Feature Story

Nepal's mountain crops drive biodiversity and economic growth

July 20, 2020

Nepalese women stand around a millet machine
Women receive a millet machine in Humla. Photo: D. Gauchan/Bioversity International

Remote mountainous regions of Nepal are harsh places in which to survive and make a living.

Economic, social, and environmental challenges include lack of market access, outmigration, dependency on imports and subsidies, women’s drudgery, malnutrition, unpredictable weather, pests, and diseases.

To tackle some of these challenges, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and partners are working with the local community to conserve biodiversity of crops, to boost food security and resilience.

The 2014-2020 GEF-supported project was implemented by UNEP and executed by Bioversity International in collaboration with national partners—the Nepal Agricultural Research Council, the Department of Agriculture, and Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research and Development.

It covers sites at altitudes ranging from 1,500 to 3,000 meters above sea level, in the districts of Humla, Jumla, Lamjung, and Dolakha, in Western, Central, and Eastern Nepal. High‑elevation agricultural systems often have high levels of environmental instability. Eight mountain crops - buckwheat, common bean, finger millet, foxtail millet, proso millet, grain amaranth, naked barley, and cold tolerant high-altitude rice – are targeted.

“The project is truly for the community, by the community,” says Manoela Pessoa de Miranda, a UNEP biodiversity expert. “It is helping improve food security and livelihoods, while bringing people together to conserve agrobiodiversity.”

New tools

The project faced two major hurdles in five years: devastating earthquakes in March and April 2015, which badly affected two of the four sites, as well as a major administrative reform which saw the introduction of a new federal system in 2017.

Despite the disruptions, government officials believe the project has made a difference. “The project has developed the foundation for promoting and mainstreaming traditional crops,” says Deepak Bhandari, Executive Director of the Nepal Agricultural Research Council. He also hailed the launching of the national project website.

“The project made us aware of the value of local crops,” says Depsara Upadhaya, a farmer from Chhipra village in the northwest of Nepal. “We received support to establish a community seedbank in the village, and electric machines were made available to process finger and proso millet. This brought great relief to women in my village by reducing the physical strain of manual threshing.”

Under the project, four community seed banks were established to conserve rare, local mountain crops. The banks now conserve 232 unique and endangered varieties of 56 crops. UNEP and partners also encouraged best practices for mainstreaming agrobiodiversity in agriculture through community biodiversity management funds, farmers’ field schools and seed exchanges.

Making a difference

“Crop biodiversity contributes to nature, which is an essential source of many drugs used in modern medicine. Globally, nearly half of the human population depends on natural resources for its livelihood,” says UNEP biodiversity expert Marieta Sakalian.

Since its inception in 2014, the project has been boosting mountain crop biodiversity for the benefit of local communities and farmers. Results include:

  • 20,000 households received seeds, germplasm, and information on how to conserve and grow mountain crops.
  • 300 germplasms of eight target crops were sent to project sites for on-farm testing. Over 60 were selected for use by farmers.
  • 500 local crop genes have been stored in the national gene bank for future breeding.
  • In 2019, low-interest, collateral-free loans were given to 58 farmers - mostly women - by a community biodiversity trust fund.
  • Electric threshers for millet reduced womens’ physical labor and improved efficiency. Finger millet threshers were distributed to over 500 households. Eight improved pieces of processing equipment were given to communities.
  • Capacity building of over 100 local farmers, many of them women.
  • Over 70 publications - books, flyers, posters, blogs, and brochures - were produced.

This piece was originally published by the UN Environment Programme.