1 Introduction

Nepal is a landlocked mountainous country in the South Asian region with an area of almost 150, 000 sq. km. and an altitude ranging from 70 to 8, 848 m above sea level. Recent estimates show that the country has 40% of forest cover (Department of Forest Research and Survey [DFRS], 2015) with these forests providing various natural benefits or ecosystem services (ES) to huge populations in the country (Paudyal et al., 2017; Lamsal et al., 2018). These forest-based ES are particularly critical as sources of livelihoods (e.g., trading raw materials) and daily subsistence (e.g., fuel) to communities in the upland mountains that have poor access to socio-economic activities, social services, and infrastructures (Maren et al., 2013; Birch et al., 2014; Adhikari et al., 2018). Lowland mountain communities also benefit as the forests regulate soil and water retention, avoiding natural disasters such as landslides and flash floods.

As part of maintaining the sustainability of Nepal’s forests and the benefits these provide, the country has been actively implementing the Community Forestry program and creating Community Forestry User Groups (CFUGs) which are institutionalized local groups that serve as stewards for specific forest patches or areas. By the end of 2017, there is over 1.8 million ha of forests under the program managed by more than 19, 000 CFUGs – around one-third of the country’s entire population (DFRS, 2015). The program aims to not only conserve these forests but improve the participation of marginalized groups in the decision-making and forest management processes. Specifically, active engagement and empowerment of women have been an important core of this program (Agarwal, 2010). Through the years, these CFUGs, especially those that are considered women-managed CFUGs, have recognized and embraced gendered values, roles, and practices towards the management of forests and the use of forest-based ES (Giri & Darnhofer, 2010; Bhandari et al., 2018). Women’s leadership and participation have proven essential in adapting to the skills, capacities, and needs of women. However, unprecedented social-ecological challenges (e.g., climate change) and other emerging global challenges (e.g., widening inequalities) have been detrimental to both the status of the forests and the gains from the program (Kozar et al., 2020; Sapkopta et al., 2020).

Given this rationale, we aim to provide empirical information on how social-ecological challenges in the mountains of Nepal are affecting gendered values and practices towards sustainable management of these forests and the provision of forest-based ES. We first establish the differentiated gendered roles on forest management and values of forest-based ES among members of CFUGs. We then discuss the gender-based perspectives on social-ecological challenges that CFUGs consider detrimental to sustainable forest management.

2 Methodology

We focus our study on the mountainous landscapes of the Chitwan District of Nepal [83 50′–85 00′ E and 27 15′–27 40′ N] (Fig. 9.1). This district has the following characteristics: total land area of around 2200 sq. km with 14% considered having very steep slope; elevation range from 245 m to 2, 000 m above sea level; and sub-tropical climate with a rainy season from June to September. In 2011, the District recorded almost 580, 000 residents with 52% females. Sixty percent of the district has forest cover and is being managed by 89 CFUGs.

Fig. 9.1
figure 1

Land cover map of Chitwan District showing the locations of the four Community Forestry User Groups (CFUG) included in this study (b). Inset above shows relative position of Chitwan District in Nepal (a) and a sample view of the forest in Chitwan District (c). (Photo by Jyoti Sedhain)

For this study, we selected four CFUGs from Chitwan District which include (1) Ranikhola CFUG which covers 200 ha with 162 households, (2) Kankalni CFUG which covers 749 ha with 2098 household users, (3) Chelibeti CFUG which covers 55 ha with 171 households, and (4) Chaturmukhi CFUG which covers 309 ha with 344 households. Out of the 2781 households in all four CFUGs, we randomly selected 380 household representatives, balancing gender count (i.e., 187 females and 193 males), for a survey using a structured questionnaire with questions about gendered roles in forest management, values of forest-based ES, and perceptions on social-ecological challenges for the landscape. We present the summary socio-demographic information about our survey respondents in Table 9.1.

Table 9.1 Summary socio-demographic information about the CFUG members in Chitwan District, Nepal who were surveyed in this study

We supplemented the quantitative results of the survey with qualitative narratives from 12 key informant interviews (KII). These KIIs included women leaders, the elderly, officers of CFUGs, school teachers, and local government officials. Additionally, we held eight focus group discussions (FGD) with 7 to 12 target members of the CFUGs participating in each to provide a more in-depth understanding of the gendered social-ecological dynamics within these landscapes.

3 Results and Discussions

3.1 Values of Forest-Based Ecosystem Services

Our approach to identifying values of forest-based ecosystem services (ES) provided by the mountain landscapes of Chitwan District was to assess dependency on key provisioning ES (Table 9.2). We determined that these provisioning ES, as supported by other literature (e.g., Paudyal et al., 2017), are essential for the wellbeing of the upland communities since the difficult physical conditions (i.e., steepness with poor roads) posed by the mountains make commercial access or alternatives of them difficult. Moreover, we define dependency as regular obtainment of these key ES from the forests to support either their diet, income, or survival. Our results present that both men and women have high dependencies (>50% of respondents per gender) on food, fuel, and fodder.

Table 9.2 Dependency on key provisioning forest-based ES among CFUG members in Chitwan District

All respondents depend on forests for food, such as fruits, nuts, wild meat, and wild or cultivated plants, which are eaten directly or prepared as part of meals. We identify that the most common farming systems in the landscape practiced by households are various forms of agroforestry systems in which fruit, timber, or native forest trees are combined with annual plants (e.g., vegetables) or livestock/poultry raising.

The majority of both genders also recognize forests as sources of fuel which are parts of trees (i.e., twigs, branches) that are directly used or processed as charcoals for cooking and household heating. This mirrors Nepal’s huge national reliance on fuelwoods as the main source of energy (Kandel et al., 2016). Huge equal proportions in both genders also identify fodder for animals as essential ES from the forest in which tree parts and perennial shrubs are used as feedstuff. This can be explained by 84% of the respondents owning and raising livestock, mostly cattle and goats, which are their main protein sources.

While all three forest-based ES are valued by the majority of both genders, our KIIs and FGDs revealed an important difference. Like other literature has shown too (e.g., Lama et al., 2017), men undergo seasonal migration of at least six months to neighboring India, Gulf countries (e.g., Qatar), and Southeast Asian region (e.g., Malaysia) for jobs which provide their families’ main sources of income (Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security [MLESS], 2020). This migration usually happens after the monsoon or around mid-May to June. As in the case of other reported communities (Gill, 2003; Lama et al., 2017), traditional migration patterns (i.e., before the 2000s) in our study sites involved men leading the preparation and planting of cash and other valuable horticultural crops in suitable areas of the landscape. Their wives and children will tend on these crops until men return just in time before harvests. They also used to stock key forest-based ES (e.g., fuel, fodder) to leave for their families. However, this has evolved with recent development and economic progress among nearby urban centers (Gill, 2003; MELSS, 2020). In our study sites, when not migrating, it was revealed to us that men would now rather choose non-agricultural or non-forestry works (e.g., employment or small business) in nearby urban centers instead of engaging in forestry or agriculture-related works in the landscapes. This new condition leaves women in these CFUGs to serve as the key ES users and managers. Specifically, women spend more than three-quarters of their day looking for food, fuel, and fodder in the forested landscape as compared to men. All year-round, they remain in the communities, feeding their families, managing their family’s resources, and tending their livestock. This situation is also reflected in the majority of women’s dependency on the forests for raw materials (e.g., fibers) which are directly or processed for trading and, in turn, serve as an additional income for their families. In one of the FGDs, a woman participant commented:

We cannot depend anymore on men in the village to obtain items from the forests, that’s why we women should be active. If we need men’s help for some physically-demanding works to get these items, we need to ask for help from other villages! - Elderly woman housewife

Our KIIs and FGDs, as supported by our respondents’ socio-demographic (Table 9.1), also show how women’s lack of even basic education hinders them from obtaining jobs outside the villages. Women who have the education also face tougher competition as jobs available for women in urban centers are very few. Thus, while men have accessed these increasing opportunities in the urban centers, women do not have considerable options given such educational and job availability barriers. To support these increased roles and responsibilities, Community Forestry guidelines have explicitly provided power to women in benefit sharing and legal authorization to decide on their family’s property and finances.

Timber from the forests is the least recognized forest-based ES for both genders. Timber is not traded for income but is instead used to build or repair their homesteads and wooden furniture. Men in households are traditionally the ones who do these works during their off-season stay in their villages; however, this pattern is now threatened with the changing job priorities among men.

Overall, these findings in this section point to how women’s value for forest-based ES can be considered as more significant because of their longer and more intense reliance on these benefits for their family’s daily and year-long survival. Seasonal outmigration by the men, difficult physical/topographical conditions, and lack of outside opportunities have all shaped women’s high dependency on their landscape as they interact with it for food, fuel, and fodder daily.

3.2 Gender Roles in Sustainable Forest Management

Community Forestry (CF) has been recognized to empower women in the sustainable management of forests and the ES these provide (Agarwal, 2010; Bijaya et al., 2016). Our results (Table 9.3) support this in which almost the same proportion of men and women are engaged in the five main roles identified by CF guidelines for sustainable forest management. In contrary to traditional perceptions that women are passive actors in forest management, our findings below allow us to assert that women are as actively involved as men across the CFUGs (Varghese & Reed, 2012; Wagle et al., 2016).

Table 9.3 Participation in the main roles in forest management among CFUG members in Chitwan District

Almost all respondents participate in seedling propagation and silvicultural activities such as weeding, pest management, and pruning/trimming. Each CFUGs maintain their respective tree nurseries in which households co-grow seedlings and later on plant these in pre-identified areas of their respective forests. Eventually, households maintain these seedlings until they grow mature enough to be left on their own. Almost a third of both genders have also been active in forest fire management, a regular occurrence in these mountain landscapes (Matin et al., 2017). Other key roles (i.e., forest ranging and planning) were participated by significantly fewer in both genders. Forest ranging is a paid assignment for a selected few in which members of the CFUGs are tasked to rove and check the forest area/patch for potential problems (e.g., encroachment). Our KIIs and FGDs show that this was traditionally a men’s assignment; however, we also now show how CFUGs have capacitated some women to deliver such a role.

On the other hand, planning includes the formulation of activities and projects. Community Forestry guidelines additionally require that 50% of decision and executive positions should be held by women members. While planning is open to all members of the CFUGs, our results found that only those who are officers in these positions, both men and women, are involved in the planning process. We see this as an area of further improvement. Nonetheless, our interviews and discussions also revealed that more women than men attend CFUG meetings and which we see as a good indicator of women’s interests in these processes. In complement, an interesting emerging theme is the increasing men’s support for women’s participation in decision-making processes. In a KII interview, the respondent shared that:

My husband highly encouraged me to participate in the meetings and to serve our CFUG executive committee. He supports me to attend these meetings and do other things outside my responsibilities for the household. I feel empowered to raise my voice in the meetings and bring women agenda in forest planning.- Woman officer in one of the CFUGs

While women have less education than men in these communities (Table 9.3), the Program has provided women the skills development training and capacity-building activities to provide them with competencies to effectively deliver these roles. Community Forestry guidelines even require that a quarter of CFUG’s fund should be used for gender-friendly strategies and projects. We also found that 60% of women respondents felt that the Program has given them more confidence to take charge of their respective forest areas/patches and handle forest-based ES.

In this section, we demonstrate that women’s interactions with their landscape are not limited to obtaining these forest-based ES but also as stewards of these forests. Such roles could be further magnified with women’s year-long stay in these landscapes. Also, having empowered women who can effectively participate and independently deliver responsibilities is particularly important in these mountains as government foresters and environmental workers have minimal resources to regularly observe and monitor progress and activities.

3.3 Social-Ecological Challenges in Mountain Landscapes

These critical ES provided by the forests (Table 9.2) and the gains of women in sustainably managing them (Table 9.3) are under threat for various social-ecological challenges (Table 9.4). Among these is deforestation and/or illegal felling of trees which have been recognized by a majority of both men and women. Deforestation is clearing portions of the forest which, based on our interviews, were mostly because of illegal conversion to monocultural agricultural lands.

Table 9.4 Perceived social-ecological challenges affecting forest-based ES in Chitwan District, Nepal

Deforestation in our study sites could be traced back to the institutional and governance issues we have identified concerning CF guidelines. Forests under the CF program or those managed by these CFUGs are considered government-owned lands. However, the program also allows the leasing of portions of these lands to members of the CFUGs for exclusive maintenance and use, following standards by the program and benefit-sharing agreements with the CFUG. However, we found that there are emerging conflicts between numerous lessees and the government because of the conversion of the leased forest portion to agricultural lands. The main reasons for this include (1) perceived increasing difficulty to obtain the forest-based ES (esp. food) that might be due to impacts of other social-ecological challenges (e.g., increased demand for ES due to additional users through encroachment as discussed below) and (2) increasing realization that monocultural agriculture can provide immediate food and cash. We learned that the Chitwan District Forestry Office uses tripartite negotiations among their office, the CFUGs, and the concerned lessee to solve such issues.

On the other hand, illegal felling or the practice in which individual or few trees in the forest are unlawfully cut is usually done by the poorest members of the CFUGs. This practice is usually done at night when forest ranging is very limited. Cut trees are sold as timber; thus, becoming a fast cash source for those most financially needy. Institutional and governance issues in CF have also been credited as one of the main drivers of illegal felling. Specifically, CF guidelines allow the cutting of trees, especially those that are old and deformed that pose risks to the community. However, each CFUG has an annual allotment on the number of trees that can be cut. These are supposed to be sold based on benefit-sharing agreements in each CFUG. Because this process is could be tedious given all the administrative steps that have to be followed and benefits cannot be solely owned, several observe illegal felling.

Another important challenge that a significant percentage of both genders have identified is encroachment. Specifically, non-members of CFUGs or those from other villages would enter their CFUG’s perimeters to obtain forest-based ES, increasing competition and endangering sustainable levels of supplies of such services. In a KII interview, the respondent informed us that:

There are now many illegally-built huts and even shifting cultivation areas created by non-members of our CFUG. I feel like this is because of the population increase, continued poverty, lack of awareness, and lack of necessary actions taken by the government- Woman officer in one of the CFUGs

Interestingly, apparent gendered differences can be seen in recognizing climate change and infrastructure development as challenges. A higher proportion of women, especially those 45 years old above (Table 9.1), identify climate change and its emerging impacts such as increased frequency of forest fires, longer droughts, and more unpredictable weather patterns. This was well summarized by one of the participants of an FGD who shared that:

All that is happening before was just in time. We know when we would plant and harvest…when the plants will flower and fruit. Middle-aged woman farmer

One possible reason for this higher recognition trend among women is their year-round stay in the communities as compared to seasonal stay by men, allowing them to more extensively compare the full-year climactic dynamics in the landscapes. These changes are adversely impacting women’s health and wellbeing as they are the ones who are more immersed in the field to obtain various forest-based ES (Table 9.2). To adapt to these impacts, women have either to spend more time and effort when out in the forests; ask their children more time too to help out; or simply reduce the use of these ES (e.g., shifting to cooking meals which are quicker to cook, thus using fewer fuelwoods).

Infrastructure development such as road construction and the urbanizing effects these bring (i.e., increased commercial activities and consumerist lifestyle) is a challenge that more men are particularly keen about. The synthesis of men’s narratives indicates their concerns about how such development has recently been limiting local demands of their traditional enterprises and occupation. For example, several men respondents claim that the demand for traditionally made items (e.g., rattan or bamboo-based household items) has drastically reduced recently as community members now have access to plastic or their more modern counterparts. Numerous women echo this as well since the majority of women are the ones dependent on the forests for raw materials (Table 9.2). However, our KIIs and FGDs disclose a more hopeful tone in which women hope that their families have better access to social services and children have better access to education. Nonetheless, both men and women have reservations on how continued infrastructure development might eventually affect their established social-ecological dynamics in the future. In a KII, one respondent said that:

For me, increased road access has both positive and negative benefits for the community. Positive benefits are improved job creation at the local level and easy access to education, health services, and other basic needs and facilities. However, people are now preferring quick, easy, and cheap things from the markets in the urban centers. This has direct impacts on the traditional and local industries - Young woman self-entrepreneur

Other challenges that were identified by at least a tenth of respondents in each gender are forest fires and migration. Forest fires are either natural which are caused by lightning or man-made which usually result from poorly managed charcoal making or shifting cultivation in portions of the landscape. Our discussions and interviews also revealed that human mistakes have increasingly caused some forest fires. This is because when forest paths are cleared multiple times a year, some would choose to burn collected litter and cuttings without proper control.

Finally, as discussed in the earlier section, migrations coupled with changing job priorities have been a rising cause of concern lately. These upland communities have been seeing huge proportions of younger populations, like those 30 years old and below (Table 9.3), moving out of the mountains more permanently this time instead of just seasonal labor migrations. Even if this could mean that there is lower demand for these forest-based ES, there are also apprehensions that future manpower to effectively manage the forests can be endangered. Moreover, a synthesis of our interviews indicates that women are afraid that the strong social ties in the community that has long shaped sustainable management of these resources might slowly fade out.

In this section, our findings present that the sustainable provision of forest-based ES in mountain landscapes is already being affected by social-ecological challenges. Impacts of each, as well as collective impacts as one affects the other, are now being experienced not only in terms of supply of these ES but also on the overall social-ecological dynamics in these upland communities (e.g., increasing natural resource-based conflicts). We further argue that women are more vulnerable than men to experience heavier impacts of these challenges as women are the ones who use and manage these forest resources more intensively, as presented in the previous sections.

4 Conclusions

Our study presents that the forests in the mountain landscapes of Chitwan District, Nepal are sources of key ecosystem services (ES) that are valued by women as much as men to support their family’s living and livelihoods. We consider the values of these forest-based ES to be more substantial for women as they benefit more directly, spending the majority of their daily activities throughout the year to source these ES from the landscape.

We also show evidence that the Community Forestry program, through membership with Community Forestry User Groups (CFUGs), has empowered these women by providing them skills and capacities that allowed them to be as proactive as men in participating in various roles in the sustainable management of these forests. Thus, women have become not only the main beneficiaries of these ES but as the lead stewards of these forests. However, these make women also the more vulnerable group in the CFUGs to the emerging impacts of various social-ecological challenges. Interactions of these challenges might further exacerbate one another. For example, climate change might reduce ES supplies across the landscape, potentially worsening encroachment problems. Thus, we believe that women’s skills and capacities must be further expanded and supported to enable them to respond or adapt better to the impacts of these challenges. The Community Forestry program should also regularly revisit its guidelines and mechanisms so that CFUGs could continue enjoying the ecosystem services while effectively managing their mountain landscapes.