Small is possible at Godavari parkICIMOD’s Living Mountain Lab demonstrates appropriate technology for farming sustainably in the Himalaya
The cows look like the kind of local cattle found in Nepal. But these are no ordinary cows, they are the Siri variety from Bhutan specially adapted to local conditions. They are hardy, experts at grazing on steep slopes, and crossbreeding them with native livestock makes their offspring prolific milk producers resistant to disease.
The cows live in specially designed sheds made of woven bamboo, their slurry feed digesters to produce biogas, the urine going into a jholmal organic pesticide pit.
Everything is recycled, nothing goes waste here at the Living Mountain Lab in Godavari, a living breathing biodiversity-rich ecosystem of its own.
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The Siri cows are part of a demonstration park for appropriate technology for mountain farms run by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). The lab is visited every year by thousands of farmers, students and government officials from across Nepal, but also from other Himalayan countries who replicate the technologies on display back in their regions.
Located at 1,500-1,800m amidst 30 hectares of steep forested mountains below Pulchoki, the area was degraded and devoid of trees when the government gave it to ICIMOD in 1994. The Living Lab is itself proof of how quickly indigenous flora and fauna in Nepal can bounce back in just 30 years if protected.
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There is no need to plant trees in these mountains, just protecting the slopes from overgrazing allows indigenous species to grow back within a few monsoons. There are now 100 species of birds, 280 types of butterflies, 14 mammals in the area.
“Our motto is seeing is believing for nature-based sustainable solutions and adaptation methods to climate change,” says Yona Khaling Rai of the Mountain Living Lab. “We showcase working examples of green and resilient solutions to agricultural problems while keeping in mind the affordability and accessibility of the techniques.”
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Many springs are going dry across Nepal’s mid-mountain districts due to the climate crisis and over-extraction of ground water, so the Lab shows how vegetation protection, rain water harvesting, and ground water recharging can make them flow again.
A pond made from locally available semi-impermeable clay breeds carp and other fish, and the overflow feeds terraces of a water-intensive kiwi plantation down slope.
Biodynamic compost from the cowshed fertilises the grove. A hydraulic ram pump that does not need any electricity or diesel forces water 100m up from a stream to ponds of Japanese rainbow trout.
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To prevent soil erosion, the Lab uses dense rows of thick shrubs that act as a living barrier, fix nitrogen into the soil, and trap sediment so the gently sloping terraces can be used to plant vegetables. The technique is especially useful for steep slope farming in Nepal.
“We are inspired by E F Schumacher’s ‘small is beautiful’ philosophy, and want to prove that small is also possible,” explains Killian Weber, a German researcher at the Lab. “These are simple, cheap solutions that farmers can easily adapt to increase yield without damaging their slopes, or irreversibly changing the ecosystem.”
With its focus on simplicity, the technologies, techniques and approaches are easily adaptable to Himalayan farmers who can enhance their existing methods.
The Lab is also experimenting with more complicated technologies like hydroponics, to grow plants without soil and tiny regulated drops of water containing nutrients. An aquaponics site uses water from a fish tank already rich in nutrients.
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The Living Lab has trained women and farmer groups from all over Nepal who have successfully applied some of their techniques and approaches.
Indoor pollution in cold highland settlements in the Himalaya means many children die young from acute respiratory infection. This can be prevented with a simple smokeless clay stove that uses locally available material and knowledge.
Just half-a-day’s training is all that is needed to make bio-briquettes from farm residue to fuel clean and high-heat stoves.
Says Rai: “Visitors who come here take away knowledge and skills that they directly transplant in their communities across the Himalaya. This plants the seed for better farm practices, and adaptation to new challenges.”
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To book visit for institutions, go the ICIMOD Mountain Living Lab site.