Nepal’s most isolated district used to be known for hunger and disease, but new farm methods have improved nutrition and incomes
PICS: SUNIR PANDEY
From October to March, the scenic but impoverished district of Humla in Nepal’s north-western corner is mostly snowbound. The only greens to be seen are the conifers. The summer harvest has to see the district’s 50,858 inhabitants through the long, harsh winter.
Even until four years ago, the winter diet of people here used to be limited to buckwheat dhindo and sisnu nettles. Vegetables were even rarer than rice.
In the past few years, Humla’s villagers have taken to vegetable farming in a big way, building greenhouses so that they have greens even in winter. When Kal Bahadur Singh (see pic), 46, first heard of greenhouses he thought it was way beyond his means. It took some convincing before he finally took out a loan of Rs 100,000 to extend his farm and build a greenhouse just before winter to grow mustard greens, bitter gourd and ladies’ fingers.
Within a few months, the mustard had grown knee-high and with so much demand in his own village, he didn’t have to travel uphill through the snow to Simkot to sell three winter harvests. From February to April this year he earned Rs 25,000 just selling cauliflower, zucchini, cabbage, tomatoes, potatoes, asparagus and cucumber.
“With this extra money I bought stationary and clothes for my children and there was enough to eat and sell last winter,” Kal Bahadur told us. “This greenhouse is like a cash cow.” Indeed, this resourceful farmer represents HumLa’s green revolution, rising from subsistence to being the district’s richest farmer.
It hasn’t always been easy, the winter blizzards sometimes blow down the green houses, and lack of knowhow means farmers sometimes make expensive mistakes.
“Because of its isolation, farming practices in Humla are a bit different from the rest of Nepal,” says Yogi Kayastha, programme coordinator at Humla Development Initiative, a Norwegian-supported group that is helping farmers here by distributing seeds and teaching them new agricultural methods. “For example, they don’t make mounds while planting potatoes, which would increase yield. We try to show them by comparing their ways and ours, and when they see the results they accept it.”
When Kayastha first came to Humla five years ago and tried to promote the benefits of eating vegetables, local villagers avoided it in the belief that they would fall sick if they ate greens. It changed with awareness and education, but what really encouraged farmers was when they found out they could make money selling vegetables.
Humla is one of two remaining districts in Nepal without road access, everything has to be flown in by air. Tomatoes that cost Rs 20 per kg in Nepalganj cost Rs 200 here. Which means that the poorest people in the most deprived part of Nepal end up spending most of their income on food at the cost of health and education.
Neglect and corruption has kept Humla isolated and poor. A road link to Kalikot to the south-east, or to Tibet to the north would break the district’s debilitating isolation. And although every annual budget sets aside money for a road to Humla, the promise of access has become a cruel joke for its people.
Jeevan Shahi, former elected DDC chairman of Humla, worked hard to link Humla to Hilsa on the Chinese border, but the conflict interrupted the work. He has also tried to cut the dependence of his district on subsidised rice initially flown in for civil servants.
He says: “If we get help to farm vegetables and grain in the lower valleys, fruits and nuts in the areas around Simkot, and develop livestock in the upper regions, Humla would not be poor and hungry anymore.”
Kal Bahadur Singh is a living example that it is possible.
Humla's no Siberia
Humla's road to success
Sun light in Humla
See documentary on Humla and Jumla from 1972:
Samjhaune Budha, 43
Samjhaune Budha of Chari took Rs 5,000 of her savings from selling vegetables to Simkot a few years ago and put it in a bank. Every year, whatever her earnings, she continued to add to her savings. There were enough vegetables in her greenhouse to feed her family and she sold the surplus.
She says: “In the last five years, we have changed our food habits and have realised that eating vegetables is good for health.” Now, Budha wants to install a water supply system in her village so children don’t get stomach infections.
Tirsana Shahi, 40
With five sons, two daughters-in-law, one daughter, and a loitering husband to feed, 40-year-old Tirsana Shahi had trouble earning enough from her lodge in Dharapori. During the off-season, she couldn’t find enough food to feed her customers, and vegetables that came from Simkot were too expensive.
But after she built a greenhouse in her garden last year, Tirsana has been able to not just diversify her menu but also sell the surplus vegetables to locals. Now, traders and trekkers travelling from Simkot to Hilsa and back, eat and stay over at her lodge. “I spent Rs 35,000 to build this greenhouse,” says Shahi. “It has paid for itself and paid for my children’s food and education.”
Dhane Pariyar, 67
Dhane Pariyar of Syanda has an infectious laugh that makes his neighbours envious. In his youth he had to make a living by stitching clothes and playing music at weddings. With a growing family this was not enough, so he thought of farming apples to augment his income.
“Last year I sold Rs 70,000 worth of apples,” says Pariyar. “In the last 14 years, I’ve done quite well so I’ve changed my profession from tailor to farmer.”
With money and ideas he got while working in Himachal Pradesh in India, he understood the importance of education and sent his children to school. They have done well, and they take care of him now.