Aimed at enabling a comprehensive discussion and exchange between lawmakers and leaders, protected area and community-level stakeholders, a consultation meeting about future management strategies for the Annapurna Conservation Area (ACA) was organized between lawmakers and leaders from all three levels of government—federal, province, and local level. The meeting, chaired by the Minister for Forests and Environment Hon. Shakti Bahadur Basnet, who is also Chairperson of NTNC, was held in Pokhara on Thursday (January 16) among some 150 participants. In attendance were also the Gandaki Province (GP) Chief Minister and the Chief Guest of the event Hon. Prithvi Subba Gurung, GP Minister for Industry, Tourism, Forests and Environment (MoITFE) Bikash Lamsal, elected Rural Municipality leaders and community representatives from ACA, lawmakers from the federal parliament, and officials from the Ministry of Forests and Environment (MoFE).
The interaction event was facilitated keeping in mind a forward-looking approach to better help establish and integrate roles of all three levels of government toward advancing conservation collectively with development. This is seen as being necessary, especially following the country's federal restructuring into province- and local-level governments, which have encountered newfound challenges in managing the protected areas' resources. Coupled with this, NTNC's latest five-year tenure authorized by the Government of Nepal for managing the Annapurna Conservation Area also recently concluded this week.
During the day-long discussions, leaders and stakeholders took to learn about each other's views and visions going into ACA's future scope of management. Concerns and suggestions were made on existing shortcomings as well as strengths. A general acceptance about existing policy and regulation gaps and its effect on the proper management of the area was shared unanimously. Alternate views and voices were made across participants to ascertain future roles, rights and responsibilities.
GP Chief Minister Gurung said that although in principle he was in full agreement to the current management modality of ACA, aimed at promoting maximum local ownership of the conservation area's natural heritage, he maintained hesitancy about the community's preparedness and proficiency to fully manage such an important region of the country immediately. The Chief Minister and his colleague Minister Lamsal advocated for a mechanism that would be better able to accommodate the roles of all three levels of government—one where national policies and international obligations are led by the federal government, that in turn can guide the provincial government in the conservation area's proper management and facilitation, with the task of execution being independent at the local level, while keeping the role of specialized institutions like NTNC to interpret and implement international best practices and create partnerships that help drive innovation, technology, research and knowledge. Minister Lamsal suggested for a 'conservation area council' formation modality under the joint authority of the federal and provincial government, while also calling on the need for stakeholders to understand that protected forests and ecosystems were a subject of overlapping interests and obligations, hence "a greater need to work together."
Responding to views and alternate concerns of leaders and representatives from all rings, Hon. Minister Basnet said that he and his team at the ministry recognized the growing need of a new conservation area management modality—"one that is able to keep up with the changing times, needs and aspirations"—but also maintained that "perceived solutions to existing challenges envisioned some 30 years ago for ACA's management, of handing over full management responsibilities to the community alone, called for close introspection," this in light of the reformed system of governance in the country, together with Nepal's commitments for international nature-based solutions. Minister Basnet shared confidence for devising a sound management modality for the conservation area, that is the largest, oldest and the most successful in the country.
NTNC has been managing the ACA right since its inception through the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) following on its flagship ICDP model (integrated conservation and development programme)—that keeps local communities as principle actors and beneficiaries of conservation. Through the years of managing the conservation area, today ACA is the only self-financing conservation area in the country, standing also as an area of interest for global conservation initiatives that promote local guardianship and community-based ownership models for nature conservation. Several conservation challenges arising from growing development needs and aspirations of communities have been concomitant, although the rich biodiversity and culture of the area still make it the most preferred nature-based tourism hotspot in Nepal for scores of international and national visitors.