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4. The Nepal middle mountains

Geographical delimitation and time-frame
Environmental changes and emerging indicators of unsustainability
Human driving forces of environmental change
Socio-economic vulnerabilities and impacts
Environmental change, emerging awareness, and responses
Is the situation critical?

N. S. Jodha

The Himalayas are one of the youngest mountain systems in the world. A product of geological and climatic conditions, the resource degradation and associated environmental consequences are a part of the natural process of mass wasting in the region (Ives 1987). Hence it is argued that changes in the Himalayan ecosystem are inevitable and the recent outcry accusing mountain people of environmental degradation is misplaced. Without questioning the role of natural processes affecting the Himalayan environment, however, it is noteworthy that human interference has greatly accentuated the process of change. At both macro and micro levels, vast differences in comparable environmental parameters, in areas with and without human intervention, would confirm this. The situation is approaching a critical level of irreversible changes in some parts of the region. An investigation of strategies for sustainable mountain agriculture in selected areas of this region alerted researchers to emerging negative trends in several relevant variables (Jodha 1990). These changes relate to biophysical variables, production flows, patterns of resource use, and people's economic conditions.

An enquiry into these negative changes and their causal factors and processes constitutes the background to this chapter. This discussion, which is focused on the middle mountains of Nepal, also draws on the evidence and understanding generated by other studies covering larger areas of Nepal. The focus of this chapter is environmental change as a product of interaction between the specific resource characteristics of mountain areas and the attributes of human activities designed to use mountain resources. A paucity of relevant, disaggregated data severely constrains the analysis of human driving forces and their impact on the environment in the middle mountains of Nepal. Hence, a mixed approach begins with macro- and micro-level evidence from different locations, inferences from qualitative insights generated by field observations, and some quantitative details based on oral history. The next section describes the choice of area and time-frame for which to report the changes. A focus on environmental changes gives way to a discussion of attendant factors and processes. The chapter then turns to the impacts and consequences of these environmental changes, as well as human awareness of and responses to the changes, and concludes with a brief commentary on the trajectory towards greater endangerment and criticality.

The area chosen for examining environmental change, its causes and its consequences, is the Nepal Himalayas. Within the overall mountain areas of the country the focus will be on the middle mountains, more specifically the area referred to as the Bagmati zone in the central development region of the country. At a lower level we refer to Nuwakot district, one of the five hill districts in Nepal with the status of a heavily degraded watershed (Shrestha et al. 1983). The village-level evidence relates to Nuwakot as well as to other districts in the Bagmati zone.

Figure 4.1 indicates the geographical location of the areas, and table 4.1 presents some relevant statistics on them. The evidence and analysis presented relate to micro-level situations generated through interactions between mountain specificities and attributes of resource-use patterns. However, such situations are fairly common to micro-environments within the overall mountain areas, especially the middle mountains.

The middle mountains - a broad strip of sharply dissected and highly variable hill country - occupy some 30 per cent of Nepal's land area and cover about 42,000 kmē. About 48 per cent of Nepal's population lives in this area, which includes the broad shallow basin of the Kathmandu Valley. Beyond this relatively small basin the topography is consistently rugged, with less than 5 per cent of flat land. It is generally well watered, with characteristically intensive monsoon rainfall of 2,000 mm or more in the middle-western region, but decreasing to about 1,000 mm of more evenly distributed rainfall in the far western region. With warm summers and cool but mild winters, this middle mountain division has been the historical focus of national development, and has already acquired a hill population of over 5 million. This is Nepal's major problem area for which a coherent development strategy is required. The bulk of the subsistence agriculture depends directly on the productivity of both wild and cultivated plants. The terraced arable areas of the middle mountains have already been cropped continuously to a state so near to exhaustion of mineral nutrients that farmers do not risk committing seed unless they are able to apply manure. The many abandoned terraces throughout the hills demonstrate that the supply of nutrients is often inadequate for continuous cropping (World Bank 1984).

Fig. 4.1 Physiographic zones and development regions of Nepal (Source: Clark Labs)

Table 4.1 Some statistical details of the middle mountains of Nepal

Details Middle mountains(districts) Bagmati zonea Nuwakot district Six study villages
Area ('000 ha) 13,611 9,428 1,121 1.2
Population density (per '000 ha) 122 189 181 178
Family size (no.) 6.3 - 5.7 6.0
Annual pop. growth, 1951-1981(%) - 1.87 1.54 1.74b
Agricultural details        
Proportion of cultivated area (%) 23.9 22.0 32.6 34.3
Farm size (ha) 0.71 - 0.95 0.84
Man/land ratio on farms (no./ha) 8.9 - 6.0 6.9
Fully irrigated area (%) 11 - 14 9
Livestock units per farm 8.9 - 3.6 4.2
Cropping intensity (%) 153 - 148 151
Average animal holding (not/farm)        
Cattle 3.1 - - 3.7
Buffalo 1.5 - - 1.8
Goat 9.5 - - 8.8
Food crop yield (mt/ha)        
Paddy 2.33 - - 2.81
Maize 1.66 - - 2.10
Wheat 1.17 - - 1.12
Details by farm size        
Small farm (mean size 0.25 ha):        
Man/land ratio (no./ha) 21.6   23.3  
Cropping intensity (%) 170   182  
Large farm (mean size 1.91 ha):        
Man/land ratio (no./ha) 4.3 - - 4.8
Cropping intensity (%) 142 - - 157
Seasonal fodder deficit (quantity total digestible nutrients per farm)        
November-February - 40 - - -
March-June - 199 - - -
July-October - 134 - - -

Sources: Middle mountains and Nuwakot district - DFAMS (1986); Bagmati zone - Nepal (1984); 6 study villages - quick studies using Rapid Rural Appraisal methods.
a. The nine districts of the Bagmati zone are Nuwakot, Sindbuli, Tanahu, llam, Gulmi, Sallyan, Baitadi, Dailekh, and Okhaldbunga.
b. Based on number of households.

Geographical delimitation and time-frame

Apart from the importance of the area and the severity of the problems it faces, several factors guided the choice of the middle mountains and the Bagmati zone for study. First, the area has both major types of situation characterizing mountain regions of the Himalayas. In addition to vast areas of stagnant production systems and rapid population growth, it also has dynamic areas in which market forces and public intervention are contributing to transformations with visible negative environmental effects. Second, past studies and evidence are available for these areas. Finally, some logistical considerations (e.g. the nearness of the Bagmati zone to Kathmandu) were also relevant. One special feature of the Bagmati zone is that the Greater Kathmandu Valley (GKV) forms a part of this zone.

The time-scale to assess environmental changes may vary, of course, depending on the variables being considered. Guided by the experience of earlier studies and conforming to the general approach in this volume, a period of around 50 years has been chosen as a benchmark. This is the period during which relatively faster changes occurred through public intervention, market forces, and population growth. Furthermore, oral history, an important tool for understanding and recording the past, also suggests 50 years as an appropriate period for assessing environmental change. In 1951, Nepal passed through a major institutional change with the transfer of power from the Ranas to the king. This important milestone in the country's history helped in activating people's memories (for recall information) on the status of resources and the environment they had seen in the past, about 40-50 years ago. Wherever necessary, however, the benchmark period may exceed 50 years.

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