PICS: JANA ASENBRENNEROVA
Canoes appear one by one from behind a forested mountainside that plunges into the mirror-like lake. They row closer to shore where members of a local cooperative get their weighing scales and calculators ready.
The freshly caught fish are still gasping as they are flung to shore. An attendant reads out the names of customers who have come from as far away as Pokhara to buy Rupa's famous silver carp, tilapia and trout.
"What we have shown is that it is possible to have economic benefits without destroying the ecology," says the cooperative's founder, Lekhnath Dhakal. "In fact, the income from fish is helping protect the entire watershed and the lake. It is symbiotic."
Within 45 minutes, fish worth Rs 10,000 has been sold. This year, the cooperative had an annual turnover of Rs 6.5 million and the money was ploughed into raising fingerlings and maintaining enclosures as well as cleaning up the lake.
"This puts a price tag on protecting the ecosystem," explains Dhakal, "and it encourages communities up on the mountains to conserve their forest." Rupa has a larger catchment than nearby Begnas, but a lake that used to be 150 hectares big has now shrunk to only 100.
On the lake's eastern shore is a local mother's group that has been planting erosion-control fodder grass along new roads that have recently been built along banks. Ujeli Gurung heads the group which has 22 members each contributing to a savings scheme that lends to members. Last year, Ujeli took a Rs 5,000 loan from her group to buy a nanny goat, and has paid back and made Rs 30,000 from selling its kids.
The Rupa Lake cooperative and others in Kaski are being supported by the Pokhara-based Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research and Development (LI-BIRD) which replicates the model in 29 districts and even advises cooperatives in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Tibet.
At the Pratigya Savings and Credit Cooperative on a picturesque village overlooking the lake, women members are having their weekly meeting. The farmers are involved in field trials of local rice hybrids that can resist pests and drought. What's more, they also learn to market these products in the city to generate income.
Sita Khadka heads the cooperative, and says confidently: "We are now self-sufficient, we don't need donors anymore, and we are creating jobs so our young men don't have to go away for work."
The culture of agriculture
No one inspired me, I inspired myself. I taught myself about soil nutrients. My neighbours thought I was mad because I used to go into town to collect the hair from barbershops and bones from slaughter houses, grind and spread them out as fertiliser. I learnt as I went along.
Once, in Gulmi I saw they were growing coffee. I brought back 12 bushes and today Begnas Coffee is famous, we produce 22 tons of beans a year. But it wasn't easy, during the 1990 democracy movement, the highways was closed for more than a week and all my chicken died on the way to market. I lost Rs 100,000 and went bankrupt. But out of adversity comes opportunity. I met the specialists from LI-BIRD and they taught me about sustainable agriculture and crop biodiversity.
I have learnt that the most important thing is to follow nature's rules. You can't go wrong if you do that. You have to protect the soil, that is the most important thing. This doesn't just mean stopping erosion, it means not poisoning it with chemicals, it means replenishing the soil's natural nutrients. Increasing food production is not going to be enough, we have to protect our soil and the agriculture biodiversity that god has bestowed on this land. We have to protect the soil, air and water cycle.
This is not an earth-changing revolution, we just want to make sure our seeds, plants and herbs don't disappear. Everything is interconnected, we have to learn to live with the land. We have to protect the 16 local varieties of rice that are suited for the soil and the micro-climate around here. We have 12 different types of millet, 12 types of yams.
Just like we set aside areas for national parks, we must protect this watershed that feeds into Rupa and Begnas as an agriculture conservation region. There is still lots to do, I want to set up an agricultural college here so that educated people start respecting the land and the people who work on it.
We need to be able to feed our growing population. For this, you have to protect the land and those who work on it.
Surya Adhikari (pictured) is a farmer in Begnas village in Kaski, a pioneer of coffee production and the home garden concept of crop biodiversity conservation.
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