Chepangs of Nepal: Living on the edge

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The Third Pole, Makwanpur, Nepal

Rajkumari Chepang lives in the forested Chure Hills of Makwanpur district in central Nepal. She used to be poor, but a landslide made her poorer still. Two years ago, just when her maize crop was ready to harvest, a landslide took away her farm.

With no land to till, the 47-year-old mother of three is now a construction worker. She walks two hours with her husband to the town of Manahari every day to find work. At times, she has to travel even further.

“After the landslide, I can grow nothing but bananas, and this is not sufficient to feed my children,” she said, staring at what is left of her terrace farm. “I need a job to feed my family.”

In Raksirang, a village north of the East-West highway, Rajkumari is not the only Chepang woman who has been affected by landslides. Some have lost their homes while others have seen their fields swept away as the rains wash down the fragile denuded slopes around them.

Almost 80% of Chepang households were damaged during the massive earthquake of April 25 last year, said Ram Krishna Chepang, a local of Raksirang.

Tara Maya Chepang of Raksirang also lost a patch of her maize field last year. Fortunately, she still has enough land for planting. She said, “Usually it does not rain on time. But when it does, it rains so heavily that we live in the fear of landslides.”

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Raksirang lies in the Chure Hills, and is mostly inhabited by the Chepangs, semi-nomadic forest dwellers and one of Nepal’s most neglected indigenous groups.  Ninety percent of Chepangs live below the poverty line with little access to education or health services, according to United Nations humanitarian field reports.

Nirguretar is a typical Chepang settlement in Raksirang, and has 14 households perched along a ridge. It has suffered multiple landslides in the last few years.

“We see small landslides eroding our land every monsoon,” said Tara Maya. “I am afraid a big one will sweep us all away one day.”

A report published by the United Nations Development Programme says over 90% of the human settlements in the Chure region of Makwanpur face land degradation, and the threat of landslides is highest here. The report said that deforestation and slash-and-burn agriculture as the main reasons for soil erosion.

Most Chepangs do not own the land they have been living on for generations. Even so, they have never tried to migrate to safer villages. Ram Kumar Chepang, one of the few literate men in Raksirang village, said, “Even if we want to leave these landslide-prone villages, we do not know where to go.”

Rajkumari Chepang was poor but a landslide last year made her poorer.

Rajkumari Chepang was poor but a landslide last year made her poorer.

The Chure Hills cover the southern half of Makwanpur which is vulnerable to disasters caused by either too much or too little rain. “Because of its fragile geology, Chure is vulnerable to landslides,” explained Subodh Dhakal of Tribhuvan University. “Poor and marginalised communities like Chepangs who live on steep hills are at risk.”

The National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET) has categorised landslides as the third most common natural disaster (after floods and forest fires) in the district, recording 106 major landslides there between 1973 and 2013.

With climate change leading to erratic weather, fragile areas like the Chure are even more vulnerable. Pratibha Manandhar, a government meteorologist said, “It is not just landslides. Droughts are also getting more frequent with rising temperatures.”

Some NGOs like the Manahari Development Institute-Nepal (MDI) have encouraged the Chepangs to plant bananas, pineapples and broom grass to generate income and bind the topsoil to prevent further erosion. “These plants strengthen the slopes and survive even in drought conditions,” said Khop Narayan Shrestha at the MDI.

However, the majority of Chepang families still practise slash-and-burn farming, which exacerbates the problem of land erosion and landslides, said Basanta Raj Gautam of the Rastrapati Chure Conservation Program, “The Chepangs are aware of landslide threats, but unaware of what causes landslides, and do not know how to be safe.”

(Riwaj Rai is a journalist based in Kathmandu. This report was supported by the Earth Journalism Network and an earlier version first published in the Nepali Times)