Forest Management and Child Labour

The tracks out of the forest near Nepalgunj in south western Nepal are very busy today with people carrying large bunches of firewood. The vast majority are women and children. It’s Friday, the only day of the week communities are allowed to forage dead wood, as designated by the local Community Forestry Coordination Committee.

I saw a girl who couldn’t have been more than eight years old carrying a bunch of wood that probably weighed over ten kilograms. Later, I asked another girl who was resting from carrying a bunch that wouldn’t have passed long-haul flight baggage restrictions her age: 10. (Nearby I saw a large group of teenage boys and men playing cards. When I passed again an hour later, they were still playing.)

Rishi Bastakoti, of Resource Identification and Management Society (RIMS) – Nepal, explains that the one-day-a-week regime is intended to make communities use fire wood more economically. When locals could collect wood every day they tended to stock pile the resource and over time increase their consumption of it due of perceptions of abundance. The one-day-a-week system allows households to collect enough wood for the week but not stockpile, curbing the consumption increase trend.

Mr. Bastakoti also says that the regime has led to a shift to the use of other fuels for cooking and heating, such as kerosene, further protecting the sustainability of the forest. It must be said however that in three weeks of field work in rural Dang and Banke districts, I not once saw the use of alternative fuel.

In addition to the effectiveness at managing the tension between livelihood needs and ecosystem sustainability, the success of a natural resource regime must also be measured on its wider social impacts, such as child manual labour.

The one-day-a-week system creates a labour-time management bottleneck. Households must fit all their wood-collecting labour hours into a single day. If the labour hour demands exceed those providable by able-bodied adults, children will be mobilised. In contrast, if households could spread the wood-collecting hours across the whole week, the hours could in principle be allocated entirely to adults without needing to resort to child labour.

Child labour is often determined as much by labour-time management constraints as economic pressure. This is well documented in long term farming cycles. Child labour is often mobilised during harvest when labour shortage is common. At these times, school attendance drops sharply, and often school holidays are scheduled to coincide with harvest time to address this problem. The example of community forestry practice suggests that time management and labour hour shortages can have the same effect in much shorter cycles too.

Holistic ‘community-based’ or ‘co-management’ approaches to forestry popular with international non-governmental organisations promise to strike a balance between protecting ecosystem sustainability and safeguarding livelihoods. But if the cost of these systems is taking steps backward in social development it is arguable that priorities should be rethought. Certainly the sight of an eight year old missing school because her parents need all the hands they can get fetching firewood on Fridays invites considerable disillusionment in the new grass-roots empowering, integrated sustainable development paradigm.

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