15-21 May 2015 #758

Back to the earth after the quake

Subsistence farmers in the disaster zone need help to get back on their feet
Sonia Awale

Suk Bahadur Lama of Rayale village of Kavre isn’t too worried about food, like many in this district east of Kathmandu he is more concerned about sheltering from the rain at night. A heap of bricks and timber is all that remains of his house and cowshed.

In a sight familiar across the 15 districts ravaged by the earthquakes of 25 April and 12 May , Lama and his family are busy weeding their corn fields, harvesting potatoes and watering the cabbage and cucumber patch right next to their ruined homes and improvised tarp shelters. The rice seedlings are already growing, and waiting for the rains for transplantation.

“We were lucky that we all survived, and at least we have a plastic sheet above our heads," says Lama, who works as a driver in Kathmandu, "we are in our fields out of necessity to grow food, but our hearts are not in it."

The Lama family is lucky, millions of other farmers have lost relatives and neighbours, or all their livestock, seeds, and food stores. They need emergency food aid, shelter, as well as rice seeds for the planting season which is only three weeks away. With their families and homes gone, many are too disturbed to turn their minds to farming. Because these districts also have a high outmigration rate, there are few to lend a helping hand with farming and reconstruction of homes.

“Their entire livelihood system has been disrupted,” said Hari Dahal, former secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture who is now with the Nepal Development Research Institute. "They don’t have the motivation to farm for agriculture after what they have been through.”

The loss of livestock means there aren't enough animals to till the fields, milk production has plummeted in districts like Kavre, Sindhupalchok and Dolakha where the dairy industry was the mainstay of the economy. With the livestock gone, there also isn't enough manure for the fields. Even if agriculture is revived, experts say there will be a decline in productivity. Subsistence farmers who depend on rain-fed agriculture are going to be hit hardest, especially since meteorologists are predicting a deficient and late monsoon in the subcontinent this year.

Despite the calamity and devastation, farmers are hardwired to farm because they know instinctively they need to grow food to survive. In Dolakha Bazar, which suffered huge destruction in the 12 May quake Pramila Shrestha rummages inside the ruin of her home to try to retrieve the family’s seed store. She runs out as an aftershock hits. Some of the plastic containers are crushed, but she is happy the rice seeds can still be retrieved.

Dhading, Kavre and Sindhupalchok are also important sources of vegetables for the Kathmandu market. And although demand in the capital has gone down because 1.2 million people left after the earthquake, they are getting ready to sell their vegetables again to earn cash. Flights from the Gulf and Malaysia are full of Nepali migrant workers, many of whom have taken unpaid leave and bought their tickets home to help rebuild broken homes and to help in the paddy season.

Since the 15 most affected districts are not food surplus areas except for dairy and vegetables, the impact on Nepal's total agricultural production is not going to be very big. The districts around Kathmandu account for 10 per cent of Nepal’s total rice production and 19 per cent of the corn. The Ministry of Agriculture estimates that the damage to agriculture from the earthquakes is Rs 15 billion.

It will be a race against time before the rains in mid-June to get food and seeds to farming communities which have lost everything. Some families need simple things like metal containers to store their potato and maize harvest, or agricultural tools.

In the medium term, existing government agricultural research stations in Mude of Sindhupalchok and Jiri of Dolakha could be hubs to get agriculture extension workers to the field. Farmers will need help to diversify to fruit farming, agro-forestry and high-value crops.

Says Dahal: "This crisis gives us the opportunity to revamp our agricultural policy. The 15 districts could serve as models for the rest of the country."

Seeds of hope

Photo: Devaki Bista

The historical town of Dolakha Bazar was severely devastated in the earthquake. Pramila Shrestha, 17, lives in a house on the outskirts and has been living in a tent with 25 members of seven families. The floor has fallen inside their house but since the roof and walls are intact, no one has come to help them as it looks fine from the outside. The kitchen fell on the storeroom, and all their belongings, foods and seeds for the planting season are buried inside. “I couldn’t even buy a sanitary pad because we had no money,” said Pramila who was preparing to take her Grade 11 exam before the earthquake. After living in a tent for three weeks, Pramila has constant headaches and is running a fever.

Read also:

Migrants inbound, Om Astha Rai

Shaken but strong, Jan Møller Hansen

Another earthquake hits Nepal, Om Astha Rai

A concrete future, Sonia Awale

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