Pathways to a greener economy: why mountain farming should not be overlooked
Today is International Mountain Day. Are you wondering what this is all about? We did too when we first heard of it. But after some further reading about it, we soon realised that mountains not only cover a third of the earth’s land surface, they are also home to 720 million people worldwide, meaning that one out of ten people on this planet lives in mountainous areas. Many more, however, depend on the benefits that mountains offer (often without being aware of it) such as freshwater, energy and food. Unfortunately, life in the mountains is not always the idyll one might expect.
Life in the Himalayas
Take Nepal for instance, which, entrenched in the Himalaya, is home to the world famous Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world at 8848m above sea level. It’s a country of extreme weather conditions. Monsoon seasons, droughts and erratic rainfall have characterised its weather patterns over the past decade, putting Nepalese communities in the uncomfortable position of belonging to the world’s hardest hit by recent changes in seasonal weather patterns, climate variability and extreme weather events.
The consequences of such extremes are, unsurprisingly, felt mostly by those at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid, increasing their vulnerability. Just imagine having to rely on subsistence farming under such circumstances. The harsh climate doesn’t allow for growing vegetables year round, while the mountainous terrain is very labour intensive. As a result of rural communities often have to travel for days or even weeks to reach the next village and food markets. Food security and malnutrition are thus a persistent problem in Nepal; during winter time rural households have to spend up to 78 per cent of their income on food.
Rethinking mountain farming in Nepal
In Nepal’s Humla district, located in the very North-Western part of the country, the Women’s Off-season Vegetable Production Group, a 2014 SEED Gender Equality Award Winner, has set out to change that situation. The area that stretches from 3500m to 7500m above sea level is one of the most isolated and sparsely populated regions of the country. Born out of frustration with food shortages, the local community came up with a plan to rethink how they grow fresh produce.
Using greenhouses and poly-tunnels – a cheaper version of greenhouses made of bamboo sticks and plastic sheets – the enterprise has enabled local women to grow vegetables all year around. Before, farming was restricted to a two- to three-month period and families had to rely on cereals, which are less nutritious, and their production was only adequate for household consumption. Additionally, since fertilisers are not available, the vegetables grown are also organic, which is a common added value to farming in the mountains, where agricultural activities are thus inherently ‘green’ and have a low impact on the environment.
Empowering women in a male domain
Women’s Off-season Vegetable Production Group is completely women run, an exception in the male-dominated area of agriculture in Nepal. Normally, new farming practices are spread in the local teahouse, where only men are present. The two partner organisations of the enterprise, Foundation Nepal and Common Forum for Development (CFD), go the extra mile to visit and train women in their kitchens, homes and on the field.
The enterprise is run as a co-operative, consisting only of women, often running their vegetable production in addition to 16-18 hours of housework and other work a day. The excess produce, which is not used for household consumption, is sold collectively at local markets and to tourism operators as the region is becoming an increasingly popular hiking destination. All revenues generated are divided equally amongst all members, with a small percentage being saved for the on-going management and administration of the enterprise.
Future plans are to invite women from across the region to join, increase compost production by collecting food and animal waste from additional households, and acquire a donkey, mule or horse to facilitate transport in the mountains. Already now malnutrition is declining in the valley, cash is saved during winter, and women’s self-esteem is rising. Having benefited from the SEED Support, where the enterprise received help in developing their business model, it looks like the women are well equipped towards making their very own contribution to sustainable development in the region, putting the theme of this year’s International Mountain Day: Mountain Farming – Feeding people, nurturing the planet into action.
More about International Mountain Day
Are you curious to learn more about International Mountain Day? Watch the video below and visit the official site of the United Nations. For more information on climate change and food security in Nepal, please refer to the CGIAR working paper “Climate risk and food security in Nepal-analysis of climate impacts on food security and livelihoods”.