Last November, I stayed in a tiny village, not far from what looks to have been the epicentre of the earthquake in Nepal last Saturday. The village of Gatlang, in the Langtang, is perched high above the valley floor, the houses crowded one above the other to take the tiniest amount of space on the steep hillsides. Around them, narrow strips of terraced fields fall away, bounded by dry stone walls and full, when we were there, of climbing beans. The maize had been harvested and was drying on the tops of the sheds and shelters that punctuated the fields. I wrote of my visit in a blog: Life in a rural village in Rasuwa district.
We stayed in a ‘home stay’ (like a dinner B&B), right in the centre of the village. This home stay, run by a remarkable young woman, was a small room in her house for tourists with a delicious evening meal – the usual dhal baht, followed with amazingly creamy home made curd yoghurt. An entrepreneur, Pasang is also a leading energy in a new village cooperative, the Himalayan Medicinal Plant Cooperative. She is one of the first farmers in Gatlang to grow medicinal plants, and she has started with chiraita (Swertia chirayita), a valuable high yielding seed with a multitude of medicinal uses. With the first harvest coming up at the end of November, she had got together with other young farmers, as they realised the need to market their produce together to gain better prices and a stronger voice for the village farmers.
We had met Pasang the day before on the local bus between Shyaphrubesi and Chilime. An overcrowded bus journey, that was honestly one the worst of my life, but lightened up by meeting Pasang, and managing not to stand on a chicken. On hearing our interest in medicinal plants, she had invited us to stay with her and to meet the chair of the newly formed village cooperative, another young farmer named Gomba Chilling. Both are forward looking and innovative, looking to support their families and build a future for the village. They knew that in order to gain a similar price for their herbs, as the next village down the valley, they needed to work together. They knew they needed to diversify their crops to include not just food for the year, but medicinal plants they could sell for an income. By choosing chiraita they could grow a valuable cash crop, on the field edges or in spare corners but they were still looking for more. Gomba had planted apple and nut trees and while we were there, invested in some yew seedlings, another cash crop for the medicinal plant trade and the production of taxol, used in the battle against cancer.
They were both inspirational. Working with what they had, expanding their horizons and looking forward to a diverse agriculture and an income source from tourists.
I don’t know how they are faring now. I hope those houses crowded together on the slopes have stood the test of earthquakes before and that their stone walls and shingle roofs are stable and solid. I don’t know how old the buildings are: built of ancient materials it’s difficult to judge how old they really are. The location of the village though, perched high above the valley bottom is old. The stupas lining the path into the villages are neglected, old and crumbling.
I hope they are OK. While I was there, Action Aid Nepal were just coming to the end of a child sponsorship project in Langtang and had local staff on the ground. Donate to them now if you can. These communities, perched high above the villages are resourceful because they have to be. Pasang showed just how resourceful they are. I admired her then but the help we could give now would go a long way with her foresight and vision.