Japanese Yen, Made in NepalMoney may not grow on trees, but it grows on bushes in Nepal that are used to print Japanese currency notes
Nepal’s unique ecological diversity and topography gives the country many cash crops, but there is one crop that is actually turned into cash.
In recent years, there has been a dramatic rise in exports of the bark of a Himalayan bush, Edgeworthia gardneri, prized in Japan to print currency notes, passports, envelopes, postage stamps, and other stationery.
Common at altitudes from 1,500-3,000m in the Himalaya, the plant is known colloquially as Argeli, and with its increasing demand, farmers in Sindhupalchok, Dolakha, Taplejung, Ilam, Baglung, Myagdi, among other districts, have begun to commercially cultivate it.
Read also: Info age boost for Nepal’s pashmina, Aakriti Shrestha
“Argeli is the only export from our region,” explains Lhakpa Sherpa, a paper bush farmer in Dolakha. “It has brought in over Rs2 million income into our municipality.”
According to Narayan Manandhar's Plants and People of Nepal, techniques to make paper by hand are believed to have been introduced to Nepal in the 14th century from China. The Tamang community in Rasuwa and Dolakha have used the bark of the Lokta plant, the more famous wildcrafted, handmade paper indigenous to Nepal, for at least 700 years.
Read also: Nepal’s water in Qatar, Ramesh Kumar
Nepal began exporting the paper bush to Japan over a decade ago and it has already served as a replacement for Mitsumata which was traditionally used to make Japanese paper. "While Japanese paper is considered the best in the world," says Kiran Kumar Dangol of Nepal Handmade Paper Association, "Nepali paper is seen as stronger and better quality than most paper abroad, which has led to its high demand."
Today, Edgeworthia gardneri is cultivated in 55 districts of Nepal. It is a small evergreen shrub that grows in dry and shaded areas, with brownish red stem, long stalks and yellow flowers, and can self-pollinate. Also called Arili, Arkaale, Tinhaange Lokta, Pachyaar in Gurung, Warpadi in Tamang and Dhyarpati in Sherpa language, the plant can quickly shoot up to 3m depending on soil conditions and plays an important role in preventing drought and increasing greenery.
"Unlike most plants, it does not suffer from disease and is avoided by insects and cattle,” adds Sherpa. But cultivation requires detailed attention – the plant will spoil if not dried properly in the cold months.
The bushes are harvested five years after being planted, usually from October to February, during which time it has a distinct white colour. High water-content Argeli is greenish in colour and is not considered suitable or of good quality.
The inner fibrous cover of the stem is used to make paper and the outer bark to make ropes, while some places also use its roots to cure scabies. There are three different grades of Argeli -- A, B and C -- with prices ranging from Rs100 to Rs575 per kg.
Read also: A post mortem of Nepal’s garment boom, Sewa Bhattarai
“Agreli is a good source of income for communities in the hilly and Himalayan regions," says Benu Das Shrestha of Jugal Nepali Paper Industry in Sindhupalchok. "The plant does not require any irrigation and is easy to cultivate.”
According to Chet Bahadur Sherpa, a cultivator from Dolakha employing 40 people in his business, farmers work for two months at a rate of Rs1,000 per day, while women workers are paid Rs20 per kg.
Read also: Saving the treasure trove of Nepal’s orchids, Kamal Maden
The Forest Research and Training Centre estimates that more than 100,481 tons of Nepali paper bush is produced yearly across 2,091,000 hectares in the country. One kilogram of the fresh, mature bark makes 400 grams of Nepali paper. In 2015/16 FA, 60,000kg of Argeli bark worth nearly Rs36 million was exported to Japan. Last year, exports rose to 95,000kg and yearly profits now total up to more than Rs100 million.
Vijay Suvedi, biotechnologist at Tribhuvan University’s Applied Science and Technology Research Centre emphasises that there is huge potential for sustainably profitable farming of Argeli, especially in Eastern Nepal.
“Right now, all work is done by hand, which takes a lot of effort.," he says. "We need to mechanise the planting and harvesting to make it systematic and economically viable."
Nepali paper bush could be one of Nepal’s best-known exports, alongside Pashmina, carpets and garments. Apart from making paper, the leaves, stems and roots of the plant can also be sold commercially by farmers.
The Nepal Handmade Paper Association currently conducts training and workshops with local stakeholders and designers to increase demand for Argeli bark and handmade paper. Says Kiran Dangol: “We have the next generation of designers who are really good. By tapping into local employment, we can increase the demand for Nepali paper locally and globally.”
Translated by Aria Prasai from the Nepali original in Himalkhabar online.