Citizens audits help stop 80% of illegal logging and timber smuggling

Local communities in Nepal are, by law, empowered with protecting and benefitting from their local forests. But when opportunistic bad actors started robbing communities of these assets in Eastern Nepal, the Nepalese civil society organisation ForestAction mounted a successful campaign to stop them.

Using baseline surveys, Participatory Action Learning (PAL), public audits, public awareness raising, watch-dog committees, and capacity building, ForestAction worked to expose and successfully combat corruption and illegal timber smuggling involving government forestry officials and the executive committee members of community forest groups.

There is broad recognition in Nepal that local people are actively involved in the management of the country’s forestry resources. Nepal’s 1976 National Forestry Plan created space for local people to participate in the management of forest resources. The Forest Act of 1993 built on this by creating Community Forest User Groups (CFUGs), decentralised entities that directly involve communities in the management and preservation of local forests. Under this arrangement, communities are supposed to benefit economically, with 35% of logging proceeds invested in environmental conservation and 65% to be invested in community development projects.

In theory, at least, that was the model outlined in the 1993 law. In practice, however, as ForestAction discovered when it conducted surveys in Morang District, not all forestry proceeds were benefiting local communities. ForestAction’s work revealed that executive committee members of some CFUGs were engaged in an organised illegal timber trade network with forestry officials, timber smugglers and local elites. Opaque management and poor oversight were facilitating this abuse of the communities’ resources and trust.

In response, ForestAction launched an anti-corruption campaign aimed at exposing corruption in the CFUGs and educating local communities on how to combat it. It initiated a public media campaign to inform citizens about the problem and to involve members of district CFUGs in discussions. While public audits of CFUGs were obligatory, few CFUGs actually carried them out effectively; in the nine CFUGs in which ForestAction focused its campaign, none even had a credible system of record keeping. ForestAction worked to address this by providing training programs for community and CFUG members to increase their capacity to conduct record keeping and audits. The organisation also helped CFUGs to establish monitoring committees, good governance guidelines, and information hubs for knowledge sharing.

ForestAction’s campaign led to a significant increase in citizen participation in forest management. It also empowered CFUG members to monitor corruption, illegal logging and smuggling and to deal with authorities and traders who engaged in illicit activities. CFUG members launched organised protests against the involvement of forest authorities in deforestation and corruption. The creation or strengthening of monitoring committees, public audits and public hearings helped to provide local communities with information about forest authorities, forest management and CFUGs’ finances. At the end of the project intervention, 3 CFUGs declared their constituency as a corruption-free zone.

ForestAction noticed almost immediate declines in corruption and illegal logging after the launch of its campaign. Based on surveys with local community members and forestry officials, ForestAction estimates that illegal logging and timber smuggling in the project area decreased by 80% during the 5-year intervention. There are now more than 18,000 CFUGs across 74 of Nepal’s 75 districts, and demand is high in other CFUGs for anti-corruption interventions similar to ForestAction’s. After this intervention Environmental Resources Institute (ERI), an independent research and technical support organization working in Nepal and abroad, has been working to scale up this intervention in other CFUGs in association with Federation of Community Forestry Users of Nepal (FECOFUN).

Key Lessons

  • Peer learning is important for helping to transfer knowledge, empower local citizens and scale up local activities across communities. Peer learning expedites the process of cross-learning, information dissemination and experience sharing. PAL is an essential tool for this.
  • Securing the buy-in of other civil society organisations, government officials and journalists is important for realising success and for scaling up and sustaining activities.

Website: http://www.forestaction.org

Photo credit: Bishwa N Paudyal, Environmental Resources Institute (ERI) Pvt. Ltd