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Institutionalizing portable sawmills for enhancing livelihoods from community forestry: EnLiFT 2 Policy and Practice Lab

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Institutionalizing portable sawmills for enhancing livelihoods from community forestry: EnLiFT 2 Policy and Practice Lab
Community Forestry
Institutionalizing portable sawmills for enhancing livelihoods from community forestry: EnLiFT 2 Policy and Practice Lab

Hemant Ojha, Naya Sharma Paudel, Prashanta Chhetri and Govinda Paudel

Nepal’s community forestry has been hailed as a success story, but the limited utilization of mature timber due to a lack of technical innovation and regulatory support poses a significant challenge (Paudel et al 2023).

To address this issue, the EnLiFT 2 project is supporting a range of forest management and governance solutions. One of these efforts has been to facilitate the piloting of a “portable sawmill” in the Chautara-cluster of Sindhupalchowk district, with the aim of enabling local communities to manage their own wood-sawing services.

This portable technology, which was introduced by the Provincial Government of Nepal, but there was a need additional expertise and resources to test the technology.  The EnLiFT project partnered with provincial government’s Divisional Forest Office (DFO), Chautara local government, and a group of community forest user groups to undertake participatory testing and adoption of the sawmill. The experiment of nearly one year period has shown promising results as several community forest groups have successfully used the technology to saw the logs from their community and private forests. However, the question of how to institutionalize this technology-based innovation remains unanswered. Questions like which ownership model, private or community, works better and how to ensure the timber is from legitimate sources and not from the unauthorised areas.

In response, the EnLiFT Policy and Practice Lab (EPPL) (See Ojha et al 2020 for the overall approach and methodology) was organized to explore the potential upscaling and institutionalization of portable sawmill enterprises in Nepal’s regulatory and administrative systems.

The EPPL Process and Results

The EPPL process began with a participatory assessment of the sawmill adoption, where the ENLiFT research team, along with the DFO and Cluster Committee leaders, conducted testing and training sessions on the operation of the portable sawmill. The results were encouraging, with the portable sawmill proving to be cost-effective, easy to use, and capable of producing quality products.

Following this preliminary conclusion from initial analysis, a dialogue was facilitated between the DFO and the cluster committee, leading to further piloting of the mill in the field. Over 2000 cubic feet of timber were sawn in span of a few months, benefitting community. This advance lead to significant additional data on technical feasibility, social acceptance, and the business case for the mill. The evidence base included not just numbers but also the experiential reflections, narratives, selfies and videos taken not just by the researchers or officials but by the community members and users who benefitted.

The EPPL Dialogue

Two factors were behind our decision to plan the EPPL Dialogue event in May 2023 – first, there was enough data and experiential knowledge about using the sawmill, and second, a sense of uncertainty and fear on the regulatory and compliance side of the saw mill operation. In other words, the technology proved promising but needed policy backing.

The EPPL dialogue event brought together a range of stakeholders, including government representatives, sawmill operators, private sector representatives, and EnLiFT researchers. The purpose of the dialogue was to co-create knowledge and reach a consensus on the institutionalization of portable sawmills.

In the dialogue event, the research team shared insights on the technical details of the portable sawmill, community narratives about the experience, legal clearance, feasibility issues, and potential ways forward. Moderated discussions revolved around feasible business models, addressing the legality and monitoring aspects of wood sawing services and upscaling to mass usage, especially in the forested rural hills.

Key policy design outcomes of the EPPL dialogue event

Feasible business models: Participants leaned towards private ownership and management as a family business or institutional ownership with private management. They emphasized the need for skilled operators and suggested subsidies from local or higher levels of government for the purchase of sawmills. There was also an agreement to have forest user groups and local government to co-regulate the private saw mills operators together with the provincial government DFO. The actual ownership arrangement and business structure can also vary in different local government areas.

Legal and regulatory domains: The current stationary sawmills operating in urban centres maintain log-books for timber transactions, but monitoring the portable sawmill’s movements in rural villages poses a monitoring challenge for the provincial forest administration. The dialogue highlighted the need to develop workable monitoring mechanism for the legality aspect of wood sawing services so that this innovation can be supported without policy hurdles. Participants suggested differentiating between sawing services and a complete business with sawing and furniture production, focusing initially on monitoring sawing services. There was a convergence of view in having a mechanism in place for distinguishing between different types of services and gradually facilitating the transition to a complete business model.

Action Points and broader reflections

The EPPL dialogue resulted in several action points, including the development of a sustainable market model and regulatory monitoring mechanism. Three concrete steps recommended include: a) further analysis of the business case, and b) drafting of regulatory and administrative systems, and c) consultation with representatives of stakeholders unable to attend dialogue event due to clash of event timings.

As researchers and designers of the EPPL methodology, we also have the following wider Reflections:

  • Despite the successful pilot, there is hesitancy among regulators to allow upscaling or institutionalization of portable sawmills.
  • Improvements in the EPPL preparatory work, such as providing research insights prior to the meeting, could enhance the effectiveness of future events.
  • Informed and active participation of more women and actors particularly FEOCFUN would have been effective for taking it further and increasing its utility in the long run.


Ojha, H., et al. (2020). “Improving science-policy interface: Lessons from the policy lab methodology in Nepal’s community forest governance.” Forest Policy and Economics 114: 101997.

Paudel, N; Ojha, H; Banjade, M; Karki, R (2021) Revitalising community forestry in the changing socioeconomic context of Nepal. ENLIFT, Nepal and Australia.

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