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A cultural approach to natural resource management: A case study from Eastern Nepal

Cultural approaches and methodologies
A case study in Eastern Nepal
Indigenous knowledge: perceptions of the environment
The origin myth
Classification of natural resources
Ritual and decision making
Local organisations and cultural revival

Barum Gurung
Researcher, Social Action for Grassroots Organization (SAGUN)


Forest resources are an important source of subsistence in traditional farming systems, with farmers relying on the forests for numerous needs. This is especially evident in south Asia, where the rural poor depend most heavily on non-timber forest products (NTFPs) for their subsistence, perhaps more than in other parts of the world (Blockhus, 1994). Forests and grasslands are now recognised to be the "support lands" on which farming systems depend.

Forested land tends to be undervalued in traditional economics. The prices put on forests resources are often equated with market prices, rather than their value in use. But many products are consumed locally and may never enter the market. In addition, the conservation value of NTFPs covers many indirect as well as direct uses. Soil protection, nutrient cycling, biodiversity maintenance, tourism and recreation are just a few examples.

Subsistence farmers, even in remote areas in the Himalayan region, are increasingly feeling the need for sources of cash income to purchase household items, cloth, improved seeds, etc., and to pay for services such as school fees. These requirements arise from both changing social aspirations and natural resource scarcities. In their search for cash, farmers naturally turn to the exploitation of NTFPs, bringing about a shift from their primary use in subsistence consumption to their sale in market towns as commercial products. The sustainable management of natural resources and the political economy of market relations, therefore, become issues of increasing concern.

To address simultaneously the needs for sustainable management of the NTFP resources and farmers' cash requirements, innovative approaches are necessary. Such approaches must be based on an understanding of local people's existing knowledge and practices related to forest resource use and management. Indigenous knowledge should include not only the technical knowledge of natural resource use, but also the environmental perceptions that determine such usage. Cultural factors play a key role in affecting people's actions, and need to be understood by development planners interventions.

One action research project undertaken by a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Nepal with the support of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), has combined research on culture and technical knowledge with agroforestry activities to develop such an approach. The process has focused on the participation of local residents at every step, employing the Participatory Action Research (PAR) framework to encourage the empowerment of residents of a remote eastern Himalayan community in Nepal.

This initiative is presented here as a case study.

Cultural approaches and methodologies

Indigenous knowledge

Indigenous knowledge is knowledge linked to a specific place, culture or society, dynamic in nature, belonging to groups of people who live in close contact with natural systems. Knowledge of their physical environment is embedded in epistemologies and belief systems, usually naturalistic and radically different from those of scientific systems. The spiritual beliefs, cosmologies and world views are therefore a vital part of the whole system which must be understood by outsiders attempting to understand the ways in which ethnic groups have managed their environments.

Research on such systems of knowledge reveals that communities possess a great deal of knowledge about their environments and how to manipulate them to best meet their needs (Brokensha et al., 1980; Richards, 1985; Chambers et al., 1989). It is important to understand that this knowledge is not only a function of utility, but it is also an intellectual process that creates order out of disorder (Berlin, 1978; Howes, 1980). The principles of classification of the natural environment reveal this "ordering principle." Its importance goes beyond the intellectual in that such principles are the basis for utility behavior. It suggests that environmental behavior is not a random process that is utility based but rather is ordered and constructed based on culture. Hence, the importance of understanding the whole knowledge system as a pre-condition for initiating activities related to NTFPs.

Participatory Action Research

The methods of Participatory Action Research (PAR) are most useful in the elicitation of knowledge related to indigenous systems of management and use of natural resources. Local community members and outsiders comprise the team, which aims to empower participants as well as collect data. It is a method of community-based learning and assessment which allows participants to critically analyse their situations and devise solutions to problems.

The very process of collecting information requires local people to reflect on their knowledge and identity vis-a-vis outsiders. Their daily practices, symbols, cultural norms and knowledge may take on new dimensions as they are validated by outsiders. Reflection on their own knowledge can enhance an indigenous community's pride in their own ethnicity. The sense of legitimacy bestowed upon their own knowledge can help empower communities, support their efforts to resist unwelcome outside interventions, and encourage them to play more active roles in determining their own future.

Local organisations and cultural revival

An important element in empowering local people to take control of change in their local environment is the presence of autonomous, participatory people's organisations Where already existing, local formal organisations or informal groups of people are the best nodal points for project activities, especially to ensure the continuity of project initiatives and benefits beyond the project duration. Such groups, however, usually require strengthening, through training in leadership, organizational management and technical skills. They also need to be linked to other outside individuals and institutions which can provide advice, funding, and materials.

Even in the remote northern area of Nepal, symbols and forms of the Western, industrialised world are creeping into traditional societies, devaluing and undermining systems of adaptation to the natural world which have sustained rural communities for generations. The loss or disappearance of cultural symbols and indigenous knowledge, particularly from ethnic minority tribes or groups, is rapidly occurring due to the intrusion of state and market forces, and the passing on of elders possessing that knowledge. Once lost, oral-based knowledge cannot be retrieved.

Emphasizing traditional knowledge, cultural traditions, languages and other forms of cultural expression, can help a community to reclaim a common consciousness and identity and communal dignity - vital to successful community development. Community strengthening boosts the ability to resist the imposition of unwanted outside influences, which may be inappropriate to their cultures and uses of the environment.

In the case of NTFPs, such organisations can act as cooperatives to bring a greater share of the profits back to the original harvesters of the products, perhaps through the management of processing activities to add value to the raw product for its direct sale in markets. Members of community organisations themselves could replace private middlemen by marketing the products in towns and market centres directly linked to NTFP buyers.

A case study in Eastern Nepal


In response to an urgent need to protect fragile zones from environmental degradation, and with an eye to the tourism market, vast areas of land have been set aside as protected zones in the eastern Himalayas. One such area is the Makalu Barun National Park and Conservation Area (MBCP) in eastern Nepal, which contains settlements of villagers who affect the condition of protected plants and animals within the park. In collaboration with the Woodlands Mountain Institute (USA) and the Department of Parks and Wildlife (His Majesty's Government of Nepal), the MBCP was set up to protect park resources and assist in the development of villagers residing in the buffer areas.

In October 1991, ICIMOD was awarded a three year grant by the MacArthur Foundation to implement an innovative project for the development of an alternative approach to the conservation of parks and protected areas in the Eastern Himalayan region. In order to implement the project, ICIMOD selected an institution (SAGUN, a Nepali NGO) which had the capability to conduct research on indigenous knowledge, provide training in agroforestry practices and organisational management, and collaborate with agencies given authority over the management of protected areas.

The area selected for the project was the Tamku Village Development Community (elevation 2400 m.) within the Makalu Barun National Park and Conservation Area, Sankhuwasabha District, Nepal. The site falls in the Koshi Hill Zone in eastern Nepal, which forms part of the larger Arun Basin ecosystem. In general, the Zone lies above 2500 meters, with very fragile, high relief. Over 73 percent of the land has a slope of 40 degrees or above. The area falls in the monsoon belt of the eastern Himalayas, beginning with the pre-monsoon rains in April and May, and lasting well into late September. Annual rainfall in the Arun Basin ranges from 1,783 millimeters to 3,758 millimeters*

The big-climatic zones in the Arun River Basin range from tropical to alpine, with the tropical to temperate zone (1000 meters-3000 meters) having the heaviest human population. The vegetation in these zones can be described as tropical, subtropical and temperate, and even though the area is densely populated, it exhibits a very high degree of plant diversity (Shrestha, 1989).

Tamku is populated by a group of people called the Rail They are a distinct ethnic group, and physically, linguistically and to some extent culturally, they are said to be related to the large Mongoloid population of Tibeto-Burman speaking tribal peoples that spread eastward through the sub-Himalayan region and the hills of Assam in northeast India (McDougal, 1979). The Rai themselves are a heterogenous ethnic unit which consists of numerous smaller groups with distinct languages and varying cultural traditions. The Mewahang represent one such subtribe and they are the majority inhabitants in the Tamku Village Development Community.

Indigenous knowledge: perceptions of the environment

Perceptions of the environment act as powerful cultural "models" of reality that determine people's behavior within the environment. Humans base their decisions on the environment as they perceive it, not as it is (Brookfield, 1969), and the information of the natural world is coded in the culture and situated in the social context (Diener, Nonini and Robkin, 1980).

The Origin Myth of the Rai serves as a cultural "model" of the environment, serving as a context for troth meaningful and appropriate behavior within the environment. Such a "model" allows the Rai to order the incomprehensible mass of information from nature, and acts as an interpretive ''filter'' through which behavior in the environment is made rational (Rappaport, 1968).

The myth recounts the origin, differentiation, migration and creative deeds of the ancestors, starting from the very beginning of the world and continuing-with the establishment of the traditional order and leading to the roots of the present conditions. The Origin Myth anticipates culture, as the creation of nature unfolds in utilitarian categories of classification. It acts as a prelude to classifications of the empirical environment which forms the basis for ecological behaviour.

The myth also reveals the clan geography (Ca:ri) that is at once mythical and real, thus serving as the basis for behavioral options within such a territory. The "model" of reality that is the myth, empirial nature and culture, evolves through a dialectical fashion; each defining the other through the borrowed authority of the other. And in this fashion, action that results from culturally determined perceptions of the environment are at once functional as well as meaningful.

The "model" is made socially functional through rituals and decision making. Rituals serve to symbolically display the range of behavioral options within the cultural framework through a series of agrarian rites and ritual dances, while decision making determines the actual behavior within the environment.

The origin myth

The myth is divided into four parts. The first part deals with the creation of the natural world through an act of creative contemplation by the Creator, Oesechaap. What emerges is a system for classifying nature that is pointedly utilitarian. Animals and plants are created along with the first human in a system that is categorized according to utilitarian principles; animals are grouped in ritual and non-ritual categories, and plants are categorized under those that were immaculately conceived and those born from ordinary circumstances.

The second part of the myth deals with the emergence of the cultural hero who is responsible for the beginning of the domestication of nature. Through a series of symbolic interventions, he begins to practice agriculture, marries and builds himself a house. A feast that he holds in commemoration to the building of the house marks the cultural achievement and is the symbol of the passage from "nature" to culture.

The third part of the myth recounts the journey of the ancestors from the south into the mountains of eastern Nepal. The mythical recounting of the journey symbolises the boundary of ancestral land and such a mythical description sets the context for spatial cognition of land amongst the Rail

The fourth part recounts "locality myths," and is comprised of ancestral deeds. It recounts how each of the clans settled in their present places in a series of deeds by the clan ancestor. In many instances they include fighting and outwitting local chieftans or demons that inhabited the land before them.

Classification of natural resources

The natural environment is organised into discrete mental principles that constitute the basis for behavior within the environment. Such organizing principles form an important source of knowledge and its activation into behavioral patterns constitute an important link into understanding resource use amongst the Rail

Natural resources are classified according to several cognitive criteria. In the cultural "model" of the myth, nature is created in two phases. In the first act of creation, a total of 73 animals are categorised into ritual and non-ritual species, and then into those that are arboreal and those that are terestrial. In the second act of creation, nature is further divided into the plant and animal kingdoms.

The cultural model acts as a precursor for the classification principles that the Rai have developed as a result of close association with the natural environment. At the highest level of the taxonomy, plants are identified and named according to uses, thus making it a functional classification. However, the Rais' knowledge of plants exceeds just utility functions as the morphological taxonomy reveals detailed principles of classification based on physical traits.

The Rai use and identify over 250 species of plants (Botanical names are provided in table 1). Over 86 plants are identified as fodder species. Tree species such as badahar, dudilo, siris, koiralo, tank), khaneu, sil timbur and lapsi are among the more common fodder species that provide continual supplies of biomass for livestock. Among the grasses are napier and abhijhalo. Fodder species are selected according to the following criteria: they should be easy to propagate on farmland; once propagated they should not harm other crops; they should be palatable for the livestock, milk producing, and provide large quantities of fodder; they should also be available during the dry season and able to be harvested frequently; they should be long lasting, and have multi-purpose uses.

Forty-one types of fruits, vegetables, condiments and tuber crops are collected seasonally from the forest. Such foods serve as vital nutritive supplements during times of shortage, called "anikal," that sometimes last from March to July. Foods such as rukh katar, kali ningro, latey, tarul, naspati and aru serve as vegetables or condiments that are eaten as supplements or pickled for storage. Oil is extracted from amphe, cheuri and siltimbur.

A variety of medicines are extracted from plants like abijalo for treating pneumonia, anger) for scabies, bhunware phool for eye infections, titepate for nose bleeds, chiraito for fevers, harjordne, aank, and haatipaile for sprains, and siltimbur for indigestion. About 20 plants are identified as having medicinal properties.

Religious rituals conducted by the shaman or priest require such plants as bans, jhaankri kaat, kaulo, musure katus, phaledo, ghungring, titepate, chabro, pangra, amliso, dubho, sawami, and puelijhaar.

Other uses for plants include soap made from patle siris, pangra, rato siris and gunhe siris; cloth is made from allo; paper made form lokta and argali; dye is made from tanki and majitho; poison for fishing and pest control is made from khirau and mahuwa; ropes are made from mahuwa and udalo; and agricultural equipment is made from singaane bans.

The knowledge of plants extends beyond utility functions as plants are also classified according to morphological principles, including rukh (trees), jhadi (small type of bush), lahara (vines), ghaans (fodder grass), jhaar (any form of wild grass) and pothra (bush like tree).

Further classification reveals detailed knowledge of species. Trees, for instance, are distinguished by criteria such as height, altitudinal location, canopy area, leaf size and texture, and fruiting patterns.

Ritual and decision making

The ecology of ritual

Ritual amongst the Rai serves to place the Origin myth in a social context. In doing so, it activates the "model of reality" and assimilates nature into itself" (Douglas, 1972). All rituals are conducted by ritual specialists of which there are three: the clan elder (Purkha), the priest (Nokchung), and the shaman (Bijuwa).

Ritual specialists

The clan elder is knowledge holder of the origin myth (Muddum) and officiates as the ultimate source of all knowledge. Both the priest and shaman are directed by the elder. The source of knowledge is most often passed on in dreams, but it is not a precondition of his status and he is often present in all ritual events.

The priest officiates in functions that have relevance to agrarian occasions and he performs the Ca:ri puja that marks the onset of spring (Ubhaulo). It is believed that the clan deities move north to the summer pastures at this time. This is marked by ceremonies that the community participates in under the guidance of the priest. This season is also marked by ecological indicators such as the movement of wild animals northwards, the sprouting of deciduous plants, the upstream movement of fish in the river and the change in the courtship voice of certain birds that respond hormonally to increased daylight. During fall, the opposite process occurs and is known as Udhauli. Both rituals are conducted by the priest for the welfare of the clan by invoking the benevolence of ancestral deities.

The role of the shaman provides an interesting example of invoking myth to heal illness by putting it in the context of the cosmogenic order. However, in doing so, the shaman also provides, through the ritual journey, a boundary for the clan territory. The journey invokes a real geography, set in the context of mythical geography, and this serves powerfully to lay out a spatial cognition for behavior. It provides a context for numerous behavioral options within which the Rai can carry out their subsistence practices.

Decision making

Surface decisions are the result of "deep structures" or sets of cognitive rules that determine the production of behavior. Such rules are usually coded in the language and criteria of the "natives" and flow primarily from the classification principles that have been applied to arrange the natural environment. In the case of the Rai, management decisions usually flow first from the classification scheme into a decision strategy that eventually gets translated into behavior.

Local organisations and cultural revival

Although a variety of grassroots groups, forest users groups, and local NGOs comprise the local formal and informal organisations in Tamku, most are distrusted by local people and suffer from poor leadership, interference from political organisations lack of transparency of financial accounts, and inadequate linkages to outside oraganisations or agencies which could offer assistance.

SAGUN developed close relationships and trust with these organisations then encouraged them to become more involved with development activities. One organisation developed an environmental education program, using songs, street theatre and puppets to promote messages of environmental conservation. They were also assisted to conduct meetings, hold discussions with members, arrive at consensual decisions, and identify activities that could be carried out without external resources. Project staff encouraged them to include women in the decision-making processes, as well as during the implementation phase.

SAGUN members have guided the restucturing of a few local NGOs to improve their organisational capabilities. Grassroots groups regularly receive training and technical assistance from team members on topics related to agroforestry. Five forest users groups have been assisted in developing forest management plans. SAGUN then facilitated the process of handing over forest management authority to the groups from the District Forest Office. A training workshop was conducted for leaders of local organisations on project planning and evaluation, simple accounting techniques, and proposal preparation.

Table 1: Botanical names of local species

Local name

Botanical name


Artocarpus lakoocha


Ficus nemoralis

Siris (Patke)

Albizzia julibrissin

Siris (Rato)

Albizzia mollis

Siris (Guhe)

Albizzia lebek


Bacrhinia uariegata


Bauhinia purpurea

Khaniu (Rani)

Ficus spp.

khaniu (Khasre)

Ficus spp.


Litsea cubeba


Choerospondias axillaris


Drymeria cordata

Rukha - Katahar

Artocarpus heterophyllus

Kali Nigro

Dryoathyriom boryanum

Latye Sog

Amaranthus uiridis


Dioscorea alata


Pyrus communis


Primus persica


Pyrularia edulis


Bassia butyracea


Pieris onalifolia

Bhuware Phool (Bhamare Phool)

Desmondiom floribundium


Artemisia uulgaris


Swertia angustifolia

Harjomi (unue)

Polypodium amoenum


Calotropis gigantea


Rubia manjith


Bassia latifolia


Eulophia campestris



Jhakri Kath

Actinodophne angustifolia


Machilus odoratissima

Musure Katus

Castanopsis tribuloides


Erythrina arborescens


Entada scandens


Thysanolaena maxima


Cynodon dactylon




Peuli Jhaar


Girardinia diversifolia


Paphre spp.


Singane Bans.

Bombox spp.

(Ulado) Phaledo

One local NGO has become interested in the revival of the Mewahang Rai cultural traditions, which have eroded over the years. The NGO has formed sub-committees to document the language and script, history and kinship, and religious and cultural traditions of the Mewahang Rai, so that it will not be lost to future generations. Rai culture is encapsulated in the Origin Myth, expressed through ritual dance, which today is known by only a few elderly members of a nearby community. Through the process of cultural revival, community members realised that the Origin Myth provides the core, guiding principle of their identity and culture, which is not subject to change over time or space, and may, therefore, provide cultural stability amidst rapid changes.


Sustainable management of forest resources, including NTFPs, for both subsistence needs and marketing possibilities, must begin with an understanding of existing sociocultural systems. From the experience of this action research project carried out in Tamku, eastern Nepal, several key concepts have emerged as being fundamental to an approach to sustainable natural resource management. These are:

· participation of local community members, including women and elders, is essential in all aspects of implementation: research, planning, and training (Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) and Participatory Action Research (PAR) are two methods of achieving this);

· indigenous knowledge systems reflect cultural values as well as technical knowledge held by farmers - hence the great importance in understanding these systems before introducing changes;

· existing local organisations and informal associations must be recognised and strengthened to meet the development needs of the communities;

· culture and its symbols are important to the identity and well-being of the community cultural revival may be necessary to reestablish traditional knowledge that contributes to a balance between man and nature.


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