The ten-year conflict (1996–2006) between the Government of Nepal (GON) and the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) slowed economic growth and displaced tens of thousands of Nepalis. The government of the newly created Federal Democratic Republic faces many challenges in preserving the peace and delivering development in a context of great geographical, ethnic, and social diversity. The country has abundant water resources, well-distributed forestland, and a relatively concentrated area of cultivable land, but needs to strengthen its weak institutions to oversee the management of its land and natural resources. Nepal‘s highly stratified and hierarchical social structure has tended to limit access to resources and economic opportunity. Consequently, Nepal remains a low-income economy, highly dependent upon agriculture, with a third of its 28 million people below the national poverty line. The poorest are those in the lower castes, Muslims, and agricultural laborers.
Poverty is highly correlated to the size and quality of landholdings. There have been past efforts at land reform, but little success in equalizing highly skewed land holdings, reducing the significant level of landlessness, improving security of land tenure, or eliminating exploitative tenancy relationships. These chronic land issues helped to fuel the years of conflict. The government has convened a Land Reform Commission, is in the process of revising the legal and policy framework governing land, and has committed to an agenda of land reform.
Despite Nepal‘s wealth of water resources, unequal access to water has caused tension in the country, especially where competing water uses (e.g., irrigation, drinking water, hydropower, and industrial use) vie for access. Nepal‘s abundant surface water resources have been harnessed to provide energy, but are increasingly polluted by the discharge of untreated human and industrial waste.
Nepal‘s dwindling forests are a critical source of food, medicine, building materials, and animal fodder. The insurgency disrupted management of, and created conflict over, forest resources by removing government oversight and support, and creating an atmosphere of insecurity and distrust. Much of the forestland between the Himalayas and the lowland plateaus has been cleared for crops, livestock, and human settlement. Timber is being harvested at a rapid rate, resulting in an annual deforestation rate of 1.4%, and much of the land in Nepal‘s hills is degraded. Landslides, erosion, and soil degradation are common.
KEY ISSUES AND INTERVENTION CONSTRAINTS
- Encourage community-based land reforms. Nepal has been plagued by the impact of its entrenched social hierarchy and caste system on reforms. Land reforms have failed to redistribute land because Nepal has lacked the political will to impose land ceilings and redistribute surplus land to landless and land-poor households. In the forestry sector, the first- generation Community Forest User Groups (CFUGs) have been dominated by elites and have often excluded the most marginalized community members from benefit-sharing and meaningful participation. More recently, donor-funded projects have made inroads in the formation and reformation of forest and water user groups and the strengthening of Village Development Committees (VDCs) to ensure the participation of women, lower castes, and ethnic minorities. Land reform programs may be able to learn from the country’s experience in the water and forestry sectors and consider ways to use community-based entities to drive land reforms that are participatory, locally relevant, and enforceable.
- Raise awareness of and support for women’s legal rights. At the policy level, women‘s rights to land and other natural resources suffer from inconsistencies, gaps, and discriminatory provisions in the legal framework. Custom and paternalistic norms tend to fill gaps and render new articulations of equal rights superfluous. New laws are being drafted, providing an opportunity to ensure that the legal framework improves and protects the rights of women. Donors could also work with local NGOs to raise the issues of women’s legal rights, support advocacy and public awareness campaigns, and extend legal aid services to women.
- Revisit and consider implementing recommendations in USAID’s 2006 Tropical Forestry and Biodiversity assessment. Nepal‘s forests are experiencing rapid deforestation with extensive environmental and economic consequences. USAID‘s 2006 assessment identified several areas where donors could provide assistance in helping Nepal conserve biodiversity and reduce deforestation, support and extend structures for good governance of natural resources, and develop livelihood and economic activities with attention to conservation goals and local community needs. The assessment and its recommendations provide a starting point for donors to engage or reengage in Nepal’s forest sector. Particular areas of need are: (1) helping to provide basic information and training on sustainable land-use practices; (2) building capacity to mainstream conservation into sectoral development programming; and (3) helping the government evaluate and refine its community forest management programs to build on successes, take advantage of lessons learned, and address gaps, particularly in the area of sustainable forest management.
- Support continued development of water user groups and integrated natural resource management. Water resources in the Kathmandu Valley are often stressed due to long dry spells during which wells dry up and drinking water is limited. In addition, climate change is expected to accelerate glacier melt in the Himalayas, increasing flooding and ultimately decreasing river flow and freshwater resources. The government and donors have partnered on projects to create water user groups, provide technical assistance on sustainable water management techniques, and expand irrigation infrastructure. Donors could continue to assist the government in building local governance structures to manage water resources and develop a foundation for community-based integrated natural resource governance institutions that manage resources with recognition of the interconnectedness of water, agricultural land, forests, and rural livelihoods.
Nepal emerged from a decade of conflict to shed the remnants of its monarchy and create a federal democratic republic. Nepal‘s new government takes on the governance of a country rich in geographical, ethnic, and social diversity, with a multitude of opportunities and challenges. Nepal‘s geography ranges from the Himalayan Mountains to lowland plateaus with abundant water resources, well-distributed forestland, and a relatively concentrated area of cultivable land. The predominantly Hindu country has a mixture of ethnic groups and a highly stratified and hierarchical social structure, which has controlled access to resources and economic opportunity. A third of Nepal‘s people live below the national poverty line. The poorest are those in the lower castes, Muslims, and agricultural laborers.
With 83% of the population living in rural areas, land is a critical resource in Nepal. Poverty is highly correlated to the size and quality of landholdings. Five percent of the population controls 27% of the land while almost half the population holds only about 17% of the land. Land productivity is low due to lack of irrigation, inconsistent use of inputs, and inadequate infrastructure. A high percentage of agricultural land is idle. At least 10% of the rural population is absolutely landless.
Despite numerous efforts at land reform, Nepal has been largely unsuccessful at equalizing highly skewed land holdings, reducing the significant level of landlessness, improving security of land tenure,and eliminating exploitative tenancy relationships. These chronic land issues helped to fuel the years of conflict between the Government of Nepal and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), whose rhetoric includes a strong element of social justice and retribution. Land reform is high on the agenda of the new government, which has recognized the relation between land access and tenure security and the achievement of agricultural productivity and economic growth. The government has convened a Land Reform Commission, is in the process of revising the legal and policy framework governing land, and has committed to an agenda of land reform.
Rapid urbanization is occurring as a result of displacement from conflict-stricken areas and lack of opportunity in rural areas. The need for housing outpaces availability; the majority of urban residents live in substandard housing in informal settlements. The settlements are mostly unserviced, at risk from outbreaks of disease, and vulnerable to earthquakes and flooding.
Nepal‘s land and other natural resources are threatened. Much of the forestland between the Himalayas and the lowland plateaus has been cleared for crops, livestock, and human settlement. Landslides, erosion, and soil degradation are common. Nepal‘s abundant surface water resources have been harnessed to provide energy to many areas but are increasingly polluted by the discharge of untreated human and industrial waste. Nepal‘s community forest program, which is implemented by almost 15,000 Community Forest User Groups (CFUGs) countrywide, has been credited with reversing the pace of degradation in some of the country‘s forests.