Transrural In The Everest Region

Yarlong valley, Tibet. The dung in the foreground is being dried, ready for burning on the kitchen stove.

The Everest region encompasses parts of both Nepal and Tibet. Since 2002, Transrural has worked with tribal peoples on both sides of the border, focusing support on Nepalese eastern districts  that border with Tibet since 2007.  On the Nepalese side, project activities are focused on the foothills at 1,500 – 2,200 metres in altitude, whereas in Tibet, we were operating on the plateau at 4,000 – 4,500 metres. While the peoples have much in common, conditions on either side of that natural and political divide created by the Himalayan peaks are extraordinarily different. On the Nepalese side, the tensions between political factions during the past decade have made the tough life for the village dweller even harder, although since 2008, real progress has been made towards peace and some form of working democracy. On the Tibetan side, traditional Tibetan communities face opportunity in the form of investment in infrastructure by mainland China, yet those developments are also tinged with threats to their livelihoods and rich culture. Population on both sides of the divide is increasing rapidly, but population density is still low in Tibet. In Nepal, however, the population follows a Malthusian growth curve, having trebled from 10 to 30 million since 1960, adding pressure on already-limited resources. Whichever way you choose to measure poverty, it is extreme in the project districts. In the Nepalese project district, there are simply no roads as we know them. The paths are so steep, twisty and narrow that they are even unsuitable for animal transport, and so people carry enormous loads. The nearest hospital is a minimum two days’ walk.

The contrast in farming systems couldn’t be more dramatic. In the Nepalese project areas within Solukhumbu and Sankhuwasaba districts in the southern foothills of Everest, there are green terraced hillsides with deep valleys. Green and animal manures help stave off a Tibetan-style decline in soil fertility. There is substantial tree and bush cover, although continual use of fuel-wood by an increasing population is depleting reserves.  Also, very heavy monsoon rains in recent years, probably reflecting longer-term climate change, have resulted in a concerning high incidence of landslides combined with worsening erosion.  In the Tibetan townships where we worked from 2002-5, the locals claim that the whole area used to be covered in trees – 800 years ago! Today, apart from modest new tree plantings in cultivated valleys, almost all the trees have gone, and the yak-cows graze whatever little green vegetation emerges from the stony ground on the hillsides. The result is that dung is the main source of fuel for cooking, and soil fertility continues to decline. There is urgent need to replace cow dung with fuel-wood and solar energy (Tibet receives four times more UV radiation than Europe). In this way, cattle manure could be used for organic manure, and not for burning. This will require long-term investment in community (as opposed to purely state-controlled) forestry across the plateau. Given the political realities in Tibet, and China’s economic power, advocacy with the Chinese authorities to hasten this investment would arguably be more appropriate than outside organisations attempting to act directly.

Men have their uses! These slightly-built men are each carrying 100kg loads.

In 2002-3, we were initially invited to advise on the broader issues within a rural development programme in Tibet, and followed this up from 2004-5 with practical action to demonstrate low-cost ways of stimulating part-time self-employment among traditional Tibetan rural communities.
Transrural sponsored training and materials for the first women’s weaving group in Ma Township, and advised on the creation of a network of self-employed craftspeople from a poor rural area who paint traditional artistic decoration on the homes of better-off Tibetans in the town (see photo). In Nepal, also in 2002, a local non-profit organisation and a bio-handicraft centre showed interest in Transrural’s work with mountain communities in the Balkan Alps. Personal contacts played their part, but so did the amazing power of the internet – a 5 rupee visit to an internet cafe enabled an enterprising Nepalese development worker to learn about Transrural’s project work in an Albanian mountain area several thousand miles away.

Transrural staff followed up, secured initial support from the British Embassy in Kathmandu, and a small-scale pilot collaboration followed. This has been growing each year since 2005, and we are intensifying our work with natural fibre producers in Nepal, working together with the Himalaya Natural Fibre Foundation. Plants pay scant attention to political divides, and the giant nettle and medicinal plants grow along the length of the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region, so there is also scope for extending this work into neighbouring regions of India and Bhutan in the future. During 2009 - 11, the project has helped producer communities to assert their rights to cultivate, harvest, process and market fibre from the giant nettle. The project is going from strength to strength, and assistance is also being provided with micro-hydro installations to demonstrate how a modest financial input from both local and foreign contributions, combined with local community support and involvement, can make a difference. In one village community, the installation is set to generate 17 kilowatts of electricity from a mountain river. This will power labour-saving easy-to-maintain technologies by day, and provide 100 Watts of electricity to each of 170 households in the evening and early morning, enabling pupils to study and parents to benefit from light from low-energy bulbs. We plan to assist in replicating such initiatives in future.

For the period 2012 – 2017, based on our intimate knowledge of community priorities in eastern Nepal, we successfully carried out an innovative programme in an area that lies between the Tibetan and Indian borders. In this remote region which has been largely bi-passed by mainstream development, the basic concept is to develop services that are driven by the community, enabling communities to organise themselves effectively to negotiate support from others, and make lasting improvements to their livelihoods. We believe that the “Big Society” concept can be applied to great effect in such regions, where government services are either weak or non-existent. We are developing plans for services that place the community in the driving seat – at village level working through a network of women-led groups, at district level through a service centre, and at national level through a promotion and marketing centre. The approach is holistic, not piecemeal - incorporating electricity generation from local rivers; appropriate technologies that make best use of the resultant electricity; smoke-free stoves to reduce eye and lung problems as well as save on scarce firewood; replacement of unsustainable wild harvesting by organised cultivation of nettle fibre and medicinal herbs; cultivation of high-energy roots and fruit crops to improve nutrition during the “hungry” season; planting of anti-erosion plants such as the broom plant to halt soil erosion and lessen the risk of landslides; improvement in local health services, especially for mothers-to-be; and communication links to enable people with urgent illnesses to hospital to be rapidly evacuated to hospital.