What is the most important cash crop for smallholder farmers in the eastern Himalayas? No, it is not tea. It’s large cardamom.
The spice has specific growing conditions; loamy soil, moist and shady slopes that also get sunshine for some part of the day. Such a combination can only be found in eastern Nepal, southern Bhutan, Sikkim and the Darjeeling district of West Bengal, India.
Traditionally, large cardamom has grown wild in these hills, in soil considered unfit for cultivating food crops. Villagers have always known that they can get this spice free, and can sell what they don’t need.
But a combination of pests, deforestation and climate change have hit large cardamom plants, especially in Sikkim. The pest attacked the plant, deforestation meant lack of shade for the bushes, and climate change meant the water supply was now inconsistent – often too little, suddenly too much. As a result, the plant was almost wiped out.
When it disappeared, there were no roots to hold the soil together so it washed down to the bottom of the valley after every rainfall. Many lush hills of the eastern Himalayas started looking denuded.
That was when the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) – a research organisation based in Kathmandu – started to develop “climate-resilient value chain development” for large cardamom as part of its Himalica programme.
With support from the European Union, we partnered with the Environment Conservation and Development Forum in Taplejung, Nepal, to develop 12 demonstration farms where farmers are taught climate-resilient practices to grow large cardamom. These site visits are complemented by training and on-site coaching from local farmers and technical experts from ECDF.
So, what are these climate resilient farming practices?
Weather smart practices
Selecting crop varieties based on weather trends (for example drought and/or frost tolerant). Weeds should be left intact until winter passes to prevent field frostbite, particularly on new plantations. Harvesting should be delayed when rainfall is predicted. Mulching can be used to protect the bases of bushes from snow.
Besides farm demonstrations, Himalica also focuses on issues of post-harvest processing, packaging, and providing more efficient paths to markets where these products can find a larger consumer base – this is important as the price of large cardamoms has plunged almost threefold in the last three years, making it crucial for farmers to do the marketing, instead of selling to middlemen.
In Taplejung alone, more than 400 households have adopted some of the practices on display in these demonstration plots and are reporting positive returns on their investments. The approach can be replicated in any of the value chains throughout the Hindu Kush Himalayas and beyond. Individual practices can also be easily adapted and adopted by local communities in other areas.
Min Bahadur Gurung is an institution development analyst of livelihoods at ICIMOD. Surendra Raj Joshi is the programme coordinator of the Himalica initiative, and Harish Chandra Chilwal is the Himalica project coordinator of ECDF.
This story was first published on thethirdpole.net.
Published on December 3rd, Sunday, 2017 11:34 AM