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In one of the most climate-vulnerable countries on Earth, an unprecedented development project is building a model for adapting to climate change on a massive scale—by working with one village at a time.
As he picks his way through the thick under-brush and flat, leafy fronds of cardamom in the Bhakarjung Community Forest, Basanta Raj Poudel gestures toward the brown terraced fields unfolding below.
“Ten to 15 years ago, when we walked through here, this whole area was covered in mist,” Poudel says. “It used to snow here, too, but that stopped a decade ago.” He pauses to peer at the fields below. Some are studded with green, but it becomes clear that the green is just stunted weeds growing on soil so dry that it is split by a thousand cracks.
Poudel’s village, Dhikurpokhari, sits just below Nepal’s High Mountains within the Seti sub-river basin—one of seven in the sprawling Gandaki river basin. To the south lies India. To the north, the Himalayas, which include some of the tallest peaks in the world. The massive Kali Gandaki gorge—said to be the world’s deepest—cuts through the high mountain range, dividing the eastern and western Himalayas.
From up in those looming mountains, snow and glacier melt flows downstream, mixing with rainwater and connecting with underground water sources to reach thousands of springs, streams, and rivers—the source of water for millions of people, animals, and plants. Yet in Poudel’s village, at what should be the start of the rainy season, the fields are dry.
Dhikurpokhari is not alone in its predicament. Climate change has hit Nepal hard, and it has hit fast. It is causing greater variations in weather patterns and more extreme weather events, like the drought that contributed to the exceptional number of wildfires that raged across Nepal during 2016’s pre-monsoon season. But the fires are just one small piece of the shifting climate-change picture. The rains, too, have become less predictable, making it more difficult to decide which crops to grow and when to plant them. More hailstorms and stronger snows in some areas are affecting agriculture as well.
“Nepal is a mountainous country with low incomes and diverse landscapes,” says the Director General of the Department of Forests in the Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation, Krishna P. Acharya. “It is one of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world.”
That’s why, in August 2011, WWF began work on one of the largest, most complex conservation, development, and climate change projects ever launched in Nepal. The program was dubbed Hariyo Ban, short for a Nepali saying that means “Healthy green forests are the wealth of Nepal.”
The five-year, nearly $40 million USAID-funded program brought together WWF, the international development organization CARE, the Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal, and the National Trust for Nature Conservation. Together, the groups have worked to forge a new model for a landscape-level, community-driven approach to conserving biodiversity that also helps people adapt to climate change and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions by storing carbon.
“Hariyo Ban works across two major landscapes: the Chitwan-Annapurna Landscape and the Terai Arc Landscape, which together cover 40% of the country,” says outgoing Hariyo Ban chief of party Judy Oglethorpe. “As climate change advances, we know it’s going to have serious impacts on ecosystems and people, including entire river basins and their freshwater resources. By working at different scales, we can work with upstream and downstream water users at the same time.”
The entire Chitwan-Annapurna landscape, says Ryan Bartlett, WWF’s senior specialist for climate resilience, is vulnerable to climate change. Prior to the launch of Hariyo Ban, researchers at WWF had already begun looking at the specifics of climate resilience, observing individual ecosystems within the Gandaki and other river basins, and studying how each is uniquely affected. A common theme—water—quickly emerged.
Bartlett says, “Sometimes there’s a lack of water and sometimes there’s too much. And sometimes it comes at unexpected times. Unfortunately, those new extremes are undermining people’s lives.
To help people in the Gandaki basin adapt to the changing conditions, Hariyo Ban organized climate vulnerability assessments at various levels—from community to landscape—to identify situation-specific solutions for the people and the land. This led to a strong focus on people’s livelihoods and their ability to prepare for and recover from disasters.
For example, when people suffered from landslides, crop failures, or water sources drying up due to changes in rainfall patterns, Hariyo Ban supported the restoration of forests in their water catchments to stabilize slopes and conserve water supplies. It provided greenhouses (called “plastic tunnels” in Nepal) to diversify crops and incomes. And it provided support to upgrade foot trails to improve local people’s access to harvesting areas and schools, and to promote ecotourism.
“You can’t do good conservation,” says Bartlett, “without learning from the people who live there and helping meet their needs.”
So Hariyo Ban partners spend months, or even years, getting to know the intricacies of each target community—working with people to assess how they and their ecosystems are vulnerable to climate change, helping them develop programs that address specific needs, and helping to secure funding and resources. The process has a special focus on including the voices and concerns of those who are most vulnerable—including women, those with disabilities, and the very poor.
Five years on, and against daunting odds, the program is a striking success. Across both landscapes, hundreds of thousands of people have benefited from Hariyo Ban, and more than 160,000 acres of degraded forest have been improved with the aid of hundreds of locally run user groups and protected area staff.
“The program also worked with thousands of local people and Nepal’s government to mitigate climate change by reducing or sequestering an estimated 3.7 million tons of carbon emissions in Nepal’s forests,” says Netra Sharma, Natural Resources Management and Climate Change Programs Specialist for USAID/Nepal.
Those living in project areas have reported economic improvements, increases in wild species, and the recovery of local forests.
And each community has its own story to tell.
A short but strenuous walk from Dhikurpokhari in the Bhakarjung Community Forest, Hariyo Ban’s impact can be seen in emerald tufts poking up from the forest floor. The community has planted thousands of cardamom plants—an easy-to-grow cash crop that does double duty by providing a new source of income while anchoring the soil, helping to prevent erosion and landslides that silt up lakes and riverbeds downstream.
The crop is one element in an integrated system aimed at helping communities like this one adapt to climate change, carry out conservation, and gain a greater measure of economic resilience. With support from Hariyo Ban, farmers not only pursue cardamom farming, but also proudly explain how they now tether their cows and goats in stalls inside the village rather than letting them graze in the forest as they once did—a traditional practice that strips anchoring plants from the soil and can lead to landslides. They talk about keeping bees, and growing tomatoes in simple “plastic tunnels” in order to diversify their incomes, making them less reliant on rainfed crops. And they have brought a water pipe directly into the community, cutting down on the time spent gathering water and freeing community members—particularly women and children—for education and social action. The community has also greatly benefited from the installation of a gabion—a mesh-and-rock barrier installed along the riverbank to prevent soil erosion and downstream sedimentation. The gabion also helps slow dangerous currents during the rainy season.
“We understand the importance of conserving [the water] because we use it as a drinking source. We know the health problems caused if we pollute, so we keep it clean. Not only for us, but for downstream in Pokhara,” says Baikuntha Poudel, pulling back fronds to show the budding cardamom plants.
Downstream in the lakeside town called Pokhara, dozens of families have gathered at Phewa Lake for a spot of sightseeing in the middle of the week. The lake draws hundreds of thousands of tourists each year who hire boats, stroll the grassy banks, host weddings, and pay their respects at the famed Tal Barahi Temple located on a small island just off the shoreline.
The lake’s watershed is part of the Seti sub-river basin and rich in biodiversity: More than 100 bird, 34 mammal, 16 fish, and 14 reptile species inhabit the area. Lila Jung Gurung, program officer for the Chitwan-Annapurna Landscape, says the area has 113 species of orchid alone. But because of forest conversion, landslides, and soil erosion from poorly constructed roads, the lake has shrunk considerably over the years. Climate change exacerbates the problem—more intense bursts of rainfall cause more rapid erosion, sending increased amounts of sediment downstream. Today Phewa Lake is about half its original size, and continues to fill in as sediment is deposited from upstream.
To tackle the problem, Gurung and his colleagues at the Hariyo Ban program have been working with locals both in Pokhara and upstream. Through a coordinated effort between the private sector and communities, villagers like those in Dhikurpokhari amend planting and grazing practices, while Pokhara hotel operators pay a fee to support important upstream work. The situation is beginning to improve.
“Some people upstream were not aware of the problem,” says Gurung, speaking as he walks beneath a copse of trees planted with Hariyo Ban’s support to help secure Phewa Lake’s banks.
“Now they know how their actions directly affect this lake,” he adds. “They know not only about the impact on this lake but that conservation of the forest also helps them. Many water sources are drying up because of deforestation and landslides. Now people in this area know about this issue and other principles of conservation.”
Guma Poudel, who took part in Hariyo Ban’s education initiatives for women and girls, and who now volunteers as a member of Bhakarjung’s Community Forest User Group (CFUG) and nine-person Community-Based Anti-poaching Unit (CBAPU), agrees.
“Before Hariyo Ban, the forest was very thin,” Poudel says. “After we started to take care of the forest, conservation improved, and the forest has become denser. Before, seeing animals in the wild was very rare,” she continues, explaining how the group now routinely sees wild pheasant and deer. Dev Raj Gautam, who leads CARE’s Hariyo Ban efforts, cautions that five years is too soon to quantify exact changes in forest quality and biodiversity, but agrees that “Hariyo Ban definitely has raised the activity level of local communities regarding forest and biodiversity conservation and climate change.”
Much of that evolution has come about through groups like the CFUGs, CBAPUs, and Community Learning and Action Centers
(CLACs) at the heart of Hariyo Ban. These community-driven groups provide education on the importance of forest conservation, help empower women, protect wildlife, and allow the community’s most vulnerable members to take an active role in managing their forests and taking charge of their lives. Together, these programs have had significant cultural and social benefits, reducing caste and gender discrimination in many communities in Nepal.
Further downstream in foothills far south of the Himalayan peaks, the Kerunge River in Nepal’s southern Nawalparasi district is in bad shape. As far as the eye can see downstream, the riverbed is covered in gravel and silt. Motorbikes bounce and jostle over the makeshift roadway; locals pick their way across the dusty expanse to cross from one side to the other.
People here say that just 15 or so feet under the riverbed the water still flows, but decades of landslides and soil erosion upstream have completely concealed the river in the dry season. “The water used to be waist high,” says Saraswati Gurung, whose tidy home sits near the sandy bank.
Her neighbor, Meena Gurung, is chairperson of the local, women-led Community Forest User Group, and has played a major role in spearheading economic and environmental programs in the village. Walking across the gravelly riverbed, she explains how upstream behavior hurt their livelihoods downstream.
“Before, we had agricultural lands on both sides of the river, but a flood destroyed everything. That flood was caused by people clearing the forests upstream. There was a big river in the middle here, but the landslide filled it all.”
Without productive farmland, even more pressure was placed on local forests, while many in the community became laborers. So a group of community members used the skills Hariyo Ban taught them to identify and advocate for their needs. The community now makes money from goat and pig farming and a soap-making scheme. A small community forest plantation is being fostered nearby as well.
But keeping such projects running smoothly is no easy task. The community has tried to build embankments at the edge of the river to prevent further changes to the river’s course, only to see them washed away during monsoon season.
So in addition to local projects, the Hariyo Ban program looked upstream again, and is working with communities along many upstream rivers in the Gandaki basin to improve people’s livelihoods through economically valuable land-use activities like growing broom grass—a crop that anchors soils, encourages new forest growth, shelters wildlife, and reduces erosion.
The success of communities like these reflects the tenacious, grassroots work that is the cornerstone of Hariyo Ban.
Nepal is rich in ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity. It is also a nation hampered by complex rules governing social standing. While the caste system has been officially outlawed for years, its legacy remains easily evident in Nepalese society. Every village, whether of 30 people or 200, is its own intricate microcosm.
So getting a village to buy in to the program requires no small effort. “The first three to six months we call ‘trust building,’” explains Anil Manandhar, country representative for WWF-Nepal. “You have to be open about your goals and listen to the people’s concerns and ideas.”
Once trust is established, he says, “communities are ready to do the work.” Across Hariyo Ban, thousands of community members have done just that. By participating in the various user groups and learning and action centers, as well as lending a hand informally, farmers, fishers, housewives, and students have become leaders in bettering their own lives—in part by protecting and restoring the natural systems around them.
But while some communities were able to quickly make the most of Hariyo Ban’s support, others have had a harder time finding their way. In Musahar Tole, a small community located in Amaltari and the buffer zone of the Chitwan National Park, there is much work to be done.
The Musahars are the poorest of the poor—part of the “untouchable” Dalit caste viewed with derision by many. The community has watched its already tenuous situation worsen in recent years as the government has cracked down on illegal fishing within the national park—once a mainstay of their livelihood.
And while nearby villages have made strides in recent years, with homestay programs, ecotourism initiatives, and even a community-run “vulture restaurant”—a feeding station for the endangered birds that draws tourists—Musahar Tole has struggled to gain such ground. At one of Hariyo Ban’s regular community forums, one community member after another stands up to discuss their need for more hands-on assistance.
“Many people raise [our] hopes, but we’re not getting anything,” Jit Bahadur Musahar Kawaseti tells the forum in a raised voice. “People are ready to do whatever is asked of them, but they don’t know what to do.”
Afterward, asked if he was taken aback by the outpouring, Shant Raj Jnawali, biodiversity coordinator and incoming chief of party for Hariyo Ban, admits that such heated conversations are a normal part of the ongoing process—and can even be seen as a good thing.
“The fact that the villagers—particularly the women—could be so outspoken,” he says, “is a positive sign that project interventions such as the CLACs have started to work.”
Also in Amaltari and just a few miles downstream from Musahar Tole sits another village: Baghkhor. Three years ago, the two villages looked much the same. Today, they couldn’t be more different. In Baghkhor, neatly organized houses line a well-kept road, small businesses dotting either side.
And while the village is not an official Hariyo Ban site, it shares many of the same methods applied by the program, especially the integrated upstream-downstream approach based in empowering resilient communities. There are learning and action centers and forest user groups. There are pig farms and communal fishponds established specifically to offer economic opportunity to former fishing families, a water tower, and a community center. The children appear healthy and well-fed.
In front of many of the houses are small signs bearing a cheerily painted number and, in English, the word “homestay.” This has been the key to a remarkable success.
Over the past two years, 29,000 people have stayed overnight in Baghkhor, where a homestay costs $6 a night. Its location on the edge of Chitwan National Park has made the village an ideal, economical base for local and foreign tourists who have flocked to the area to see one-horned rhino, wild boar, peacock, and deer in a landscape that also shelters elephants and tigers. Rhino protection efforts in particular have been so successful that a visitor is almost guaranteed a sighting on a standard tour of the park or community forest.
To open a homestay, each homeowner had to take out nearly $2,000 in loans. The program—developed by WWF—is run communally, with each owner contributing to a cooperative fund from which community members can take turns borrowing money. Every single one of the 22 original loans has already been paid back.
Homeowner and homestay host Krishna Mathow says he was stunned by the pace of change. As he bounces his baby grandson on his knee, he explains how, for the first time in his life, he has savings—$300 in the past year alone. He says he will invest the windfall in a chicken farm so that homestay hosts cooking for guests can buy directly from him instead of from a nearby village.
“We used to go around looking for manual labor,” he explains. “Now we no longer have to do that. Previously we were really poor, and everyone used to take advantage of that.”
Now, he adds with a slight smile, “because our land is beautiful and the rhinos are here, people come visit. And they pay.”
Many of these efforts, unique and specific as they are, are designed to increase the ability of Nepal’s people and ecosystems to build resilience and adapt to climate change at a massive scale.
Building climate resilience in Nepal means linking upstream communities like Bhakarjung with Pokhara and Phewa Lake downstream, to ensure that land use in one place doesn’t impact freshwater sources in another. It means identifying the water flows that are needed to maintain ecosystem functions in the face of climate change, and working with hydropower and irrigation investors to find ways to do this. It means identifying crops—like cardamom and broom grass—that anchor soils, retain water, and provide much-needed sources of additional income. And it means working with people, from communities in remote villages to park rangers and government officials, to make sure that the rhinos drawing tourists to isolated places are safe, allowing more people to develop and benefit from increasingly diverse sources of income.
“For me,” says WWF Chief Operating Officer Marcia Marsh, “the highlight of this project was meeting with the women of the Community Learning and Action Centers. Watching a group of previously disenfranchised women boisterously cheering each other on as they shared their results was inspiring.
“Hariyo Ban,” she points out, “assessed climate vulnerability all the way from river basins to ecosystems to individual communities—and finally to the most marginalized members in each place. With our help, people have taken control of their forests and watersheds and built small businesses in the process. They have developed and executed action plans, contacting local government agencies to ensure that they received the services they were entitled to, and taking charge of their own futures. These women now have the expertise to adapt to even the toughest challenges. It’s easy to imagine that many of them will be village leaders in the future—perhaps even a Parliamentarian or two.”