The needs of millions of indigenous mountain people across Nepal are overlooked, imperilling their food security and hindering their economic progress, activists and experts say.
“People in the mountains of Nepal are worse off in terms of total poverty - food and non-food poverty,” said Jean-Yves Gerlitz, co-author of a recent study on mountain poverty, and statistical analyst at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), an intergovernmental regional organization based in the capital, Kathmandu.
In assessing the government-administered Nepal Living Standards Survey (NLSS) of 2003/2004, the authors noted that 40 percent of the 12 million people living in the mountainous and hilly regions of Nepal were below the poverty line (US$91per year), compared to a national average of 31 percent of 29 million people.
Nepal is divided into three geographic zones - the northern mountains, central hills, and southern plains - each extending lengthwise through the country. The population is disproportionately distributed across these zones, with half residing in the plains, 43 percent in the hills, and only 7 percent in the mountains.
While data from the 2011 NLSS reveal a declining national poverty rate - now at 25 percent - indigenous mountain groups still fare worse.
ICIMOD says mountain and hill communities, compared to those living in the plains, have less access to “improved” sources of safe drinking water and electricity, and live hours away from road networks, markets and financial services.
Difficult terrain “aggravates the problems of access to essential services such as health, education, and livelihood support,” the report pointed out.
Households are more likely to be headed by a family member without formal education, and with more youth leaving to seek work in urban centres or abroad, the women, children and elderly are often left behind to bear the work burden, Gerlitz said.
General planning, special needs
National plans and development strategies generally apply to the country as a whole, and fail to address the particular needs of mountain dwellers, said Kiran Hunzai, ICIMOD poverty analyst and co-author of the agency’s recent report.
This has also been the case in the development of national climate change policies and programmes, said Ang Kaji Sherpa, general secretary of the Kathmandu-based NGO, Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities.
Indigenous groups were not consulted in the writing of the National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA) to Climate Change, despite their increasing vulnerability to erratic weather patterns, Sherpa told an international conference that convened mountain countries in Kathmandu in April 2012.
In recent years the Nepalese government has also cordoned off large areas of land for conservation and reforestation, displacing large numbers of the local population, who have had little say in the matter, Sherpa said.
“They have been forcibly migrated, and their livelihoods have been affected. All of this should be taken into account when Nepal is implementing its adaptation or mitigation policies.”
Batu Uprety, technical joint-secretary at the Ministry of Environment, Science and Technology, maintained that representatives of the indigenous communities had participated in an open consultation on the NAPA, and that the root of mountain poverty is not neglect, but rather the difficult terrain, he told IRIN.
ICIMOD’s Hunzai noted that not all mountain communities are isolated.
A recent UN report has called for greater focus on mountain development.
“Covering about one-quarter of the world’s land surface, mountains provide a direct life-support base for about 12 percent of the world population, as well as essential goods and services to more than half of humankind,” noted the report's authors.