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Population growth and land-use planning in Nepal

The approach adopted in this section contrasts with the farm-based analysis and proposed solution of land-management problems in the Kumaun Himalaya of Uttar Pradesh. It considers Nepal as a whole, with emphasis on the Middle Mountains and the Terai. These are the most densely populated regions where relatively good accessibility, at least in some areas, provides a better opportunity for much larger-scale technological intervention. Hrabovszky and Miyan (1987) undertook their study of land-use and food-production problems from the standpoint that there are causal linkages in both directions between population growth and land use. They discuss the effects of the former on the latter and, more specifically, on adaptation patterns in local land use and in ruralto-rural and rural-to-urban migration. The particular problems of Nepal are analysed using data originating from three perspective studies carried out by APROSC (Agricultural Projects Services Centre) on request from the National Planning Commission of Nepal. These studies analyse most population and landuse problems within a framework which disaggregates Nepal into fifteen subregions, that is, the three main ecological zones of High Himalaya, Middle Mountains, and Terai, themselves divided into the five Development Regions of the country. These studies cover the recent past, from 1971/72 to 1984/85 and extend into the future, to 2005.

Some historical settlement patterns

There is growing evidence that pressure of population on the land has become the most intractable problem facing three types of situation in Developing Countries where demand for food exceeds the local ability to produce food from the available land and with the available technology. The first of these situations is the low-rainfall savannah lands of the world, which have become known as the 'dramatic drought areas.' The second type of situation where population pressure often exceeds local food production capacity is represented by the rice-bowls of Asia. Here the evolution of intensive rice cultivation under some form of water control has permitted very high population densities which now, in many locations, have exceeded the maximum possible productivity of the land, given the technologies presently being used. This situation is best exemplified by two countries of the Indian subcontinent, Bangladesh and India, where there is heavy reliance on monsoonfed rice culture and which contain about 60 percent of the hungry of the world.

The third situation is the mountain areas. As with the savannahs, mentioned above, middle-mountain settlement also has been an early tendency in human history, as it provided a relatively disease-free environment, a climate permitting an active life, usually highly fertile soils, and in general a reliable, often high, rainfall. They were also relatively safe places against intrusion. In the case of Nepal, history relates that many of the past population explosions have been the result of immigration into the mountains from lowland areas. This movement has since been reversed as the population growth of the Nepalese mountains has not been matched by the subsistence farmers" ability to produce food, and for about the past hundred years there has been an accelerating migration from the hills to the plains. Hrabovszky and Miyan (1987) have referred to this as the 'Greet Turnabout.' The reason for this has been a rapid growth in population within the confines of limited availability of potentially cultivable land. This pattern of migration is certainly not restricted to Nepal, nor to the Himalaya; it is displayed in many mountain regions, including the Andes, and has been a popular political and research topic in mountainous areas of Europe.

The drastic changes in the population - land equilibruium

As long as the Nepalese population grew at or below I percent per annum and as long as there were reasonable-quality land reserves available for conversion from forest or grassland use into arable land, Nepal could both feed its population and export small surpluses of agricultural products to the neighbouring countries.

Under the impact of improved health care, annual mortality figures were reduced substantially from 38 to 16.6 per thousand of population between 1951 and 1985. At the same time fertility has remained high and thus population growth is now running at about 2.7 percent per annum, and it is expected to accelerate further to about 3 percent per annum by 2005. Nepal's population grew from 8.3 million in 1951 to 16.7 million in 1985 and the projected population for 2005 is about 30 million.

Given the slow economic transformation process in Nepal, the overwhelming majority of the increases in population have to be accommodated within the agricultural sector. As has been emphasized already (Chapter 1) for the country as a whole, in 1985, 83 percent of the households were dependent upon agriculture.

There are signs that fertility has actually increased as modern communications and the welfare goals of the government have led to a lowering of local pressures on people in poorly endowed areas to control fertility.

Two fundamental land-resource use issues

Nepal is facing two fundamental land-resource issues. One of them is that the final limit of land suitability for cultivation is being approached rapidly, and the other is the speed at which land can be brought into cultivation, or its intensity of use can be increased, in order to match the growth in demand for the products of land.

Taking only the criterion of suitability of land for cultivation, Nepal still has about 730,000 ha, in addition to the 2,410,000 ha presently under cultivation, that could be converted to arable land. This would mean conversion from forest land, nearly all of which is in the Terai. There are some important considerations, however, why not all the above potential should be brought under cultivation. First, in specific locations, demand for fuelwood exceeds the supply and some lands which ultimately would be suitable for cultivation (in the Middle Mountains, often only after terracing) need to be left under forest cover. The second consideration relates to the functions of the forest in support of cultivation through its production of fodder and also forest litter for the supply of organic matter to the arable lands. These issues have also been discussed in the Kumaun Himalayan context. In the Nepalese case Hrabovszky and Miyan (1987) stipulate that, in areas with limited access to inorganic fertilizers, each hectare of cultivated land needs to be supported by 1 4 ha of forest land if soil fertility, and thus agricultural output, is to be maintained.

In view of the above constraints and of the need to take some unterraced and terraced lands out of cultivation, and also allowing for the increased area of settlements and roads, the Perspective Land-Use Plan estimated that only about 160,000 ha could be added to the total cultivated land, equal to only 7 percent of the presently cultivated area. This clearly points to land-use intensification as the main means for raising agricultural output. Table 8.3 shows that between 1965 and 1985 the estimated area under cultivation increased by 31 percent and the annually cropped area by 100 percent. This indicates that the cropping intensity (C.l. = annually cropped area/cultivated area x 100) had risen from 108 percent in 1965 to 166 percent by 1985, a major feat accomplished by the Nepalese farmers. At the same time, the price for this increase in cropping intensity has been a stagnant or declining yield.

Table 8.3 Increase in area under cultivation in Nepal between 196566 and 1985-86 in thousands of hectares (after Hrabovszky and Miyan, 1987).

Years Cultivated land Cropped area Cropping intensity
1965 66 1,840 1,995 108
1970-71 2,030 2,231 110
1975-76 2,161 2,410 112
1980-81* 2,272 2,459 108
1985-86 2,410 4,002 166

*drought year

While the Land Resources Mapping Project,' together with the new cadastral survey, have provided a major improvement in land-use information in Nepal, time-series information is still weak. Orderly release of Class I and Class 11 lands from forest to cropping use is still hampered by some of the existing landuse policies.

Adaptive patterns in response to growing population pressures

Experience in extending the cultivated land and increasing cropping intensities, and of the limits on extension of cultivated land, have been discussed above; here the constraints and opportunities for intensification and migration are analysed.

The traditional method for maintaining the fertility of the land is running into resource constraints, not only because of the declining forest/cultivated land ratio, but also because the supply of farmyard manure is rather inelastic. There are some opportunities to increase the share of manure which is available for cropland, for instance, by zero grazing, stall-feeding systems, but there is a consensus that Nepal should avoid increasing the number of animals because of the shortage of fodder and the resultant damage done to forests and grasslands.

Thus the ultimate resource for increasing production is technological change, which includes some imports of manufactured products, though this is not without its own problems. Other technological advances include improved, more disease- and pest-resistant plant varieties, more use of labour, and, above all, more irrigation where possible. As yet the impact of such interventions has been small, as it is estimated that use of inorganic fertilizer represents only 4 percent of total plant nutrient replacements and that improved crop varieties cover at present only 10 percent of the cropped area.

When land resources are constrained and technological change does not provide sufficient relief from the pressure of population on food resources, most societies adapt the pattern of distribution of the limited resources, and/or establish rules about sharing labour and thus the total product of society. Nepal shows some of these signs, but also a growing landlessness among the agricultural population.

Given the limits on all the above means of adaptation, when possible, the reaction of farming populations to a declining per capita land base is to migrate. In Nepal, just as in many other highland regions, this means 'going down the mountain into the surrounding plains areas, both in the form of rural-to-rural and rural-to-urban migration. In Nepal there has been major migration to the main inter-mountain valleys, and especially to the Terai plains. While in the Eastern Terai there is little remaining opportunity to settle new land, in the Western Terai regions malaria control has permitted a movement into hitherto predominantly forested areas. In the Terai, the development of irrigation will also permit much higher population densities in the future, and the current man/land ratio is already higher than that of much of the Middle Mountains.

Rural-to-urban migration is important but, because of the small nonagricultural sector in Nepal's economy, it offers as yet little relief. Given the present proportion of 83 percent of total population dependent upon agriculture, even a large differential in growth rates between the agricultural and non-agricultural sectors, of, for instance, 5 percent for non-agricultural and 2.2 percent for agricultural, for a total population growth of 2.7 percent, this would raise the share of non-agricultural employment in twenty years from 17 to 25.8 percent of the total. This implies that of the total additional population of 12.3 million, 7.7 million would need to be supported by agriculture and there would be an addition of 5.3 million persons to the existing 7.6 million labour force in agriculture.

Both rural-to-rural and rural-to-urban migration in Nepal shows many different forms including seasonal, temporary, single person versus family, and organized versus spontaneous movements. In addition, Nepal has to carry the burden of Indian immigration both into the Terai and into urban areas. The latter is a new development; in comparison, in the longer-term past, there has been more temporary migration by Nepalese into India in search of employment than vice versa, notwithstanding the very large movements and permanent settlement in Sikkim, the Darjeeling Himalaya, and parts of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh over the past hundred years. An interesting parallel can also be drawn between the Swiss and Tyrolean highlanders and the Gurkhas finding outside employment as soldiers.

Looking into the future

As the limits on extensive land use have been reached, or even exceeded, in many parts of Nepal, looking into the future can provide a view of the even sharper problems and conflicts which may arise as the pressure of population on the land continues to mount. Let us first consider the development objectives of His Majesty's Government of Nepal:

1. increased food production to provide a satisfactory diet for Nepal's population;

2. income (both cash and auto-consumption) to rise per capita so as to reduce the proportion of the population below the poverty line;

3. improved regional balance in development and incomes;

4. conservation of natural resources, above all, land and forests;

5. contribution to the overall development of the economy, through income generation, export earnings, and release of labour to other sectors.

In light of these objectives and, given projected population growth and projected developments in other parts of the economy, the three APROSC perspective studies have identified a number of main lines of policies and programmes which could bring Nepal closer to those goals. The discussion below, however, presents only those which are relevant to land use.

The need for inrensification of land use

Of overwhelming importance is the need to intensify land use, not only in crop agriculture, but also in the other main land-use forms, namely grasslands and forest use. Within crop agriculture a two-pronged approach may be necessary, differentiating between areas of high and low productive potential and with good or poor access. In areas of poor access primary reliance will have to be placed on local inputs, but even here the efforts for intensification should be on responsive, non-degrading types of land. While the main goal will be food for local use, some limited cash crops of high value for weight, such as spices and tea, would need to be part of the production pattern.

In areas of good access, especially those with good irrigation facilities, highintensity land use must be pursued, often using cash-input crops, to provide high cropping intensities and high yields. This will involve major technological change in terms of production methods and in terms of supporting services for both inputs and extension advice, as well as credit and marketing. It is these areas that will have to produce a marketable surplus to feed the urban populations, to meet the raw material demands of the agricultural-processing industries, and to provide exports. The bulk of this activity is likely to be in the Terai, as is the case today. With rising urbanization and incomes, however, the role of the Middle Mountains as potential producers of fruit and vegetables could become more fully realized. Such an effort could help to release pressure on marginal areas which then can be used for less degrading types of land uses, such as, permanent tree-crops, cut-and-carry grass production, or intensive forestry.

Grasslands are used at present mainly under uncontrolled grazing systems. While there is a great scarcity of information on the use of these lands, and it is necessary to differentiate grazing adjacent to the local village, more distant forest grazing, as well as 'alpine' grazing (that is, grazing above the upper timberline), grassland overgrazing is widespread even though the actual control of the land may be rigid. The end result, common throughout the Himalaya and also illustrated in the preceding section on the Kumaun region, is low productivity by animals whose productivity is also kept low by disease and poor feeding. To improve grassland use there will need to be both more cut-andcarry stall-feeding systems, and a much improved stock. This will require improvement in the feed base through better utilization of agricultural byproducts, such as straw treatment for increased digestibility and the use of short-term leguminous fodder crops to help with soil fertility maintenance as well. Given the heavy demands for food, however, the scope for a large-scale increase in the latter may be limited. Indirect means for the better utilization of the limited feed resources will also have to come from more productive animals, a larger share of productive animals in the herds, and increased feed use efficiency from reduced morbidity and mortality through improved health support. At the same time, these measures will have to be counterbalanced by policies aimed at reducing the growth in animal numbers to the absolute minimum. This takes us back to the problem of balance between forest area available to provide livestock fodder and bedding. The growing role of the buffaloes in the Terai offers some opportunities here, but a meaningful and acceptable control system for cattle populations in the Middle Mountains has yet to be developed.

Major policy and programme proposals have been formulated in recent years for the forestry sector. The central theme is to preserve forests which have protection functions, utilize optimally commercial forest areas and help community forestry to gain maximum sustainable output from forest area reflecting the diversity of rural people's needs. Both in commercial and in community forestry this means turning increasingly to plantation forestry and forestry management practices which reflect better the output mix demanded, namely a much larger share for fuel, fodder, and litter as compared to timber output. Technologies to reach these goals are known but need improvement, and successful pilot programmes point to the new institutional forms which are needed (but see the discussion based upon Mahat et al., 1986a and b, 1987a and b, pp. 75-8).

In summary, intensification has to be achieved in all three major land-use types - cropped land, grazing land, and forests. Land must be allocated to uses which are not degrading and which, at the same time, represent the best and most productive use of that land. Within each of the main categories there must be a drive to use the most productive and least degradation-prone lands most intensively, so as to reduce the pressure on marginal lands, which then can be put to appropriate non-degrading uses.

Linkages between the major land-using sectors

The above arguments point to the necessity to plan and to implement land-use facilities in a manner which takes cognizance of the strong inter-relationships that exist between the three main land-use types which make up the overall agricultural land-use system. Crop agriculture depends largely on animals for its motive power and for its plant nutrients, thus on grasslands and on forest. In turn, livestock receives a large part of its feed base from crops. It also influences forest regeneration, negatively, through grazing and lopping in forest areas. Forests are the final 'givers' in this chain of inter-linkages. They provide new land for cultivation and grazing, fodder, litter, and their two wood products, fuelwood and timber. It seems that the combined production functions for these various products are as yet not well enough known to make optimal production decisions in the face of the product-mix demanded. Also of great importance is the nurturing and management of trees on private land. One of the recent trends in some areas of the Middle Mountains (Gilmour, personal communication, October 1987) is the significant increase in trees on private land over the past five to ten years. This is believed to be an auto-response to the growing pressures on communal forests (see also Gilmour, 1988).

The other over-arching consideration for improved land-use systems is the need to utilize technologies in each of the land-use types which can provide substantial protection against land degradation. The quantitative data provided by the Land Resources Mapping Project survey has shown that while there is widespread damage, its order of magnitude is much less than what is popularly stated. This, in turn, concurs with our earlier discussion of the exaggerated claims concerning landsliding, soil erosion, and downstream impacts (Chapters 4-6). There are technologies (not necessarily modern or western) for land use in each of the main types of uses that can provide substantial protection against land degradation. Their application, however, under conditions of growing population pressure requires concerted effort by all, including government and farmers, herders and foresters. It also requires that the interests of future generations be harmonized with the interests of the present one.

Timing of land-use changes

Many of the major land-use changes which will be necessary are closely tied to decisions on their timing. Little doubt exists, for example, that all good, Class I and Class II lands in the country should be under cultivation, but it is still hotly debated how fast that transfer should occur, who should settle the land, and under what conditions. In the view of some, it should happen as fast as meaningful settlement programmes can manage to implement it; others maintain that all other agricultural production options need to be exhausted before the best commercial forests in the Terai are given up for cultivation. It is also questionable whether there is enough police power in the country to prevent unorganized settlement of good land. The past indicates that there is only limited control possible on the side of government, and the so-called 'illegal encroachment' of forest lands will continue and result in an unplanned and often sub-optimal release of land from forestry.

The importance of irrigation

Irrigation is a key element in raising agricultural output and, given the natural resource endowments, the bulk of its development will be in the Terai. This creates further distortions in regional income distribution, unless counterbalanced by migration. Groundwater development is likely to be crucial, but it is predicated on the wide availability of electricity in rural areas, implying major hydroelectric development.

Estimates indicate that about 45 percent of the final total cultivated land in Nepal could be irrigated. The present area irrigated, at 587,800 ha, represents only one-third of the potential. Under Nepalese conditions irrigation adds to yields directly, enables much higher use of other inputs, such as inorganic fertilizers and high-yielding varieties of crops to be used for substantial increases in production, and above all it permits at high yields much higher cropping intensities to be reached, thus increasing total cropped area.

An overview of some major quantitative changes

There will be some substantial changes in the regional distribution of population in Nepal, with the Terai gaining in its share of the total (Table 8.4). When compared with land-use changes, the resulting figures on land per capita indicate a very tight situation with cultivated area per capita projected to decline from 0.17 ha in 1985 to 0.09 ha by 2005. Even though cropping intensities would rise, the annually cropped area per person would decline from 0.28 to 0.16 during the period. The components underlying output growth show that yield increases would contribute over 90 percent of the increases in output. Table 8.6 provides the orders of magnitudes for predicted increases in cropping intensities and in yields (for cereals). The balances between production and requirements of food by ecological regions are shown in Table 8.7. They provide a warning that some of the Middle Mountain and High Himalayan subregions will have to import large volumes of their food, and while Terai surpluses could cover these, the actual transfers may be extremely difficult. For livestock the crucial issue is whether enough feed will be available for an animal population that will grow very little in numbers beyond the 1985 total, but would have higher productivity and therefore higher feed requirements. Table 8.8 shows that a close balance could be achieved at the national level, but there will be major shortages in the mountain regions. Production demand and balances for fuelwood and timber are presented in Table 8.9. These show major surpluses of timber and frightening shortages of fuelwood as the figures emerge from calculations using present official shares of timber and fuelwood under existing forestry practices. They point to the serious need to re-orient forest production to cover local requirements.

To be able to achieve these attractive results, the share of current inputs in the total value output of agriculture would have to rise from about 12 to 14 percent in 1985 to 20 percent by 2005, and parallel to it, investments in agriculture would have to grow from 10.6 percent of agricultural output to 16.8 percent. The value of agricultural output would represent only about 35 percent of total output in the economy, as compared to 52 percent in 1985.

Table 8.4 Population projections by ecological zones in Nepal, 1985-2005 (after Hrabovszky and Miyan, 1987).

  1985 1990 1995 2000 2005 growth rate %
Mountain 1.4 1.5 1.7 2.0 2.4 2.73
Hills 7.8 8.7 10.0 11.6 13.5 2.78
Terai 7.5 8.9 10.4 12.1 14.1 3.21
Nepal 16.7 19.1 22.1 25.7 30.0 2.97

Table 8.5 Projected changes in per capita availability of cultivated and cropped area by ecological zones in Nepal, 1985-2005 (after Hrabovszky and Miyan, 1987).




Particulars Mountain Hills Terai Nepal Mountain Hills Terai Nepal
Population (millions) 1.4 7.8 7.5 16.7 2.4 13.5 14.1 30.00
Cultivated area (millions / ha) 0.21 0.90 1.3 2.44 0.19 0.82 1.61 2.62
Cropped area (millions/ ha) 0.28 1.53 2.12 3.93 0.27 1.44 3.06 4.77
Cultivated area (ha/ cap) 0.15 0.12 0.17 0.14 0.08 0.06 0.11 0.09
Cropped area (ha/ cap) 0.25 0.20 0.28 0.24 0.11 0.11 0.22 0.16

Table 8.6 Predicted increases in land-use intensity and yields per hectare of cropped area for Nepal, 1985-2005 (after Hrabovszky and Miyan, 1987).




  Cropping Intensity (%) Yield (mt/ha of cropped area) Cropping Intensity (%) Yield (mt/ha of cropped area)
Mountain 135 1.07 140 1.62
Hills 170 1.30 175 2.33
Terai 163 2.00 190 3.02
Nepal 163 1.62 182 2.86

Notes: Yields represent weighted average of main cereals (paddy, maize, wheat, millet, barley) and potato in metric tonnes (mt). Yield of potato has been adjusted into cereal terms by using conversion factor: 3.5 kg of potato = I kg of cereal. Cropping Intensity = area cropped * number of crops per year.

But Nepal also needs major changes in its institutions supporting agriculture. These institutions are young and are often undergoing major metamorphoses in the experimentation for finding the most suitable solutions for Nepal's needs. Agricultural research, education, and training have all made huge forward strides in the past decades, but much further growth and improvement is needed. But if these improvements are to be meaningful they must be balanced with a much better understanding of the local environments and land-use systems.

Table 8.7 Projected balances between food production and food requirements ('000 metric tonnes) by ecological zones in Nepal, 1985-2005 (after Hrabovzsky and Miyan, 1987).



Total ('000 mt)

Per capita (kg)

  Production Requirement Balance Production Requirement Balance
Mountain 259 293 -34 185 209 -24
Hill 1321 1590 269 169 204 -35
Terai 1968 1619 349 262 216 46
Nepal 3548 3502 46 212 210 2

Total ('000 mt)

Per capita (kg)

  Production Requirement Balance Production Requirement Balance


Mountain 294 580 286 123 242 -119
Hill 2074 3165 -1091 154 234 -80
Terai 5267 2925 2342 374 207 167
Nepal 7454 6670 784 249 222 27

Note: Potato has been converted into cereal terms by using conversion factor: 3.5 kg Of potato = I kg of cereal.

Perhaps the single most important insight observed from the three APROSC studies (Hrabovszky and Miyan, 1987) is that the dominant factor in land-use issues in Nepal (and elsewhere in the Himalaya) is the extreme variability, both of natural conditions and of human adaptations to them. This calls for wellidentified and locally tested prescriptions for highly specific local problems. By now it should go without reiteration that this presupposes the identification of local felt needs and direct input of local people into all levels of policy implementations as a condition for success.

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