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Mountains Matter: Migration, Hunger and Climate Change Adaptation

I travel frequently for work and for the last decade, no matter my destination, the plane is crowded with Nepali youth. While some of these young people are going abroad for study, the majority is in search of work, usually in the Middle East, but increasingly in the Southeast Asia, Japan, and Korea.

I ask their stories and they are stunningly similar: decline agricultural production due to increasing variability of weather has made farming an unpredictable and unreliable occupation. The lack of alternative income sources makes migration seem like the only option remaining for many rural people to insure a decent life for their families.

These resonate strongly with the research we at ICIMOD do throughout the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH). Across the region, agricultural yields are down and farmers are having trouble adapting to climate uncertainties. Agricultural extension services do admirable work, but they are also beset by the challenges. As a result, migration continues.

Globally, there are nearly 250 million international migrants, and some 750 million domestic migrants. In other words, one in every seven person on the globe is a migrant. In Nepal, over 50% of all households now have at least one migrant family member currently abroad or living in Nepal as a returnee.

However, migration is not an option to every family. Poorer households lack the financial resources to send someone abroad, even to the nearest urban centers. Financing overseas employment entails substantial loans and debt, the repayment of which often eats into a good part of their first two years’ earnings abroad, leaving little to save for the family back home.

These challenges to migration and income have obvious implications on ensuring food and nutritional security of the households. The United Nations’ State of Food Security in the World report found that hunger is rising globally and that undernourished people have increased from 777 million to 815 million from 2015 to 2016. In terms of absolute numbers of undernourished people, Asia ranked first.

To meet the UN’s first Sustainable Development Goal – poverty eradication – by 2030, the challenges are many and will require renewed efforts on the part of governments and multi-national agencies. Significant attention must be paid to target the needs of the poor and marginalized, many of who reside in rural areas. This is particularly the case in the HKH.

I have participated in recent deliberations that focus on hunger and malnutrition, but seem to overlook the issues of farmers’ distress, the flight of farmers to non-farm sectors, the growing feminization of agriculture, and the alarming disinterest of youth in agriculture. These trends, it seems to me, can be reversed and that answering these challenges calls for mountain communities to play an especially important role.

Unlike most of the world, which relies on four crops –rice, wheat, maize, and potato – mountain communities, depend on a wide diversity of plants and animals for subsistence that provide a highly nutritious diet. Awareness about these mountain products and their health benefits is rapidly increasing, fueled in no small measure by the internet. A first step should be to widen the basket of food crops supported by governments (and other agencies) for public distribution by including such mountain crops to address food availability for the poor at local levels. This single step can help increase demand for such crops, encourage local farmers to expand the area under such crops and help small farmers get a price support and a ready market through local procurement. This could help in improving nutrition of the poor and through the assurance of local procurement; provide returns to the farmers making their farming more viable.

To make agriculture profitable and attractive, linkages with sectors such as tourism can prove to be innovative and economically profitable. In several pockets across the Himalaya, the promotion of local cuisines prepared with local crops, vegetables and condiments and linked to tourism has proved to be very successful, increasing the popularity of such cuisines among tourists and enhancing the demand of these crops and vegetables among hoteliers and restaurant owners. In urban areas and metropolitan cities, a niche market for these mountain products has started emerging as awareness of their health benefits spreads. As demands show a healthy growth, the potential to develop such mountain crops into highly sought after niche products seems quite attainable and not too far-fetched. With well-targeted promotion campaigns, the popularity of local cuisines and the demand for mountain crops, vegetables and condiments as health food could be enhanced even further creating a market for these products that help in making mountain farming profitable.

These changes can happen only when governments start believing that mountains matter and investments and appropriate policies are put in place that help promote tap opportunities lying unharnessed in the mountains and the communities they harbor. It is only then that mountain communities can respond to change and migration can be a choice and not an unavoidable compulsion.

Many of these crops are also hard enough to withstand the impacts of climate extremes. Agricultural research and agricultural development programmes need to widen their focus and begin promoting these under-utilized and neglected crops. The four major crops – rice, wheat, maize and potatoes – are at the centre of all agricultural research and agricultural development programmes designed to address world hunger. Interestingly, there are several crops known to subsistence farmers and remote rural communities which could diversify the basket of options that we could harness to address food and nutritional security. It is in this context that mountains matter. Mountain communities have cultivated diverse cereals, legumes and tubers to meet their food and nutritional demands. Many of these – neglected and under-utilised species in scientific terminology – are highly nutritious and can potentially prove to be ‘crops for the future’ if sufficient attention is paid to them and the requisite policy support extended for their promotion.

Dr Dhrupad Choudhury is Programme Manager, Adaptation to Change, at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD)

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