11. Community Forestry: Supporting Bhutan’s National and MDG Goals While Protecting Forests

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11. Community Forestry: Supporting Bhutan’s National and MDG Goals While Protecting Forests




Community forestry in Bhutan was introduced in its current form relatively recently, in 2000. There are currently 36 approved community forests covering 2,914 ha, with 1,664 households managing designated CF areas. Approximately 15 additional community forests are currently in various stages of preparation prior to approval (initial application, resource assessment, preparing the management plan, or final approval process).

Forests are very important for the rural communities in Bhutan, as they supply many products like timber, fuelwood, grazing fodder and vegetables. The CF Program in Bhutan seeks to strengthen the link between people and forests and can make a significant contribution to livelihood improvement, environmental conservation and sustainable use of forests. This paper will document the potential impact of the CF Program.

At the time of its initial introduction in 1992, CF was seen as a potential threat to the conservation-oriented National Forest Policy. This skepticism still exists, but as evidence of the positive impacts of CF emerges, policy is changing to further support the CF program. Furthermore, if CF is fully developed, its contribution to the National and Millennium Development Goals will be significant.


About 72% of Bhutan is covered with forests. The total forest area is 2,904,522 ha, of which 26% is classified as protected area, 9% is biological corridors, 8% is designated as forest management units, and the remaining 57% is reserved forest. The long-term goal of the forestry sector is to keep 60% of the country area under forest cover in perpetuity.

Evolution of Community Forestry Programme

The CF Program has evolved since 1979 when His Majesty initiated the Social Forestry Program. In 1985, 2 June was declared Social Forestry Day, coinciding with the Coronation Day of the fourth King of Bhutan. The aim of Social Forestry Day was to promote tree planting and create environmental awareness among the Bhutanese youth. In 1992, some forestry activities were decentralized to the districts from central level, including the CF Program. The CF Program was legalized in the Forest Nature Conservation Rules (FNCR) 2000 and revised in 2003 (see Box 1).

Box 1: Statement of Community Forestry in Forest and Nature Conservation Rules (2003)

Any area of the Government Reserved Forest that is suitable for management by a Community Forest Management Group may be designated as community forest.

All individuals and households with traditional claim to forest produce from the proposed community forestry area have the opportunity to join the Community Forestry Management Group.

The CF Program was given further impetus in the 9th five-year plan (2002–2007). The plan defines community forestry as a broad development strategy that can embrace diverse forms of local decision making in all sorts of forestry matters that affect people’s lives.

Other Relevant Policies

The Department of Forests (MoA 2003) states that subsidized timber (so-called rural timber supply) for rural construction will be supplied based on quantities specified in FNCR Volume II, 2003. The royalty imposed on this timber is minimal, ranging from Nu. 4–40 per tree depending on sizes.1 The rules stipulated that for new house construction the Thram holder, or resident, has the right to subsidized timber every 25 years and renovation/extensions to a house every five years.2 The FNCR 2003 states that dry firewood can be collected free of royalty by rural communities.

1 US$1 = Nu. 45

The National and Millennium Development Goals

The Royal Government of Bhutan (RGoB) states in the Millennium Development Goals Progress Report (2003, p.7) that “poverty in Bhutan remains a predominantly rural phenomenon.” Poverty reduction in these rural areas is the main national goal outlined in the 10th five year national plan (2007–2012). The RGoB is also fully committed to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (see Box 2).

Box 2: Bhutan’s commitment to UN Millennium Development Goals

To ensure popular participation and continue delivering tangible benefits from political and economic modernization, the Royal Government of Bhutan has resolved that poverty reduction shall be the main objectives of the 10th Plan and also remains fully committed to meeting all the Millennium Development Goals (RGoB. 2003: 3).

The CF Program targets the rural population by improving their livelihoods and environmental resources, thereby contributing to the national and millennium development goals. The eight UN Millennium Development Goals are to be achieved by 2015. Two of the goals (one and seven) are directly relevant for community forestry in Bhutan. The first goal is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, while the seventh is to ensure environmental sustainability. While the CF Program can certainly contribute to meeting these goals, it will also contribute indirectly to other MDGs, such as promoting gender equality and empowering women.

Current Progress of Community Forestry

As of August 2006, 36 community forest, covering 2,914 ha, have been approved by the Department of Forests (DoF), involving 1,664 household managing the community forest areas. Currently, the average community forest area is only 1.75 ha per household. The FNCR 2003 allows the size of community forests to be 2.5 ha per household, subject to marginal increase or decrease depending on the local situation. The reason for this difference is that communities initially had their doubts about the policy as community forestry was mainly regarded as a community plantation program, and about 50% of existing degraded forests were to be included in any community forest. The current trend is for communities to apply for the maximum area if the forest is near and around their villages. This is because communities are now convinced that community forests will be allocated and that large areas of degraded forest will not be included.

Admittedly, the CF Program had a slow start. The main reason for this was the initial skepticism of the communities about whether the DoF would actually hand over government forest areas for their management and use. Initially, the DoF was also concerned that CF would have a negative impact on the conservation of the forests and the overall forest cover.

Other reasons for the slow implementation of the CF Program were the limited capacity within the forestry services and communities, poor communication between the communities and DoF, changes in the CF rules and initial differing interpretations of the FNCR. With greater awareness of the legal framework by all stakeholders and clear communication between DoF staff and communities, the rate of CF implementation will greatly increase.

2 “Thram” is the Bhutanese term for registered land in the owner’s name

Due to the limited number and size of existing CFs, the combined CF area presently covers less than 0.1% of the total forest area. In response to this, the latest (8th) Renewable Natural Resources (RNR) conference in February 2006 clarified and provided strong support for the further development of CF (see Box 3). The RNR resolution will be incorporated into the revised FNCR, which is currently in the final drafting stage.

Box 3: 8th RNR resolution on Community Forestry

Resolution 10: Considering the small size of the total area under community forestry and recognizing its potential in the improvement of protective, conservation, and productive functions of forest and forest ecosystems, the Conference resolved that:

  • the forest areas around villages and human settlements as well as the interposing agricultural fields be allotted for community forestry;
  • capacity of the forestry staff to implement community forest programs be strengthened;
  • the NWFP development in community forests be stepped up; and
  • the community forests development activities be documented.

Source: 8th RNR Conference Resolutions, 2006, MoA

Maximum potential community forest areas

Table 1 shows the maximum potential area of community forests in Bhutan, based on rules stipulating that a maximum of 2.5 ha of forest can be allotted per rural household. While the known total forest area is based on 1996 data, new land-use data are being prepared following the redefinition of national boundaries and the total land area is expected to be lower than it was previously. Calculations indicate that the maximum community forest area is 237,944 ha (8.2%) of the total forest area. The revised data on total forest cover based on the revised land area will not significantly change the outcome of the calculation of the maximum potential CF area. Considering the revised data on the total land area, the total maximum potential CF area is expected to a maximum of 8–10% of the total forest area.

Table 1: Potential Community Forestry Area


Forest area
(Ha) *


Total rural

No. of rural

Max. potential CF area
(No. Rural HH x 2.5 Ha)

Potential CF area (% of total forest area)






































































































































Samdrup Jongkhar














* Source: Land Cover and Area Statistics of 20 Dzongkhags, 1996, PPD, MOA.

** Source: Results of Population and Housing Census of Bhutan, 2005. The FNC Act and FNRC specify that communities adjoining the forests or those with traditional claims can apply for community forestry. We assume that all rural household fulfill these requirements.

Most of the rural people depend on forests for their livelihood. In some villages in the country, forests are also a main source of cash income from the selling of NTFPs. The Social Forestry Division (2006) stated that during 2003, NTFPs alone contributed US$ 7.6 million to the Gross Domestic Product. Most of the NTFPs are collected by rural people and sold to agencies. A major portion of the country’s population depends on agriculture, and therefore forests play a very important role in sustaining the livelihoods of the people in terms of both materials and environmental services.

If all the potential community forestry areas are developed, 69% of the population would be involved in the CF Program. In principle, all rural communities can have access to CF. As most of the rural population is poor, there is no doubt that a fully implemented CF Program will lead to poverty alleviation and livelihoods development. These benefits are secured through the legal framework of the FNCR, which states that all forest products from the community forest shall be the property of the Community Forest Management Group, for their own use and for sale on a sustainable basis.

With more than two-thirds of the population potentially to benefit, Dzongkhag Forestry officials should identify the rural communities in each Geog and discuss the potential of CF with these communities.3 If the community is interested, the process of establishing CF should start immediately. Of course, the capacity of the communities and DoF staff needs to be strengthened to ensure the success of such an initiative.

It is, however, very unlikely that all of the potential community forest areas will be developed. There will be rural communities which are not interested in community forestry due to abundant forest resources in their areas with no competition or threats from outsiders, or due to the rural wood policy (which guarantees access to subsidized timber and fuelwood for the rural population). For these reasons, communities might not recognize community forestry as a priority. Even with this being the case, it is expected that more rural communities will apply for community forests as the benefits from the program become better understood over time. The expectation is that the number of CFs will increase tenfold over the next 5 years. As the rules and regulations make it clear that excess timber can be sold, CFMGs have the opportunity to generate additional income to directly benefit the communities involved in community forestry.

The contribution of community forestry to environmental conservation

Though the CF program is not mature enough to clearly illustrate the long term positive impact on environmental conservation, there is evidence that it is contributing already based on observations from the communities involved in CF (see Box 4).

Box 4: Community Forestry can rehabilitate water sources

After establishing the community forest there is a constant flow of drinking water. CF gives the legal right to our community to protect the water source through plantation and controlling tree felling.

Source: CFMG member of Geyzor Community Forest, Zobel, Pemagatshel, 2006.

In the 36 approved community forest management plans, the objective of environmental conservation is explicitly stated, and activities are planned and carried out towards achieving these objectives. Out of a total CF area of 2,914 ha, approximately 350 ha are degraded. These degraded lands are used for planting locally preferred tree species, with support from the forest extension service. Plantation development (with mainly native species) is carried out to protect water sources and to rehabilitate degraded or barren land, including stabilizing potential landslide areas. All CF management plans ensure the sustainable use of the resources to maintain the environmental benefits and improve them over time.

Temphel et al. (2005) state that many foresters have reported an increase in vegetation cover in the CF area after the introduction of CF. CFMG members also report that there have been improvements in forest conditions since they gained the rights to regulate harvesting of forest resources and grazing in CF areas. Buffum et al. (2005) add that Community Forest Management Groups are harvesting timber conservatively and at levels below the prescriptions in the CF management plan, which means that the CFMGs are very careful in harvesting forest products from their community forests.

Besides controlling the harvesting of resources, communities also invest labor in their CF for the improved development of the forest conditions. Since the establishment of CF in 2000, the Dozam, Yakpugang and Masangdaza community forests have invested 7,524 person days in silvicultural treatments for the improvement of the forest, fire break construction, to protect from the resources from wild fires, tree seedling production, and cane planting within the CFs (Wangdi and Tshering, 2006). If this labor was calculated in monetary terms, it would represent approximately US$ 16,720 of direct investment in the CFs.

As stated by Wangdi and Tshering (2006), the forests of nearby villages that are not involved in CF are typically overexploited. Thus, by bringing forest areas under the CF Program, the overall condition of the forest resources will improve. The CF Program, if fully implemented, can improve the country’s forest resources.

Besides plantation development and other silvicultural activities, the CF Program also makes the community more responsible for environmental conservation in and around their villages. Temphel et al. (2005) states that the first community forest handed over in 1997 had a significant number of wildfire incidents before the area was allocated to the community. After allocation to the Dozam community and formal establishment of the CF, there have been no such major incidents. Observations show that, in general, the frequency of forest fires has been reduced in community forest areas. An example of other environmental benefits is presented in Box 5.

Box 5: Benefits of Community Forestry

The community forest has benefited us in fuelwood supply, and it also benefits the Samdrup Jongkhar town community. As our drinking water source is within the community forest, watchful conservation and protection of this water source has sustained a good quality and quantity of drinking water.

Source: CFMG member of Ompuri Community Forest, Orong, Samdrup Jongkhar, 2006.

With an approved CF management plan, the communities have rights of access and use for their forest resources according to the management plan. No longer must they go through a lengthy process to get timber permits through the territorial forestry office, as they have their own hammer stamp and permit system.4 The community only needs to apply for timber through the territorial forestry office if their CF cannot supply their needs. The process through the territorial forestry system can be time consuming (see Box 6). The fact that they now have “ownership” over their resources is often mentioned as the motivation by a community to establish a CF (in the strict sense, the legal ownership is still with the Government, as only the access, management, and use rights are handed over).

3 Dzongkhag = District, Geog = Block (Administrative level below District).

Box 6: Statement on process of obtaining permits

Obtaining permits for timber and fuelwood from the Department of Forests is time consuming. Visits to the Range Office and then to the District Forest Office may take more than two months. Establishment of community forests has reduced this lengthy process; now we can get these products easily from our community forest without delay.

Source: CFMG member of Shambayung Community Forest, Tang, Bumthang, 2006.

As found by Wangdi and Tshering (2006), communities can get the wood they require from the nearby community forest simply by using a local permit issued by CFMG executive committee members. This is in contrast to the lengthy time taken to get a permit from the Territorial Forest Division (TFD) prior to the establishment of a community forest, averaging two to four months.

If the community has more resources than they need for their own consumption, it has the right to sell the surplus outside its group, though a royalty must be paid to the Government according to provisions in the FNCR. To date, only a few community forests (Shambayung and Masangdaza) have the potential to sell their excess timber resources. With improved silvicultural management, the potential of selling timber from community forests will increase and ultimately generate significant monetary returns to the communities involved in the CF Program (E. Oberholzer,pers. comm. 2006).

Communities are harvesting timber very conservatively from their community forests. Therefore, as capacity increases and the quality of the resources improve, there is a greater potential for direct economic benefits from community forests by optimizing the harvesting of timber. The danger from over harvesting is limited, as the management plans are based on sustainable forest management principles and the activities are closely monitored by the Forestry Services.

In addition to the income from the sale of timber, NTFPs can generate income for the community (see Box 7).

Box 7: Example of income generation from NWFP

The Drametse Community Forest has generated Nu. 53,841 (about US$ 1,200) for the community from lemon grass distillation fees.

Source: Wangdi and Tshering 2006.

The CF Program has not focused much on NTFPs thus far, but it will become increasingly important. Pfund and Robinson (2005) indicate that the potential benefits from NTFPs may be large, particularly through local value-added activities. They also state that NTFP collection is currently based on traditional practices and local markets, but with an additional focus on quality and product development it can generate greater income for communities.

Another income stimulating activity is the establishment of community funds. These funds often start as saving funds, but increasingly the proceeds from fines, sales and gifts contribute to the funds. A total of US$ 12,150 has been collected by CFMGs since their establishment in 2000. Many CFMGs use their funds for small credit and loan services to their members, and to pay operational costs to manage the community forest areas. Data indicate that limited investments are being made by the communities for forest activities, which suggests that communities are willing to invest in and increase the value of their community forests.

Microfinance helps rural households to plan and manage consumption and investments, cope with risks, and improve their living conditions. Saving schemes such as the community funds are normally the major source of such finance before other microfinance schemes are explored and implemented (FAO 2005).

Beside income generating activities from CF, the establishment of a CFMG with by-laws enables the community to better organize themselves for the overall benefit of the community. As an organized group, they can better express themselves in the Block Development Committee5, defend their rights and better express their priorities. It has been observed that the CFMGs are also now discussing issues other than community forests.

Also, out of the 36 approved community forests, 28 have at least one objective stated in their community forest management plan related to the improvement of their communities’ livelihoods. Community forest areas which do not mention this in their objectives were established for the protection of water resources and other surroundings natural resources (this is generally true with the earlier established community forests).

From the sale of timber and NTFPs, and the establishment of CFMG funds, the CF Program has the potential to significantly improve rural life. Given that the CF Program has the potential to reach 69 % of the population, it can make a considerable contribution toward achieving the first MDG in Bhutan.

Sustaining wood supply from community forests

Sustaining the supply of rural house-building timber and firewood for the citizens of the country has been a priority concern of the RGoB. The CF Program was primarily developed to secure and augment wood supplies in the rural communities through sustainable utilization and diligent protection of forest resources (DoF 2003). Timber and firewood are the most important forest products within most CFMGs, and DoF forest field staff ensures proper guidance to effectively manage the community forests to ensure these resources are properly managed and available on a sustainable basis.

Research by Phuntsho and Sangay (2006) reveals that the needs for construction timber in the five studied CFMGs often cannot be met by the available resources within their community forest. More than half (53.1%) of the interviewees responded that their community forests can meet the needs of the community, while the rest (46.9%) said their community forests cannot meet needs. This is a common scenario with most of the community forests that have been established. As the timber supply varies from one community forest to another, the requirement for construction timber for many CFMGs needs to be either fully supplied or partially supplemented by the Government Reserved Forests (GRF). Lack of preferred wood species in the community forests is an additional reason for not being able to meet the identified timber requirement of CFMGs.

Other aspects

According to Wangdi and Tshering (2006), communities have more awareness and understanding of forest acts, rules, regulations and the purpose of protecting and managing forests when community forests are established. They are concerned about their ownership rights over community forests, especially the threat of the Government repossessing their allocated forest resources by way of changes in the forest acts, rules, and regulations in the future. However, after empowerment in forest management and protection, the rural communities have benefited socially, economically, and environmentally.

Social Impacts

Wangdi and Tshering (2006) found that the establishment of community forests has had a positive impact on community livelihoods through ownership and stronger empowerment, increased community participation, decreased conflict among members and the establishment of local institutions.

Economic Impacts

The economic impacts of community forests that have been studied are generally positive, but variable (Wangdi and Tshering, 2006). CFMGs have still not derived the maximum economic benefit from their community forests, despite sound management planning and practices. For example, the timber harvested from the Yakpugang and Masangdaza community forests is well below the annual harvesting limits, while no timber has been harvested from the Dozam community forest because of its limited capacity to supply wood for another ten years.

Future trends

The CF Program initially focused on the timber resources in community forest areas and preparation of management plans. A community forestry manual was produced to improve the quality of the management plans (including the maps and annual harvesting limits). Recent attention is being given to the potential value of NTFPs from community forests. At the same time, the importance of building the capacity of CFMGs in record keeping, reporting, and silvicultural and managerial skills has been identified as pressing priorities.

Better use of NTFPs will provide additional economic benefits to communities, especially if the business skills and product development capacity of the communities can be improved. But, as stated in Pfund and Robison (2005), the social contribution of NTFPs and the potential for poverty alleviation must be better integrated with priority policies at the national level.


The CF Program is increasingly contributing to forest and environmental conservation through the active involvement of rural people. Silvicultural activities are improving forest conditions, degraded or barren land is being planted with a variety of species, and headwaters are being protected. The willingness of CFMGs to invest both cash and labor to improve their community forests show that the CF Program is supporting overall national forestry policy, and will not be a threat to the specific policy directive of maintaining 60% forest cover. In addition to conserving and improving forest conditions and livelihoods of rural communities, the CF Program is also supporting Bhutan’s commitment to the MDGs.

Given the above, the DoF should continue to support the CF Program and actively stimulate the up-scaling of its implementation. The DoF should be more flexible in implementing the CF Program, enacting rules that allow communities to benefit economically by streamlining the sale of timber and NTFPs. Community forestry is already contributing to the livelihoods of Bhutan’s rural communities through sales of timber and NTFPs, but could contribute substantially more in the future.

The DoF could look at options for CFMGs to supply greater amounts of timber to the domestic market by initiating pilots where CFMGs could sell timber without first having to supply their own demands, based on the justification that the communities can increase their overall net income.

By potentially reaching 69% of the total population, the CF Program has an excellent opportunity to contribute to local economies through saving schemes, the sale of forest products, and the establishment of small businesses, while also contributing socially through improved decentralization and democratization. An added benefit of the CF Program is improved environmental conservation and the sustainable use of forest resources. These benefits should be further stimulated through up-scaling and refining the policies on community forestry development and building the capacity of the existing CFMGs in various fields.

Recognizing the potential of the CF program, it is crucial that Divisional Forest Officers (DFOs) identify potential community forest areas in the various Geogs. Continual efforts are needed to create awareness of existing policies and benefits of the program before the 10th five-year plan is prepared, and a clear action plan to promote better resource allocation should be proposed for further implementation. Also, capacity building of CFMGs must be identified in the action plan as important for the sustainable use of forest resources and improvement of community livelihoods.

Meeting the wood requirements of CFMGs from the allocated community forests is a challenge; therefore, it is still premature to phase out the supply of wood under the Kidu system for all community forests. The capacity of existing community forests to meet the construction timber demands of the CFMGs differs from one area to another due to different forest types and conditions. Timber deficits from the community forests are currently being met by the Government Reserved Forest.

The CF Program is in its infancy, with less than a decade of implementation experience in the field. In the early stages of its implementation, there was skepticism among policy makers and key officials in the Government regarding the capability of CFMGs to effectively manage their community forests. As the CFMGs are currently managing their community forests in a sustainable manner according to the existing management plans, this initial skepticism seems unwarranted. The CFMGs harbor a fear that the current system of access to rural timber supply will be restricted once their community forests are fully functional, but so far access to the Government Reserved Forests is continuing in situations where the community forest does not provide sufficient timber.

Community forestry has a positive impact on the social, economic, and environmental aspects of rural life. Community members have strengthened social relationships as they work together to improve forest cover and maintain catchments by planting valuable tree species and protecting them. At this stage, benefit sharing among the CFMG members is minimal due to the fact that CFMG members have harvested only limited amounts of timber from their community forests, most of which has been used to meet domestic needs. However, CFMG members are positively inclined towards future community forest management because of the clear social and environmental benefits and the potential for increased cash income in the future through the sale of excess products outside the community.

To expand and increase the benefits of community forestry for the purpose of rural livelihood development and poverty alleviation, extension services should be strengthened so that communities and government agents are more aware of the potential of community forestry in rural areas. Further, the Government should provide increased support to rural communities to promote participation in the CF Program, as it has a direct positive impact on rural livelihoods.


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Wangdi, R. and N. Tshering, 2006. Is Community Forestry Making a Difference to Rural Livelihood? A Comparative study of three Community Forests in Mongar dzongkhag. Thimphu: Bhutan.

4 A hammer stamp is a marker that provides information that allows for the tracking of timber resources.
5 The Block Development Committee is a sub-district elected body responsible for planning at sub-district level.

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