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International Day of the World’s Indigenous People 2007 - The “Khoriya” farming system in Nepal: Promoting socially and environmentally sustainable development

A significant number of indigenous communities in Nepal practice shifting cultivation, as it is often the only viable way to farm the steep slopes they inhabit. Nevertheless, as in many other countries across Asia, indigenous peoples in Nepal face a hostile policy environment that either discourages such traditional farming systems or ignores its existence all together. Two ILO Conventions on indigenous and tribal peoples and discrimination in employment and occupation are being put to work in the field. ILO intern Niskua Kinid, part Kuna Indian from Panama and part Swedish Sami, reports on the situation in Nepal.

Article | 07 August 2007

KATHMANDU, Nepal (ILO Online) – The Chepang, one of the 59 groups of indigenous peoples of Nepal have practiced ‘shifting cultivation’, or khoriya as it is known locally, for centuries. This integrated farming system involves the growing of crops on a plot of land and then letting it “rest and recover” for several years. During this time, various plants and trees will grow naturally on the fallow land, replenishing it. Meanwhile, the Chepang will farm another plot of rested land, where the vegetation will be cleared and subsequently burned, before crops are planted – thus repeating the cycle.

From many years of experience and traditional knowledge passed down through generations, the Chepang know that this method works well on the steep slopes of their domain; it helps to prevent soil erosion and when practiced under the right conditions, is also environmentally sustainable. Despite this fact, some local authorities and development organizations continue to think otherwise. They see it as unproductive land use and wasteful of natural resources – a belief that is unfortunately widespread in Nepal and many other countries.

Development projects and policies have so far ignored the potential of shifting cultivation as a viable and sustainable land use pattern in Nepal, which provides an important source of food security for some of the most vulnerable groups of indigenous peoples. “Khoriya – I have heard this term for the first time”, says a local district representative in central Nepal.

New research by ILO and ICIMOD (International Center for Integrated Mountain Development) shows that the unsupportive policy environment may be a central reason for increased poverty and land degradation in shifting cultivation areas, rather than inappropriate land use by indigenous farming communities.

“Official policies primarily promote permanent farming, particularly the growing of popular spices like cardamom,” says Elisabeth Kerkhoff, co-author of a new ILO study on shifting cultivation in Nepal(Note 1). In line with this policy, the government has banned certain phases of shifting cultivation, such as controlled burning, and in some cases the method has been forbidden entirely because it is seen as unsustainable.

This new research, supported also by previous research by ICIMOD, shows that some forms of shifting cultivation can be environmentally more sustainable than sedentary agriculture while providing better food security to indigenous peoples. In the case of the Chepang, growing a variety of crops, including rice, maize, soybeans, papaya and mangoes gives them alternative options if one crop fails.

And as these cultivation activities are still not enough to make a living, the Chepang complement them with other traditional activities such as hunting, fishing and collecting edible shoots and roots, of which many can be found in the fallow forests.

Addressing the needs of indigenous people

Comparing the Nepalese reality with the rights protected in ILO Conventions Nos. 111 on Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) and 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, several other issues emerge, particularly rights to land and natural resources, access to services and facilities, and consultation and participation in decision-making.

Nepal recognizes 59 groups of indigenous peoples (known as Adivasi-Janajatis in Nepali) within its borders. There is also increasing recognition their attachment to traditional territories. However, the first land survey in the 1970s didn’t allow registration of land used for shifting cultivation. Appearing to belong to no one, other communities and individuals have claimed the rights to these lands, while much of it has been appropriated by the state and turned into community forests where shifting cultivation as well as fishing and hunting are strictly prohibited.

Registration of traditional lands by indigenous peoples was also made difficult by the fact that land tax had to be paid. This was almost impossible for many indigenous people as the land “belonged” to the community and registration as common property was not allowed. What’s more, 60 per cent of the Chepang currently do not have Nepalese citizenship, a prerequisite for the registration.

Nepal has ratified ILO Convention No.111 on Discrimination in Employment and Occupation and is considering the ratification of ILO Convention No. 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples.

The Project to Promote ILO Policy on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (PRO 169), which is currently supporting a number of activities related to the development of indigenous peoples in Nepal, hopes that these instruments can be used to help allow the Chepang and other indigenous shifting cultivators to maintain and develop their traditional occupations, which not only form a central part of their culture and identity, but are also instrumental in providing sustainable livelihood security.

The ILO’s work for indigenous people is twofold. PRO 169 works to integrate the principles set forth in Convention 169 into government practices, increase dialogue between indigenous people and national governments, and raise awareness and understanding of the Convention.

In 2006, PRO 169 undertook activities in Bangladesh, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Kenya, Morocco, Nepal, Pakistan, Peru, the Philippines and the Russian Federation.

The ILO-INDISCO program complements the work of PRO 169 by undertaking initiatives on economic development and decent work that are appropriate for the particular cultures, aspirations and specificities of indigenous peoples.

Note 1 The right to practice shifting cultivation as a traditional occupation in Nepal. A case study to apply ILO conventions 111 (Employment and Education) and 169 (Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. By Kamal Aryal and Elisabeth Kerkhoff, International Labour Office and ICIMOD (2007, forthcoming).