A woman works in a nursery in Ratanpur, Tanahun Nepal / Credit: Abhaya Raj Joshi
RATANPUR, Nepal – In the paddy terraces there are no longer children playing. Or the sound of young men singing to their beloved, reverberating in the surrounding hills. The cuckoo bird is the loudest living soul in the village but her songs are drowned when the floodgates of the sky open during the monsoon.
“You don’t find young men here. All of them have left,” says Ram Kumari Pandit, who is in her 60’s. “Our sons have migrated abroad to look for jobs. Their wives have left the village in search of a brighter future for their children in cities," she explains. This village could be any other in the country.
Pandit is one of the thousands of senior citizens who are left behind villages across Nepal. Just like the young men and women of Ratanpur, more than 1,500 Nepalis, most of them young men, leave the country every day in search of work. An equal number, if not more, move from the villages to the cities.
The shortage of able-bodied men and women who can work in the fields has had a devastating effect on rural households. The numbers speak for themselves: more than 21 percent of arable land in the country remained fallow last year and Nepal was ranked 81st in the Global Food Security Index.
However, in Ratanpur, the terraces tell a different tale. The village, located around 200 kilometers west of Kathmandu, is where the remaining women have taken up a seemingly impossible mission—to make it profitable for villagers to stay at home rather than leave to seek opportunities. Their modus operandi: utilize money from private carbon emitters in Europe to rejuvenate barren land and breathe life into the village once again.
Ram Kumari Pandit poses for a portrait in Ratanpur, Tanahun / Credit: Abhaya Raj Joshi
After Earthquake, a Homecoming
It all started in 2015, the year the earthquake caught Nepal unprepared. With fears of a post-quake epidemic in Kathmandu, people returned home to their villages to stay until the situation normalized. Windows that had been shut for ages reopened, letting in sunlight and let out the fragrance of freshly-cooked dal bhat (rice and lentils).
"Everyone was in a reflective mood," remembers Swiss scientist Hans Peter Schmidt, who with friend and forestry scholar Bishnu Hari traveled to Ratanpur in the aftermath of the quake. The pair had been working on implementing 'biochar' projects (charcoal produced from plant matter) in Nepal. Bishnu is also originally from Ratanpur.
In Ratanpur the villagers saw what had become of their ancestral land and wanted to do something about it. Bishnu explained to his village that the barren farms were problematic. "I told them that when we leave the rice fields fallow, we are not only abandoning our ancestral heritage but also leaving it prone to erosion," he explains.
Schmidt had the idea for the villagers to plant 50,000 trees in the next three years to turn around the situation. He along with Bishnu were given the responsibility by village elders to make that dream into a reality.
The government was already supplying a limited number of saplings for free, but their survival rate was low. Local communities wanted to plant trees but did not have the money to buy them, let alone maintain them. The money had to come from somewhere. Schmidt's idea was to get money from private individuals in Europe who want to offset their daily carbon emissions.
Schmidt and his team members from Ithaka Institute, a scientific organization based in Switzerland and Nepal, established a carbon credit program where private individuals would be charged $35 USD for every ton of carbon they emit. This would cover all costs to setup the forest gardens and their maintenance for three years. The farmers would receive money for taking care of their trees. Schmidt says that Ithaka calculated the price of carbon by looking at the overall cost of the project and resources needed to sustain it.
Under the scheme, environment-conscious people like Sibylle Maurer-Wohlatz who lives in Germany pay a subscription fee to offset their personal carbon footprint. "I spend as much money as is needed to compensate my personal emissions by letting trees in Nepal grow. Trees are, as long as they grow, a medium to store carbon. (For me) this is a sum of 27 Euro ($30 USD) each month," she says.
"Because I am still causing CO2 emissions with my way of life, I wanted to compensate in a way that really works. Because the richer countries profit worldwide from the resources of the poorer countries, I was very pleased, when Hans Peter Schmidt told me about his project and the intentions to let people compensate their emissions by giving money to plant trees in devastated areas in Nepal to give small farmers the chance, to stabilize the environment, the earth and to improve their agricultural conditions."
The theoretical model Ithaka developed for the project / Credit: Ithaka Institute
According to Ithaka, a total of Rs 2.15 million ($222,000 USD) has been raised by the project so far. The 218 farmer families have received Rs 285,000 ($2,500 USD) as money for the 50,000 trees they have planted. The carbon money was also used to procure plants and establish a nursery and build water retention pits. The plantation activities were also supported by the district forest office and Hariyo Ban program, along with UK Aid.
The trees planted have their GPS coordinates are recorded and their yearly biomass carbon uptake is calculated on the base of the average ten-year carbon accumulation.
According to Ithaka, the 50,000 garden trees sequester a minimum of 800 tons of carbon per year – enough to offset the carbon footprint of 70 Germans or 2,800 Nepalis.
“Biochar” and Sustainability
Schmidt and Bishnu had been testing the use of biochar with different crops around Nepal. They had seen that biochar not only helped increase survival rates of crops, but also helped retain carbon in the soil.
As Ratanpur had also been affected by the invasive shrub Eupatorium adenophorum – known as “the forest killer” – using the shrub to make biochar had dual benefits. Charging the biochar with cow urine also boosted the amount of nutrients the plants would receive from the soil.
Survival rates of the trees planted were around 57 per cent in the first year and have gone up to 86 per cent – thanks to the active participation of women, the use of biochar and the formation of ‘triade’ groups. Under the triade system, each farmer is made a member of a group of three farmers who help one another with various tasks on the farm.
How Ithaka plans to use carbon credits / Credit: Ithaka Institute
Schmidt and Bishnu also recommended that the farmers grow cinnnamon, mulberry, michelia champaca and paulownia trees—plants that have high commercial value. The money from carbon credits would only be a catalyst. The idea was after three years, the income from tree crops (fruits, nuts, medicine, essential oil, silk, perfume, honey, timber, animal fodder) would be by far more than the carbon money.
So are the farmers ready to commit to planting trees to create a sustainable economy for themselves?
The answer is yes and no. The women in the village are already earning money, even before the products from the forest gardens are sold in the market. There is a steady stream of people who come to visit the village and pay local house owners money for lodging. “This was something unexpected for a village like Ratanpur,” says Ram Kumari Pandit. A few months ago the women’s group received Rs 210,000 ($1868 USD) for hosting a group of tourists in their homes.
This was not the economic benefit Schmidt had imagined.
Schmidt says he wants to create an economic model in Ratanpur that could be easily replicated in villages in Nepal’s hills. He says that forest garden products such as cinnamon oil in high demand in Europe and he could link up the farmers with interested companies. But he also wants the local products to be consumed locally. That is a big challenge as the women seem to have little idea about processing their raw produce and marketing them outside the village. “We do not (yet) know what is to be done with our product,” says Surya Kala Gharti, a member of the local municipal assembly.
“The carbon payment is only a kind of seed money to allow the implementation of the new agronomic systems,” Schmidt says. The Swiss scientist says Ithaka is working on establishing a distillery to prepare cinnamon oil and it will also help local farmers produce silk but doing that will take time.
“What we want to show is that people in the villages can earn more than people in the cities because production takes place in the villages and cities only consume. This could be the reason, one day, people return to their villages,” Schmidt adds.
“This is not a development aid project but the creation of a pilot project for climate farming where we try to create and develop an environmental, economic and social model that could be multiplied in many regions of the country and abroad. The main income will be generated through the forest garden products.”
Credit: Onlinekhabar TV
A Model for REDD+
The project comes at a time when Nepal is preparing for the much talked about REDD+ arrangement, where developing countries are to receive money from developed countries for management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks.
“REDD+ adopts a similar model to what has been done in Ratanpur,” says Mohan Poudel, a REDD expert. “The other advantage of projects like this is that they reduce the pressure on community forests and encourage private enterprise based on forest products. This is something REDD wants to achieve,” adds Poudel.
“The other positive is that this model has shown that when people have monetary incentive to grow trees on barren land, the survival rates go up,” says Poudel. “This is something that the government needs to take note as land is being left barren in the hills due to outward migration.”
However, Poudel, is a bit skeptical that the model could be replicated at a large scale as there are legal hurdles to doing so. The constitution has placed carbon trading under the scope of the federal government, and that complicates the matter.
Women Take the Lead
Large swathes of land in Ratanpur are no longer fallow and that in itself is a big achievement. It was the local women who took the lead to kickstart the project. “We realized that keeping the land fallow was a big mistake,” says Ram Kumari Pandit.
“In the beginning, people were hesitant to switch from paddy, which they had been growing for centuries, to trees. But soon everyone realized why trees were important,” she said. "After the implementation of the project, local water sources, which had dried up, are also coming back to life as the soil retains more moisture.”
A woman works in a nursery in Ratanpur, Tanahun Nepal / Credit: Abhaya Raj Joshi
Pandit, who still maintains her kitchen garden to get her daily vegetables, is happy. She is not waiting for the economic benefits to come to her. “I did not even participate in the campaign for the money. I just wanted our ancestral land to be preserved for posterity and that is what is happening here. If my grandchildren want to return, they will have the option to do that.”
This story is produced under the EJN Asia-Pacific Story Grants 2018 with the support of Sweden/SIDA. A version of this story was published by Nepal’s Onlinekhabar on July 29, 2018.