Nepal, predominantly a mountainous, agrarian and landlocked country, has an area of 147,181 sq.km. with a population of about 22.3 million. It is geographically divided into three geo-ecological zones: Mountain (4,877m – 8,848 m above the mean sea level), Hills (610 m – 4,877m), and Terai (59 m – 610m).
The Terai region, a low flat land, is an extension of the Gangetic plains of India. It is a narrow tropical belt occupying 23 percent of the country’s total land area providing dwelling to 49.06 percent of the total population. About 40 percent area of the region is cultivable.
The Hill region consists of several peaks, fertile valleys and basins. ‘Mahabharat Range’, the largest hill range passes through the region. The region accounts for 42 percent of the country’s land area. One tenth of the land area is suitable for cultivation. Around 44.3 percent of the country’s total population resides in the region (NYB, 2001). Since the region comprised of broad complex of hills and valleys, very steep slope, even up to 30 degrees, is terraced for farming (Rajbhandari, 1999).
The mountain region covers about 35 percent of the total area of the kingdom, out of which only about two percent of the land is cultivable. Almost all major rivers of the country originate here. The region is consecrated with nine out of the 14 world’s highest peaks that rise above 8000 meters. The region is thinly populated with 7.3 percent of the country’s total population (CBS, 2001). The major occupation in the region is yak and sheep farming. Different dairy products are made from the milk of chauri. The high mountains are mainly used for grazing sheep and yak.
Besides the geo-ecological zones, administratively, Nepal is divided into five development regions, 14 zones and 75 districts. Sixteen districts are in the mountain region, 39 in the hill region and the remaining 20 districts cover the Terai region.
Socio-economic Life in the Nepalese Mountains
The importance of mountains for human subsistence cannot be overlooked. Mountains are regarded as a center for human civilization and cultural diversity. Mountains are the direct life-support base for people living in the region and also provide goods and services to the majority of the population. However, despite the value of mountains, mountain communities, especially mountain farmers, are experiencing acute socio-economic deprivation. The situation in Nepal is a suitable example for this.
The country occupies only about 0.1 percent of the total land area of the world, but it harbors a high proportion of the world's biodiversity; 2.6 percent of Algae, 3.45 percent of Pteridophytes, three percent of non-flowering plants, 2.6 percent of flowering plants, 2.65 percents of butterflies and moths, 9.3 percents of birds, and 4.5 percents of mammals (Regmi et al., 1999). Further study on other groups is still lacking. Regarding agro-biodiversity, Nepal is a cradle of domestification and home to a diverse range of the world's cultivated species. In Nepal, over 500 plant species are found. Among which, 200 species are cultivated and 20 species are used as food (Gautam, 2002). Crops like rice, rice bean, eggplant, buckwheat, soybean, foxtail millet, citrus, mango etc. have high genetic diversity. Similarly, the diversity in the case of underutilized food crops and tropical fruit species is noteworthy. The mountain region accounts for almost one-third of the endemic species of the country, which in turn is about five percent of the total world flora. In terms of biodiversity, Nepal is the 25th richest country in the world and the 11th richest in Asia (Ghimire, 2002). These figures are impressive given Nepal's comparatively limited size.
Nevertheless, as yet Nepal has failed to realize this advantage and use it to benefit mountain communities. These natural wealth have not been able to simplify the poverty-stricken life of mountain farmers. There is a vast variation in the poverty across the three ecological zones (Table 1).
Table 1. Incidence of Poverty by Geographical Region in Nepal
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Source: Rajbhandari, 1999.
Social indicators remain low for the vast majority of the people, and are especially low for the marginal mountain farmers. Access to social services such as health, education, and drinking water is much more limited for mountain communities compared to their counterparts living in the Terai. On the other hand, human poverty index is the highest in the mountains followed by the hills. Out of the total 75 districts, 60 are food insecure and most of these are in the hill and mountain regions. Further difficult terrain, rugged topography, lack of transportation facilities, limited cultivable land, and unfavorable climatic conditions are major problems in the mountains of Nepal. It is noteworthy to mention that 20 districts of the hill and mountain regions have yet to be linked by road (Ghimire 2002). The land distribution pattern is highly skewed. About 75.6 percent of the household owns agricultural land. The top six percent of the population have control over 33 percent of all agricultural land. Similarly about 69.5 percent of land holdings are less then one hectares. There is relatively smaller size of land holdings in the hills (0.77 ha) and mountains (0.68 ha) compared to the average size of landholding in the Terai (1.26 ha). In addition to this, agricultural lands in the mountains and hills are less fertile and less productive. They are fragile and vulnerable to land slide and erosion loosing fertile topsoil.
Similarly, the demands of agricultural labor are highly seasonal and, especially in the hills and mountains, there are very few opportunities for non-farm activities. It is estimated that, on average, a farm worker in Nepal is employed only for 55 days per year in hilly regions.
In addition, due to poverty and disparities, mountains are becoming the center for anti-State activities. At present, around 82% of these activities in the world are operated from mountains (Shrestha, Tirtha Bahadur in Ghimire, 2002). Nepal has been facing the same problem for the past six years. This has further deteriorated the socio-economic condition of the mountain farmers.
Nevertheless, Nepal’s mountains and hills need not be problematic. There are also several opportunities. Herbal plants found in mountains and hills have direct positive impact on the economic life of mountain people. About 690 types of herbs are found in Nepal and almost 100 have them commercial value (Table 2). These herbal plants are found up to 8000 m. altitude.
Table 2. Some Herbal Plants Found in Hills/Mountains of Nepal having Commercial Value
Soap pod (Acacia rugata), Sweet flag (Acorus calamus), Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum), Cedar, Utrasum bead tree (Elaeocarpus sphaericus), Padam Chal (Rheum webbianum), Soap-nut tree (Sapindus mukorossi), Orchis (Dactylorhiza hatagirea), Yarsa gumba (Cordyceps sinensis), Stinging nettle (Urtica diocia), Neem (Azadirachta indica), Nicker bean (Entada phaseoloides), Barbery (Berberis aristata), Emblic myrobalan (Emblica officinalis), Ephendrine (Ephendra gerardiana), Madder (Rubia manjith), Gurjo (Tinispora cordifilia), Oriental cashewnut (Semecarpus anacardium), Chiretta (Swertia chirayita), Common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), Himalayan silver fir (Abies spectabilis), Himalayan birch (Betula utilis), White sandle wood (Santalum album), Rockfoil (Berginia chiliata), Valerian (Valeriana jatamansii), Club moss (Lycopodium clavatum), Spikenard (Nardostachys grandiflora), Common Pursulane (Portulea oleracea), Long peeper (Piper longum), Bastard myrobalan (Terminalia bellirica), Kutkee (Picrorhiza scrophulariiflora), Nepal cardamom (Amomum aromaticum), Asparagus (Asparagus racemosus), Indine blue pine (Pinus wallichiana) etc.
Similarly, mountains and hills also provide tremendous opportunity for the cultivation of cash crops and high-value crops. These areas are suitable for the cultivation of crops like tea, cardamom, ginger and mushroom. Similarly, mountains have suitable climatic condition for the production of vegetable seeds as well as off-season vegetables. In addition to this, hills and mountains also have floriculture and tourism opportunities.
Agriculture is the mainstay of the Nepalese economy. As per revised estimates, it accounted for 37.88 percent in national GDP in the year 2000/2001. In Nepal, total agricultural land is 2392.90 thousand hectares. Out of total arable land (2,323.40 thousand hectares) 6.9 percent and 37.5 percent land is in hills and mountains. Similarly, out of total area of holdings, only 23.6 percent of the land area in mountains and 23.4 percent in hills have irrigation facilities (CBS, 2002).
The foothills of mountains are suitable for cultivating paddy, maize, barley, buckwheat etc. In addition to this potato, cauliflower, cabbage, beans and low temperate fruits are also cultivated in the region. Paddy, wheat, maize, millet, barley, buckwheat are the major cereal crops cultivated in hills. Different fruits and vegetables are also cultivated. There has been no significant mechanization in farming due to inaccessibility and the geographical condition in hills and mountain areas.
Table 3. Area Under and Estimated Production of Major Food & Cash Crops in Hills cum Mountains of Nepal
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Source: CBS, 2002 A: Area in Hectare; P: Productioon in Metric ton
Livestock is an integral part of the hill/mountain farming in Nepal. Livestock is the source of milk, meat, manure, draft power and household income. Poultry raising is the rising component of hill/mountain farming. As livestock are integral part of hill/mountain farming, the majority of whom are subsistence mountain farmers, it must be maintained at a certain minimum threshold. This has resulted in heavy pressure on maintaining livestock. The population of livestock in Nepal in 2000/01 was about 6.9 million head of cattle, 3.6 million of buffaloes, 6.4 million of goats, 0.85 million sheep, 0.91 million pigs, 19.7 million fowl and 0.41 million ducks (CBS, 2002). Livestock contribute about 20 percent of household cash income in the hills and mountains, without considering home consumption of livestock products into account (Tulachan and Neupane, ____)