It’s hard to believe I’m in Kathmandu for many reasons, not the least of which is the place where I find myself: Sunrise Farm.
I’m weeding on the second of four terraces of their forest garden that runs up the hill to an elementary school. Overhead the trees – palmello, pear, apple, Nepali plum, avocado, mikan and mulberry – stretch grey trunks up to new leaves that will eventually shade the ground below from the monsoons and blistering heat to come. Many are heavy with flowers or the first tiny fruit, all pollinated by the birds and insects that flutter and buzz above. The trees are planted along the ridges between the terraces and the swales that divide them into fields, and under my hands is more life: worms, spiders, and other insects. I hear neighbors laugh and chatter, the sound of horns from the street, and the early evening air begins to fill with smoke from countless cook fires.
Created nearly 30 years ago by Shyam Shrestha, Sunrise Farm is one of Nepal’s prime permaculture institutions. Part of the Himalayan Permaculture Center, regular workshops and events annually draw more than 500 volunteers and students from all over Nepal and the world. Set behind the Shrestha’s three-story brick house and off from a busy, dusty road, it is a place of peace and quiet where the family of five also live. Shyam, retired now, guides his oldest daughter, Prabhina and his son, Soroj, in daily management of the farm and continues to experiment with new techniques and methods. His wife, Sanu, takes care of the cow, runs the household, and also helps on the farm while his youngest daughter, Sabhina, works in the city.
Resilience During Disaster
On April 25th and May 12th, 2015, the permaculture practices at Sunrise Farm underwent an unexpected test. Two earthquakes – 7.8 and 7.3, respectively – shook the Kathmandu Valley. Over 8,000 people were killed and more than 21,000 were left homeless. Kathmandu and much of the eastern part of the country suffered severe damage to infrastructure and cultural institutions. Entire villages were flattened or buried by avalanches.
“It was like a bomb went off,” says Prabhina as she describes the first few seconds of that April afternoon. “You could hear houses crumble and see the dust. We got everyone out, including the cow, just in time.” Moments later, they watched helplessly as the cowshed crumbled.
Prabhina shows me where the wheat and rice fields used to be. “Our neighbor’s house fell on it,” she says matter-of-factly, pointing to a pile of rubble. Like the rest of Nepal, much has been done at Sunrise Farm, but there is still a long way to go. Permaculture though, Prabhina states, gave her family a number of advantages.
The earthquake revealed a resiliency that surprised even Sunrise Farm. “Our neighbors came here to ask for firewood, to seek shelter in the open space of our fields, and to find food. Our fields provided plenty, and we shared whatever we could,” Prabhina tells me, including milk from the cow, a valuable source of nutrition that is an integral element in Nepali religious and culinary traditions.
Permaculture also linked Sunrise Farm to a global network that reached out to the family immediately after the disaster and that has been in touch ever since. People send seeds, messages of support, or come and help repair buildings or rebuild fields. For the Shrestha’s, this support, both in its emotional as well as its physical and financial forms, is invaluable.
“They have made a huge difference for us,” Prabhina whispers, her voice heavy with emotion. “We couldn’t have come this far without them.”
Volunteers helped build a single-story bamboo and mud plaster house where the family of five have lived for the past year while finishing repairs on their home. A new cowshed made of stone, bamboo, and mud plaster is underway. “No more cement,” says Prabhina with a shake of her head. “We want sustainable and natural materials now more than ever and wherever possible. The others,” she says gesturing toward nearby brick and cement buildings still bearing signs of damage, “aren’t strong enough. They aren’t reliable.”
Sanu Shrestha & Shyam Shrestha. Photos by Jas Szulkin
A Chance to do Something New
As Nepal rebuilds, the Shrestha’s see permaculture playing a vital role. Prabhina tells me over steaming cups of sweet tea of the overwhelming number of requests she receives daily from farmers wanting information or to arrange workshops. “People don’t want to go back to their old systems,” she states. “They see that they don’t work. It’s an opportunity to build fresh, to do something new.”
Tanka Upreti, Head of Secretariat of the Nepal Permaculture Group, agrees. The earthquake, he says, highlighted many of the problems that had long been building for Nepali citizens and especially farmers. “A village that had 25 springs found that after the earthquake, 50-percent of them were completely gone while others were reduced. Deforestation contributed to landslides and resulted in a lack of building materials. More people are interested in organic farming and permaculture because they can get a higher price for their crops and use less fuel.”
“Permaculture,” Upreti continues, “offers a holistic approach that reflects people, their soil, and their traditional practices. Everything differs from plain to hill to mountain,” he says pointing to a map of Nepal on his office wall. Wedged between India and China, Nepal is home to 26 ethnic groups, 7 religions, and 13 languages, with inhabited areas ranging between 59 and 4,360 meters above sea level. Finding something to encompass all of this and disaster recovery is akin to a miracle.
A view of one of the terraces
Recovery through Resilience
Zachary Barton, founding member of the Kamala Foundation and permaculture practitioner, also believes permaculture’s holistic approach is key for Nepal’s disaster recovery. He and Prabhina collaborate on a two-year program called Recovery through Resilience. Designed by Chris Evans, a British permaculturalist who helped found the Himalayan Permaculture Center and has worked with Nepali farmers since 1985, the program uses permaculture design principles to help communities rebuild while simultaneously addressing income, health, and environmental issues linked to a lack of sustainable agricultural practices. All of these problems existed before, Barton says, but the earthquake and a recent five month long blockade at the Indian border brought them into stark relief.
“It was overwhelming for everybody, but people really started to see the importance of permaculture, integrated systems thinking and building with local resources during this time. The problem – a lack of outside resources to help with recovery – then became the solution,” says Barton. “We were presented with a huge opportunity to help these villages and in the process help them become even more sustainable.”
Prior to the earthquake, two villages, Kule and Bhattedanda, strained to meet the daily needs of their 120 households due to environmental degradation and failed international development efforts. Both suffered severe damage and loss of life during the earthquake. Village leaders contacted Sunrise Farm in search of help.
The first six months of Recovery through Resilience focus primarily on observation and building positive relations between village residents and the Barefoot Consultants, trained farmers from West Nepal who will live and work in the villages for the duration of the program. Based on the information gathered, Zachary designs community-specific plans that Prabhina then coordinates with the consultants and residents.
“Everything revolves around these first six months,” says Barton. “People are engaged on every level and at every step of the process, and they are really opening up, sharing and welcoming. The ultimate goal is that these villages can then demonstrate and train others as well as act as resource centers.”
Small and slow solutions, such as a smokeless stove, are also demonstrated during this time to spark conversation and ideas. “In Nepal, the kitchen is zone zero because that’s the center point of all activity. The stove is made from stone, brick, and mud and pretty much anybody can build one. The mother is the center of the household, so improving her health improves the health of everyone,” Barton explains. “From there conversation turns to the economic and environmental benefits of using less firewood, which leads to discussing the benefits of leaving the surrounding jungle intact.”
During the second six months the Barefoot Consultants will offer more specific training on organic farming, women’s health, youth entrepreneurship, and post-harvest production. In a country where 80-percent of the population is engaged in agriculture, going forward in a sustainable way is pivotal, says Barton. Everything aims to build the capacity and resilience of the village in a way that is tailored to their location, interests, and needs. By the end of the two years and as word spreads to the surrounding areas, Zachary and Prabhina estimate that more than 1,000 people will have been helped.
“This program helps better the community. They become more self-sustainable and work together to develop their abilities to reconstruct themselves. It’s permaculture in action,” says Barton.
This project is supported by Lush and the Kamala Foundation.
Joan Bailey lives in Japan where she writes about food, farming and farmers markets with a little bit of travel thrown in for good measure. Read more of her adventures at www.japanfarmersmarkets.com
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