Tara Pariyar’s KarnaliOne single mother’s struggle against stigma and poverty to support her family and community
Decades of media stereotyping has given the Karnali a bad rap for chronic hunger and poverty, but at least one woman in this remote region has shown that this need not be so.
Pariyar’s husband and two relatives were killed during the Maoist conflict 20 years ago. The responsibility for taking care of her three children and in-laws fell on her young shoulders.
When we met her earlier this month in Jumla’s Lihi village, 42-year-old Pariyar was in her apple orchard. The trees were heavy with fruit, and there was a fresh cool breeze blowing down from snow-capped Kanjiroba Himal.
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The orchard has allowed Pariyar to earn a decent income to turn her life around, and single-handedly care for her family and community. The apples sell for Rs60 per kg, and one season’s income is enough to support the household for the whole year: food, clothing, children’s education.
As a single mother from the Dalit community, Tara Pariyar had to constantly struggle against caste and gender discrimination in this culturally conservative area. Added to this was the stigma of widowhood.
And till five years ago, she knew nothing about apple cultivation. She was a day labourer in a farm, and believed that owning an apple orchard was only for rich farmers since it required a lot of investment, the trees took five years to bear fruit and the crop could be destroyed by disease or hailstorms.
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Climate change had also altered the weather pattern, prolonged winter drought affected apple trees that needed snow to flower in spring. She was convinced apple cultivation was too risky for someone with limited means like her.
All that changed with the government’s insurance scheme in Humla, Mugu and Jumla districts for apple and other cash crops. Suddenly, farmers did not have to worry about losing their crop and Pariyar took the leap.
Under the scheme, the government pays 80% of the annual premium and the farmers bear the rest. The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) distributed families with up to 25 apple saplings each to get their orchards started.
Pariyar already had five apple trees, and she bought another 20 saplings to grow 50 trees. Then she insured some of them for Rs40 per tree per year with Shikhar Insurance.
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The company compensates farmers for drought if precipitation in Jumla is less than 70mm from March-May, like this year. Which is why Pariyar received Rs4,500 in insurance payout, and she ploughed it back into her business, buying 40 more apple saplings.
“Because climate change has made the rains so unpredictable, apple farming can be very risky, which is why I was hesitant at first, but insuring the trees made business sense, and it has lifted my family’s status,” Pariyar says.
Her first apple harvest last year was 200kg, from which she made Rs12,000 income. But this year, with 100 fully grown trees, she hopes to sell up to 1,300kg for Rs74,000. She has her fingers crossed that there will not be one of those fierce spring hailstorms that Jumla Valley is famous for.
All this income has helped her pay for her elder son Munal to learn Korean and the younger one, Upahar, to finish Grade 11 in Surkhet. Her daughter Sharada is already married.
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Income from apple farming has given Pariyar the confidence to also raise chickens and breed rabbits. The local variety of chicken are much sought after for their taste, and she can sell those for Rs800 each, while rabbit meat is catching on and they fetch Rs600.
Besides this, Pariyar is also carrying on her family tradition of growing rice and buckwheat in a small plot of land a steep one hour walk up the mountain from her home. Although the harvest is not much, it does mean she does not have to buy the staples.
All the work on the farm has taken its toll. Tara’s face is wrinkled, the soles of her feet have hardened with callus because of working barefoot in the fields.
“I don’t mind how they look, at least I can provide for my family, and after all, isn’t this the reality of life in the Himalaya?” she asks with a bright smile.
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Despite this, Pariyar finds time to help her community with a WFP supported lift irrigation program to pump water up from the Tila River to fields along the valley. The cash for work program earns her additional income.
The community recognises Tara Pariyar’s struggle and sacrifice to provide for her family, and she has become a source of inspiration for her Lihi village. Last month she was in Surkhet for WFP’s 60th anniversary to share her experience so that farmers like her in Karnali can learn from her success.
“All this did not come easy,” Pariyar says, “it was a long struggle. Eighteen years ago, I saw my husband being killed before my eyes, and two other members of my family.”
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Tara’s husband Harilal had been forcibly recruited by the Maoists. One monsoon night in 2002, Royal Nepal Army soldiers on patrol came into the village, and Harilal fled up the mountain to hide.
Tara had told her husband not to run away since he was not a Maoist. The next morning while she was in the kitchen, the sound of gunfire echoed in the surrounding mountains. She ran outside to see her husband being led away by soldiers, who then shot him dead.
She fainted, and by the time she came to learn that the soldiers had already buried her husband on the banks of the Tila.
He brother-in-law Khadka had been killed by the army, and he sister-in-law Sopana was raped and killed a year earlier. After their two sons were killed, Tara’s mother-in-law and father-in-law became mentally ill and she had the added burden of taking care of them.
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Tara went into deep depression after all this, and even tried to kill herself. But it was the thought of leaving behind three young children that brought her back from the brink.
Munal Pariyar has memories as a child of his mother facing constant taunts from neighbours. How she would go hungry to be able to afford to educate him and his siblings, while facing social ostracisation in the village for being a Dalit and a widow.
“It was a very difficult time, people would come to the house, say unkind things and make our mother cry all the time,” Munal recalls. “But she was like a pillar for us. We had no other support.”
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But today, villagers who used to spit on Tara and consider it inauspicious to even pass her by on the road come to her for advice on apple farming, insurance and irrigation.
Tara Pariyar is happy she has set an example for women to be independent, but says gender and caste discrimination is still common in Jumla.
She remembers Maoist guerrillas using cruel words to tell her she would have to live as a widow if her husband did not join the militia. She became a widow anyway.
Those former guerrillas are now all in Kathmandu, and the country’s prime minister is a Maoist. Says Tara with a wry smile: “One day I would like to go to Kathmandu to see for myself why the Maoists from here have all gone there, and what is so special about that place.”
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