Badri Dahal, a determined agricultural missionary from Nepal's Shankhuwasava District, has adapted many of the most advanced ideas of the world's growing alternative agriculture and appropriate technology movements to serve both the practical needs of Nepal's small farmers and the realities of their special environment. He is building a movement at all levels and in all parts of the country, a movement whose impact is in fact beginning to reach beyond its Himalayan origins.
The New Idea
Badri is spearheading the introduction of new forms of environmentally and economically sustainable farming and forestry. His chief focus is on the family of six that must sustain itself on a half acre or less–60 percent of the nation.
He's helping these families consciously take charge of everything in their environment–the land, the crops, the trees, the buildings and other improvements, and the energy and water they must use. Step by step, each small farm becomes more self-renewing and profitable–and something the farming family understands and takes as its own responsibility.
Badri is building a national network of small demonstration farms, each adapted to the peculiar ecosystem and social patterns of its part of this surprisingly diverse small country. The demonstration farm he launched in Jajarkot District (Midwest Nepal) in 1988 illustrates some of the techniques he's spreading. The farm is self-sufficient in food, fodder, compost, firewood, and maintenance materials, and also generates some surpluses for sale. A wide variety of trees–fruit, fodder, and multiple-use species–grow on all bare and unproductive land as well as around and in the agricultural fields. The farm is experimenting with various low-input and no/minimum tillage ways of raising vegetables, grains, pulses, and legumes. The farm is also gradually weaving in shelter belts, companion planting, zonation, and beekeeping.
As an integral contribution to Badri's dream of hundreds of thousands of prosperous and healthy small farms, he's also championing the development of stabilized (e.g., one-seventeenth cement) mud-brick construction. Badri is demonstrating this technique in his new headquarters and training building. He managed to persuade the Agricultural Development Bank of Nepal to finance a demonstration low-cost home in West Nepal using these mud-brick techniques.
He's also developing or planning several national backup services beyond the network of demonstration farms. Training services are central, but he's also working on plant nurseries, seed exchanges, and other ways of preserving the diversity of the country's self-germinating germ plasm.
Badri's outreach is extraordinary–from carefully phased and paced approaches appropriate to individual farmers to his researching and championing the creation of a national coalition of environmental organizations. This "green non-political pressure group of NGO representatives," according to Badri, would "provide information for, and feedback on, environmental issues to the ruling/opposition parties" in newly multiparty Nepal.
Nepal's population growth is steadily reducing the size of the average holding and forcing farmers to try to expand into what used to be forest and up the hillsides. At the same time, traditional farming approaches and restraints are giving away to more western "green revolution" techniques. The cumulative effects of these changes have weakened Nepal's environmental underpinnings and consequently put the small farmer increasingly at risk.
The impact of deforestation and letting fields climb the hills unsafeguarded is notorious. The ill side effects of green revolution techniques are somewhat more subtle but also increasingly understood. The latter's heavy dependence on chemical inputs increases costs and therefore the farmers' risk if anything should go wrong. These chemicals impose numerous health risks; they literally kill the life in the soil that gives it much of its value, make the crops more vulnerable to disease and attack by feeding them erratic but almost always highly unbalanced diets, and poison birds and other natural pest predators. Radical removal of the natural groundcover, typically composed of plants with strong, permanent root systems, in favor of rows of single-species food crops (generally weakly plants that reproduce by producing a great many seeds), invites the massive soil erosion now taking place.
Getting hundreds of thousands of small farmers to sustainably manage their piece of Nepal requires both ambition and pragmatism. Badri is setting out to influence everyone from individual farmers to government ministries and ministers.
He's developed training approaches specifically designed to connect with small farmers. For one, he works with them on their own farms. He begins with simple, modest things that fit with how they farm now–not by attempting a sharp jump. Thus, for example, he'll help farmers put in a segment of living fence, one that not only serves as a fence but also produces firewood and fodder, checks rain runoff and erosion, fixes nitrogen in the soil, and is largely self-maintaining. Such easy and effective early steps lead to logical next steps–and to the farmer becoming the responsible planner of the family farm rather than the passive receiver of either tradition or set "development" formulas defined far away and conveyed downwards through public and private extension agents.
Probably the centerpieces of Badri's practical mission to spread these ideas are the model farms he's setting up in every part of Nepal. Although he's been running the first one directly and another now is on the grounds of a school, his preferred pattern is to work out the following sort of arrangement with a local farmer. His Institute for Sustainable Agriculture Nepal (INSAN) provides a manager and many of the needed inputs for the farm. The manager and farmer work closely, but this arrangement allows each model farm to become a full-scale, commercially successful demonstration within a year or two. In the process, it also allows INSAN to learn how to modify its approaches to fit the special characteristics of that part of the country.
Once a model farm is up and running in an area, it gives farmers and others in the area the ability to visualize concretely what this alternative idea is and how it works.
Badri also has his eye on development organizations, social organizers, and other possible intermediaries. His institute gives a series of training courses geared chiefly to this constituency. He's also now working to develop special curriculum units for both elementary students and ninth- through eleventh-graders that he hopes to persuade the school to adopt.
Badri's sense of those he must influence is even wider. He is, in fact, somewhat critical of "first-world colleagues who prefer to stay with only their own types" (in the alternative agricultural movement). "The mainstream has all the resources," he says. "We must change its direction. I need to hug the mainstream. Many alternative agriculture champions criticize those working in the major institutions, which hurts them and invites resistance."
How does he hug the mainstream? He invites the key staff to his training sessions, and he gets the Secretaries of Agriculture and Planning to inaugurate his major events. He consciously seeks out and tries to interest the World Bank's representatives.
He's also reaching out to the international alternative agriculture movement. Initially, before he could develop Nepalese barriers, he relied on several first-world pioneers to conduct training sessions. Now he's becoming an actor–hosting a major Permaculture Congress in 1991 and suggesting an international structure that might help adjudicate disputes.
Badri remembers that, as a boy, when his immediate family moved away from the joint family home, he stole some seeds so they could plant fruit trees near their new home. Later he gave seeds away to others. This early engagement with growing things took root.
Later, when his persistence led him to success in school and a foreign scholarship to study at Allahabad University in India from 1969-74, he earned a B.Sc. in agriculture. He later complemented that with a B.A. in economics from Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu (1974-75) and an Australian Graduate Diploma in agricultural development economics (1979-81). Here he was a rebel, feeling that much of what he was being taught was not useful for Nepal and much of the developing world.
When he returned he took on a consulting assignment to evaluate the ecosystem of Phewa Lake in Pokhara District. This experience crystallized his doubts. "It made me realize the effect of soil erosion, forest clearance, and the efforts of people to grow more food on dead soil," he says. "This made me realize that my knowledge of modern agriculture and ability to play with the economic jargons could not offer any viable solutions to the problems of people, and immediately I made up my mind to find approaches that could fulfill the needs of people without degrading the environment."