Sweet adaptation to climate change in the Himalayas

   TwitCount

Stevia is a small green plant with leaves that taste many times sweeter than sugar. Today, it is providing innovative farmers in the Himalayas with an alternative source of income. 

Stevia is one of many new crops that farmers in Nepal have started cultivating for sale. Traditionally, the people in the lower mountainous areas (500–2,500 metres above sea level) have lived off growing rice, wheat, maize, and millet for their own consumption. Some 66% of all households in Nepal are engaged in agriculture, but very few have enough land to be 100% self-sufficient. Many households grow about half of the food that the family needs for the year. Nevertheless, this small-scale food production is an important part of Nepal's agriculture and is essential for the food security of the individual family.

Migration to cities and other countries is becoming increasingly common. In particular, young men travel to find work and send money home. At the same time, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) expects global food prices to rise and become more variable in the coming decades, partly because of climate change. In addition, the economic crisis and fierce competition for cheap labour are making it difficult for people to earn a secure income by migrating.

However, the future is not all gloom and doom: new opportunities are being identified to maintain and increase smallholders’ food production and income from agriculture in the face of uncertain local impacts of climate change and food markets. In Dolakha, northeast of Kathmandu, young people have started moving back to the countryside and exploring new opportunities in agriculture. Many people have achieved financial success by cultivating new crops alongside traditional food production.

Not only stevia

A recently planted Stevia plant
A recently planted Stevia plant

Other crops that are now providing people with a decent living include cardamom, tea, garlic, cauliflower, potato, pea, tomato, chili pepper, and ginger. Some people are focusing more on medicinal plants, such as the cancer medicine Himalayan Yew (Lothsalla in Nepali). Another growth area is beekeeping and honey production, and people are also experimenting with fruit production. The local bimiro fruit looks like a large yellow lemon on the outside, while the pulp inside looks more like melon and is sweet with a slight lemony flavour.

Local innovation and experiments to cultivate new crops, grow several crops at the same time, and improve methods are making farmers better equipped to face a future with an uncertain climate. Changing precipitation patterns and unpredictable monsoon rains as a result of climate change will increase the risk of crop failure. Farmers who combine traditional food production with growing spices, vegetables, and herbs for sale are less vulnerable to crop failure because the risk is spread over several harvests and a larger part of the year. 

A woman shows a homegrown bimiro fruit (lemon melon)

A woman shows a homegrown bimiro fruit (lemon melon)

At present, the most common adaptation strategy in the event of a failed harvest is to buy rice, and money earned from the sale of winter vegetables is used to buy rice later on in the year. In the long term, experimentation with new varieties of rice and grains and diversification of income through cultivation of new crops for sale are helping reduce vulnerability and poverty in rural areas. 

Development projects have enabled the people of Dolakha to be innovative through long-term investment in the construction of roads and irrigation channels, and the establishment of lending and savings groups, trading cooperatives and networks for training in new farming methods. The more remote areas of Nepal have not seen a similar level of investment in development projects. As a result there is more poverty, harvests are smaller, and only a narrow range of crops are cultivated. In addition, food security is much worse in areas without road access and other infrastructure. Transferring useful lessons about how to foster local development, innovation in agriculture, and new opportunities for income in rural areas from places like Dolakha to other parts of Nepal and the Himalayas has a huge potential for far-reaching benefits.


Vegetable farming supplement household income 

This article was first published in Norwegian on CICERO’s website. It chronicles ongoing research in Dolakha District in Nepal under the Himalayan Climate Change Adaptation Programme (HICAP). Scientists from CICERO showcased ongoing work under HICAP during the Annual Norwegian research days on 20 and 21 September 2013 in Oslo, Norway. 

All Photos byNina HolmelinCICERO