The future of mountain farmingWith a disjointed development plan that heavily benefits the rich, there aren’t many people left to continue farming in the hills.
After 30 years of restored democracy, when citizens continue to find themselves entwined in poverty and unemployment and are forced to emigrate in increasing numbers for job opportunities, it simply means our managers have failed to deliver on the three decades worth of promises. The recent exodus of people from the mountain provinces of Sudurpaschim, Rupandehi and Karnali to India for jobs is a testimonial to the fact that our state has failed to create jobs and feed its populace. It’s disheartening to see the elderly and women accompanied by their young among those crossing the border for employment during the biggest festival of Nepalis—Dashain.
The revelation by the Finance Minister that restoring economic growth to its pre-pandemic level will be challenging is worrying, to say the least. Economic growth could very well be negative for years to come unless compensated by an additional flow of remittance, which is unlikely given the resurgence of Covid-19 across the developed world signalling a long-drawn economic slowdown ahead. The pandemic has made our economy more precarious; the sociopolitical implications of this vulnerable economy are even more insecure. Experts fear that those who didn’t wish to migrate could also be forced to change their mind due to loss of employment if circumstances don’t improve in the near future.
Nepal’s economy is still largely agriculture-dominated. Improvement in agriculture is a must for improving the economy. But to say that agricultural growth has been less than satisfactory would be an understatement. The strong and sustained ties among agriculture, environmental sustainability, and sustained ecosystem services is perhaps the most fundamental prerequisite to improving the lives of those who are still engaged in agriculture as well as strengthening the country’s economic foundations. Unfortunately, these ties have weakened, making the future of agriculture, especially in the hills, progressively hopeless.
Despite the scholastic achievements of our policy architects in preparing plans with cutting-edge concepts and strategies, the prospects for improving the state of agriculture continues to be dismal. Working with the complex natural environment of the mountains demands an in-depth understanding of how this particular topography works. The studies carried out in the last quarter of the 20th century provided some superficial understanding of our mountains at best. The constant engagement required to foster a greater understanding of the changing scenario of the interdependence of the natural environment and society ceased due to the decade-long insurgency that followed the restoration of democracy.
Although the peace accord of 2006 that ended the bloody insurgency settled the political agenda to embark upon a new course, the other elements of society and the economy, including self-generated employment, personal progress, and a genuine quest for improvement through exploration and research, which had come to a grinding halt due to insecurity and displacement of people, never picked back up. One element, among many others, that was hit hard by a lack of engagement was the rapid changes taking place in the mountain environment signalled by widespread loss of springs that went totally unnoticed for more than two decades.
Springs used to be the major source of water in the hills, but as much as 74 percent of the respondents in a government-sponsored survey revealed that springs have gone dry over the past two decades. The availability of water, even for household use, has thus become a major issue during the dry months. Sadly, no development programme ever prioritised this concern because there is hardly any understanding of the springs’ centrality to the functioning of the mountain environment. Subsequently, a gradual shift in the plant population has occurred in drying areas with the spread of more dry-land plant species. Those who only wanted greenery in lieu of the environment seemed ecstatic over this development. In reality, these dry-land plant species were warning signs of the changes taking place in the mountains, which was seriously affecting farming as well.
Nepal has, for long, turned into a food deficit country. Agriculture, particularly in the hills, is falling short in each of the key factors of production—land, labour, and capital. Regarding land, a large swath of it is being abandoned due to reasons such as declining productivity and shortage of labour. Already underdeveloped, these remote and mostly inaccessible villages had to bear the brunt of the insurgency, displacing a large number of the population. As a result, our hills have been severely depopulated in the recent past, causing acute shortage of workers to support agriculture.
Farming doesn’t only equal producing food; it also relates to farmers’ traditions, their organisation, cooperatives, technical expertise, and their ability to understand the nuances of crops and animal husbandry which they acquired through their ancestors over generations. With the youth lured to the labour market, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever be able to replace the workforce with this knowledge in agriculture in a meaningful way. The sad truth is that the older generations may not be with us for long to sustain whatever hill agriculture we have in operation.
Building roads for increased connectivity to remote villages became a major development agenda. Unfortunately, it seems to have done little in building local economies given the asymmetrical distribution of benefits. Unsurprisingly, the rich benefit more from development works, such as roads, in the form of contracts, or market expansion into remote corners, while the poor suffer more from erosion and landslides, often a direct consequence of road development.
With a development model laden mostly with physical construction without projected linkages with economic growth, it’s not surprising that even in the 15 years after the aforementioned peace accord and after acquiring just about everything the political masters desired (from the constitution to a stable government), we have failed to build a functioning economic structure with a stable foundation.
Amidst all these, we have been surrounded by an unprecedented problem in the form of climate change. How this ongoing climatic catastrophe will continue to impact our micro-climate dominated mountain environment and hill agriculture is anyone’s guess. If the intense rains causing widespread landslides this year, which killed nearly 300 people and damaged farms across the country, was unprecedented, the increased ferocity of global climate events (as seen in the case of Typhoon Goni which explosively intensified over the Philippine Sea last week becoming one of the most intense tropical cyclone on record with a wind speed of 315 km/h) must force us to prepare for exceptional monsoonal events before it is too late. Our mountain farms may not survive them much longer.
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