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A tale of two farming families in Nepal

Both have the will to climb out of poverty, but only one has the way -- through a forestry project to restore degraded land

Members of the Lama family haul firewood.
Photo: FAO/G. Diana

SIRISGHARI, Nepal -- This is the story of two farming families, both living on the margins of society in a country that is among the poorest in the world.

One family, headed by Thule Biswakarma, has managed to dig itself out of extreme poverty by making the most of a 40-year lease on land obtained through a forestry programme aimed at helping the poorest of the poor. A similar family, headed by Karma Dhyowag Lama, lives two hours away by road and leads a harsher life growing potatoes and selling firewood on marginal land. The two cases show that, given a helping hand, the poor can climb out of poverty; but without resources, prospects are bleak.

Mr Biswakarma, a 45-year-old member of the Hindu untouchable caste, lives on the edge of the pretty village of Sirisghari, 40 kilometres east of the capital, Kathmandu, with his five sons and two daughters. Despite coming from a disadvantaged group, Mr Biswakarma has a handy set of skills. An ironworker and carpenter, he even carves and sells temple statues of the goddesses Kali and Durga to make a few extra rupees.

He used to grow potatoes on four small, unirrigated plots of land. “I had a really hard time feeding so many children,” he says. Since the land could support his family for only three months a year, Mr Biswakarma journeyed to distant parts of Nepal to work on road crews, sending money home for his family.

Environmental protection with a payoff

Salvation for the Biswakarma family and its neighbours was as near as the barren hill behind their mud houses. Through an FAO-supported programme, the villagers began by planting grasses and fast-growing trees to protect the hillside, which in turn has allowed them to expand their food production.

The programme, called Leasehold Forestry for the Poor, is funded by the Government of Nepal, the Netherlands and the International Fund for Agricultual Development, with FAO providing technical assistance. It targets people on the margins of Nepalese society -- women, lower castes, ethnic minorities and especially those with little or no land.

Providing villagers with 40-year leases on the otherwise useless land motivated them to put time and energy into planting grass seed and fast-growing trees. Monsoon rains that used to run off the bare hills to the river below now sink into the hillside and emerge as springs, channeled through lovingly tended plots of potato, mustard and onion. Participants raise improved breeds of livestock and feed them with grass they cut on their own land. They have now started revolving funds to finance improvements to their homes.

“Now I’ve bought more land with money I've earned by selling surplus vegetables, and we are self-sufficient in food for eight months of the year,” Mr Biswakarma says.


The programme, which started in 1993 and now operates in 10 out of Nepal’s 75 districts, has helped 11 000 families reclaim 7 000 hectares of hillside. Studies also show that 6 percent of project households report the return of a household member who had previously migrated for work -- but none of the control households reported such returns.

One disadvantage of leasehold forestry is its cost per household assisted, which is higher than in other forms of participatory forestry, such as community forestry. However, says Frits Ohler, FAO technical adviser to the leasehold programme, "Leasehold forestry should be evaluated as a poverty alleviation mechanism and only secondarily as a forest rehabilitation mechanism."

Poverty alleviation is the main objective of government policy in Nepal, which explains the Government's enthusiasm for leasehold forestry, an approach that helps the poorest villagers currently left out of mainstream development. Although not considered a miracle cure for rural poverty, leasehold forestry for the poor is successful enough so far that the Government wants to expand the programme to cover the rest of the country.

No way out of traditional rural poverty

The family headed by Karma Dhyowag Lama has had a tougher time. They live about two hours further east on an isolated 2 000-metre-high mountain road that is snowbound in winter. Mr Lama, his wife, five daughters and one son are so poor that on frigid winter nights they sleep on an earth floor huddled around an open fire in the more wind-proof basement of their house.

They can harvest only one crop a year in the poor soil, compared to three crops annually harvested by farmers lower in the valley. At least the family has farm animals for manure, which, when composted with leaves from the forest, produce fertilizer for the fields.

Mr Lama, a sharp Gurkha knife in a wood sheath on his hip, uses oxen to plough about a hectare of land perched on multiple levels of the steep hillside overlooking the Himalayan peaks. He tries to maximize his earning possibilities, producing, for example, four to eight kilos of honey a year in a hive built in the wall of his house. He has the good fortune to live near a road, so like many Nepalese he sells firewood harvested from his land to passing cars and trucks. Yet his land only supports his family for six months a year, and he must roam the country in search of construction work for the other six months.

"I am getting old," says Mr Lama, who is 48. "Our lives are hard and I don't see how things are going to get better. That is just how it is."

9 January 2002


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