Nepal: Understanding the role of communities in reducing emissions from forests

The country explores how to better assess the impact of degradation and restoration as part of REDD+ efforts

The ‘Himalayas’ is Sanskrit for ‘abode of snow’, and this range is indeed the third largest deposit of frozen water in the world after the Artic and Antarctica. But this is not the only type of landscape present in Himalayan countries. With altitudes ranging from 59 to 8,848 meters, Nepal also has sub-tropical, temperate and sub-alpine forests that provide vital services to people and are also important from a biodiversity and climate perspective.

Nepal’s forests are now tugged between two forces: deforestation and degradation through unsustainable fuelwood collection, grazing and timber harvesting on the one hand, and reforestation through its community forestry programme, on the other.

These are precisely some of the key issues the country explored in constructing its forest reference level (FRL), a benchmark to assess REDD+ performance, which it submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2016.

“By analyzing data for the period 2000-2010, we observed deforestation is decreasing, while forest cover is gradually increasing,” says Dr. Mohan Prasad Poudel, REDD+ expert and former under-secretary of REDD+ Implementation Center at the Ministry of Forest and the Environment of Nepal.

The team also concluded that emissions from forest degradation surpass those from deforestation. These findings did not come as a surprise to Poudel and his colleagues, but that is not to say they were easy to come by.


A first challenge in building the reference level was estimating emission removals from community forests. Nepal nationalized its forests in 1957, but that led to large-scale deforestation and degradation well into the 1980s. In response, the government launched a programme to re-devolve state-owned forests to community user groups as a means of enhancing sustainable management and improving livelihoods.

By the time Nepal started developing its FRL, nearly 40 percent of its forest area was under decentralized management and there were 19,000 community forest user groups (CFUGs). This is particularly relevant, given that such groups encompass about one third of the population and are central to Nepal’s REDD+ strategy.

“The removals through community-based forest management are considered to be significant and, as such, they should be included as one of the REDD+ activities in the FRL. However, Nepal currently lacks sufficient reliable data to adequately estimate removals from community forests,” states the submission to the UNFCCC.

Like many other UN REDD partner countries, Nepal is taking a step-wise approach to constructing its reference level, meaning it intends to widen its scope and accuracy in future resubmissions.

An example of this gradual approach is the intention to collect appropriate field and remote sensing data to better assess removals from community forests. “We will update the FRL every five years as we develop the capacity to collect reliable data on all the relevant REDD+ activities, pools and gases,” says Dr. Poudel.


Between 2000 and 2010, annual emissions from forest degradation in Nepal more than doubled the emissions generated from deforestation. “We found the main drivers to be uncontrolled grazing and fodder collection, unsustainable fuelwood harvesting and illegal timber extraction, alongside fires, unplanned development and landslides or floods,” explains Dr. Poudel.

However, the team was confronted with the lack of reliable information on a number of drivers, and the fact that neither degradation and nor improved forest management could be detected from available digital data. Because of this, experts resorted to an indirect estimation of degradation based on historical emissions from grazing and fuelwood harvesting.

“This should be replaced by a direct estimation based on the measurement of changes of biomass stock over time, as soon as a sound and practical methodology is available,” states the FRL submission. Improving the measurement of emissions from grazing and fuelwood harvesting is important, given that eight in ten people in Nepal live in rural areas, and they derive 70 percent of their total energy consumption from forest biomass.


Nepal has gone a long way on its REDD+ journey, and is now working on going even further. “The FRL is important for us to assess the effectiveness of our forestry and environmental policies; to contribute to the global climate agenda; and to be eligible to access results-based payments for REDD+,” says Dr. Poudel.

Going forward, the country wants to resubmit updated reference levels with more comprehensive and reliable data, both on improved forest management through community groups and on the various causes of degradation.

A concerted effort that aims to protect forests, livelihoods and the climate, so the Himalayas can remain an “abode of snow” for years to come.


Gloria Pallares

Freelance Journalist for the UN-REDD Programme

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