A parliamentarian’s apple grove

While Nepal’s Members of Parliament are squabbling among themselves chasing contracts and lobbying for ministerships in Kathmandu, Polden Chopang Gurung is busy tending to his apple orchard in Ngisyang village of Manang district, and arranging relief for flash flood survivors in the region.

Gurung is the chairperson of the Manang chapter of the UML and was elected to the House of Representatives after he broke into the district’s Congress stronghold during the 2017 elections.

“I am a representative of the people of Ngisyang, so there is no reason I have to be in Kathmandu in order for me to do my job,” says Gurung with a shrug, “I can serve my constituents from right here.”

Gurung’s home district of Manang has been plagued by disasters of late, with the region seeing a seven-month winter drought last year, followed by wildfires in the spring that burnt entire mountainsides near Chame for three months. Then the monsoon hit the semi-arid district in the Himalayan rain shadow with 300% above average precipitation resulting in devastating floods and landslides in mid-June.

In the wake of the disaster, Gurung has been actively involved in helicopter rescues of his constituents trapped by the landslides, as well as in the rebuilding of Manang’s disrupted road infrastructure.

But even during more normal times, when Parliament is not in session in Kathmandu, Gurung can be found tending to his apple orchard at his home in Ngisyang. “I use whatever free time I have to take care of my apple orchard,” he says.

Gurung credits his father for inspiring him to come back to Manang despite having the opportunity and reason to stay in the capital. Like him, his father Pema Chhiring Gurung was an MP and an Assistant Minister for Local Development during the Panchayat era.

But Pema Chhiring was first and foremost a farmer, and had started an apple orchard in Manang 45 years ago.“My father always told us that he had tried his best to raise us and to be of help in his community,” recalls Gurung. “He asked that we continue to do the same for our village that he had devoted his entire life to.”

Pema Chhiring had built his apple orchard out of land collectively owned by seven Manang villages. Residents of the villages worked in the orchard and distributed the profit amongst themselves.

Eventually, the work ceased to yield any profit, and the land was rented out.

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Now, his son’s apple orchard is spread over 37 hectares of land in Manang. Gurung obtained the plot when his Manang Agro Company won an open competition six years ago that allowed him to lease the land by paying a yearly sum of Rs5.8 million.

Gurung’s orchard is crammed with apple trees, saplings of which were brought from Italy and Serbia. And the yield is plentiful, with 600,000 kgs of apples expected to be harvested this year. Over the next three years, Gurung’s target is to produce 1.7 million kgs of apples annually.

Nepal spent Rs243 billion in food imports in the fiscal year 2019/20, an increase of Rs19 billion from the previous fiscal year. Two-thirds of Nepalis depend on agriculture, but Nepal’s annual food imports are increasing exponentially due to a growing population and rising income.

Of total food imports, Nepal spends upwards of Rs13 billion annually on apple imports. Which is why Gurung believes that there is a huge domestic market for Manang's apples, provided supply can meet demand and there is access to markets. If the fruits themselves do not sell, there is significant demand for products like apple juice, wine and candy.

In fact, the demand for apple seedlings from other mountain districts of Jumla, Huma, and Mugu has gone up ever since Gurung began buying better quality saplings that resulted in higher yields.

Gurung tells us that he would rather be recognised as an apple farmer from Manang than an MP in Nepal’s political arena.

He adds: “My father told us not to forget our roots, and that individual wealth and happiness held little meaning in the grand scheme of things. So I decided to return home, and build on his legacy.”

Translated by Shristi Karki from the Nepali original published on himalkhabar.com

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