Give forests back to people instead of planting trees

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It may sound counterintuitive, but empowering local people to manage forests is an excellent way to preserve them. That strategy can revive even dwindling forests, the recent NASA Earth Observatory “image of the day” shows us.

NASA released a series of maps yesterday showing the incredible recovery Nepal’s forests have experienced over the past few decades thanks to a plan to make nearby communities responsible for conservation. You see sparse forest cover in the early 1990s, followed by a lush resurgence towards the end of the 2010s. Forest cover nearly doubled across the country between 1992 and 2016, the satellite images show.

“Once communities began to actively manage the forests, they grew back primarily as a result of natural regeneration,” Jefferson Fox, deputy research director at the East-West Center in Hawaii, said in NASA’s blog post. Fox was on the NASA-funded research team that documented the remarkable comeback.

A map at the top shows Nepal shaded in light green, indicating little forest in 1992.  A map below shows the land colored dark green, indicating more forest in 2016.

Forest cover across Nepal in 1992 and 2016.
Image: NASA Earth Observatory

In the late 1970s, a World Bank report bleakly predicted that by 1990, forests would have largely disappeared from Nepal’s hills. . But the country changed course in 1978, when it launched a community forestry program.

The plan was to put local groups in charge of managing large tracts of land. As a result, people could use the forests to collect food or firewood, for example. But they were also tasked with developing plans to ensure that those resources remained plentiful. It was in their interest to keep the forests healthy.

Now about 22,000 local groups manage about 2.3 million hectares (5,683,424 acres) of community forests in Nepal. That’s about 3 million households that maintain about a third of all forests in Nepal. And they’ve had incredible results. Forest cover in the community-administered area of ​​Devithan grew from 12 percent to 92 percent in a few decades.

A map on the left shows an area with green spots, indicating decreasing forest cover in 1992. A map on the right shows the area with much more colored dark green, indicating increased forest cover in 2016.

Forest cover east of Kathmandu.
Image: NASA Earth Observatory

Sure, forests are in deep trouble all over the world, and restoring them has the added benefit of trapping carbon dioxide that would otherwise warm the planet. But so many forestry projects fail without community support. Seedlings die and trees are cut down, often because there is no plan to manage them for the long term.

At worst, Indigenous peoples and other inhabitants have been kicked off their land in the name of conservation. In fact, what decades of experience and research show us is that they were the best stewards of the forest in the first place.

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