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Pokhara tries to save its famous paddy

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

Urban sprawl and out-migration has reduced the production of Pokhara’s rare rice

House in the middle of rice fields

Photo: Merilin Piipuu

Pokhara once used to be renowned for its indigenous rice variety called Pokhareli Jethobudo, which is also the first traditional seed variety for which Nepali farmers were given intellectual property rights.

Pokhareli is an aromatic rice that is in very high demand all over Nepal and abroad. The rice is soft and tasty, but its market price is twice that of the other rice varieties, giving farmers a hefty income. But Pokhreli is becoming more difficult to find in the market because the paddy fields where it used to be grown is being devoured by urban sprawl, which in turn is driving prices up further.

Although the city is not expanding as fast as Kathmandu Valley, Pokhara land prices have soared as people settle in what is considered Nepal’s most scenic city. Migrant workers coming back to central Nepal districts have also driven the property market by investing in land.

Pokhara people are not only losing their soft and tasty rice, but also the whole paddy-based civilisation that used to go with it. For instance, Pokhareli Jethobudo used to be mandatory during festivals and other important occasions, and as it gets harder to find people are opting for alternative varieties.

Pokhara Valley has the highest rainfall in Nepal, and the moisture has given ecological pockets here microclimates and soil types that have resulted in a wide variety of rice. Along with Pokhreli, there used to be Jhinuwa, Biramphul, Mansara, Thulo Gurdi, Sano Gurdi, Gudura, Anadi, Ekle and Anga rices – every one of them with a distinctive texture, aroma and taste. But loss of arable land and farmers switching to modern high-yield hybrids has endangered some of these varieties.

Pokhara farmers are now getting together to treat seeds and grow them in nurseries. For example, the Fewa Seed Producers Group in Pame grows Pokhreli Jethobudo seeds and makes them available to farmers who want to use them. But the government is promoting modern non culture seeds, and this discourages the use of indigenous varieties.

“There is no control whatsoever over the varieties grown,” says Kamal Khadka, 32, an agricultural scientist in Li-BIRD, a Pokhara-based group that works with farmers all over Nepal. Farmers are attracted by high prices for land, and are selling them, and with their sons migrating to work abroad, elderly parents also find there is no one to farm the fields.

With new residential houses now mushrooming all over what used to be Pokhara’s famous emerald paddy fields, there is a race to save what is left of its rare rice. But who will take the responsibility before it is too late? Is it going to be farmers who are simply interested to improve living standards, the government, or the private sector?

Whoever does it, the price of development can be felt by all the people who would like to have tasty and soft rice on their dinner table.

Not isolated anymore

Being a farmer in Nepal once meant living in isolation and loneliness, faraway from the world. Not any more.

With the road network now reaching nearly every VDC of every district in the country, far-flung hamlets are only hours away from cities. But even more importantly, satellite tv, mobile phones and the internet have connected the hinterland to the centre.

Farmer Surya Mohan Bastola in his farm.

Farmer Surya Mohan Bastola in his farm. Photo: Merilin Piipuu

Majhthana is a small village near Begnas Lake, 30 km east of Pokhara. The only way to get there in the past was to walk the whole day from the Prithvi Highway. Now there is a rough road that winds up the mountains to reach the settlement. It may still seem like you are in the middle of nowhere when you get to Majhthana, but farmers are using their new income to buy tvs hooked up to satellite dishes, checking Facebook on their smart phones and hooking up their laptops to internet dongles.

“My favourite channels are National Geographic, Discovery Channel and Animal Planet,” says 49- year-old farmer Surya Mohan Bastola. When there is no electricity, he listens to the radio, and is mostly tuned into to the agriculture programs on FM, LI-BIRD ko Chautari and Krishi Karyakram.

Bastola has received little agricultural training, but he is learning new words like ‘organic farming’ and ‘permaculture’. He now knows how important it is to make farming sustainable, and use alternatives to pesticides and chemical fertilisers. “We have not thought about migrating to the city,” says Surya’s wife, Sita Devi. “Our children are working abroad, but we talk to them every day on our mobiles so it doesn’t feel like they are far away.” Sita Devi carries her mobile wrapped up in her patuka, even when she is working in the fields.

Sita Devi, wife of Surya Mohan Bastola, talking on her mobile phone.

Sita Devi, wife of Surya Mohan Bastola, talking on her mobile phone. Photo: Merilin Piipuu

The mobile phone and the tv are gifts from the Bastolas’ youngest son who works in Qatar. The parents believe that one day he will come back and take over the farm.

“You have to make your son Lahure so that they value their home more,” explains Surya. Indeed, their youngest son loves working in the farm and is planning to return. His decision has been made easier because Majhthana is not remote anymore and the quality of life is even better than in the city. Paradoxically, this is exactly what tourists come to look for in Nepal. The remote village life where there is no technology except for a few books has become one of the ideals of Western world. This has led many farmers to establish home-stay eco-villages to augment income. Furthermore, tourists often fall in love with Nepal’s countryside, and are willing to support local schools or households in buying communication technology. This in return makes people stay in the countryside.

Says Surya Bastola: “Being in the middle of nature is like meditation, it brings peace to your mind, body and soul, and maybe make us live longer. But now we are connected to the whole world from here.”

Merilin Piipuu in Pokhara

Read also:

Sharing what she knows  Tong Sian Choo 

Earning from nature to pay for its upkeep Kunda Dixit

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