Dr. Dhrupad Choudhury
I travel frequently for work and for the last decade, no matter my destination, the plane is crowded with Nepali youths. While some of these young people are going abroad for study, the majority are in search of work, usually in the Middle East, but increasingly in the Southeast Asia, Japan, and Korea. I ask their stories and they are stunningly similar: decline agricultural production due to increasing variability of weather has made farming an unpredictable and unreliable occupation. The lack of alternative incomes sources makes migration seem like the only option for their families.
These resonate strongly with the research we do throughout the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH). Across the region agricultural yields are down and rural farmers are having trouble adapting to climate uncertainties. Agricultural extension services do admirable work, but they are also beset by the challenges. As a result, migration continues. Globally, there are nearly 250 million international migrants, and some 750 million domestic migrants. In other words, one in every seven person on the globe is a migrant. In Nepal, over 50 per cent of all households now have at least one migrant family member currently abroad or living in Nepal as a returnee.
However, migration is not an option to every family. Poorer households lack the financial resources to send someone abroad, even to the nearest urban centres. Financing overseas employment entails substantial loans and debt, the repayment of which often eats into a good part of their first two years’ earnings abroad, leaving little to save for the family back home. These challenges to migration and income have obvious implications for ensuring food and nutritional security of the households. The United Nations’ State of Food Security in the World report found that hunger is rising globally and that undernourished people have increased from 777 million to 815 million from 2015 to 2016.
Unlike most of the world which relies on four crops – rice, wheat, maize, and potato – mountain communities depend on a wide diversity of plants and animals for subsistence that provide a highly nutritious diet. Awareness about these mountain products and their health benefits is rapidly increasing, fuelled in no small measure by the internet. A first step should be to widen the basket of food crops supported by governments (and other agencies) for public distribution by including such mountain crops for addressing food availability for the poor at local levels.
For making agriculture profitable and attractive, linkages with sectors such as tourism can prove to be innovative and economically profitable. In several pockets across the Himalaya, the promotion of local cuisines prepared with local crops, vegetables and condiments and linked to tourism has proved to be very successful, increasing the popularity of such cuisines among tourists and enhancing the demand of these crops and vegetables among hoteliers and restaurant owners. In urban areas and metropolitan cities, a niche market for these mountain products has started emerging as awareness of their health benefits spreads.
These changes can happen only when governments start believing that mountains matter and investments and appropriate policies are put in place that help tap opportunities lying unharnessed in the mountains and the communities they harbour.
Agricultural research and agricultural development programmes need to widen their focus and begin promoting these under-utilised and neglected crops are four major crops – rice, wheat, maize and potatoes – are at the centre of all agricultural research and agricultural development programmes designed to address world hunger. Mountain communities have cultivated diverse cereals, legumes and tubers to meet their food and nutritional demands. Many of these – neglected and under-utilised species in scientific terminology – are highly nutritious and can potentially prove to be ‘crops for the future’ if sufficient attention is paid to them.
(Choudhury is Programme Manager, Adaptation to Change, at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development)