Struggles over ‘Science’:
What is the role for science in community forestry in Nepal?
Demands are growing for scientific approaches to manage forest resources, but some claim that ‘science’ does more harm than good.
Rebecca Rutt and Meghan Wagner
Forests in Nepal are necessary to the livelihoods of the majority of rural households for firewood, timber, fodder for animals, and as a source of nutrients for cropped fields. They are also critical to the national economy. The country’s Community Based Forest Management regime, introduced in the 1980s, was expected to contribute to both resource sustainability and rural livelihood improvements by letting users manage local forests. For a while, it appeared to be a success, but by the early 2000s, concerns arose about the long-term sustainability and economic viability of local management. The Ministry of Forestry and Soil Conservation responded by introducing scientific forest management plans as a new precondition for transferring authority to local community groups. They expected these plans to safeguard and promote sustainable resource use through better data about forests, and justified them in the name of relevance to daily forest management tasks. Yet, the role of such planning in actual community-level management remains unclear. Research in Nepal has indicated that some scientific forest management plans were elaborated haphazardly and that local communities base their management on other sources of knowledge. Further, research indicated that community-level managers appeared well informed about forest conditions and that their practices contributed to sustainable forest development despite being non-“scientific.” This case follows the decision-making process of a high-level forestry official tasked with advising his Ministry on how to deal with the increasingly problematic contexts of scientific and community forest management. It asks readers to rethink assumptions about the appropriate role for science in natural resource management, to take context-specific conditions into account, to dig into the unintended and unacknowledged outcomes of the assumptions, and to thereby advance more informed and realistic policy recommendations.