Category Archives: livelihoods

What do GROWers bring to a Good Food Nation?

This blog was published in The Geographer, the newsletter of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society Summer 2018

The Scottish government’s Good Food Nation bill came up briefly in the parliamentary debate on 25 January, with an update on its progress towards the government’s ambitions on Good Food. These are to build a statutory framework to join up the government’s approach to food and to consider steps to improve the effectiveness of the food and drink supply in Scotland. Progress turns out to be another consultation later this year in 2018. What should we all expect?

What does a Good Food Nation mean?
According to Fergus Ewing, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, it means: We want to enhance the national food policy with the vision of Scotland becoming a good food nation, where people from every walk of life take pride, pleasure and benefit from the food that they buy, serve and eat day by day. 29 June 2016.

It should mean more than this however. A Good Food Nation should be able to provide easy access to all its people to healthy and sustaining food. That food should be produced sustainably. A Good Food Nation is also a nation where people grow their own food as individuals and communities and where people can access locally grown food easily and regularly.

The sustainable production of food and access to healthy and sustaining food is key to the delivery of the UN Sustainable Development Goals . Scotland was one of the first countries to sign up to in 2015. Scotland is justifiably proud of its natural environment and its burgeoning Food and Drink sector. Yet at the same time, it is still widely seen, and labelled, as the unhealthy nation of Europe. Developing a coherent approach to food will be key for the Scottish Government.

The GROW Observatory is at the forefront of two approaches that will be invaluable to progress here:
1. Enabling more people right across Scotland and Europe to grow and access local food, grown sustainably
2. Building healthier soils so that sustainable food production and a heathy environment is a given for future generations
GROW is an 18 partner strong consortium, led by Duncan of Jordanstone School of Art at the University of Dundee and working with research institutions, NGOs, design and technology companies. On the ground, we work with local communities in growing networks from across Europe. Together, we learn about food growing and soil management through online courses and large scale growing and soil experiments. Together, we gather data on sustainable growing techniques, on soil management approaches, on growing the best crops for local conditions and on soil parameters used to validate and strengthen climate change models. GROW is distributing 15,000 soil sensing kits across 9 GROW Places in Europe, to build the biggest citizen generated database on soil properties. These GROW Places occur from Scotland to Greece, Ireland to Sweden. With the data and knowledge we build from these, people are able to grow more food sustainably, identify and plant crops suited to their locality and soil types, build healthier soils and learn how to adapt growing, soil and land management activities to changing climate.

With citizens and data, GROW is playing its part in improving the coherence of food and development policy in Europe, in supporting and enabling local communities to grow their own food and reduce food miles, providing physical activity and building social cohesion through growing. By making the links between local communities, supporting locally adapted sustainable food production methods and by gathering data to strengthen scientific models on climate change and soil health, there is a lot that the citizens involved can offer a Good Food Nation. All of this, taken together, helps governments across Europe meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Find out how to join in at


GROW Observatory: citizen science in action


I have just been appointed the new Programme Director of the GROW Observatory (GROW) and I am delighted to be working with such an exciting project. The GROW Observatory, an EU Horizon 2020 project, is coordinated from Duncan of Jordanstone School of Art and Design at University of Dundee. Working with 18 partner organisations from 10 countries across the Europe, the project is an innovative approach to creating a community of citizen growers, gardeners, small scale farmers, scientists and policy makers, all working together to learn from each other, provide growing and policy advice and contribute data on local soil conditions, to help validate climate change models generated by satellite.

The project vision is to support and build smart and sustainable custodianship of the land and soil across Europe and to provide an answer to the long standing challenge for space science, which is the need to validate climate change models with soil moisture detection on the ground. These data and this knowledge will in turn also be used to inform policy decisions on land use, soil management and climate change.

GROW will empower citizen growers, gardeners and small scale farmers to  understand better their environment and their impact on land and soil and to use that knowledge to address land degradation and habitat loss and fragmentation. To achieve this, GROW will deploy low cost sensing technology to gather data on key soil variables, collated via mobile phones and tablets, and large scale, world leading technology, including satellites. Growers will be empowered and encouraged to join a Europe wide network through the GROW advice service, that they will help to build by producing data and information on growing and soil management.


GROW is a wide ranging and varied partnership that is working with digital communities, environmental scientists, growers, gardeners and citizens interested in the environment.

You can help the partnership take its first steps by filling in our online Growers survey:

Find out more here: and on twitter @growobservatory

After the quake?

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.

Gatlang village
Gatlang village

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.

Living change and changing lives.

Although life is in constant flux everywhere on the planet, change really is the one constant of life in Nepal’s remote landscapes like Dolpo. Two days flight from Kathmandu and with no road access, this area is both remote and self contained. But unchanging it is not.

(c) Dominic Habron
(c) Dominic Habron

Located on the border with Tibet, Dolpo has had its share of political change as borders open and close. The closing of the Tibetan border in the 1950s shut off access to traditional grazing lands to the north, to family and community ties built up over decades and to trading routes that were a tightly enmeshed system of year round survival. These have largely gone. The Dolpopa have moved on and changed.

Their ability to change is remarkable. With the economics of market veering sharply from north to south, the Dolpopa haven’t given up but instead have fallen back on their entrepreneurial reserves and created new niches for themselves. Once salt traders and middle men between the Tibetan salt traders from the north and the commodity traders from the south, the Dolpopa still play an intermediary role but now for Chinese foodstuffs and drink and luxury goods. Ever flexible, the Dolpopa retain their Buddhist religion but adopt Hindu names too. Anthropologists have a field day in Nepal: fascinating accounts of the social and cultural flexibility of the Dolpopa in the face of the massive political, economic and social changes wrought in Nepal from the 1950s right up until today illustrate just how flexible the Dolpopa are and how much they need to be. Kenneth Bauer’s 2004 High Frontiers illustrates this well as does James Fischer’s 1989 Trans Himalayan traders.

(c) Dominic Habron
(c) Dominic Habron

Although remote, Dolpo is doing OK today. There are estimated to be any number between 1,000 – 2,000 trekkers a year. This is not a substantial tourism trade. Yet businesses are doing well. Explore Dolpo, staffed largely by Dolpopa is the leading trekking agency in Dolpo and as well as organising its own treks, it supplies equipment to every other trekking company who fly in from Kathmandu. Hotels and tea houses are springing up along the main routes. There aren’t many – usually only one per settlement so relying on them as accommodation would not be feasible but they do supplement the camping grounds.

Some villages have been adopted by NGOs, although interest in the area appears to be waning. It was initially high following the release of the Hollywood feted film, Caravan, filmed on part of the main trekking route. Although not uniformly welcomed, the film shines a light on Dolpo and does bring trekkers to the area. Still, Action Dolpo supports development in Dho Tarap and Himalaya project is raising money for an amchi school also in Dho Tarap. Elsewhere in Dolpo, other villages have less attention focussed on them: earlier projects in Shey Phoksundo by WWF Nepal and in Bhijer now have lower levels of support, despite being brilliant ideas worth supporting. The Dolpopas are being left to their own resources again.

Yet these are significant. The current major source of cash income is the trade in yartsa gumba (Cordyceps sinensis), also known as caterpillar fungus or Himalayan gold or Himalayan Viagra, depending on which newspaper you read. It is not gold. It is in fact a fungus infected caterpillar that has great medicinal value and is currently trading at just over £9,000 a kilo. It does generate gold however and this is clear on the ground. Every year in the middle of August, Dolpopa traders cross the Tibetan border with caravans of yaks and horses to trade yartsa gumba for cash and basic goods. This trading window is open for 2 weeks a year. Dho Tarap was the most obviously affluent village we visited. There are lots of new buildings and smart wooden windows. All brought in by yak. And in the local shops, you find Chinese products including coca cola, beer, whisky, biscuits, noodles, chocolates, rice, wheat flour and much more. The Dolpopa are fast becoming consumers, thanks to the exploitation of yartsa gumba.

Yet this gold is not likely to last. As a fungus there is no reason that a sustainable harvest could not be gleaned. As long as there are sufficient mature fungi to produce spores and enough caterpillars for them to infect, yartsa gumba should keep growing. The fact however is that there is very little control on harvesting. Collection is not restricted to local people as it is elsewhere in the Nepal Himalaya. Habitat destruction during the harvesting season is anecdotally reducing the harvest gained every year. With too few fungi being left to produce spores, the future for this fungus looks pretty short. The question then will be, what’s next for the Dolpopa? With the spirit of entrepreneurism and the flexibility these communities have repeatedly shown over time, the Dolpopa will find something. I hope that they find it quickly enough to avert emigration and starvation, both of which happened last time the cash income supply dried up, when the Chinese shut the access to Tibet and subsidised salt arrived from India arrived.

Part of the answer could be sustainable tourism. The area is remote enough to continue to appeal to people who want to get away from it all. This really is ‘niche tourism’. There are a number of provisos to this however. The current lack of roads is actually an appeal to trekkers. Look at what is happening in Annapurna now the roads have been built. While roads may keep trekkers away, they make life more comfortable for local communities. And the amount of litter in Dolpo is serious. The plastic mountains there are going to keep growing and putting tourists off unless effective waste management strategies are quickly put in place.

Another part of the answer could be sustainable collection of medical plants, including yartsa gumba. There are no hospitals in Dolpa and only a few health posts. None with a doctor. Dolpopa rely on amchis, providing traditional health care, and are entirely dependent on medicinal plants. They need these plants to continue to be available because this is their access to a health care system. Sustainable collection practices, particularly for yartsa gumba, need to be put in place quickly however. Wild collection will always be limited and is not a complete answer. However, unlike other areas of Nepal, the cultivation of medicinal plants may not be an answer either in upper Dolpo. The area is too high and the climate too extreme. Other sources of cash income need to be found too.

Entrepreneurs from Dolpoa are already proving what can be achieved in the fields of art, Tenzin Norbu for example, and business, Expore Dolpo. The ethnic diversity of Dolpo is very high. The cultural cohesion at village level results in strong communities. The extreme climate and landscape appeal to trekkers and film makers. The area is extremely rich in biodiversity and natural resources.

The difficulty is achieving local community wellbeing and healthy ecosystems in a dynamic landscape. The Dolpopa need to get it right and so far they have. Living change is what they do well. But it’s a tricky balance for today’s generations to maintain for the future.

(c) Dominic Habron
(c) Dominic Habron

Seizing the future in Nepal’s rural villages

Arughat village volunteers outside their new visitor centre, due to open in 2015.
Arughat village volunteers outside their new visitor centre, due to open in 2015.

A short field trip in early November took me to Dhading District at the start of the Manaslu circuit. The Arughat valley is where many people start the Manaslu trek nowadays and this has not gone unnoticed by the people of Arughat. A new visitor centre is planned to open early in 2015 at Arughat bazaar, providing visitor information and facilities, including route information, locally made handicrafts and a rooftop café with wifi. The entrepreneurial spirit runs high here and is part of a wider community spirit. The centre will be run by local volunteers with the aim of generating employment and local business for hotels, restaurants and handicraft makers. The aim is that the entire village will benefit. Advice provided through ESON will, I hope, result in a well thought out centre that visitors use and which in turn, supports the village.

Budhathum village fields
Budhathum village fields

Across the valley, the village of Budhathum is not on the trekking route. Even getting to Budhathum involved the most exciting jeep ride I experienced in Nepal. However, the villagers in Budhathum are also looking to the future.

ESON are running two projects here: one is looking at the potential of native plants as sources of biofuel and the other is exploring medicinal plants and their uses. Both are being delivered through three MSc studentships. While only at the early stages, the villagers here are very supportive. We convened a village meeting: 50 people came along to hear about the project progress and to give us ideas on what they would like to see happen next. There is a huge amount of plant based knowledge in these villages and people not only want to share their knowledge but also to learn more from the researchers. They want knowledge exchange. For example, different villages here have different local names for the same plants. They asked for plant identification workshops so they know the scientific plant names and are in a better position to collect and grow species that are in demand. Invasive non-native species like jatropha, originally planted as a biofuel, are now causing issues. They want advice on how to control it. They want to find out which other plants they can grow here as cash crops. Diversifying the crops they grow including crops they can sell for cash is a key issue here, as it was in Rasuwa. See my last blog, Life in a rural village.

The entrepreneurial spirit runs strongly here too. With these projects, ESON is investigating the potential of sustainable locally sourced energy, cash crops and sustainable local medicine. The next steps will be crucial in developing the projects further to get useful results and practical advice and support back to the villagers. This will mean rolling out the projects beyond the current research stage so that Budhathum villagers really get some results they can use.

It will mean providing training on plant identification, on the cultivation of new crops, on nursery management, on control of invasive species and supporting apprenticeships with today’s traditional healers to ensure their knowledge isn’t lost but continues to benefit the village.

You can help ESON take these next steps by supporting their work. Click on the Just Giving link to the left.

Life in a rural village in Rasuwa District

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.

Gatlang village
Gatlang village

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.

Pasang Tamang & Gomba Chilling, founders of HMHC,  with Deborah Long
Pasang Tamang & Gomba Chilling, founders of HMHC, with Deborah Long

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.