Abstract Community Forestry in Nepal is based on the realm of a decentralized participatory forest management approach. While this approach has a well documented history in addressing socio-economic, governance and environmental issues, the range of challenges still persist in livelihood and equity, governance and socio-ecological aspects. These issues are not only important for community forest user groups, but are equally related to multi-stakeholders, ranging from micro to macro-levels that need to be addressed for the advancement of community forestry in the future. This research, therefore, attempts to assist this process, by concentrating study in forest governance issues from micro to macro-levels, including various stakeholders. The overall aim of this study has been to explore and analyze the effectiveness of community forestry governance in Nepal. This research explores and analyses community forestry governance on two levels: a) at the level of community forest user groups, who are the primary users and managers of community forests; and b) the examination of higher-level stakeholders, including policy makers and service providers for community forestry programmes at national-level. At user group level, research was based on case study approach and the data were collected from three community forest user groups in the western-region of Nepal: Gijara, Shreejana and Bavanpurwa. Household survey interviews, focus group discussions, in-depth interviews, participatory observation and workshops were the most commonly applied methods of data collection at the user group level. At the higher stakeholders' level, interviews were carried out with forestry experts working in governmental and non-governmental organizations and with donors working for, and supporting, community forestry programmes. In order to draw a theoretical framework, theories and practices of forest governance, decentralization, institutions and property-right regimes were extensively reviewed. At the user group level, the socio-ecological systems were taken as the unit of analysis in all three cases, focusing on three different aspects: (i) socio-economic, (ii) governance, and (iii) forest-ecology.
In the socio-economic aspect, attention was applied to forest products and the benefits distribution system, including equity issues, while in the realm of governance, five main variables were analyzed:
transparency, participation, inclusion, accountability and the rule of law. Ecological aspect are dealt with by using different criteria of forest productivity, such as: forest biodiversity, forest ecosystems, forest health, forest resource protection, the impact on environmental services and the impact on forest and farming systems. Ecological criteria were analyzed and compared in the context of 'before and after' the handing over of community forests. At the higher stakeholders' level, this study investigated their own organizational governance, their relationship to community forestry governance and their contribution to livelihood improvement for the local and primary forest users of community forests. The five different variables of governance, which were also used at community forest users' group-level, have been used to assess the internal governance status of higher-level stakeholders. The case study findings reveal that the output of community forestry is highly dependent on the internal governance of forest user groups. Among the five major criteria of governance, users' participation, along with their power relation (inclusive executive body), plays a major role in the success of community forestry, yet users' participation in community forestry is seemingly effective when the socio-political environment is favorable to them. Thus, it cannot be generalized that each and every community forest user groups are leading towards success; rather it depends on the functional framework of the group. If community forest user groups have a high level of participation and inclusive governing bodies, then there will be equity in benefit distribution systems and positive ecological impacts can be expected from the forest. With higher level stakeholders, several discussion platforms, ranging from grass-root to policy level, were identified during field-level interviews. Regardless of their spatial position, it is noticed that government organization has a legal mandate and influences the formulation of policies through a consultative process by involving non-government stakeholders. Despite such efforts, evidence suggests that the formulated policies are partly, or never, implemented on the ground. Furthermore, this study observed that the powerful stakeholders, both governmental and non-governmental (for example donors and INGOs), are playing a major role in decision-making forums, and that NGOs and the federations of community forest user groups are acting in their shadow.
The findings from the user groups and higher level stakeholders clearly demonstrate that the success of community forestry governance is highly dependent on the stakeholders' participation and their influence in the decision-making and implementation process. Higher level governance structure should make efforts to provide favorable socio-political condition within which local level users can effectively act and benefit. Furthermore, the study recommends that the multi-level assessment of community forest governance can give a broader spectrum beyond identifying problems only at the local or users group level. In conclusion, analysis of the decision-making process of the stakeholders and their internal governance structure, are also equally important, because of the correlation between community forestry governance and the livelihood to local forest users.