Nestled in the lap of the world’s third highest mountain, hillside terraces here are draped in cardamom, the cash crop that has raised the living standard of the whole region. Farmers have built fancy new cement houses, sent children to schools in the city and bought motorcycles from the cardamom bonanza.
Nepal is still the largest exporter of the spice in the world, but a collapse of cardamom prices in recent years, extreme weather due to global warming and out-migration of men have left farmers in the region uncertain of their future.
“Cardamom was easy to grow and needed little or no care, and it was so profitable we switched from growing other crops to cardamom,” recalls Rekha Gurung, 25, (right) who has seen the boom and bust cycle of the cash crop. “But then the prices collapsed, and the plantation was damaged by disease.”
Sujan Dahal (left) still remembers the day when his father brought the first large cardamom seed to plant in their farm. The family was making up to Rs 2,900 per kg from the cardamom harvest, but in the past two years the price has gone down to Rs 660 per kg. Says the 44-year-old farmer: “I wish there was a stable market price for us, and the government cushioned us from the fluctuations.”
Although there is a lot of attention to how climate change is affecting agriculture across the Himalaya with erratic monsoons and extreme weather, for farmers here the drastic decrease in cardamom prices has been much more damaging.
Large cardamoms, also known as ‘black gold’ were introduced to Eastern Nepal from Sikkim in 1960s, and is now cultivated in over 40 districts, with Taplejung being the biggest producer. The spread of cardamom and the oversupply brought down prices.
Some 65% of farmers in Taplejung depend on the cash crop for extra income. They sell the pods to middlemen, who in turn trade with wholesalers in Bhadrapur or across the border in India. Higher production also has not improved productivity, and farmers sell raw cardamom which means they have not benefited as much from the processed or value-added crop. In addition, increased dependence on just one crop has made farmers vulnerable to price fluctuations.
The Kathmandu-based regional research centre ICIMOD (International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development) through its Himalica Project is trying to change this by encouraging farmers to diversify not just to other crops, but also benefit from using different parts of the cardamom plant for handicrafts and processed food, as well as promote homestay tourism in the farms.
“We are encouraging diversification from the monoculture to bee-keeping, fruits, vegetables to reduce the dependency and risk for farmers in cardamom is reduced,” says Surendra Raj Joshi of the Himalica initiative (right).
Cardamom is a sensitive plant and needs shade, good drainage and proper soil conditions, and is susceptible to global warming and pest infestation. Which is why farmers are encouraged to inter-crop for shade management and use jholmal bio-fertiliser for pest control and soil fertility. They are also encouraged to store rain in ponds to recharge groundwater for the dry season.
Harka Gurung, 40, (below) is a farmer who has adopted all these methods and is an example of how innovation and hardwork can make farming good business in Nepal. His terrace farm on a slope below Taplejung is brimming with cardamom intercropped with kiwi, greenhouses for tomatoes, vegetables and shitake mushrooms, and has initiated vermicomposting for selling at local markets. Gurung is also drying his own cardamom in an energy-efficient stove, and employs dozens of local farmhands.
“Cardamom was profitable enough, but I chose to add other crops because the price kept fluctuating and it ensured a steady income,” says Gurung, carrying his baby daughter. “This also means my family does not have to eat pesticide-laden vegetables from the market.”
Himalica has brought cardamom farmers from across Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan to look at Gurung’s farm as a model under the Kangchengjunga Landscape initiative so they can replicate his ideas in their own farms.
“One way to respond to climate change is more income for cardamom farmers so they have more options, this farm is a fantastic example of that,” says David Molden, Director General of ICIMOD. (See interview below)
Large cardamom is one of the four products besides tea, coffee and lokta paper in the Nepal Trade Integration Strategy 2016 because of its potential for export income to reduce the country’s trade deficit. At a recent launch of the program, Commerce Secretary Chandra Kumar Ghimire said cardamom exports needed value-added growth.
The SAARC Business Association of Home Based Workers (SABAH) has been doing just that by collaborating with ICIMOD to develop and market a range of cardamom-based drinks, candies, spices and even accessories like bags, purses, and mats made of cardamom fibre. (See box)
Says Robin Man Amatya of SABAH (above): “We are trying to improve farmers’ income from cardamom and other raw material by going one step forward to produce value-added products. We ensure quality control and find a market for these finished goods in Nepal and abroad.”
Eco systems do not respect boundaries between countries -- rivers, forests, wildlife, and even the weather pass across them as if they did not exist.
Which is why the Kathmandu-based research centre on the Himalaya, ICIMOD (International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development) has designated seven ecologically fragile areas that need trans-boundary protection. One of them is the Kangchenjunga Landscape which covers a 25,000 sq km area in eastern Nepal, Sikkim and West Bengal in India and Bhutan below the world’s third highest mountain.
Glaciers of the Kangchenjunga massif feed some of the major rivers in the region like the Tamor, Teesta and Torsa. Heavy monsoon rains and enormous altitude variation gives the area one of the most diverse flora and fauna of any mountain region on earth with 4,500 species of plants, 160 mammals, 580 birds and 600 butterfly species. The area is especially rich in orchids with more than 500 varieties, as well as 40 types of rhododendrons.
Many of the animals here are endangered, and some are found nowhere else on the planet, including the snow leopard, red panda, takin, black bear, musk deer, tigers and elephants -- all are protected in the region’s 16 national parks and nature reserves.
ICIMOD hopes to establish habitat linkages across national boundaries through the Kangchenjunga Landscape Conservation and Development Initiative (KLCDI) under a 20-year strategic plan agreed between Nepal, Bhutan and India for the 7.5 million people who live here.
“We are trying to prove that the border is not a barrier for exchanging experiences and ideas,” says KLCDI Coordinator Nakul Chhetri. “And the great advantage is that we literally speak the same language across the three countries: Nepali.”
In Nepal’s eastern districts, Sikkim or western Bhutan, the people’s livelihoods are similar, they farm more or less the same crops, depend on eco-tourism, and they are all impacted by climate change.
Cardamom is a major cash crop in the region, but the recent collapse of cardamom prices has affected farmers hard in all three countries.
ICIMOD is using the Kanchenjung Landscape partnership to diversify cropping and enabling farmers to cope with erratic weather as a result of global warming (see main report). The Centre is facilitating the exchange of scientists, researchers and farmers between all three countries so they can learn from each other.
“We have learnt a lot from Nepal’s farmers about how they are trying to be less dependent on one crop by growing mushrooms, fruits and other products, attracting tourists for homestay holidays, and ensuring reliable water supply,” says Ugen Palzor Lepcha from Dzongu in Sikkim (right).
The KLCDI has identified joint priorities for the region that include raising living standards, adapting to climate change, ecosystem management by local communities and resource conservation.
“The added value of making cross-border activities is to bring people together so they can share their experiences in meeting the challenges of fluctuating prices, protecting livelihoods, dealing with climate change, and benefiting from eco-tourism,” says David Molden, ICIMOD’s Director General (See interview)
The KLCDI adds to another initiative to set up a ‘Vertical University’ in eastern Nepal in the Kosi Tappu to Kangchenjunga Belt to conserve eastern Nepal’s rich biodiversity. Formulated by former Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal, Rajeev Goyal, the initiative hopes to share the in-depth and inter-generational knowledge of local farmers of eastern Nepal living between Kosi Tappu at 67m above sea level to below Mt Kangchenjunga at 8586m.
Says Sikkim-based Ghanashyam Sharma of The Mountain Institute India: “The Kangchenjunga Landscape is an attempt to look beyond the nation state when it comes to eco-system management to an entire watershed to harness and share opportunities, and test them out in the field.”
Nepali Times: Hows much has climate change affected farmers here in Taplejung?
David Molden: Climate change is felt strongly across the Himalayan region. We probably hear more about glaciers melting. But here in the field, talking with the farming community, we see the impact is quite strong.
Farmers are reporting different kinds of pests and diseases, increased heat and changing rainfall patterns. They have had to think of newer ways of farming.
Here in Taplejung we have been working with farmers to see some options to adapt to climate change. People grow cardamom which is highly sensitive to water, soil conditions and temperature.
Here, like in this farm, we have fantastic examples of people using varieties of techniques to manage their cardamom terraces using fertiliser made of animal urine and herbs, which acts both as a water source and pesticide.
This isn’t just a problem unique to Nepal, right?
The cardamom belt stretches across eastern Nepal, Sikkim and West Bengal in India and some parts of southern Bhutan. We work across all those countries through what we call the Kangchenjunga Transboundary Landscape that provides a very interesting canvas for development and conservation to share lessons from cardamom farming between different countries through our Himalica program.
What we’d really like to see is upscale the program right across the cardamom belt. We are co-developing knowledge, both with farmers, agricultural agencies and also with private sector to develop an approach that is acceptable to farmers and can be readily replicated through appropriate technologies, looking at market links and ways to add value to cardamom so that the farmers can benefit even more. If we work with the government and extension agencies, then there is a better chance of it being upscaled across the region.
How exactly are farmers in the region adapting to climate change?
Let’s face it, one big way to respond to climate change is more income for farmers, moving up the income ladder so they have more options with their money to manage climate change. Cardamom is important but so is diversity. One advantage of mountain area is we have high value mountain products like honey, cardamom, non-timber forest products, and range of different fruits and vegetables. We are also looking at other options like agricultural eco-tourism for example. If we employ this multi-faceted approach, farmers have a better chance of adapting to climate change. So that even if the market price of cardamom drops, there are some other options.
So the entry point to all this is cardamom?
In this case, yes, the entry point was cardamom. But farmers need to diversify. For example, homestay tourism is a fascinating opportunity. A lot of people want to experience what it feels like to be in nature, to be a farmer. And this is a fantastic place to have that experience.
But far as development projects go, the important lesson is that you have to look beyond your one silver bullet but just a range of options, what is suitable for a certain location may not work in others. We have to work closely with communities involved to make sure those options fit in well.
A three-story modern house with flashy new paint stands out from among traditional dwellings here in Taplejung. It was built by a local farmer with the bonanza he earned from cardamom sales, and is now rented by the local unit of the SAARC Business Association of Home Based Workers (SABAH).
The rooms are noisy with the clatter of weaving machines. Four women in a row weave strips of cardamom stalks into elegant table mats. In another room, a dozen women are slicing kiwis and ginger produced by local cardamom farmers, others are foil packing cardamom tea into packets. The aroma of fresh cardamom pervades the whole house.
“Cardamom farmers here are dependent on middlemen, so we decided to diversify their product mix with value-added packaged cardamom commodities. We also find them a market for their produce,” says Robin Man Amatya of SABAH Nepal.
Being the largest exporter of the spice, Nepal is a cardamom superpower, but only 5% of the harvest is consumed within Nepal. The rest goes to India and from there to the Gulf and the rest of the world where it is in demand as an ingredient in food, for medicine and cosmetics.
Kathmandu-based SABAH Nepal has been collaborating with ICIMOD to reduce the farmers’ dependence on a single cash crop and in middlemen by training them to produce finished goods which can increase their earnings.
Cardamom stems and stalks used to be just thrown away, now the delicate fibre and its unique earthy colours are used to make fabric for accessories like bags, wallets, carpets, mats and other elegant home decorations.
“We’d like to go large scale and spread these niche products to cities and the international market by ensuring quality control, training women on new designs and provide employment here,” says Amatya, who has a showroom in Pulchok in Kathmandu.
SABAH has also hired certified food safety experts so the products meet international standards, no artificial additives and chemicals are used in cardamom-infused drinks like iced tea, iced coffee, lassi and mango milk shake, which are served in its Village Cafés in Kathmandu. Cardamom-based green tea and masala are also already available in shops in Kathmandu and Pokhara.
Climate climax, Editorial
Mountainous change, David Molden
Back to the land, Sonia Awale
Recharging the mountains, Sonia Awale
Produced by Sonia Awale