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Mountain products: a sea of opportunities

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Covering about 4 million square kilometers, the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region is home to some of the world’s poorest people. The region accounts for 18% of the global mountain area which includes all of Nepal and Bhutan, and the mountainous parts of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar, and Pakistan. The HKH mountain systems play a significant role in agriculture and food security in South Asia. The regions’ rich agro-biodiversity has provided daily sustenance not only for the upland mountain communities, but also for millions of farmers in the lowlands.
However, there still persists a huge divide between people living in the mountains and those living in the plains. Poverty is more prevalent in the mountains; in fact, poverty in most HKH countries is greater than the national average. The poorest often live in the most inaccessible parts of the region, eking out a living through subsistence farming, cut off from markets, and with minimal access to basic services. The challenge is to get these farmers out of the poverty cycle by building their capacity and initiating activities that improve their livelihoods. This means introducing sustainable agricultural practices, encouraging them to produce a wide variety of mountain products, extending market value chains to their fields, and making them the managers of the natural resource in their surroundings.
This year’s theme for the International Mountain Day – ‘Promoting Mountain Products for Better Livelihoods’ – provides an excellent opportunity to bring greater limelight to the invaluable natural treasures of the mountains, from rare medicinal herbs to more robust food products that feed millions of highlanders each year. Mountains are host to diverse agro-environments, retaining niches for many unique and high-value products. The diversity of local crop varieties, with globally important cold-tolerant genes, is one of the few natural resources available to mountain farmers to cope with their marginal and heterogeneous environments that are likely to be affected by climate change.

Agricultural goods with high economic value generally fall under high value agriculture. High value products and services such as non-timber forest products, medicinal and aromatic plants, indigenous honeybees, and eco-tourism are of critical importance while considering strategic planning for community-based natural resource management and poverty alleviation programmes in mountain regions. These products and services not only support the livelihoods of the farmers, but also contribute substantially to national economies. Therefore, how we manage the region’s agricultural biodiversity will have a directly bearing on the wide range of high vale mountain products that our farmers cultivate today.

In the face of dwindling farm incomes, shrinking food grain productivity, and changes in the consumption pattern, the need to increase the production of high value crops has never been more important. And more so in the mountain communities of the HKH region, especially given the small and marginal holdings which severely curtails opportunity for commercial farming. It’s against such a backdrop why high value crops are of critical importance to our mountain farmers. Promoting high value agriculture is equally important in conserving natural resources and restoring the environment.

Fortunately, the mountains of the HKH region abound in a wide variety of high value products. The province of Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan and the state of Himachal Pradesh in India, for example, are known for their apricots, apples, cherries, figs, plums, peaches, pine nuts, walnuts, seabuckthorn, wild thyme, black cumin, chamomile, stevia, and salajeet. These products have continued to contribute to the livelihoods of majority of rural households. In the mountain regions of China, in the counties of Linang, Baosanchan, Dali, Diqing, and Nujiang, products such as walnut, tea, and garlic contribute substantially to the livelihoods of the farmers. Citrus fruits, particularly the mandarin orange, has been a boon to the Bhutanese farmers. It tops the list of horticultural exports from Bhutan. In 2014/15 alone, more than 25,500 MT of mandarin orange was exported to Bangladesh and over 8,900 MT to India.

Similarly, ginger is an important high value commodity in Nepal. The country produced 11.5% of world’s total ginger in 2008, becoming the fourth largest producer. In the recent times, trout farming in Sindhupalchowk district of Nepal and Hunza-Nagar in Pakistan and beekeeping in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand states of India have emerged as key livelihood options. Some of the popular high value mountain products found in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh include jhum products like foxtail millet, black and brown sticky rice, colocacia, cucurbits, cotton, beans and other legumes; bamboo and cane products; and other products like cashew nut, coffee, and mushroom.

In addition to the products mentioned above, mountain regions also have huge potential for livestock-based products like milk, wool, cheese, meat, skin, etc. as well as several forest-based products. With the growing demand for fresh as well as off-season vegetables, vegetable seeds have become another important source of income in the HKH region. The off-season vegetable production has brought economic transformation in many mountain areas of the HKH region, including the Sichuan Basin of China, India, and Nepal. Some mountain regions, where natural resource base is degrading, have high prospects for eco-tourism and non-farm products such as handicrafts.

Today, several mountain products are highly sought after in the market for their purity and nutritional value. These are often the authentic organic products grown in pristine environment with traditional techniques and know-how. The idea now must be to link mountain farmers to markets so that people’s income levels improve. There is also the need for policies and regulations for the protection, promotion, and development of quality mountain products.

At ICIMOD, one of our major focuses has been to promote these mountain products and help farmers gain access to markets through the development of related value chains. On the occasion of International Mountain Day, ICIMOD reiterates its commitment to promote mountain products for improving lives and livelihoods of mountain people.

Wishing you all a happy International Mountain Day!

 

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