How green is my valley

By Mahendra Shrestha

1 January 1992

Forests on the Valley rim have a heavy burden: they must help maintain bio-diversity, sustain the rural population, and prepare for the recreational needs of an urbanising Valley floor.

The woods in and around Kathmandu Valley have always fulfilled the rural and urban demand for firewood, charcoal, fodder and timber. While the rural population has remained steady, a fast expansion in the city population has led to a increase in the demand for forest products.

The area under forest cover has declined rapidly, making up only 18 percent(7,616 ha)of Valley area, according to 1990 figures. Overuse of the woodlands led to a loss of 1,360 ha of forest cover between 1972 and 1986. About 1,840 ha has been converted to grasslands, some of it from forests, during the same period. Agricultural land decreased 17 per cent to 20,320 ha, primarily due to takeover by urban sprawl.

While the green cover has disappeared over much of the Valley floor, some of the original flora and fauna are still to be found in the forests on the four main ridge-tops on the Valley rim, namely, Phulchoki, the highest at 2,765 m, Shivapuri (2732 m), Nagarjun (2188 m) and Chandragiri (2432 m).

Trees and damselflies

Wildlife specialists know the Valley as one of the larger inter-montane basins in the “Lesser Himalayan Midland Zone”. The sub-tropical broad-leaved forest of Schima and Castanopsis (Chilauney andKatus in Nepali) are dense. Floral diversity is particularly marked in Phulchoki, which harbours 571 angiosperms, two gymnos-perms and 80 species of ferns and rel ated species. Over 100 species of mushroom sprout on Shivapuri hill, including a species known mlactarius pleurotoideus, which was not known to be found in the Himalayan region until very recently.

Although their numbers are dwindling, some of the undisturbed forestpockets still contain typical mid-land mammals like the rhesus macaque (which also frequent religious sites like Pashupati and Swayambhu), Himalayan black bear, wild dog, jungle cat, leopard, barking deer, civet, marten, squirrel, mongoose, common otter, wild boar, and the pangolin ant-eater.

Nearly 300 species of birds have been observed in the Valley. The Phulchoki area, a veritable ornithologist´s Eden, hosts at least 259 permanent and migratory species. The forests of Shivapuri, Nagarjun and Phulchoki also support about 325 species of butterfly. Only Shivapuri, however, harbours the Ephiophlebia laidlawi, which is one of the two living species of damselflies in the world.

The responsibility of managing the forest areas is divided among three District Forest Offices of Bhaktapur, Kathmandu and Lalitpur. However, while these offices have tried, the problem of deforestation is much bigger for their financial resources or political clout to tackle. The main problem is the demand for firewood, charcoal, and timber by the growing urban population. There is also clearing of land for settlement, the invasion of forests for harmful recreation such as uncontrolled picnicking, and many other “negative interventions”, including the quarrying of stones, especially marked on Chandragiri hill.

Lack of proper monitoring and the absence of public participation in forest management have led to the failure of afforestation. To circumvent this problem, user groups were formed to manage areas designated as community forests, but these, too, saw little success as true participation by villagers was limited. The ridges of Shivapuri and Nagarjun and the Valley-floor enclave of Gokama, encompassing an area of 162 sq km of prime forest, are today protected in the traditional sense, with extremely limited admission for the locals.

Forests for recreation
As Kathmandu becomes more and more a Valley of city people, and as the urban economy takes root, andconcepts of leisure-time activity emerge, the outlying forests are bound to be increasingly usedas recreational spots rather than as suppliers of fores t products. For this reason, it has become imperative to maintain and manage existing forest areas in and around the Valley.

Presently, locations like Godavari, Surjebinayak, Nagarkot, Dakshinkali, Nagarjun, Balaju, Gokarna and Thankot have developed as recreational grounds, but the majority of visitors picnic and a very small minority hike. This is bound to change as”the city youths are introduced to, the physical and psychological rewards of hiking, camping and other means of communing with nature. It would be unfortunate to find, when that time arrives and the Valley´s youths turn to nature, that the forests have all disappeared.

For these reasons, it is important to preserve the quality of the Valley´s forest cover—not just for “love of nature”, but with the urbanising trends in mind. The future urban quality of life will only be enhanced if the city-dwellers have easy access to well-preserved natural areas. Phulchoki, because of the accessibility provided by the major road to Godavari at its base, will be the first forested area that will have to respond to this new need of city-dwellers. It is therefore urgent to develop and implement a plan for Phulchoki´s renewal, one which would also bring benefits to surrounding rural population.

In fact, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation does have plans to protect Phulchoki, which has seen a grievous loss of plant and animal species over the course of four decades. Due to past experience with walled-in sanctuaries elsewhere, villagers on all sides of Phulchoki have come to view protected areas as threats to livelihood.Withpast experience in mind, the objective is to try to preserve Phulchoki’s unique habitat while maintaining the villagers´ link to the forest as a resource base.Perhaps it will be a unique effort in which the villagers and city people both benefit from the protection of a green Valley habitat.  

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