SALT in the Soil, Eyes on the Skies

GLF 2017 Blog Competition
Suzanne Hodges

Upstream of the Banganga River Basin in Nepal and across the Arghakhanchi District, new crops are popping up in the soil. Pineapples, bananas, ginger, taro, peanuts, turmeric and legumes are all climate-resilient cash crops that local farmers have long hoped to grow, but lacked the means, techniques or capacity to kickstart — until NDRC Nepal began its project there.

Since 2007, NDRC has worked with local farmers and their communities to transform the socioeconomic and physical landscape in which they live and work. Led by Executive Director Dr. Dhruba Gautam and Program Director Madhu Sudan Gautam, NDRC addresses the concurrent roles that anthropogenic activity and climate change have in effecting environmental crises — essentially, how humans are making already bad disasters worse.

There’s plenty of work to be done to help rural and impoverished Nepalese communities better prepare for devastating wildfires, floods, landslides and drought. NDRC helps communities form task forces and management plans to prepare and respond with skill, but also make changes closer to the human source of the problem.

In 2007, NDRC began working in the basin’s upstream municipality of Sitganga and the downstream Banganga municipalities. There, NDRC Nepal engages extensively with indigenous groups like the Magar, Tharu and Madhesi people. Their efforts in these areas won them the $30,000 USD Judges’ Choice grand prize in this year’s Solution Search contest, Farming for Biodiversity. From the start, NDRC’s project has been ambitious, with efforts to fundamentally change farming behavior, organize total community participation in disaster risk management, and pump new life into the land.

Before NDRC began working with basin communities, upstream farming was nearly universally shortsighted. Looking to boost the waning productivity of conventional crops like maize, barley and wheat, farmers took up slash-and-burn agriculture. They also worked with high tillage and unmanaged slopes (which can pull soil downhill and cause erosion) and applied synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to their crops.

A key issue for farmers upstream was working with the natural features of the land, says Dhruba Gautam. The area is dominated by hills, with fragile, sloping terrain. It’s easy to farm in a way that degrades the land, especially without scientifically-considered methods. With the difficulties presented by farming on sloping land, farmers were leaving for the flatter but increasingly scarce lands of the downstream areas, which ignited resource-sharing conflicts with native downstream residents.

As harmful human activity increased, its impact compounded the effects of natural disasters and climate change. The disasters came in droves, including erratic rainfall, longer drought and three to five wildfires annually that razed forest flora and fauna. With wildfires and erosion came landslides.

In 2007, during research NDRC conducted on the basin with support from ActionAid International, they saw the disconnected actions of upstream and downstream communities and the impact on soil, forests and water from human activity. They also saw the toll the issues had taken on local people. “They were totally hopeless, because the productivity of the land and the water resources were degraded year by year,” says Dhruba.

NDRC organized a series of community consultations and meetings to identify opportunities and needs for changes that could be feasibly adopted. They came up with a multi-step, community-driven approach that prioritized livelihoods and nature. They started with building up the capacity of local groups, like the women’s groups, to save and start small-scale, resource-based enterprises. They assembled women’s groups in saving and credit initiatives, and taught them how to collect monthly savings and use them for small-scale enterprises. “Once they were fully capacitated in their savings practices, we linked the conservation message,” says Dhruba. “Livelihoods depend on productivity of land, and there is no other alternative to farming on the hills upstream.”

People started to listen. After first developing the project in 2011 (with funding support from the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives), four years of hard work led to farmers changing their minds and adopting NDRC’s land use plan.

NDRC showed upstream farmers alternatives to harmful farming practices like slash-and-burn agriculture. Their methods included sloping agricultural land technology (or SALT, an agricultural method that involves the planting of trees as part of an effort to conserve soil on sloping land), climate-resilient cash crops in high local demand (like banana and pineapple) and zero tillage techniques.

Their work also explored the daily needs of local people at home, and introduced options for more sustainable living. NDRC helped households adopt concepts like improved cooking stoves (ICS), solar home systems, and biogas plants that reduce pressure on the forest.

As NDRC encouraged changes in the way people lived and worked, the group also helped communities restore their degraded lands. They installed conservation ponds and wells for irrigation, soil moisture maintenance and water source recharge upstream and downstream. They also put systems in place for the future protection of the land, like bioengineering techniques to reduce flood impact and safeguard farms and riverbanks. Disaster risk management was ingrained throughout the project, and NDRC mobilized local people in the Kapilbastu and Arghakhanchi districts to institutionalize flood-based early warning systems and sustain project results.

Adopting these practices demanded a major shift in mindsets. NDRC carried out a series of community awareness activities aimed at youth clubs, women’s groups, and natural resource-based institutions. Youth clubs formed fire control task forces and joined the disaster risk management committees. At local schools, NDRC set up extracurricular activities around conservation awareness, including the creation of meteorological stations in two schools to encourage learning about nature, weather and climate change. NDRC also communicated its conservation message using outlets like local FM radio, TV programming, and street dramas.

Since NDRC started working in the Banganga River Basin, Dhruba has seen clear changes in local farming behavior. The use of agrochemicals in farming has decreased by 60 percent. And now, farmers are now earning up to 300 percent more cash from climate-resilient crops than they did from conventional cereal crops.

People in the basin are also more proactive in discussing and acting on disaster preparedness. Disaster Preparedness Plans have rolled out and are in place in each community. They now have early warning systems in place for floods as well..

As people have made changes to their farming and other traditional behaviors, NDRC has tracked a wide range of benefits for rivers, forests and wetlands. According to the group, wildfires have been reduced by 80 percent, and the SALT method, zero tillage and other alternative options adopted locally have helped control soil erosion. The forest is denser, natural water recharge systems have improved, and soil micro-flora and forest biodiversity have flourished.

Dhruba says the results have encouraged the communities to keep carrying out the practices NDRC has introduced, and now, other communities have expressed interest in learning from them and reaping the same benefits. “Now, they are convinced,” says Dhruba.

Visit NDRC Nepal to learn more about their work.

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