The vanishing land

Ratna Rani Newar does not know how much longer she can keep her vegetable farm in Thimi. Photos: TAYLOR MASON

Ratna Rani Newar grew up helping her grandparents grow vegetables in the fertile farms around Thimi. Today, she is afraid her livelihood passed down through generations will be taken away.

Kathmandu Valley civilisation was built on the agriculture that thrived in the alluvium of the former lakebed. But as the city expanded, the farms were steadily taken over by houses. Now, the last remaining tracts of what were once Thimi’s famous vegetable farms are also being filled over with concrete.

“I have been growing vegetables in Thimi ever since I learnt to walk, but these days people don’t care about farming, they just want property to build houses,” said Newar, who is a single mother of four daughters. Her husband left her because she didn’t have a son.

Newar’s daughters, like most of the educated younger generation of Kathmandu’s agricultural families, do not want to work in farm. But they do visit their mother every Saturday, and help sell her cauliflowers and spinach in the local market.

This type of farming is one of the last of its kind in Kathmandu Valley: traditional, organic and hand-grown with no help from machinery. In a couple of years farmers carrying fresh vegetables in woven baskets down the streets of Bhaktapur, calling out to customers will be a rare sight.

Agronomist Bhola Man Singh Basnet who used to be a scientist at the Nepal Agricultural Research Council says Kathmandu’s farmers had developed a very successful cycle using crop rotation to replenish the nutrients in the  soil, and keep the land fertile.

“People from all over the world noticed our techniques and productivity,” he says, “but farming is becoming obsolete.”

Nepali farmers used a special technique to grow vegetables in tiny parcels of land to sustain their families. It fertilised the soil with organic black soil and cow manure, giving the Valley’s vegetables an amazing taste full on nutrients.

But, Basnet says, “Land for farming is decreasing as the population increases, so new techniques are needed to meet food needs. Chemical fertilisers and green houses are being used, but the quality of these vegetables is not the same ... quality is not even considered important.”

Basnet says the trend of building on prime agricultural land that started in Kathmandu is now spreading to other urban areas of Nepal, and younger educated people from farming families would rather work in salaried jobs.

Babu Krishna is another Thimi farmer, whose children live in Australia. He says: “Farming has been in my family for generations, I have farmed all my life, but now the fields are replaced by houses. I think my generation is the last in my family that will farm.”

The smart people of Piple

A Chitwan village has banned new construction in agricultural land 

Mukesh Pokhrel in Chitwan

Two years ago Mong Tamang sold 1.5 hectares of his farm. When the new owner built a road along the land to turn it into a new housing colony, local farmers were up in arms, and prevented it.

Dhab Thapaliya sold half a hectare of his land to Kathmandu-based businessmen three years ago. But villagers again prevented houses being constructed, and Thapaliya had to return the advance he was paid.

Today, 2,000 out of 3,500 households in Piple raise cattle and grow vegetables, and much of the credit goes to Nabaraj Onta, who returned from Korea after 25 years and put into practice what he learnt there working in a farm. He brought back seeds, and distributed it free among his fellow-villagers.

“He has a vital role in encouraging us to take up farming and protect our land,” says Rameshwar Oli of the dairy cooperative in Piple which has a farmers’ savings and loans scheme providing low interest loans to farmers to buy seeds and buffaloes. All loans are paid in time, and the cooperative also has a livestock insurance scheme.

Farmers in Piple village of Chitwan say their farms are much more valuable to grow vegetables and and raise livestock than to be converted into real estate, and have united to preserve cultivable land from being bought by developers for housing and factories.

Unlike anywhere else in Nepal, they have enforced zoning criteria to classify farmlands and residential areas, and have prohibited buildings anywhere other than in areas along the road.

"Legally we can't interfere in decisions about private property, but there is an understanding among us to not sell cultivable land," explains Danda Raj Pandey one of the farmers who started the movement.

It has been ten years since Piple people have turned to vegetable farming and animal husbandry, and turned their village into a model agricultural settlement.

Pandey himself used to buy oranges wholesale in Dhading and Gorkha and sell it at the Kalimati market in Kathmandu. Today he sells vegetables and 15 litres of milk every day from his own village, and does not have to travel away from home for livelihood. He now makes Rs600,000 a year, and with his savings has expanded his farm so he can grow more.

Moti Rijal was a daily wage worker until he started farming a small plot of his ancestral property. The farmer made more than Rs100,000 by selling just cabbages, and decided to expand into commercial farming. He has now leased more land from neighbours to grow other vegetable cash crops.

Rama Dalakoti also grew beans in her small plot, and her farming is so intensive that in the last season she made Rs400,000 just from selling it in the market. Piple has now overtaken Gitanagar as the dairy capital of Chitwan, and local farmers sold Rs12 million worth of milk and supplied Rs10 million in vegetables to Kathmandu last year.