eKantipur: Where are the Nepali farmers? I might sound like I am asking the stupidest question ever. After all, unlike in Canada where I am residing currently and where only two percent of the 33 million Canadians live and work in farms, farmers are everywhere in Nepal—tens of millions of them. To be precise, according to the Agriculture Census 2001, there were over 19 million people living and working on 3.3 million farmland holdings. We are yet to get the latest figures from the 2011 Agricultural Census, but we can expect the number of farm holdings to go up. Perhaps, there will be some decline in that number, given the out migration of over 1,500 people every day. Still, Nepali farmers are everywhere. Therefore, one may wonder: why am I asking this question in the first place? The answer is, while they are unmistakably everywhere, they are almost nowhere when it comes to policy-making and programme formulation.
Disruptive climate changes are underway. Nights are getting warmer on average. Rainfall patterns are changing. Phenological patterns (flowering and fruiting times) are being altered. The movement of birds and pollinators is changing. And it appears the pre-monsoon merged with the monsoon this year. Warming will generate more moisture in the atmosphere in some places and dry out land in others. The signs are too numerous to ignore. These changes demand judicious and adaptive changes in farming practices at local levels. But where will the knowledge and tools for necessary changes come from?
In their joint article ‘How farmers can adapt to a warming world’ (Al Jazeera English, June 6, 2013), Dr Sonja Vermeulen (Head of the Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security at Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) and Prof Andy Challinor (Scientist at the University of Leeds’ Institute for Climate and Atmosphere Science) are in favour of promoting ‘no-regret’ technology adaptation—changes that would benefit farmers irrespective of whether forecast changes occur or not. According to climate models, they tell us, productivity of grains such as wheat, rice, and maize are projected to decline significantly in a few decades from now. Rainwater harvesting and switching to low water-intensive crops are the measures they are mentioned in their article. I am sure there are a lot of other practices out there.
On an optimistic note they argue that the “tools and knowledge to alert and make good decisions” exist. “The science of adaptation has matured enough for us to make robust adaptation plans,” they tell us. But they don’t tell us where exactly those ‘tools and knowledge’ come from. No doubt, a lot of scientists are at work in their experimental fields and labs. The nomenclature ‘adaptation science’ itself betrays a sense that farmers are mostly seen as receiver of products generated by scientists. The argument for climate-resilient agriculture is often connected to the argument for increased funding for agricultural scientific establishments: agricultural universities, research labs, experimental stations, among others. Yet again, farmers are given the short shrift.
These ‘scientist-heavy’ discussions on climate change often overlook millions of experiments and the inspiring results that tens of thousands of farmers have produced throughout the world. Yes, agricultural scientists have worked jointly with farmers to produce these results. For instance, agricultural experts at the Local Initiative for Biodiversity, Research and Development (LIBIRD) and farmers have worked on developing climate-resilient crop varieties in farmers’ fields across Nepal. Over the last two decades, the Nepal Permaculture Group has facilitated the emergence of very productive, bio-diverse farms across Nepal. Through integration of agro-forestry and in-farm recycling of soil nutrients, many farmers in Chitwan, Kaski, Dhading, Kavre, Morang, Ilam, Baglung, Parbat, to name a few districts, have created resilient and thriving farms from which Nepal’s other farmers could learn. We need to start seeing these farms as research stations.
Farmers are often carrying out research and experiments without any resources, unlike Nepal’s publicly-funded agricultural research centres. Because research is often equated with ivory tower institutions such as agricultural colleges or research stations, money is exclusively poured in ‘scientist-managed’ field stations and laboratories. It is an unexamined irony that nearby farmers are often hired as wage laborers in these experiment stations. Institutions such as the Institute of Agriculture and Animal Sciences and National Agriculture Research Council, to give two examples, have become ‘exclusive zones’.
Across Nepal, these exclusive zones are in derelict conditions. Pay them a visit. Donor-funded buildings are crumbling. Their land is often overgrown with unruly weeds. Talk to those who work there. There is hardly any serious enthusiasm for meaningful research—other than that which fosters one’s career. Almost all of these institutions have become sites of corruption and inefficiency. These institutions have become a liability to the public. They symbolise not success but the failure of our public investment in agriculture.
It is true that Nepali farmers are not effectively organised. Most farmers’ organisations are too narrowly focussed on party-politics to call for substantive change in agricultural research and development. This could be one reason why the climate change debate is often dominated by experts.
But climate change calls for radically new ways of doing research. The technologies and knowledge required for adapting to disruptive climate change has to be adapted to farmers’ fields. That means they have to be locally generated. The old model of centrally-generated technologies is almost useless in a situation where the changing climate has local-specific impacts on farms.
Therefore, let’s ask some out of the box questions:
- what if we see farmers’ fields as real sites of agricultural research and farmers as active participants in the research process?
- What if we think of every Village Development Committee (VDC) as a coordinating institution for locally-adapted research?
- What if we dismantle the Ministry of Agriculture and provide funds directly to VDCs to hire agricultural scientists necessary for ongoing research?
- What can be more adequate than farmers’ fields that are managed by farmers almost 24/7?
Science is not the exclusive domains of ‘scientists’—at least in agriculture.
By: Anil Bhattarai
Started in year 2010, ‘Climate Himalaya’ initiative has been working on Mountains and Climate linked issues in the Himalayan region of South Asia. In the last five years this knowledge sharing portal has become one of the important references for the governments, research institutions, civil society groups and international agencies, those have work and interest in the Himalayas. The Climate Himalaya team innovates on knowledge sharing, capacity building and climatic adaptation aspects in its focus countries like Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan. Climate Himalaya’s thematic areas of work are mountain ecosystem, water, forest and livelihood. Read>>