published on 12 May 2007 in ecosystems
The management of the utilization of forests and their resources is a topic that has a precise development in Nepal because the rural populations in remote areas, that represent over eighty percent of the population, have always lived in close contact with their natural environment, which constitutes their main means of sustenance. Thus families have always regulated their relationship with Nature considering the requirements of their household and the availability of the existing resources, which often are, especially in alpine ecosystems, particularly limited.
An (exhaustible) mine of products
Forests have a central part in the domestic economy, mainly for one of their most important products, wood.
Wood is, in fact, an essential factor in the survival of the family, specially in the remote areas where there is no electricity or gas because it is used daily in great quantities for cooking, heating and lighting the house, in addition to being used regularly for building or repairing stables for the livestock; moreover, even other materials, beside wood, that come from the forests, like herbs and plants used for animal fodder, mushrooms and edible fruits, are of vital importance to the group.
But the pressure to use and exploit the resources is increasing exponentially: even though there are some signs of improvement, such as the spreading of photovoltaic or battery powered lamps to satisfy the demand for illumination, the use of biogas for cooking and other solutions, the effects of population growth can be felt on all the forests of Nepal, particularly in the regions where the population is concentrated. An example: according to several researches, in the short period between the Sixties and the end of the Eighties, nearly 25% of the forest area included in the Terai plains was completely deforested.
Up until the beginning of the Fifties the problem of the management of the natural resources seemed unimportant: the country seemed to have an apparently unlimited source of raw materials, that included not only wood, greatly due to the fertility of the majority of its land and the abundance of water from both glaciers and monsoons.
In 1957 the government changed its attitude and passed a law that nationalized the forests, with the intent of promoting their conservation by modifying the conditions of employment: only the picking of fruit, wood and leaves that had dropped naturally from the trees was allowed and a special authorization was required for the voluntary cutting down of plants; naturally, the conduct of the majority of the population remained unaffected.
In the course of the following years various laws were passed for the protection of the forests but nothing substantial was done to stop the exploitation: the population continued to pursue their own methods while the government lost interest in the problem.
It is with the democratic revolution of 1990 that the concept of community forestry took on the meaning it has today. In 1993 a new law recognised the soundness of traditional practices of conservation of the local environment and made use of the experience accumulated by the populations in the different areas of residence.
The concept of community forest today is tied to that of development, and there are many governmental and international projects whose objective is to increase local participation in the management of forest resources: moreover, now more than ever there are new challenges that must be dealt with.
Man and nature
The majority of the Nepalese population uses ploughing, planting and harvesting systems that are nearly exclusively based on traditional methods and that require a deep knowledge of the mechanisms and growth rates of the plants. First of all, animals are not used for ploughing, except in some cases when the community uses an ox for communal work, such as the preparation of the fields prior to the onset of the monsoons. The reasons behind this choice are of a religious and cultural nature (Hindus in fact respect the cow as a sacred animal), as well as a consequence of the morphological conformation of most of the country: mountain areas and valleys with abrupt depressions call for the terracing of fields, a practise that excludes the possibility of intensive farming with animals or agricultural machinery.
Moreover, the cyclic trend of the monsoon climate forces the farmers to work tuned in to the changing seasons and atmospheric conditions, so much so that most of the work is concentrated in a limited part of the year, in concordance with the great rains and the periods immediately before and after them.
Part of a whole
In everyday life, the Nepalese face Nature considering themselves as a simple part of the ecosystem, an infinitely small element respect to the natural system as a whole, which must be respected and venerated. On the other hand, even Hinduism, the prevailing religion in a large part of the country (and all the more so Buddhism, that is the second most important creed), states that there isn’t a substantial difference between Man, the other creatures and Nature, because in the cycle of rebirth each creature can live its life as a man, a plant, an insect and so on. There is, therefore, formally at least, a deep respect for Nature and all its elements: mountains, for example, represent specific deities, so much so that on some of them explorations and trekking are prohibited.
In a similar way, forests, that often shelter temples and monasteries, are considered sacred as are rivers, that are considered a very important element, being tied to religious practices and to specific relationships between sacredness and water.
Water and sacredness
One of the most important resources, water, has a particular relationship with a very important aspect of Nepalese life, the religious one. Religion is present in every aspect of daily life, and a sense of sacredness permeates the existence of each inhabitant, revealing itself daily in offerings, prayers and devotion to the gods: water has a fundamental role for religious functions, both in particular occasions and in ordinary situations. Water is seen as a purifying element with beneficial powers and is poured over sacred objects; it therefore becomes a vehicle of transmission of the gods, so much so that it is used in all the initiation rites of the majority of the country’s ethnic groups.
Water is in the small copper jug that women bring to the temple as their daily offering along with rice, flowers, coloured powders and other elements; water is poured for the ritual washing of feet, hands and mouth that each orthodox Brahmin carries out ritually before each meal to avoid defilement by external impurities.
For the Nepalese, water has always been fundamental for agriculture and for work in the fields, and the regularity of the monsoon rains has lead to a progressive deification of this element, so much so that numerous legends exist that connect rain and water to a host of deities and different spiritual powers. It seems that Kathmandu Valley, which was occupied by a big lake in prehistoric times, was freed from the waters by the god Manjushri who, with a stroke of his sword, created an opening in the valley through which they could flow out; here there is an important festival dedicated to Machhendranath (the god of rain and harvest) every year that lasts several days, with celebrations and processions attended even by the king, who is considered the guardian of the fertility and prosperity of his country.
The public baths
The water that collects in big rectangular tanks placed out in the open acquires beneficial powers because it is believed that these waters are in communication with the other rivers in Nepal and especially with the sacred Ganges river in India. In different parts of the country there are wide spaces with big public tanks that have become places of pilgrimage, where worshippers come to perform the ritual baths that allow them to obtain religious credit and to be ritually purified; on the occasion of particular festivals crowds of devotees flock to the places of pilgrimage to participate in public ceremonies and ritual sacrifices.
Thus water is a fundamental element of the religious life of the Nepalese and it highlights what a deep relationship there is between sacredness , man and the natural resources of the country.
From theory to practise
However, notwithstanding their approach that is ideally respectful towards the nature that surrounds them, the mentality of the Nepalese population is more and more ready to justify exploitation plans that are totally incompatible with the natural equilibrium, adopting behaviours that are inconsistent from an ecological point of view: the result is the exploitation of the forest resources at undue rates and the use of chemical fertilisers to the detriment of the conservation of the environment, water pollution and the difficulty of waste disposal in densely populated areas.
These factors, together with growing air pollution, are rapidly changing the concept of Nature of the Nepalese population: on one hand there are the supporters of an infinite exploitation, in other words those who consider the country’s resources practically unlimited and disregard the consequences of their actions; on the other hand, as a form of reaction, there is a growing feeling, that is more and more widespread, that Nature is a precious resource that must be protected and that this job is specially Man’s responsibility.
Inhabitants and resources
The inhabitants of the rural areas have developed different techniques in the centuries to utilize natural resources sensibly both for the need to survive in remote and often arid regions and for a sense of respect towards Nature and its products.
So even today to cope with intensive exploitation of resources, they adopt traditional methods that can be subdivided into three main groups: techniques for the rotation of pastures and the regulation of the access of the community animals, the practise of cleaning and regenerating the fields using fire (khoriya) and the utilization of natural resources on a seasonal basis.
Besides these main techniques there are some expedients that are secondary as it were, such as a fair distribution of the natural products according to the needs of the single families (the primary criterion is the number of people that make up the unit, the ownership of animals and land), the care and the growth of inedible plants to protect the fodder areas from wild predators and others.
The changing of cultures based on rotation, called khoriya is a technique that, when carried out correctly, allows the eco-sustainable utilization of cultivated land, but since it requires the use of fire at the end of each cycle, it can cause serious damage to nature when it is not used with the due precautions. The local populations subdivide the communal area into different sectors: only a part of these is used for cultivation, the rest is allowed to lie fallow for periods of time that vary from three to seven years.
At the end of each period, once the harvest is over, all the plants and herbs in the fields are cut and then the entire area is set on fire: in this way the ashes that deposit fertilize the land, while the farmers dedicate their time to the regeneration of the sectors that had previously been left to lie fallow, planting new trees and pruning the existing ones, deforesting the earth and eliminating the hedges, fencing off the areas reserved for cultivation and clearing the entrance pathways. In this way, at the end of the period of rest, the land has had the time necessary to regenerate and the soil, dug up and fertilized by the ashes, is ready for a new cycle.
Alternating grazing periods
Even the management of the grazing areas follows a cyclic trend, not only as far as the number of animals that can enter at a time is concerned, but also in relation to the number of accessible areas. The animals are taken to graze in the forests at different altitudes and in separate groups according to fixed grazing procedures and shifts: when there are few heads of cattle bred in the village, the families organize a sort of cooperative that takes care of pasturing of the animals collectively, from the months of April-May to late October.
Since it is believed that animals at high altitudes acquire more vigour and productivity, they are taken to graze in the mountains every year, in groups of twenty-five or thirty animals, for a period of two weeks per group, repeating the cycle two of three times during the season. Even in this case not all the pasture grounds are open but are rotated to allow the vegetation to regenerate and so as not to use up the stocks necessary for the period.
Depending on the animals that are grazing, be they water buffaloes or oxen, cows, goats or sheep, the periods and the pasture grounds change: buffaloes, for example, are slow and less agile, and are therefore taken all together to easily accessible areas, such as gentle slopes and places with many trees, where they can find shade from the sun and streams where to plunge in. The rest of the livestock is taken to less accessible areas, at higher and less productive altitudes, because generally oxen and other animals have a greater capacity to adapt and a higher daily resistance; goats and sheep are taken to the most extreme and inaccessible parts of the pasture because these animals can move more nimbly and their approach to plants is more destructive.
In winter, the animals are brought back to areas close to the village where they can graze or stay in stables where they are fed with fodder that had been put away before summer. Only in the first days of March do they go back to the open and are taken to the big plots of land belonging to the community to graze, prepare the fields (when they are used for ploughing), and specially fertilize them. Then, when the grazing period comes, the cycle starts over assuring the correct conservation and the sustainable utilization of the natural resources of the community.
In addition to cultivation and the rotation of pastures, another technique that follows a regular cycle is that of the consumption of forest products on a seasonal basis. In fact, the rural populations have a profound knowledge of the growth rates of a great variety of plants and of the products of wild animals, such as honey and bird’s eggs, herbs and trees: thus, even collecting wood for the fire or non-ligneous material and fodder for domestic breeding is regulated taking the season and the type of product into account. Some plants have to be picked in particular periods of the year to be edible for the animals, while others need long periods of rest to grow and be ready for picking.
Even products that are useful to man such as mushrooms, fruit, bamboo and fibrous and medicinal plants have specific growth rates and harvest times: thus, without limiting the quantity of products collected, each community establishes the time and the means of doing it.
For centuries these simple expedients and traditional techniques have regulated the relationship between the natural production of resources and their exploitation and have proved to be useful to cope with the state of emergency of the last decades: they have, in fact, been taken into account by government and international projects for the subsistence of the ecosystem and the protection of the environment.
Written by Filippo Tessari