Potatoes from forests
Nepal has very little flat land – anyone unconvinced of this is invited to examine my and Nick’s newly sturdy calf muscles. The British took large tracts of flat land in the 1800s for British India; although they generously returned some to Nepal after WWII in gratitude for Gurkha loyalty and bravery. As a result, the Nepalese have turned every arable inch of hill and mountainside into terraced plots for subsistence farming of things like potatoes. Where possible, they produce cash crops like oranges and apples – with climate change, the altitudes at which this is possible are increasing slightly, perhaps bringing a little wealth.
I haven’t been to the national parks yet, and apart from a tiny section of primary forest, what trees I have seen have been planted in the past decade, mainly by British NGOs. Mahabir Pun, the man who took care of us so well in Nangi, is also planting trees. This tree planting is essential for the survival of hill-dwelling communities: they produce fodder for the cattle (buffalo/cows). The cattle produce a vital commodity. Not milk or meat, but shit. Without a constant supply of manure, the poor mountain soils wouldn’t sustain even the least fussy of crops, like potatoes. The trees are also used for firewood, the only source of cooking or heating that I’ve seen since I arrived here.
Other than a general awareness that the biodiversity in Nepal is crashing, that is the extent of my knowledge about the country’s trees. Normally before I interview someone, I do a little research about the topic we’ll be discussing, but I simply didn’t have time before meeting the country’s Director of Forestry and Soil Conservation. It was a state of ignorance that I expected the Forestry head to share – I suspected he was not elevated to his high-level position in the communist party because of an exceptional commitment and knowledge of Nepal’s forests. While this is reportedly true of the Minister for Environment, my scepticism about the forestry guy was unfounded: he got to his position after working as a warden for years in the national parks and is very knowledgeable and committed.
What the government lacks is money and resources like transport for the poaching patrols to protect the rapidly diminishing tiger and rhino numbers.
I think we’ll go and visit one of the national parks in the south so I can see for myself what 10 years of insurgency has done to the wildlife there. From what I’ve heard, it won’t be too uplifting – but we might see a tiger…