong to them, preferring to exploit what little natural forest remains.

This study examines the legal and economic constraints facing tenant and landlord alike. As well as providing a solid body of research into forest product user groups, the report suggests how tree-planting can potentially be fostered on common or reserve lands and in the vicinity of village ponds. A further objective of the study was to explore use in a Nepali setting of the rapid appraisal methodology, designed by J. Bruce in Community Forestry Note 5, Rapid Appraisal of Tree and Land Tenure.

The book forms part of the Community Forestry Case Study Series, a compilation of studies that test methods or tools or examine gaps in understanding of the major concepts and issues in community forestry. Three writers and researchers contributed to the final product. The first, Bhishma P. Subedi, is an Assistant Lecturer of Human Resource Management and Rural Sociology at the Tribhuvan University Institute of Forestry, central campus, Pokhara, Nepal. Chintamani L. Das is a Lecturer of Forest Extension at the Hetauda campus of the Institute of Forestry. Donald A. Messerschmidt is the Social Forestry/Research Adviser to the Institute of Forestry, through the USAID-funded Institute of Forestry Project. He is also a Research Associate at the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Funding for the book was provided by the multidonor Forests, Trees and People trust fund, which is devoted to increasing the sustainability of women's and men's livelihoods through self-help management of tree and forest resources. Within FAO, the Programme is coordinated by Marilyn W. Hoskins, Senior Forestry Officer for Community Forestry.


List of Maps,Tables and Figures

MAP 1 Nepal Development Regions and Zones
MAP 2 Siraha and Saptari Districts in the Eastern Development Region of Nepal
MAP 3 Bramahan-Gorchhari Community
MAP 4 Bakdhuwaa Community
Table 1 Seasonal Crop Calendar
Table 2 Transfer and Conversion of Tenure
Table 3 Land Productivity and Rents in the Eastern Terai
Table 4 The System of Land and Tree Tenure
Table 5 Energy Sources and Annual Consumption Rates, Rural Terai
Table 6 Time Use Patterns in a Maithili Village of Dhanusha District
Table 7 Conventional Research and Rapid Appraisal Compared
Table 8 Siraha and Saptari Districts Compared
Table 9 Bramahan-Gorchhaari and Bakdhuwaa Compared
Table 10 Households by Caste and Hamlet, Bramahan-Gorchhaari
Table 11 Households by Caste and Hamlet, Bakdhuwaa
Figure 1 Nepali Chautaraa or Resting Platform
Figure 2 The Parts of a Village Pond
Figure 3 Village Sketch Map

Executive Summary

Community forestry policy in Nepal is largely based on experience gained in the hill areas. There is a feeling in Nepal that the Terai experience is unique, based on the area's large size and complexity. Among its problems are: forest product smuggling across the international border with India, demographic pressures leading to large-scale encroachment on government reserve forest lands and the consequent damage to soils and related resources that encroachment exacerbates. The situation in the Terai is further complicated by the severity of landlessness and treelessness among certain populations. Some groups of people currently have no direct or legal access to forest and tree produce, and have not had access for generations. The vast bulk of the remaining forest resources in the eastern Terai is found north of the east-west Mahendra Highway. Populations north of the road have relatively easy (but illegal) access. For villagers living south of the highway access is extremely difficult. These and other geo-demographic variables need particularly close scrutiny.

The goals of the study were therefore to:

Three conceptual issues guided the inquiry:

The study of tree and land tenure in the eastern Terai was conducted in two village communities, one each in Siraha and Saptari Districts, Sagarmatha Zone, Eastern Development Region. Siraha and Saptari are very much alike in many ways. The districts are divided geographically into two distinct parts. The north is dominated by the Churia (or Siwalik) Hills. The southern portion lies on the flat Terai plain, bordering in the south on the Indian state of Bihar. The Terai is an extension of the northern Gangetic plain. It was formerly a virtually uninhabitable and dense malaria-infested jungle but, following an anti-malaria programme in the 1950s, it was opened to clearing and farming. Now very little of the natural forest remains and most of it is degraded. In Siraha, only three patches, covering a total of 1,300 ha of land, remain and, in Saptari District, only 1,900 ha of natural forest are left.

The Churia Hills are covered with a highly degraded deciduous forest. The forest is an important source of supplementary food resources, especially for the landless and near-landless poor of both districts. Recent nutritional research in select communities of the two districts shows that only 15-20% of households are food self-sufficient for the entire year. In fact, only for 50% of households are harvests sufficient more than half the year. Major and minor forest products are consumed or sold in local markets and exported (illegally) across the border to India. Forest foods are particularly important to the poor during the most intense food deficit periods (March-May). They include fruits, nuts, berries, tubers, leaves, mushrooms, insects, small animals and birds.

The two selected village communities, one in each district, are Bramahan-Gorchhaari in Siraha and Bakdhuwaa in Saptari. These two villages represent very different forest needs. The villagers of Bramahan-Gorchhaari have little access to forests and forest products. The villagers of Bakdhuwaa, on the other hand, have access to the Kukurharka forest within the village boundaries. Access to the Churia Forest was not considered because as a government reserve its use as a source of wood is technically prohibited. The intent of the study was to determine the real conditions in two ostensibly contrasting circumstances.

Bramahan-Gorchhaari has only 6 ha of community forest, whose use is limited to the poor for the collection of leaf litter and fallen twigs and branches. Landowners rely mostly on trees growing in their home compounds and adjacent to their agricultural fields for fuelwood and other wood products. They supplement cooking fuel with animal dung and agricultural crop residues. Tenant farmers rely on what they can grow on their home compounds and on any small plots they may own, since rights to trees they might plant on another's land are insecure. The poor and landless, for their fuelwood, fodder and other tree products, depend almost exclusively on what they can glean from village commons and the Churia Forest, some hours walk north of Lahan.

Bakdhuwaa has considerably more forest within its boundaries. It contains a portion of the Kukurharka community forest which it shares with two neighbouring communities. The boundaries of Bakdhuwaa community also enclose a large portion of reserve forest in the Churia Hills at the north. Villager access to both these resources is theoretically limited by law, though this is not very strictly enforced. The survival of many landless and treeless villagers is dependent especially on the Churia. Despite the prohibition, these villagers harvest a wide variety of minor and major forest products. The situation is not unknown to the authorities who are virtually powerless to enforce the law.

The concept of "tenure niche" (Bruce 1989) guides this study. A tenure niche is a socio-ecological concept used to describe and discuss a variety of options, opportunities and conditions for the use and management of land and landed resources. The study follows Bruce's three broad categories of tenure niche: private holding, commons and government reserve.

In the eastern Terai, ownership of trees on holdings is an important indicator of wealth. Tree tenure appears to be a critical element in the maintenance of social and economic status, power and prestige, and in the local perception of wealth and success in agricultural activity. Virtually all farmers try to plant some trees as an investment, for profit.

There is a critical relationship between the perception of secure tenure on a piece of land and what one plants on that land. Not all farmers are in a position, legally or practically, to invest in trees. Poor farmers with little holdings, and those who depend mostly or solely on their work as tenants on the lands of other owners, fall into this category. Farmers in Terai villages tend to plant trees only on land on which there is no confusion about rights. A tenant who cultivates the land of another person has no tenurial rights under law to any trees he might grow there. In effect, those poor whose need for trees is the greatest, and who have the most to gain by investing in trees and orchards, are forced to remain treeless or near treeless.

Landowners face certain difficulties in turning their lands over to tenant farmers. The lack of clarity and frequent changes in the land laws enacted during the past few decades (particularly land reform) have created a situation of insecurity and mistrust. The result of these trends is that many landowners are converting their previously productive farmland into less labour-intensive orchards and tree farms.

In both of the study communities, "community forests" (forested common village lands) are of great value, essential to the survival of many of the villagers. Local access is officially prohibited because these forests do not yet have management plans, nor have they been handed over to local control by the forestry office. Clandestinely, however, they are in fact heavily utilized.

The largest single government reserve in the eastern Terai is the Churia Forest, a natural forest on the south slopes of the Churia (or Siwalik) Hills. The Churia is largely degraded, used extensively by Terai villagers, especially low caste landless and treeless people who have little or no other access to forest and tree resources. The forest is used principally in two ways. Its outer fringes are heavily grazed by cattle, water buffalo and goats from the nearby villages. Its interior is used for the collection of a multitude of forest products. Villagers may enter the forest to harvest fallen branches, twigs, leaves, nuts, fruits, tubers, mushrooms, blossoms and other non-timber forest products. By law, no villager is allowed into the Churia Forest with an axe or sickle but, in spite of the law, a great deal of cutting occurs clandestinely.

An estimated 40% of the population is landless in Bramahan-Gorchhaari and 20% in Bakdhuwaa. The majority of the landless are members of the Musahar (Earthworker) caste, a group found in the eastern Nepal Terai and in the adjoining districts of the Indian state of Bihar. As a consequence of their landlessness, they are almost totally dependent on the products of the natural forest of the Churia, except during the peak agricultural planting and harvesting seasons when they seek employment as field labourers. Since they have no cattle or buffalo, they have no ready sources of dung for cooking fuel. Hence, their dependence on the forest and commons is critical. They collect firewood in the forest for not only home use, but also for sale.

It is important to understand the concept of community in the Terai. Terai villages tend to be characterised by recent settlement through migration from the neighbouring hills and plains in India and Nepal, and the resultant settlement patterns reflect clearer caste/ethnic and economic cleavages than are typically found in the Churia Hills, particularly with respect to access to resources. Terai settlements thus appear to function under a more factional, communal system than most hill communities.

This distinction between the relatively consensual feelings of community on the one hand, and more factional communal feelings on the other, would appear to be a fundamental one in Nepal. Findings from the eastern Terai suggest that communalism exists there in a particularly pronounced form. Cohesive and consensual community forms of common resource management imply a style of representative decision-making that allows relatively open access to resources for all village inhabitants, regardless of social boundaries of kinship, caste or ethnicity, language, economic standing, religion or length of residence. By contrast, the more divisive arrangements of communal management imply that access to some (often critical) resources is closed to certain groups of local inhabitants, based on restrictive local customary rules of access and utilisation closely associated with one or more of these socially defined boundaries.

Tree and forest resources are often exploited by specific sub-sections of the society, which might be called user groups or "interest groups"; that is, by groups of people (usually, but not always, based on kinship and economic status) who harvest, share and manage categories of resources in various ways. Certain categories of knowledge regarding these resources are also specific to certain historical, well-defined and easily identifiable categories of people.

Depending on the category of resource under discussion for policy, planning or project implementation, the developer must look to and learn from the specific interest group most closely associated with that resource. Policy and practice in forestry and natural resource management in the Terai should focus less on the typically varied and heterogeneous "community" level and more on local resource "interest groups" which represent the major exploiters and users of commons and forest reserves. By working directly with specific users and knowledge-holders, in their traditional groups, the development prospects are more clearly articulated, become more need-specific and hence more appropriate to local circumstances.

There is a need for new and improved uses of both the natural and human resources related to the three tenure niches: private holdings, commons and government reserve land. Before any improvements to tree and land tenure can be addressed, however, the issues of equity in all its aspects - social, economic and political - must be better understood.

Changes in tenure on private holdings are difficult to make, but not impossible. Efforts might begin with the long overdue re-examination of the land reform laws. One goal of tenure law reformulation could be to control the practice of allowing livestock to roam freely and uncontrolled on the land. Another could be to create a legal environment which would encourage tenant farmers to plant trees. Currently, only established landowners are secure enough in land (and other financial assets) to grow trees. Forestry officials and rangers from the government, especially in community forestry and other projects, might be trained and prepared to provide technical assistance to private tree-growers, both landowners and tenants.

While the commons are already a major source of tree produce, especially cooking fuels, there are many instances where they could be more intensively utilised to benefit more people, particularly the poor. Whole communities as well as local interest groups within them should be encouraged and helped to assess the potential of bare or poorly utilised lands under their jurisdictions or within their spheres of interest, for planting as common woodlots and community forests. If hand-over of management responsibilities to forest user groups can be guaranteed, such areas can also include the land along roadsides and on canal and pond banks. At present, there is an on-going discussion as to which department (Forestry or Roads) is responsible for the management of plantations in these areas. As a consequence, the question of who has the legal right to hand over management responsibilities has not, as yet, been solved. Community members themselves must participate actively in all steps of the process so that they become accountable in their own minds for the management and utilisation of the resource. This may not be easy in the context of Terai community heterogeneity, with the consequent weakness of consensual community structure and presence of strong factional communalism. In some instances, the benefits to the villagers of alternative and more productive resource utilisation would require demonstrating before proceeding. Local consensus on the conversion of one category of land into another should be assured before this conversion is undertaken.

Planners should investigate who is currently utilising reserve lands, and in what ways they use them. A thorough understanding is essential of how people currently manage resources, the ecological basis for and the impacts of their management decisions, and their reasons for making them. Only then can planners make rational decisions and create alternative and more beneficial strategies. Change in the kind and distribution of species needs to be more seriously considered. Forestry planners should ask what people need from the forest and compare it with what is currently available. They could then determine whether some species should be reduced and other more beneficial species added to the forest.

To date, effective and productive management of the Churia Forest by the government has been poor, mainly taking the form of protection or confrontation forestry - i.e., policing the forest against many (although not all) uses by the surrounding populations. The result has been less than successful. Multiple use of the Churia is part of the overall subsistence strategy of many landless and treeless people. To deny them this possibility by limiting productive activities in the forest could be disastrous for some poor families. It is thus particularly important to find alternative management strategies for utilising the reserve forest. A twofold approach is suggested, which includes: