Any further increase in the area under vegetable cultivation is likely to add more pressure on water resources and require higher investments. Also, forests in Dadeldhura are dominated by pine. This has serious implications on water availability as studies have shown that pine forests are associated with slow recharge rates
Vegetable cultivation has increased rapidly in all parts of Nepal, becoming a viable source of income for many small farmers. Favourable climatic conditions, market demand, interventions by private and non-governmental actors, and supportive government policies have paved the way for the commercialisation of vegetable farming.
A 2020 report by Commercial Agriculture for Smallholders and Agribusinesses estimates that vegetables currently contribute about 9.7 per cent to the country's GDP. With increased male outmigration from the hills and mountains of Nepal, vegetable farming has also become an easily manageable and quick income-generating source for many women.
Vegetable farming was first introduced in Dadeldhura in far-western Nepal in 1996. Over the course of a four-year, community-based economic development project led by an NGO, irrigation facilities were improved, and farmers were trained in vegetable cultivation – particularly on land preparation and the use of organic fertilisers.
All 50 houses in Aiddhungra, a village in the study site (now in Bhageswor Rural Municipality) are now engaged in commercial vegetable farming.
It was the creation of a farmers' group in the early 2010s – led by the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the District Agriculture Development Office – that helped vegetable production establish itself in the larger district. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, land under off-season vegetable cultivation in Dadeldhura increased from 50 hectares in 2012 to 170 hectares in 2017.
In 2018, Bhageswor Rural Municipality distributed materials to build around 300 poly houses to further promote off-season vegetable farming. It also helped locals build irrigation facilities and water collection tanks. Plans are now being made to build cold storage facilities so that farmers can keep their produce fresh for long periods and reduce post-harvest losses.
In addition to the rural municipality, concerned government bodies such as the Krishi Gyan Kendra(Agriculture Knowledge Centre or AKC)and various non-governmental organisations are supporting vegetable farmers through schemes that provide subsidies on seed production and storage, agricultural machinery (specifically hand tractors) and pesticides.
Given that Dadeldhura has good access to roads and is well placed to meet high market demand, the local government has also decided to convert ward number 4 of Bhageswor Rural Municipality into a vegetable pocket area. The focus, clearly, is on commercialising vegetable farming as far as possible.
This mass take-up of vegetable farming needs closer looking into. As more farmers have taken up vegetable farming, traditional cereal crops have been marginalised.
Millet, barley and buckwheat – some of the most adaptive crops, capable of being grown in stressful climates and on marginal lands with very little inputs –have been completely abandoned in some villages.
Researchers now are looking into whether the current strategy of promoting water-intensive vegetable farming is helping build resilience in local agriculture, or if it is actually a maladaptive practice in an area that deals with water availability issues.
Any further increase in the area under vegetable cultivation is likely to add more pressure on water resources and require higher investments. Also, forests in Dadeldhura are dominated by pine. This has serious implications on water availability as studies have shown that pine forests are associated with slow recharge rates.
Looking at the commercial vegetable farming story from this angle makes us see that the switch to vegetable cultivation has been at the cost of agro-biodiversity and local dietary diversity and will likely impact water availability negatively.
Further promotion of the practice could prove counterproductive and actually undermine the resilience of mountain communities.
Socio-ecological complexities such as these need to be addressed while introducing new schemes or policies. From a socio-ecological system (SES) perspective, a failure to recognise such complexities leads to failure of the entire system. It is imperative to understand how a system behaves in its entirety before implementing a certain practice.
We need to keep track of interventions and their particular effects to ascertain whether a givenpractice strengthens or weakens the resilience of a system.
In Dadeldhura's case, the large-scale commercialisation of vegetable farming should be seriously re-considered given that it is a water-scarce district prone to the impacts of climate change.
Government and non-governmental organisations must be cognizant of the fact that blind, blanket support of the expansion of commercial vegetable farming may stretch current irrigation schemes to the brink of collapse. Additionally, market competition with neighbouring India is an external shock that needs to be tackled with constant monitoring of market information and robust schemes to support farmers in this border district.
Understanding such complexities will also help envision whether the current practice is building resilience or presenting a maladaptation risk. An SES approach developed to understand such dynamics can support the framing of appropriate policies for resilient mountain solutions.
In the case of Dadeldhura, the local government and the AKC have expressed an interest in the SES approach to better understand how different socio-ecological components interact within the agricultural system. Such a considered approach will allow them to see whether current interventions aimed at spreading commercial vegetable can become profitable and ecologically sustainable or if other interventions might be needed to help enhance local livelihoods.
Adhikari and Hussain are associated with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD)
A version of this article appears in the print on August 4 2021, of The Himalayan Times.