Reforestation in Dhanusha District, Province 2, southeast Nepal.
After all the dreadful news recently of wildfires across Nepal, it is good to be able to share with you that over the past year we have been working hard to restore the balance through what has become a model of overseas investment, local collaboration and community engagement. And the product of one man's Vision.
A walk in the woods
The story began after my first visit to Dhanusha District in February 2020 when I had the great pleasure of meeting Dev Narayan Mandal, the Founder and Executive Chairman of the local NGO the Mithila Wildlife Trust (MWT). Dev took me for a walk through his local Dhanushadham Protected Forest (DPF), a last surviving remnant of the forest that once covered Nepal's southern plains, otherwise known as the Terai. The 360-hectare DPF had only survived because it was sacred to the Hindu faithful. Even so, Dev told me of his horror at returning home in 2012 after a ten-year absence working in Delhi to see how the forest had been depleted through illegal felling. The forest that he had bunked school to play in as a child had become skeletal in places. Dev told me that for the first time he was able to see right through it from south to north. 176 hectares of the original 360 hectares had been destroyed. There and then, he resolved to leave his job as an accountant at SOS Animal Rescue in India and set up the MWT to spearhead conservation and reforestation work in his home area.
Easier said than done. Dev's early attempts to identify funding sources through visits to Kathmandu were rebuffed. Undeterred, he decided to just get on with the reforestation task himself. He managed to obtain the voluntary support of retired forestry workers and solicited the collaboration of the villages that surrounded the forest. He convinced the villagers that only 3% of the local population had benefited from the illegal tree-felling and at the expense of the other 97%. The villagers came on board and with this buy-in, Dev and his friends were able to start planting saplings. The fruits of their labours were very evident on that walk we took through the forest. He stood surrounded by saplings that were clearly no more than ten years' old.
The nine villages (population 45,000) that surround DPF and the Department of Forests have since been involved in planting 106,000 saplings over three phases. Through community collaboration, no domestic animals are allowed into the forest for grazing. And DPF has been accorded the status of an "Illicit felling and open grazing free zone" without any additional funding being necessary to control the illegal felling of trees for black market timber.
This seminal visit to Dhanusha District coincided with my growing interest in diversifying the charity's work from solely focussing on children to include environmental interests and a response to the climate emergency. Before I had left for Nepal, it so happened that I had been in discussion with Gemma McGough, co-Founder of The Gemma and Chris McGough Charitable Foundation, on how we might support rewilding projects in Nepal. My initial internet research and approaches to contacts in Nepal in trying to find potential partners hadn't led to very much. Now, in Dev, I had found just the kind of activist we had been looking for.
Our first reforestation project
We therefore drew up a plan with Dev to reforest 32 hectares of community forest in the Chure range of hills that lie to the north of DPF. This 2.5 year project would launch in June 2021 with a £132,793 grant from The Gemma and Chris McGough Charitable Foundation and £56,851 from the Nepal Department of Forests (much of this in-kind as donated saplings). There was an additional £2,088 in seed funding that I raised through sponsorship of my running a half-marathon to mark my 60th birthday last March! Clearly this project would have a massive environmental impact with the planting of 29,500 saplings but also a socio-economic one in how the restored forest would ultimately provide livelihoods to the local community through ecotourism and the sustainable use of forest products. But, as it happened, it delivered an immediate benefit in providing employment to desperate people (including many women) during Nepal's first COVID lockdown. The local community, although classed as "untouchable" and from marginalised ethnic groups, is very proud and had asked us to help them by providing work rather than food relief. And that is what we were able to do.
The project has essentially involved the clearance of invasive non-native scrub and "pitting" - preparing pits with manure - into which saplings can be planted. Obviously these require subsequent weeding and irrigation. The latter has been very challenging as the local river basin is at best severely depleted, at worst bone-dry. One of the preliminary tasks involved setting up a water storage tank that could accept tractor deliveries. Inevitably, many saplings do not survive and these have to be replaced after a few months. The other need has been to fence off the plantation area to prevent grazing. Wildlife is very welcome, but not yet!
Project extension in 2021
The project has pretty well run like clockwork with phases and reporting broadly in line with the schedule drawn up as part of an initial Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). Indeed, Gemma and Chris McGough were so impressed that they invited Dev to propose an extension of the plantation area. Dev has produced a plan for the Murgiya Hariyali river basin area which is looked after by the same Community Forest Users Group (CFUG) as Bhatighadi. Gemma and Chris have agreed an additional £67,429 in funding for a further 12 hectares alongside a contribution of £10,560 of in-kind support from the Department of Forests. This reforestation work started this month and will run for one year and five months. As a bonus, Gemma and Chris have also very kindly purchased a tractor and tanker for MWT that will save on water delivery costs and be an invaluable asset in future collaborations with the Department of Forests.
And were we affected by the forest fires? Hardly at all, as we lost just 30 saplings. That's because the community was so quick to respond to the danger, such is their sense of project ownership. Also, fire-breaks had been created at the site and these, together with scrub clearance, had prevented spread.
Looking ahead, we hope to be able to expand the Murgiya Hariyali site in line with the explanation Dev gives in the film below. But beyond that, we hope is to be able to find the funding that would allow us to create a wildlife corridor that would connect the Bhatighadi forest to DPF. This forest corridor would be like a life-giving umbilical cord as it follows the course of the Baluwa river that is a major wildlife migratory route. Migrants include spotted deer, barking deer, blue bull (another deer species), sloth bear, wild elephants and leopard. Some shelter is available by day through small patches of woodland where local farmers have planted trees and bamboo to stabilise the river banks and reduce the risk of seasonal flood damage. However, this cover is sporadic. Through this project we would, with landowner consent, aim to have a continuous strip of forest that is a minimum of 100 wide on each side of the river bank. The corridor would follow the Baluwa river for approximately 10km south southeast from Bhatighadi before turning sharply southwest to run for 2km to connect with DPF. This would allow animals to travel by day and reduce the risk of human-wildlife conflict.
This project would be implemented in two five-year phases over ten years at a total budget of £269,770. Of this, £62,130 (23%) would be provided by the Nepal Department of Forests. Dev feels that this extended time period is preferred to ensure that the programme is embraced by farmers and to avoid derailment by unhealthy political and other interests. Also, the phased approach allows re-use of expensive fencing materials that protect the saplings.
There are two target areas. The first consists of 50 hectares of the east and west banks of the Baluwa river. The second is the 100 hectares that lie between DPF and the Baluwa river (pictured) It is expected that local farmers will be willing to turn over 40 hectares of under-utilised land to forest development. Therefore, a total of 90 hectares can be reforested and rewilded. The river banks will be reforested in the first five-year phase and the farm land in the second phase.
The budget (available upon request to me) includes a range of items and activities such as:
- Land preparation, including removal of grassland and invasive non-native scrub
- Procurement and transportation of saplings
- Planting and maintenance
- Cement post fencing to protect saplings
- Re-planting (there is a 30% mortality rate on first saplings
Anticipated outcomes are:
- Rapid carbon sequestration - using fast-growing trees and bamboo
- Enhancement of the natural environment and linkage of wildlife areas through the corridor
- Mitigation of human-wildlife contact
- Mitigation of land erosion and seasonal flooding
- Local short-term employment in the reforestation activity
- Long-term livelihoods through forest-related income generation, including through ecotourism
- Engagement with children and young people through volunteering and an associated education programme
- Potential for replication through positive media coverage
This project awaits initial funding support. Please get in contact if you feel you can help. We'd like to start as soon as possible. With the climate emergency, there is no time to lose.