Mountain ecosystems of Nepal in a changing climate

IKI-project "EbA Flagship Programme: Ecosystem-based Adaptation in Mountain Ecosystems" promotes women's livelihoods through broom grass cultivation in the Nepal Himalayas.

Group of women standing on mountain

Panchase, which literally translates as 'Five Seats', is home to five statuesque peaks in Nepal. The area represents an important mountain ecosystem, linking the lowlands with the Annapurna Himalaya. The region is home to significant biological, cultural, and religious diversity, as well as abundant natural beauty.

Globally, mountain people tend to be among the world's poorest and most marginalized populations. The disadvantages of general rural poverty are sometimes compounded by gender, ethnicity and geographic discrimination. Mountain communities also tend to face additional challenges of subsistence brought about by elevation, topography and climate.

The mountain ecosystems of Panchase region are also highly vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate. Rising temperatures and increasingly unstable rainfall patterns are drying up water sources, changing vegetation characteristics, and making landslides more frequent and severe. Overgrazed, unproductive grasslands and abandoned lands are particularly vulnerable to these effects of climate change, leaving them unsuitable for growing species of farmers' choice and easily overpowered by invasive species.

These impacts both undermine the resilience of the Panchase mountain ecosystems and increase the vulnerability of local communities, whose livelihoods and wellbeing depend on services provided by these ecosystems. Women in particular are affected by the changing climate, and are experiencing increases in the time required to gather water, fodder and firewood.

Women kneeling in front of plant

Enhancing ecosystem resilience and empowering women

To reduce these shocks and stresses from climatic variability and hazards, particularly for the women of the Panchase region, the Mountain Ecosystem-based Adaptation (EbA) Programme, led by the Government of Nepal, through the Department of Forests, and UNDP, is supporting the Panchase Women's Network to scale up its Amriso plantation.

Cultivation of Amriso (Thysanolaena maxima) - an indigenous plant commonly known as broom grass - is a long-standing tradition among poor rural communities in the Panchase region of Nepal. In the past, households only cultivated enough for personal use. Amriso, however, is a plant with multiple benefits and significant and untapped commercial potential. It has the ability to quickly regenerate even in degraded lands, requires little maintenance, outcompetes invasive species. Its strong web-like rooting system also helps to reduce top- and sub-soil loss, particularly important with increasingly frequent intense rainfall events.

Additionally, Amriso's inflorescence (panicles) can be used to make sweeping brooms, while the leaves of the plant can be used as livestock fodder and stems used as fuelwood. As such, broom grass provides a stable and promising livelihood opportunity, with high demand from local markets, regional centres, and even internationally (particularly India). Overall, these characteristics make Amriso ideal for ecosystem-based adaptation, as it can improve slope stability and rehabilitated degraded lands, while simultaneously providing sustainable livelihoods.

As part of this initiative, the women's network was able to lease 0.25 hectares of marginal land, which was barren and degraded at the time, and prone to soil erosion given its steepness. Now the land is ecologically improved and economically productive, a marked improvement over the previous state of affairs.


Creating a climate-resilient livelihood opportunity

A single cluster of broom grass can provide enough material for the production of 7 - 9 brooms per year, which results in an annual income of $6 USD/year per plant. Most of the participating women live on less than $1 a day, so harvesting from up to 100 plants each can significantly enhance incomes. Being a perennial plant, this income will contribute to households year after year. One study found that Amriso cultivation had a 3x return on investment, rendering it a profitable as well as environmentally sensitive product.

"The work that we are doing is not a one day or two day thing. It's long-term…We are convinced that we will be able to get the message out that having an Amriso plantation in barren land can give a lot of profit. I am looking forward to people investing time and effort in planting Amriso and other plants in barren and abandoned land. We are hoping that all these areas will be covered in Amriso one day."
Sabina AC, President, Panchase Women's Network

In addition to providing material support for the Amriso plantation, the Mountain EbA Programme worked closely with the local community organizations and district-level government line institutions to provide capacity building and training opportunities for the participating women.

Mountains and clouds

Agents of change - one plant at a time

The Panchase region has lost a stable population of young men, as they increasingly migrate in search for better economic opportunities in Pokhara and Katmandu and further afield in India, Malaysia and the Middle East.

As a result, there is a lack of young men in these mountain communities, leaving mostly elderly parents, women and children behind to maintain the households. Approximately 30% of the land in Panchase region is currently abandoned, leading to a problematic decrease in agricultural production and an increase in invasive species. Despite these growing challenges, the gender imbalance has also opened up new opportunities for the women of the region, leading to social change.

"Normally in Nepal, be it in urban or rural areas, women are always bound by household responsibilities - especially after you get married. There are a lot of extra responsibilities that come upon you. Women are usually not allowed to go outside of the house and work. But after this initiative has come, it has kind of empowered women to the extent that now we can all come out and work."
Yam Kumari Dhungana, Secretary, Panchase Women's Network.

Since Amriso grows quickly and requires minimal time and effort to plant and maintain, it is a good fit for the women's demanding schedules and increasing workloads.

Group of women

Surprisingly, cultivating Amriso for commercial use has also been integral in creating a much stronger social bond between the women in the Network, crossing traditional caste barriers.

"[T]here are a lot of different ethnic groups within our community - normally in Nepalese communities there is still distance between the castes, but where there used to be separation and discrimination, here we have women from all strata and we are all working together and I really enjoy that fact."
Yam Kumari Dhungana, Secretary, Panchase Women's Network

With 280 members, the Amriso initiative is planned, executed and safeguarded by the women themselves. So in addition to generating ecosystem and economic benefits, their work is also challenging traditional gender roles in Nepal. By involving women from different castes, not only are the involved women being empowered; the initiative is also helping to break down caste-determined social and cultural barriers.


Mountain EbA Programme

The global Ecosystem-based Adaptation (EbA) in Mountains Programme is a partnership between UNDP, UNEP and IUCN, with funding from the German Government (BMUB)'s International Climate Initiative. By using sustainable management, conservation and restoration of ecosystems, as part of an overall EbA strategy, the Programme aims to reduce the vulnerability and enhance the resilience of select fragile mountain ecosystems and their local communities to climate change impacts. The promoted EbA measures carefully take into account anticipated climate change impact trends to help communities continuously adapt to a changing climate and increasing uncertainty. This global partnership also involves national and regional government agencies, civil society and local communities in three countries (Uganda, Nepal and Peru).

Overall, the Amriso cultivation activities supported by UNDP are part of a broader suite of EbA measures supported by the Programme in the Panchase region, underpinned by landscape-level interventions. The Department of Forests under the Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation also supports the idea of Amriso cultivation in the area, as it makes use of marginal forests lands for the benefits of the local community and contributes to soil enrichment.

While the current Amriso production is still only a relatively small pilot effort, it has proven its significant potential as a viable EbA measure enabling climate-resilient income generation, especially if production is scaled up, for the women, and the men, of the Panchase region.

The Women's Network is eager to expand its broom grass production to include cultivation on other marginal or otherwise unutilised lands. So further planting of Amriso will be carried out in 2015 in the project site, which will be coupled with additional capacity-building efforts, including training in marketing and commercialisation.

Text: Tine Rossing, Nawang Chhenjum Sherpa and Andrea Egan
From: Exposure (external)

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