Nepali Times
Here And There
Revolution in Mustang


Marpha: High above this village in Lower Mustang a revolution is brewing. And for once, it doesn't involve guns and utopianism. This is a revolt against tradition that could change the Himalaya, and it is a concept so simple that I'm amazed that it wasn't dreamt up years ago.

In an apple orchard one hour's walk above Marpha's cobbled streets, small buds of fruit are being nurtured by the sun and occasional rain. Porters and farm labourers straggle by the five hectare summer pasture where hundreds of apple trees sway in the constant wind. But it's what's happening between the trees that has the potential to shake things up here and around the country.

Look closely and you'll see a few strange sights. Instead of grass for fodder, the ground is covered with small leafy shrubs and a creeping, flowery plant with waxy leaves. There are patches of a large rhubarb-like plants with bushy, red growths. Each of these plants produce extracts that save lives and was planted here as part of a daring project by the joint Indo-Nepali company, Dabur Nepal.

Harvested plant products are turned into medicines at Dabur's factory in Birganj, the largest employer in that part of the tarai. There are several revolutionary aspects to this project, and the many others like it, that the company is starting up in remote and rural areas of the country. First of all, at least in Marpha, land that is otherwise unproductive is being used to produce employment and a beneficial product.

James Hirachan, whose father owns the land above Marpha, says it is increasingly difficult to make a living growing the excellent Mustang apples. "The government used to subsidise the air freight to get them (apples) to Kathmandu," he says, "but now they spend that money on the armed forces and the police." The local fear is that this year's apple crop will go largely to waste. Not so for the fronds of Pacific Yew and Padamchand that Dabur will make into medicines.

Medicinal plants are not traditional export crops like coffee or cocoa that require exclusive cultivation and harmful chemical inputs. All these plants need is water and tender loving care. Tahe 50 or so local people who work this patch of land for Dabur are more than willing to provide that. In other parts of the country, the company is giving saplings to villagers on a guaranteed buy-back basis.

Until recently, Dabur and the many other firms that make medicines from plants, obtained most of their raw material from wild harvesting. This is still the case in much of Nepal and the Indian Himalaya. Many of the most sought-after plants are increasingly scarce, thanks to over-harvesting and loss of habitat. Cultivation of such endangered species will preserve them and enhance Nepal's threatened bio-diversity. It will also stop inroads being made into valuable traditional knowledge systems by Western and allopathic medicine.

Traditional Tibetan medicine and village herbalism are both making a comeback in various parts of the country. Perhaps the most important thing about this project is that it's helping build a viable market economy in Nepal, and adding to the dignity of labour.

You need training and awareness to cultivate taxus baccatta-the plant that eventually becomes the anti-cancer drug, Tamoxifen. It's not brute labour like porterage or domestic work. More than half of the Dabur employees in Marpha are female. The women who put the seedlings in the ground are proud that they're contributing-in their small way-to the health care system.

What struck me as I wandered around Marpha was that this simple idea is worth more than all the development esoterica that has been heaped upon this country over the years. It's sustainable, the potential is huge and participants do not form an exclusive clique based on money and patronage, as often happens in development projects. On the outskirts of Marpha, the crumbling skeleton of a German-funded fruit-drying factory is testimony to the frequent folly of outside aid.

Further up the valley, the Americans built a wind-powered electricity generator that was soon blown over. The village now gets its power from a micro-hydro plant that is locally funded and run.

I have seen the future and it's not to be found on some foreign consultant's expensively produced report on gender awareness in a time of conflict resolution and capacity building across a broad spectrum of civil society. No, it's a tiny shrub thriving under the apple trees, bending but not breaking, in the Kali Gandaki wind.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)