Mainstreaming Biodiversity: Sustaining People and their Livelihoods

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George Washington once rightly said, “The most healthful, the most useful and the noblest employment of man is none other than agriculture.” As a child, one of the first lessons I learned in school was that Nepal is an agricultural country and that agriculture contributes to around 80 percent of the country’s GDP. The figures might have changed over the years, but agriculture remains the most important source of livelihood for people in Nepal and other countries in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region. However, we sometimes tend to overlook this fact and hence associate this profession with poverty. 

To get a better understanding, I tried to dig out some information on agriculture. While reviewing available literature on the subject, I came across a fascinating term ‘Neglected and Underutilized Crop Species’, or NUS. NUS are traditionally grown crop varieties with great nutritional value, but these species are on the verge of losing their identity in the sweep of globalization. It is unfortunate that we humans have narrowed down our dietary habits to a just a few varieties of crops when nature has gifted us so many choices. The FAO report published in 2009 revealed that out of the millions of known plant species, only 120 are cultivated for human consumption, and of these, only wheat, rice and maize account for more than half of the dietary energy supplied by plant sources. 

 Fig. 1: Buckwheat Field in Nawalparasi, Nepal. Photo Credit- Nabin Baral

For me, the biggest question arises when I see people being skeptical about trying out new varieties. It seems we have been abandoning rather than promoting traditional crops like millet, buckwheat and barley, labelling them ‘foods of the poor’. Many farmers are lured by the profits that cash crops bring, but they tend to forget the challenges involved in mono-cropping. NUS, on the other hand, can be a solution to most of the agricultural issues we face today, especially those related to climate uncertainty. 

Neglected and underutilized crop genetic resources are vital for sustainable agriculture. These species, commonly grown by indigenous farming communities, help reduce risks associated with climate change and thus promote adaptation.  They are well adapted to stress conditions of extreme environments and form part of sustenance farming. With very little input, NUS can be grown successfully in marginal and degraded wastelands. They contribute “to increased agricultural production, enhanced crop diversification, increased income opportunities and improved environment .” Capitalizing on the potential of these neglected and underutilized crops can greatly benefit mountain communities. For this reason, I see enormous scope for working in the field of agriculture. It offers the possibility of developing a roadmap to fight poverty, increase diversity and forge livelihood opportunities in the mountains.

Fig. 2: Millet Field in Pokhara, Nepal. Photo Credit-Jitendra Bajracharya

With this objective, a small team at ICIMOD has started networking with different mountain agricultural institutions in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region. We have identified Mountain Agriculture Research Institute (MARI) as a potential organization to support our goal and endorse NUS varieties in the country. 

MARI is a new and growing institute in the field of NUS and works under Nepal Agriculture Research Council. Established in 2012, it aims to enhance the livelihoods of mountain people through increased agricultural production and productivity. The institute runs the Hill Crops Research Programme in Kavre that specifically seeks to promote NUS varieties. Likewise, Mountain Agriculture Research Centre (MARC) in Pakistan is receptive of our idea of promoting NUS as an alternative livelihood option, and has extended their support to implement our concept in the region. 

The firm support we have received from these institutions has motivated us to enrich and disseminate our knowledge of NUS. We aim to continue our work in this noble sector and use NUS as a source of food and income diversification option for the communities in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region.



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