Gatlang, in Nepalese terms, is nowhere particularly special. It’s not in a National Park, although it is on the Tamang Heritage Trail, adjacent to Langtang National Park. To me, it was a window into another intriguing world. It is also stunningly beautiful.
It all started when we met Pasang Tamang on the local bus to Thambuchet. An enterprising young woman, she runs a range of small scale businesses. She’s a famer, growing new medicinal plants, and she runs a ‘home stay’ where she invited us to stay. Homestays appear in villages where hotel accommodation is limited – there was a single guest house in Gatlang – and where enterprising villagers wish to raise some extra cash income. Pasang lives in a typical Tamang house in the village centre. She has three rooms – a communal living room/ kitchen and two sleeping rooms, one for paying guests. The toilet is downstairs in the yard – it was clean with its own tap and bar of soap.
The approach to Gatlang from Thambuchet is along the valley, beautiful in early November with the deep green of the pine forest, and the shafts of yellow from the mustard fields on the opposite valley side. The path takes you up along the valley side and onto a gently sloping wide terrace above which the houses cling. The terrace itself is farmed. In November it was golden with small fields of mustard, beans and maize and millet.
The houses pile on top of each other, with narrow stepped alleys between them. Traditionally built from stone with wooden shingled roofs and a fluttering prayer flag above, each house has a balcony, where the corn hangs to dry for winter. In the early morning, smoke from the house fires hangs in the low sun. Set before the snow capped Langtang peaks, the village has a timeless feeling about it reinforced by the frequent chortens lining the old road, flags muttering their prayers.
Livelihoods here are derived from the fields surrounding the village. Tiny terraces are planted, at this time of year, with corn and beans ready for harvest, with millet following on behind. Spinach and potatoes are other key crops. And along the field boundaries, the beginnings of a new industry in the form of chiraito, a medicinal plant used for a wide range of ailments including fever, jaundice and skin diseases. Also collected from the wild, the cultivation of this herb both protects its wild populations and provides a consistent cash income for villagers, without taking land away from food production. Fruit and nut trees are also appearing – apple and walnut were proudly pointed out.
Innovation runs high in Gatlang. A new cooperative has just started up: the Himalayan Medicinal Plants Cooperative was set up by Gatlang villagers three years ago when they realised the potential value of medicinal plants in the Gatlang area. The members are interested in diversifying their crops to provide cash income and current efforts are largely concentrated on growing chiraito in crop margins and on land not used for food production. There are in addition some fields, not needed for food production, dedicated to chiraito alone. Some of these belong to Pasang.
The Himalayan Medicinal Plants Cooperative (HMHC) aims to coordinate chiraito sales to gain a better crop price for Gatlang farmers – the villagers back down the valley get Rs 100 per kg more for their crop; to cut out the middlemen in the chiraito trade market and deal directly with processers; to work together to find investment for a community owned processing plant and to coordinate the growing of additional medicinal plants, including Pichorrhiza, Paris polyphylla and yew.
Meanwhile another villager, not a cooperative member, has started her own yew nursery where she planted yew cuttings in four beds under shade netting. When we visited, she was at the point of giving up as she was finding it difficult to tend the nursery and couldn’t see a way to derive benefits from it. The crop suffered from neglect as a result. However, now new links between her and the HMPC have opened up the opportunity for her to sell cuttings to local members as they work to diversify their crops. Yew is used locally to treat coughs, bronchitis and asthma. It also contains taxol, used to treat cancer. There is a high demand for the leaves and bark and there should be a large local market for cuttings as demand for yew is high and local farmers look to diversify their crops and income streams.
In this tiny Himalayan village, young entrepreneurs are finding new ways to generate extra cash income. They are seizing the moment and with some support from organisations like ESON, they are taking on the 21st century.