Letting firewood-short peasants own a woodlot may save the forests

Five minutes' walking was all it once took most Nepal villagers to forage for daily firewood. Today, the search for fuel takes an average six hours and a 10-mile walk, forcing many Nepalese fathers to arrange for their daughters to marry men who live near forests.

In Sri Lanka, the rate of forest loss has been fast enough to make the nation treeless by the year 2010. Last year, the government began a 20,000-acre-a-year replanting program, but it is expected to take until 2035 before all the people's firewood needs can be met.

Such examples of rapid deforestration, and its impact on local climates and watersheds, has kept Asian forestry experts busy for a decade or more looking for answers -- as busy as peasants hunting for the wood that supplies over half their energy.

Yet even with such efforts as government reforestation, stiffer regulation of timber companies, and the use of fast-growing and exotic tree species, satellite pictures show much of Asian tropics losing their green cover faster than it can be replenished.

Three years ago, however, at the 1978 World Forestry Congress in Jakarta, a global shift in forest management tenets was called for. Experts realized that the solution may not rest in the hands of government, timber companies, or tree geneticists, but in the individual self-interest of villagers in forest conservation.

"As governments nationalized forests to expand exports, the rural people felt the trees no longer belonged to them," says Barin N. Ganguli, a forestry specialist with the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

In Nepal, for example, population pressures and government takeover of forests forced firewood gatherers farther up the Himalayan slopes, increasing erosion and leading to giant silt-islands in the Ganges River.

In other nations, roads built into remote areas by timber companies allowed access to squatters, who plundered the trees or cleared plots for farming. In the Philippines, an estimated 200,000 acres are still deforested a year, with only partial replanting.

Now one answer seems to lie in "community forestry," a term for villagers owning and managing their own wood lot and being taught how to select-cut and replant trees for a sustained yield.

"Maybe, just maybe, we can unlock a knot of energy that would lead to immense reforestation," Dr. Ganguli says.

In separate projects, the World Bank and ADB have launched six "community forestry" efforts in five nations --India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Malawi, and Bangladash. In addition to attempting such land reform experiments, most projects will include village education on efficient woodburning or charcoal production.

In Sri Lanka, for instance, about 100 of the nation's 6,000 villages are being offered one to three acres of forest per family. (Communal ownership was rejected when the bank's American representative protested, although some communal forestry will be tested.) New fast-growing species, such as an Indian legume known as Albizzia Falcataria,m will be introduced.

In Bangladesh, where family wood lots are already common, a $20 million ADB program is distributing seedlings from nurseries, plus encouraging rural people to plant trees along roads and canals. The new projects will also try to grow fruit trees and cattle fodder alongside trees for firewood.

Reorienting international aid to community forestry and away from large pulp mills or timber extraction has been slow, says Dr. Ganguli. Wood lot ownership requires altering social customs and land tenure -- both politically difficult.

One strong incentive for community replanting has been increases in oil prices -- the profit is there to sell more wood as an alternative fuel. In the Philippines, for instance, the National Electrification Administration's new wood-burning power generation projects will be coupled with purchases of timber from 250-acre forest plots owned by families. These "energy plantations," it is hoped, will attract some 500,000 "kingeros," farmers who have already destroyed an estimated 12 million acres of forest in shifting slash-and-burn agriculture.

Since 1973, South Korea has been setting up "forestry associations" in villages. With government advice, the groups calculate community wood needs, then ask private landowners to either replant plots or turn over management to the association.

Dr. Ganguli says wood lot ownership might help create village pressure to stop illegal foraging now committed by impoverished people who, at the brink of survival, have no stake in future crops.

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