Now, Nepal’s herbal oil in Europe

All photos and videos: MUKESH POKHREL

Women members of the Chisapani Community Forest in Bardaghat in this district in Nepal’s Tarai plains used to spend much of their day in the forest. They still do, but it is no longer to gather fodder or firewood .

They are busy in the care, weeding and production of herbs including citronella and lemongrass in 40 hectares of degraded community forest land. The women have formed the Laligurans Mahila Herbal Farmers Group, and harvest the valuable essential oils from the aromatic plants once every three months.

Mankumari Khatri leads the women’s group and says it is a win-win-win situation – they can put degraded land to good use, increase the household income of members, and return greenery to the margins of the community forests.

"Women used to spend time at home watching television or chatting with neighbours once done with their household chores. Now we use our free time tending to our herb gardens at the edge of the forests, and we now earn money from selling the oils,” adds Khatri.

Just this group produced 220 litres of citronella and lemongrass oil every year. Lemongrass can be sold at Rs2,200 per liter and citronella at Rs1,900. Given its economical value, some have now planted the herbs also on their private land. The group has also segregated a hectare of land for the even more lucrative mint, which produces 100 litres of oil annually, and sells at Rs4,000 per litre.

The group has Rs200,000 in savings after distributing rest of the sales money among the women since they started growing the herbs for oil eight years ago. Many of the families have their men folk working overseas or in the cities, but this income has given the women confidence and spending power.

The plantation site once used to be degraded and used for open grazing. The chair of the Federation of Community Forest User Groups of Nawalparasi West, Kamal Pariyar is also a member of the community forest and says the area has become healthier and greener with the cultivation of medicinal plants.

“The community forest had agreed to the proposal to cultivate herbs in order to empower women economically, but this has also allowed for natural regeneration in our forests,” Pariyar adds.

The community forest user group does not charge any fee from the women for cultivating herbs art the edge of the forest. Instead, in collaboration with Wildlife Conservation Nepal (WCN), it has installed oil processing equipment and is helping market the herbal oils for export to Europe.

While Nepal’s community forestry program is widely acclaimed internationally for doubling Nepal’s forest cover in the past 25 years, WCN is adding value to that achievement. By supporting women's enterprises in community forests in various parts of Nepal, it augments family income while increasing Nepal’s carbon sink capacity.

"Conservation alone is not enough, we should involve people in livelihood which is why we have launched a campaign to also engage them in economic activities," says Sanjeevani Yonjan of WCN. “Often times we think of timber as the only forest product, but there are valuable herbs too which can be sustainably cultivated. We want to export Nepal's forest products to the international market as a brand.”

The WCN has collaborated with companies to find a market for the herbal oil produced in Nawalparasi. In fact, Nepal-made oil is now sold throughout Europe, marketed as the Himalayan Biotrade brand.

Ten additional community forest groups in Nawalparasi have started similar initiatives to the one in Chisapani, one of them being Sitapokhari Community Forest where 38 women have been planting lemongrass for the last three years.

Apart from its ecological and economic benefits, these ventures have also helped develop women leadership in local communities. In the 2017 local election, 10 women involved in the forest group contested from different wards of Bardaghat municipality, two of them were elected.

Says Kamal Pariyar: “Cultivating herbs in the forest has many benefits, we haven’t even realised all of its true potential. Women have become financially capable, and are now in leadership position. And we have helped green the planet in a small way.”