This paper examines the current status of forest tenure regimes (both legal and de facto) within the twelve Terai districts from Rautahat to Kanchanpur. The Terai is a large lowland belt that is rapidly developing with most of its 7.35 million population having settled in waves of migration over time. The Terai is at once the target of economic growth and infrastructure programs, major internationally significant conservation initiatives, development programs to help improve the livelihoods of the prevalently poor and landless communities who are highly dependent on natural resources, as well as commercial timber extraction operations.

The challenges of managing the valuable forests of the Terai that meets a range of ecological, livelihoods, and economic needs demands further innovation in the structure of devolved forest management in Nepal. While devolution of forest management in the Middle Hills has progressed smoothly, the contested process of devolution in the Terai has unfolded in relation to the specific physiographic, economic, demographic and political context. There is now a broadly accepted understanding that the successful development of initiatives to sustainably manage Terai forests requires careful attention to how tenure affects social, economic, political and environmental impacts.

Tenure refers to the set of relationships, institutions and rules that determine rights to land and forest resources. It is crucial to understand how the multiple and complex, including devolved tenure systems that are typically at work as a mosaic of governance systems, interact with each other to produce an aggregate effect across the forested landscape. In an overall sense, the complex political economy of forest management in the Terai is the result of a range of factors from a strong government policy on forest conservation, geographies of forest cover, histories of migration, distribution of ethnically and indigenously divergent communities, and newly introduced policies addressing social inclusion and poverty.

Based on an analysis of how the specific pattern of tenure arrangements within each district is related to the pattern of forest cover and settlement, this paper identifies a specific set of tenure challenges that need to be addressed in order for sustainable forest management to be implemented. For the last 25 years, Nepal has undergone a substantial and still-evolving process for devolution of state forestland management to local communities through a range of legal and policy mechanisms. There has been little specific analysis to date of how this devolution process has unfolded in the twelve districts of the Terai that present a composite mosaic of nine diverse types of government-managed, community-managed, and privately-managed forest management regimes. The paper analyzes precisely what the mix and geographical range of its forest management regimes are, and how they have specifically developed within the ecological, demographic and political economic context of the Terai that is richly forested by the economically valuable sal (Shorea robusta).