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The Chaudhabisa river valley in eastern Jumla presents an austere landscape of high, scrubby hillsides dominated by Mount Kanjirowa’s snow-covered peak looming over the valley from the east on the Dolpa border. It is also said to be home to some of Jumla’s best apples. In 2014, graduate research on agricultural development projects in Jumla brought me to Chaudhabisa following apples and their history in the region. One day, during a visit to Urthugau, located at the far western end of the valley where the Chaudhabisa transforms into the Tila river, I was directed to talk to Man Bahadur, an elderly man who had been one of the first people to experiment with apples in the area. I found him with a group of men, chatting on the roof of a neighbor’s house.

He was happy to talk to me about the old times and shared a number of  anecdotes, including one about a time when anthropologist Dor Bahadur Bista visited Japan. As recently documented in Kesang Tseten’s compelling 2015 Castaway Man, Bista moved to Jumla District in 1991, looking to found a utopian, caste-free community based on principles of education and empowerment. At that time, tens of thousands of apple trees, planted in Jumla in the 1970s and 1980s, had begun to bear fruit. However, in this roadless district, farmers had been unable to transport their apples to buyers, so the fruit had piled up and was being fed to the cows. According to Man Bahadur, in Japan, Bista tried to tell his hosts about the problems he had seen, but they misunderstood the point of the story. People in Japan knew the value of apples – there, one small apple was very expensive. So, hearing Bista, they thought that people in Jumla were so wealthy they could afford to feed apples to their cows! Man Bahadur was laughing at the story as he told it. Of course, in the early 1990s Jumla ranked among the least wealthy districts in Nepal; most residents faced chronic food shortages and high rates of malnutrition. In fact, Man Bahadur continued, becoming more serious, there was a saying in Jumla at the time: “apples are suffering.”

Bista had in fact spent time in Japan and, while I wasn’t able to confirm this particular incident, the story raises an obvious question: how did Jumla end up with so many apples in the first place? Today, Jumla is practically synonymous with apples. As Bhadra rolls around each year, media accounts enthuse about the development potential of Jumla’s natural bounty of organic apples.

But a closer look at the history of apple production in Jumla reveals a more complicated story about how apples came to figure so prominently in Jumla agro-ecology. It is a story that offers lessons – salutary and cautionary – for current projects of apple market development, and provokes critical questions about the responsibilities of both the state and donors to Jumla farmers, particularly in the face of a rapidly changing climate.

The Green Revolution Confronts Hill Farmers’ Expertise

In the 1950s and 1960s, three unprecedented historical developments were underway and coincided in Nepal: the Green Revolution, Nepal’s projects of national development, and the new international era of bilateral development aid.

Bilateral development aid as we know it today has its roots in the political transitions of the early 1950s. Early on in this period, the U.S. began to stake out territory – literally and figuratively – in the arena of agricultural development. Their agenda was informed by the knowledge systems and technologies that defined the Green Revolution: high yielding grains, specifically wheat, rice and maize that depended on irrigation and chemical fertilisers. While the new innovations had already taken off in Mexico and were beginning to be unrolled across the border in India, they quickly encountered some significant obstacles in Nepal.

Through the 1950s and 1960s much of the donor-led agricultural development efforts in Nepal were focused in the Tarai. Despite the prevalence of malaria in its swampy marshlands and tropical forests, the region was viewed by foreign agriculturists as ripe with opportunity. As Tom Robertson has documented in his research on early U.S. agricultural interventions in the region, for Paul Rose, the director of the United States Overseas Mission (the predecessor of USAID) in the early 1950s, places like the Rapti Valley, as Chitwan was then called, presented “many thousands of acres of beautiful, level fertile land.” Rose thought it “looked about the same as the prairie must have appeared to the frontiersmen of America when they went West.” And so the Americans set about mounting campaigns to re-engineer the landscape to better accommodate their plans, building roads and conducting mass malaria eradication programs. The hills, however, presented even greater challenges.

As agricultural development investments in “high potential” regions around Kathmandu and in the Tarai increased, development planners and analysts in the late 1960s and 1970s expressed growing concerns over what they saw as development failures in the hill and mountain regions. These anxieties took shape against the backdrop of globalized narratives of over population, impending food shortages and ecological crisis, lending a sense of urgency to the problem of development. By the mid-1980s, the environmental disaster scenarios were being challenged by new research demonstrating the variability and complexity of Himalayan mountain ecologies, but the compelling logic of impending crisis would continue to shape development planning into the 21st century.

The mountainous northern reaches of Nepal were viewed as in particularly dire need of better development interventions. An April 22, 1969 report in Naya Samaj conveys this sentiment vividly:

“The entire country other than the Tarai is inaccessible. It is essential to develop all these areas. But the northern areas are inaccessible not from the viewpoint of transport facilities alone. Even the Nepali language and the Nepali dress have not reached there… Rapid progress is being made in Chinese territory across the border. On this side of the border, however, people are still living in the Dark Ages… There is no need to say how harmful this is for the nation. For some years past, HMG has been taking interest in the development of inaccessible areas. But not much concrete and constructive work has been done. Social and economic surveys are not being conducted in different inaccessible districts of the northern region.” 

The report points to a central problem for new programs of agricultural modernization targeting the northern hills and mountains: environments and everyday lives in these areas were often illegible to those designing development programs. Planners in Kathmandu had a limited understanding of the precarious, complexly integrated agro-ecological systems and this presented a serious challenge for development ambitions. Not only was the rugged, hilly terrain vulnerable to landslides and erosion, growing conditions were also very different from the lowland environments in which Green Revolution agricultural scientists were working. Moreover, slight differences in the slope of hillsides and the direction that they faced also meant that growing conditions could vary significantly even across small areas.

Land being prepped for cultivation in Jumla. Photo credit: Barry Bishop

Jumla, which boasts some of the highest altitude rice cultivation in the world, exemplified the challenges facing Green Revolutionaries. In the arid region where Jumla is located, temperature and moisture are both close to the minimum thresholds for productive cultivation – any colder or drier and food crops would be very difficult to grow. To make the most of these challenging high elevation conditions, farmers have selected for varieties of crops uniquely adapted to the local environment and developed planting strategies sensitive to minute variations in the land.

For Jumla’s traditional cold-tolerant, red-tinted marsi rice, for example, farmers have long followed unique, carefully-timed practices of seed germination and transplanting developed to make paddy cultivation possible in the harsh conditions. In the 1970s and 80s, other important crops included millets (finger, common, and Italian millet), sorghum, wheat, barley, buckwheat, maize, dried pulses, soybeans, field peas, potato, amaranth, mustard, tobacco, cannabis, and other vegetables and spices.

The crop diversity featured in Jumla farms was typical of hill cultivation in Nepal. The authors of a 1976 report on hill farming, sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, noted that farms surveyed were generally growing 2 to 4 staple crops, but as many as 40 to 50 food crops altogether. The diversity of plants used by Jumla residents also extended beyond the farm into the forests. A 1986 study documented 125 species of non-farm plants, including a variety of fruit and nut trees, that were recognized by name and used for food, medicine and other daily or ceremonial purposes. Crop rotations and intercropping practices also varied widely depending on the specificities of the plot, the year, and the constraints of the household. Remarkably, with the combination of carefully honed, location-specific cultivation strategies and intensive labor inputs, in the 1980s, Jumla farmers were more productive than the national average.

Green Revolution grains developed in irrigated plains like those of Mexico’s Yaqui Valley, were not well suited to Nepal’s specialised, diversified and variable hill and mountain agricultural systems. Following their extensive survey, the authors of the 1976 Rockefeller report, for example, concluded that the “materials, practices and approaches to development in other agricultural areas around the world have limited or at least uncertain applicability to these regions.” They found that there were “presently available few improved technologies which are widely adaptable and offer dramatic increases in Hill subsistence agricultural production… The analogy of the ‘irrigated wheat revolution’ does not apply to Hill agriculture production possibilities.” Peter Whiteman, an agronomist who was stationed in Jumla for several years in the late 1970s, similarly cautioned hubristic planners that “farmers have been practicing arable agriculture for centuries in Jumla district, and in order to survive in their marginal cropping environment have a fund of knowledge in managing their arable resources to a high degree of efficiency resulting in adapted cropping systems. Dramatic improvements are neither obvious nor easy.”

Dominant food cultures and Green Revolution science historically worked together to undermine local foodways, as traditional crops and forest products were viewed as not only uncivilized but also irrelevant to food security concerns.

Social distance between farmers and agricultural officers also contributed to the illegibility of local farming practices for development planners. In Jumla, centuries of exploitation and neglect by a Kathmandu-based state had contributed to a mutual hostility between residents and state officers. In 1976, a team from New Era, one of the first Nepal-based development consultant firms, stated in an evaluation report for the proposed (but never realized) “Jumla Small Area Development Program” that: “It can be said emphatically that Jumla is not a popular assignment for government civil servants. Few officers posted to Jumla with whom project researchers talked failed to express desire for transfer. Many expressed pessimism regarding their jobs, disappointment with respect to facilities and allowances, and alienation from the people of the area whom they are supposed to be serving.”

Jumla Small Area Development Program survey report: A description of the area of Jumla district selected for Small Area Development Program implementation and a recommended action program. (1976). Kathmandu: New Era. Cover Page.

Social distance also intersected with the culture and politics of food. As we saw last year, when Prime Minister Oli stirred up controversy and popular interest in marsi rice with a photo of himself and businessman and hospital owner Durga Prasai digging into a lavish luncheon in the midst of Dr. KC’s 15th hunger strike (this one in Jumla itself), marsi has come to be associated with a degree of social prestige. Yet, the revival and celebration of traditional regional food heritage across the country is recent, and comes in the wake of a long history of disdain for, and marginalization of, local foods in the Karnali. As Jagannath Adhikari demonstrated in Food Crisis in the Karnali, dominant food cultures and Green Revolution science historically worked together to undermine local foodways, as traditional crops and forest products were viewed as not only uncivilized but also irrelevant to food security concerns.

Horticulture for the Hills!

In face of the many barriers to agricultural intervention in hill and mountain cereal cultivation systems, development planners looked to alternative strategies. Commercial horticulture in the hills had been on the radar of some of the first U.S. agricultural planners to arrive in Nepal. They saw the cooler climate of the hills as appropriate for a number of horticulture crops including temperate vegetables to high value products like saffron and ginger. Following the experimental introduction of some of these crops by agricultural extension agents, many hill households embraced hardier vegetable varieties like cabbage and cauliflower as a much welcome addition to household diets. However large-scale market-oriented production of vegetables and spice crops competed with food grains for quality land, water, manure and labor, all of which were often in short supply.

Perennial tree crops, on the other hand, posed less of an opportunity cost. Tree saplings were viewed as requiring relatively minimal labor, and specifically no annual ploughing. They were also relatively easy to trial, since they could be inserted into existing cropping systems without a major impact to start with; it would be several years before they would begin to shade out and compete with the crops below. Tree crops were also better suited to marginal lands and apples in particular require cooler temperatures and thrive on well-drained soils and sloping terrain. Meanwhile, the increased presence of state and development representatives in Jumla at the time created a local market for apples, and the prospect of potential profits helped to fuel interest.

In Jumla, a horticulture farm inaugurated in 1967 was one of the first government offices established in the district.

The potential for tree crops to transform remote mountain regions generated enthusiasm in Kathmandu. As nationalist anxieties about the proper use of national resources extended to the remote hills, tree crops were identified as a way of making use of land that was understood to be underutilized or wasted on traditional, low value crops. As one enthusiastic editorial from Gorkhapatra on August 4, 1969 put it: “During the current session of the National Panchayat, a suggestion was made that horticulture should be introduced on barren hills. Cannot we implement a green revolution on such barren hills even in this age of science? If this can be done, let us march ahead to do so.” In Jumla, a horticulture farm inaugurated in 1967 was one of the first government offices established in the district.

Whiteman was similarly optimistic about the potential for apples in Jumla. In the preface to an extensive report on Jumla agriculture for the Hill Agriculture Development Project, he contrasts the challenge of improving grain and legume crops to the promising potentials of horticulture tree and vegetable crops, which, he notes, “are relatively new to the area and for which the region is ideally suited….” He goes on to comment that “there is room for expansion as there are many pockets of rough and steep land totaling several thousand hectares that are unsuitable for ploughing but which are ideal for perennial fruit and nut crops and so there is the basis of an immediate extension programme.”

In a 1971 article for National Geographic, Barry and Lila Bishop, American researchers who spent several years in the Karnali in the 1970s, illustrate the centrality of apples – as well as narratives of ecological crisis and ideologies of modernization – to visions of development and progress at the time. In their musings on Jumla’s future they say: “Change is on the way. Indeed, some has already arrived – the panchayat system, which in turn has brought improvements in education, growing awareness of the outside world through the simple transistor radio, scattered government development programs… A Karnali farmer, then, will discard his cumbersome wooden plow for one of metal, and a woman will no longer denude a hillside by stripping trees for fodder, and an apple crop will find its way to distant bazaars.”

Of course, from the perspective of Jumla residents, the sloping lands targeted for apple development were far from wasted. Rain-fed upland plots, planted with a mix of drought resistant grains and pulses, were crucial to the art of getting by, particularly in years with bad weather. Even uncultivated scrublands were important for grazing livestock. Cultivators were, however, more inclined to experiment on the rain-fed upland plots and steep hillsides than in the economically and socially significant, irrigated paddy land. As a farmer living near the Jumla headquarters recalled: “we used to plant apple trees in far uncultivated lands, being unsure of the production. Later we uprooted the plants from there and planted in our lands and started nurseries and farms.” Unsurprisingly, it was via Jumla residents themselves, traveling to northwest India for winter work, that apples had first made their way into the district. In his book Karnali Under Stress Bishop documented apple saplings planted in household plots that had been brought home by people returning from trips in the early 1950s.

Apple trees in Chaudhabia valley. Photo credit: Jeff Masse

Farmers’ willingness to experiment with apples solidified their status as a favoured solution for “improving” Jumla agriculture. Over the 1960s and 1970s, horticulture, and perennial trees in particular, were incorporated into early planning visions of a national Nepali economy as a modern commercial crop that would supply incomes to hill residents to purchase grain surpluses from the Tarai. They figured centrally, for example, in the blueprints for a series of motorable north-south roads and an integrated national road network mapped out by the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (the predecessor of the World Bank) in the 1960s. They also featured in geographer and planner Harka Gurung’s vision for development corridors centered on the construction north-south roads. The vision for fruit development as a comparative advantage in the hills was formalized in Nepal’s fourth Five-Year Plan (1970-1975), which instituted the development corridors strategy.

Apples and Suspended Infrastructure

Over the next decade or so, the national government sponsored a number of large-scale distributions of improved stock for horticulture, fisheries and livestock, including an ill-fated attempt to airlift Australian Palworth and Merino sheep to Guthichaur, Jumla, which ended with many of the foreign sheep catching pneumonia shortly after arrival. In 1969, the head of the Remote Areas Development Board began a program to distribute fruit and nut saplings, apples in particular, in the Karnali region.

Jumla, sporting a new STOL (short takeoff and landing) airstrip completed in 1968, was a focal point for sapling distributions. An officer at the Board at the time described the painstaking labour involved in completing the first shipment. The small trees were trucked to Kathmandu from India, flown in several trips to Nepalgunj, and then loaded in small batches onto a Pilatus Porter aircraft for the final journey to Jumla. It reportedly took almost five days to transport the full load of saplings, with five to six flights a day.

The activities were announced with fanfare in the national newspapers. Gorkhapatra, on April 9, 1969 reported that, “137,591 saplings of different fruits have been supplied to the Karnali, Narayani, Bagmati, Koshi and Gandaki Zones under a program sponsored by the Development of Agricultural Extension and the Horticulture Department. Technical assistance will be provided to every peasant under the Horticultural Development Program in these areas.”

Over the following decades, however, progress on the promised corridor road stalled. The fourth Five Year Plan had invited donors to provide assistance for specific corridors in each of the new Development Regions. National planners appealed to USAID to develop the Nepalgunj-Jumla corridor, but the Americans, who had already got themselves involved in another formidable road project in the far west, declined. In the mid-1970s the Canadian government began surveying for a large-scale integrated development project in the as-yet-unclaimed Bheri-Karnali region, which was to include a road. However, although the Karnali-Bheri Integrated Rural Development Programme (K-BIRD) ran into the 1980s, construction never began on the road. Indeed, the project was, by and large, considered a failure and dubbed, according to hydroelectric power engineer and political scientist Dipak Gyawali, the “the bird that never flew.”

Twin Otter airplane at Jumla airstrip. 1975. Peter Von Mertens/ Peace Corps Archive

After years of sapling distributions and apple promotion, the trees began to reach maturity and Jumla found itself awash in apples. While some were transported to markets in the western mid-hills and Tarai by mules and porters, hopeful traders soon realized that the heavy, delicate fruits did not hold up well on long and bumpy journeys. Older residents recalled a time when people made themselves sick trying to subsist on apples. While today many people laughed at the stories of their own ignorance about apples at the time, the attempts to live on the fruit speak to the hard realities of food shortages. Hunger and malnutrition fell particularly hard on women and marginalized communities, and apples offered limited utility in addressing their needs. Another New Era team, arriving in the late 1980s to conduct a “study on viable fruit processing alternatives and effective marketing strategies for apples in Jumla District,” found a situation very different from the one described by their colleagues in 1976. They reported that the “district faces a large deficit of food crops every year although the production of fruit especially apples, far exceeds the district demand.” Unable to find market outlets for apples, large numbers of productive trees were cut down and “became firewood.” Other trees were simply neglected and went wild.

Even though apples were beginning to pose a problem for Jumla residents, they had nevertheless been written into visions for Jumla’s development in planning documents, development institutions, and the material landscape. State and donor commitments to apples fueled a subsidy program for air transportation. USAID sponsored an even more ambitious and short-lived initiative to ship apples from Jumla to Bangladesh. Space on flights was, however, limited and it was reportedly only well-connected people near the headquarters who were able to secure access for their products.

A Road to Prosperity?

In 1990, the long promised Karnali Highway was given top priority in the Agricultural Perspective Plan, and the project actually gained momentum in 1999 under the World Bank’s Road Maintenance and Development Project (RMDP). The army and local residents were enrolled to finish construction after contractors pulled out in the midst of ongoing fighting, and the road to Jumla headquarters was officially completed in 2007. The arrival of the Karnali Highway and the subsequent expansion of motorable roads in the district intensified ongoing processes of local economic transformation. Among the many changes brought about by the anticipation and arrival of a road was a renewed enthusiasm for apples. The district agricultural office reported that between 2006 and 2009 some 100,000 new saplings were planted per year in Jumla, and both the number of trees and amount of production have continued to expand. The growth has been fueled in part by new state and foreign donor funded initiatives. In 2008, the Jumla District Agricultural Development Office launched the एक घर एक बगैचा “one house one orchard” program, which aimed to distribute 25 saplings to each household. Other livelihoods and public works programs – from World Vision, International Nepal Fellowship and Red Cross to the World Food Programme and the Karnali Employment Programme – also incorporated apples into their initiatives.

This second wave of apple planting following the completion of the Karnali Highway has once again been greeted with enthusiasm by donors and the media. As one enthusiastic blogger put it, “If only proper attention is received, Jumla apples shall not only reign the apple market but also become a means towards richness for Jumla farmers.” New value chain development projects like the High Value Agriculture Programme (HVAP) and High Mountain Agribusiness and Livelihood Improvement project (HIMALI), began targeting Jumla apples in their commercialization programs. They encouraged farmers to specialize in apples and professionalize their production through investments in equipment, infrastructure and bio-inputs. Recognizing the stiff competition that Jumla apples face from large-scale, capital- and labour-intensive apple production in India and China, development efforts have aimed to capitalize on the chemical-free status of Jumla apples, particularly following Jumla’s remarkable 2008 move to become Nepal’s first organic district.

Nepal Master Plan for transportation infrastructure identifying north-south corridors. From: Economic situation and prospects of Nepal. (1973, August 15). Washington DC: International Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Yet, a look back to the history of apples in Jumla raises questions about these visions of industry and imminent prosperity. There are some important continuities between past and present, including persistent gaps between ambitious development visions and the diverse perspectives of Jumla residents, particularly those from marginalized communities. Many farmers continue to approach apples as a labour-saving, low maintenance crop and remain reluctant to risk expensive investments. Indeed, for a large number of families, the current appeal of apples seems to have as much to do with increased diversification out of agriculture as entrepreneurial ambitions to invest in agricultural commercialization.

The proliferation of roads has meant that basic food staples like rice are more reliably available in markets around the district. For those who can afford it, this has decreased the need to rely on hardy, traditional subsistence cereals and freed up land for apple production. There are also fewer people available and willing to do everyday farming labour. While the conflict spurred mass outmigration from the area in the 2000s, post-conflict shifts in the local economy have created new non-agricultural opportunities. Increased – if still highly unequal – access to education has allowed a growing number of young people to pursue higher education and seek professional paths that will take them off the farm. Construction work and business related to expanding road infrastructure have also opened alternative income options. Many continue to make extended trips to the Tarai and India for wage labour and trade and a small but growing number are joining in the ranks of migrants to Malaysia and the Gulf countries. It is, of course, a familiar story that echoes across rural areas in Nepal.

Looking to the Past to Plan for the Future

There is certainly an argument that profitable, entrepreneurial agriculture is a way to bring young people back to a life of farming. Yet, leaving aside questions of whether development investments in specific value chains is really the best way to support a vibrant farming sector – as opposed to improving basic state functions such as social services, infrastructure and participatory agricultural research, I think it is worth questioning the assumption that apples can and should be heralded as the crop that will lead Jumla marching down the path to agricultural commercialization.

As we have seen, the move into apple production by most Jumla farmers was not initially prompted by risk-taking entrepreneurial ambitions. Rather it was a low-input, labour saving option for diversifying household production – an opportunity to earn some cash from marginal lands, particularly for an older generation left to manage farms on their own. It was also, for many, subsidized by significant state and donor investments. What’s more, staking your livelihood on apple production – always a risky business, as was so eloquently captured in Bhusan Dahal’s 2008 film Kagbeni – is becoming even more risky with the unpredictability of rainfall, hailstorms, new pest threats and rising temperatures.

Jumla apples now. Photo credit: Elsie Lewison

Apples continue to present a promising opportunity for Jumla farmers, specifically as a labour-saving crop in a context in which many young people are looking to lives beyond agriculture. And increasing domestic production also promises to reduce reliance on foreign imports. However, a better understanding of the history of horticulture in Jumla also suggests the need for alternative approaches to apple development, particularly if the intent is not to leave the majority of folks behind. Such an approach would emphasize risk reduction for vulnerable farmers, with apples treated as one component in diversified livelihood strategies. The priority might then shift to supporting the development of de-commodified, low-input production techniques and technologies following some of the logics of the Zero Budget farming movement in India. Indeed, an agricultural development plan for Jumla that was developed at the district level by agricultural officers in collaboration with several NGOs including ForestAction Nepal back in 2013 made some similar suggestions. Most importantly, and in a break from the Green Revolution’s fraught legacies, a historical perspective points to the importance of engaging farmers’ own agro-ecological expertise, and their own priorities, when planning for Jumla’s future.