The Nature of Things

Nepalese Graduate Travels Home to Help the Land and the People

By John Gagnon
Associate Professor Kathleen Halvorsen (left) and graduate student Smitri Dahal work on interviews of energy and environmental professionals.

Images from the top of the world—gathering for the weekly meeting of a Nepalese community forest user group (CFUG) and Smriti Dahal ’07 (gray shirt), who did the research on the group

Nepal is home to eight of the world’s highest mountains, and one alumnus from this rooftop of the world has some pretty lofty ideas.

Smriti Dahal graduated in August 2007 with a master’s degree in environmental policy. Her research took her back to her native Nepal, where she studied a group of women in Gundu, a village eight miles southeast of Kathmandu.

The women were managing a small woodlot used by the entire community—and they were asserting themselves in a country hidebound by male dominance and an outlawed, but persistent, caste system.

Dahal found the forest thriving and the women branching out into newfound leadership.

“This is bigger than trees,” Dahal says of her work.

Nepal is the size of Arkansas. To the north, the mighty Himalayas; to the south, the subtropic Ganges Plain; in between the forested middle hills, where Dahal did her research.

Fifty years ago, Nepal’s forests were managed indigenously by locals and were in sound condition. In 1957, the government nationalized the forests. “There was rapid degradation,” Dahal says, “because people no longer viewed the forest as their own.”

Illegal overcutting ensued, and much of the landscape was denuded. In the 1990s, the government ceded management of 14,000 forests to locals organized as community forest user groups (CFUG). The premise: ownership would bring stewardship.

NepalIt worked, and the resulting community-management program is famous; Nepal is a model for forest management among developing countries. However, national and international groups criticized the government-sponsored programs because they excluded women.

In response, the government established some all-female user groups. Dahal studied one, organized in 2001, that managed a modest thirty-one acres next to Gundu, population 2,453, a village of clay and brick homes.

Dahal wanted to find out whether the group has been successful, how it made its decisions, and what role castes played in the system.

In summer 2006, she conducted forty-two interviews with villagers and government workers, mostly women, who, she says, grew up in a tradition where women are “not exposed, not aware, not able to speak up. No education. No going outside the house.” The circumstance frustrates her, saddens her, and angers her.

With local stewardship instead of absentee government control, the forest has improved through replantings and restricted use, and the women are more active and confident.

NepalBut, the situation hasn’t been entirely successful. Dahal says that decision making is centralized; there are 363 members in the group; 44 on the education committee; 13 overseers; and 2 women making essentially all decisions.

“Not enough people are getting involved,” she concludes. The government, she adds, is only interested in the shape of the resource, the productivity, the harvest, and the financial value to Gundu. But, in addition, Dahal found that few villagers understood how the forest is managed, how decisions are made, and how the user group functions.

“The government,” she says, “needs to develop other indicators that define success.” She means social measures like participation across gender, broad-based decision making, and the elimination of the influence of castes.

For ages, Nepal had a caste system where everybody had a place, however lofty or lowly.

Although outlawed ten years ago, the structure is so entrenched that it stubbornly lingers, especially among old and rural people, who see the system not as discrimination, but as tradition.

“I don’t believe in all that,” Dahal says. Born
to Nepal’s highest caste, she could cling to a life of privilege. Instead, she has chosen a life of advocacy.

She is inspired in part by the mobility and opportunity that she encountered in her schooling in America.

Associate Professor Kathleen Halvorsen (left) and graduate student Smitri Dahal work on interviews of energy and environmental professionals.

Two girls walking to school. “The village
has been promoting education for women,”
says Smriti Dahal, who studied the women
who work the land.

Her education, she says, has made her independent. “Now I can live on my own.”

And live for others. “I want to help, in any way, the development of women,” she avows. “In many developing countries, they always get sacrificed and left behind.”

She sees this devotion as her duty. “I don’t know what use my education would be if I didn’t put it into practice,” she says.

Her Michigan Tech degree in environmental policy links forestry and social science. The dual emphasis has taught Dahal that she can incorporate social consciousness in environmental protection and environmental management.

In that endeavor, she has traveled far from her roots, realizes that a forest can lead to social reform, remains grounded in possibilities, and casts her lot with change.

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