GORKHA, Nepal (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Krishna Maya Sunar received 10,000 rupees ($91) from a forest protection project in Gorkha in Nepal, it changed her life.
That was seven years ago. Until then, she got by selling home-brewed liquor. It did not earn much - about 5,000 rupees a month - and, being illegal, was risky.
But having that larger sum, which was given to each member of a community forestry group in Gorkha, which lies about 100 kilometers (62 miles) northwest of the capital Kathmandu, meant Sunar could turn her hand to goat-farming.
“If it weren’t for the money, I wouldn’t know how I would be able to survive,” she said.
Sunar’s situation is unusual - and not only because she was one of the earliest Nepali recipients of money from a REDD+ project, a U.N.-backed forestry conservation scheme aimed at combating climate change.
It is also because Sunar is a Dalit. In this predominantly Hindu, caste-based society, Dalit people - or “untouchables” - are near the bottom of the rung. They have restricted access to natural resources and are often mired in poverty.
And few have benefited as much as other Nepalis from REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation)payments, said Nira Jairu, a Dalit and member of parliament.
“The REDD+ funds must reach the Dalit,” she said.
The government has pledged to come up with an inclusive plan to ensure that such payments benefit all, including the most marginalized.
Sindhu Dhungana heads the REDD Implementation Center, a government body tasked with overseeing the development of Nepal’s REDD strategy and the benefit-sharing plan.
He said the government would include the input of people at the local level when preparing and implementing the plan.
“Principally ... the benefit-sharing will be fair and equitable in principle and at an operational level,” he said.
The government will this year consult with marginalized sectors of society - including Dalit communities - on the benefit-sharing plan, before the proposal heads to parliament for approval, he said.
By next year, he added, the country would be able to sign a deal with the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) - a World Bank program of governments, civil society groups and businesses engaged in REDD+ - that sets the price for the carbon credits.
Simply put, Nepal must first show that it can distribute the money it will receive to those involved in sustainably managing its forests before the FCPF will make payments, Dhungana said.
“The carbon money ... should be trickled down to local people who have contributed to reducing emissions,” he said.
U.N.-backed REDD+ schemes look to cut emissions linked to deforestation, while giving local communities a financial benefit for conserving and managing forests.
Sunar’s REDD+ project was part of a pilot program funded by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD) between 2009 and 2013.
Forests act as carbon sinks, storing carbon dioxide - a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Cutting trees means carbon dioxide is released. Many experts say protecting forests is one of the least costly ways to reduce climate change.
As part of these programs, industrialized countries and donors - such as NORAD in Sunar’s case - pay developing countries to manage their forests sustainably. Forest countries then can sell credits for emissions reductions, for instance to companies looking to offset the carbon they emit.
Developing countries also need to implement REDD+ safeguards to minimize the damage the program could have on the livelihoods and cultures of communities that rely on forests, particularly indigenous people.
The REDD+ pilot project in Sunar’s district, along with two others funded by NORAD, had provided useful lessons that the government would take on board, Dhungana said, including understanding what the program entails.
It had also shown that benefit-sharing should include social aspects, he said, and not simply look at the carbon impact.
Sunar’s community learned how to measure carbon to calculate a baseline, and then - by planting trees, preventing fires and cutting less timber - boost the amount of stored carbon in the 1,888-hectare forested Ludikhola watershed where they live.
The Asia Network for Sustainable Agriculture and Bioresources (ANSAB) – Kathmandu, one of the organizations which managed the project, said community groups in Gorkha had received about $26,000 from NORAD in 2011.
Those groups were able to show they had increased the amount of stored carbon by nearly 28,500 tons, and that they had met the criteria that members must include Dalits, indigenous people and women.
And although they have not received money since 2011, the community still looks after the forest. Manu Paniyan, who is also a Dalit, and who used her 10,000 rupees to buy a sewing machine, is one of the forest guards, known as lauro pulo.
Under the lauro pulo system, two persons serve as forest guards for a day, looking out for fires, illegal logging and the theft of other forest resources.
As members of the community forestry user group they also devised ways of monitoring the funds, including monthly public hearings to discuss how to use the money, said Bhuraman Ghimire, who chairs one of the community forestry groups in Gorkha.
“Before REDD+, these activities were not conducted,” he said.
Jiba Nath Paudel, Gorkha’s district forest officer, said the pilot had worked well because the community had taken part in making decisions.
“The community forestry groups decide properly based on their social norms. There’s ownership,” he said.
Reporting by Purple Romero. Editing by Robert Carmichael. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate