HOTSPOT: Eastern Himalayas, Nepal


Volunteering with Kaule-EV

About an hour’s bus ride outside of Kathmandu lies Kaule, one of many agricultural villages scattered regularly throughout this part of the Himalayas.  The village produces strawberries and corn, but the Himalayas is not presently proving to be an easy place to scratch out a living.   The slopes of these mountains are very steep due to their youth, and thus prone to rapid erosion when stripped of their forest cover for crops. Terracing helps to a degree with this problem, but it is nice firm roots that are really needed to stabilize slopes.

lack of trees = dry, eroded, nutrient-depleted

Neither is the earth particularly fertile in Kaule. Families own small plots, and plant the same few crops throughout the year based on seasonal precipitation.  Water-loving crops are planted in monsoon, and drought-tolerant plats are sown in dry season.   Yet these crops are not selected based on their complementarity.  They all tend to deplete the soil of the same nutrients; whilst other nutrients remain unused by the crops and no plant serves the function of renutrifying the soil.   Nitrogen and other nutrients have to be manually added back through fertilizers.

In Kaule, I’ll be doing a short volunteer stint with Kaule-EV , an agroforestry project funded by the German government. The project works with local farmers so that they can sustain their families more securely.  They teach cocropping a field with plants that can complement each other’s growth.  They encourage farmers to plant and retain trees around their crops and houses to stabilize slopes, retain soil moisture, and bring nutrients back into the earth.

Does lye make a difference? Control front R, lye back L

Kaule-EV has many other projects going to the benefit of local farmers. They are doing experiments with adding lye to the soil to see if counteracting the natural acidity of the soil with truly result in faster, heartier growth of crops. They did courses on small-scale pond-raising fish, constructed small ponds for several farmers, and help them sell their fish harvest. They’ve done the same with a bee-keeping and kiwi plant course, and now the farmers with cost-subsidised hives or kiwi plants make nice side incomes from honey and kiwis respectively.

The local farmers have no trash collection available, so their waste was chucked downhill [diminishing land quality for all] or was burned in slow-burning open piles.  Kaule-EV first supplied barrels for rapider burning, so that farmers would be exposed to dangerous fumes for less time. Now they’ve discovered that the barrels oxidise to the point of breaking within 2 years, so they are offering farmers the opportunity to construct subsidised brick-cement trash-burning facilities. They don’t wear out, and make trash burning even hotter and faster.

Checking out the prototype trash burning facility

Another element of the program that surprised me was the new initiative to build toilets.   I asked if the idea is to increase sanitation, such that crops and streams can’t get contaminated by human urine/faeces. I was told, “Yes, in part”.  The bathroom idea was very much generated by the farmers themselves. It is as much for personal security as it is for hygiene. At present, if people need to pee at nighttime, they distance themselves from their home in a private place and pee on the hillside. For men, this may be ok, but many women have been assaulted as they leave their homes at night to pee.   Essentially, toilets could help prevent rape.

Kaule-EV is a laid-back place to volunteer. I think this relaxed tone is very intentional. A big hurdle the project constantly has to jump is community acceptance.  Since the director, volunteers, and money are largely foreign;  simple, friendly interactions with farmers foster goodwill towards the project as well as trust in its intentions. Volunteers are regularly sent to work with farmers on their lots. These sessions are not to accomplish any particular agroforestry objective, but rather to demonstrate that Kaule-EV is supportive of the farmers and wants to understand what their work truly entails.

 

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© Copyright Emma Steigerwald | Vanderbilt Traveling Fellow