Nepal's Guernica

Written by Philip Holmes on Thursday 11th February 2021

2021 is a critical year for the planet. U.S. Climate Envoy, John Kerry, has described November's COP26 UN climate conference as our last chance to take action and save the planet. In the run up to COP26 it is a huge relief to see Joe Biden hosting a virtual summit for Earth Day 2021 and an important pre-COP26 UN climate conference to be held in Milan at the end of September. As our contribution towards a national and global conversation, on 1st June we will be launching a high-profile and ambitious urban reforestation project that will be timed to be complete by the start of the pre-COP26 conference.

Of course, the climate disaster is already upon us, tangibly so in Nepal which is placed ninth in the Germanwatch Global Climate Index 2020 for most affected countries. The mean temperature in Nepal is increasing by 0.6o C per decade and the once snow-capped mountains are now turning brown.

A Nepalese father releasing his baby's body to the floods

The marginalised, impoverished, rural communities that are living in Pipal Tree's target area, the south-eastern plains (Terai) of Province 2, are facing an imminent existential threat. The Himalayan glaciers to the north which feed the rivers that sustain the agriculture on the Terai are melting. Weather patterns are changing such that farmers have to contend with floods, forest fires and drought that rice as a crop cannot tolerate. And natural disasters are on the increase. The Nepal floods of 2017 affected one third of the country, with the poorest areas worst-hit. 1.7 million people were affected, 461,000 forced from their homes and 143 people perished. We saw so many harrowing images, such as the one of a father consigning his dead baby's body to the flood waters, unable to conduct a cremation or burial.

As we see it, Pipal Tree needs to help deliver the key messages that it is the poorest communities (for example in south Nepal) that are already feeling the brunt of a problem that is largely generated by the rich countries. Not only do those countries need to cut greenhouse gas emissions dramatically, but we also need to help these vulnerable communities become more resilient so that they are able to withstand climate change related disasters. But beyond that everyone must take practical action, however small and wherever we are in the world.

In this crucial year, we will get our messages across by combining a demonstration of what can be done in small-scale reforestation with a striking piece of public art, a mosaic mural entitled "Nepal's Guernica". The focus of the project will be a vacant and neglected public space, Tirhutiya Gachhi Park, in the centre of Province 2's capital, Janakpur. And we need your help!


Centuries ago, Tirhutiya Gachhi Park was wooded (Gachhi is the word for "tree" in the local Maithili language) but in the eighteenth century it was the base camp and a training ground for the local Tirhut army. This army had successfully resisted the attempts of the first king of Nepal (Prithvi Narayan Shah) to unite the nation under his rule by conquest. King Prithvi lost the battles but won the war through a strategic marriage to a local Tirhut princess. This allowed him to take political control, kill his new father-in-law and dissolve the army that had foiled all his ambitious plans. But the legacy of the Tirhut army's resistance remains to this day, preserved in Maithili folklore and acting as an inspiration to local politicians who still have to fight their corner against the disinterest of central government.

The park has enormous potential for tourism, especially given that Janakpur is already a pilgrimage site for hundreds of thousands of Hindus from across the region. Accordingly, local authorities have drawn up plans to develop Tirhutiya Gachhi Park (see right), but these remain funding dependent. However, our local partner NGO, Mithila Wildlife Trust (MWT), has gained consent to plant 900m2 of land inside the boundary wall using the Miyawaki Method. The Method, being used for the first time in Nepal, is a powerful technique, scientifically grounded and perfectly suited to small scale projects that cumulatively can have a major impact. It is primarily of value in urban environments and is most suitable to create dense tiny forests in the area of a tennis court (approximately 250m2). As a simplification, it offers 10:20:30 advantages:

  • It grows ten times faster - a mature forest develops in 20 years rather than in 200 years
  • It is twenty times more biodiverse
  • It absorbs thirty times the CO2 of a conventional forest

This is just the kind of return on investment that we need in the midst of an emergency. The reforestation aspect will involve fencing off a perimeter strip and planting 3,936 native plants (just over four per square metre). Once this has been completed, we have the option of developing a further 1,052m2 within the main site, the section on the right of the above plans. Beyond that, we would try to cover as much of the remaining area as we can with trees as well, striking a balance between nature and cultural/historical interests. Much of the planting work will be done by local school children and student volunteers to raise awareness about the environment and keep costs down. We will also save on expenditure by using saplings donated by Nepal's Department of Forests.

Mosaic art

Our mosaic mural will be designed to be beautiful but also profoundly shocking. We will design a piece that conveys the horror of environmental disaster, commemorating those who perished in the 2017 floods, in the style and scale of "Guernica". This will represent a fusion of three artistic styles; cubism, mosaic and the distinctive, indigenous two-dimensional "Maithili" art of south Nepal. In a direct link with the past, we are thrilled to have secured the artistic services of Picasso's Muse, "Sylvette", who is better known as the accomplished artist Lydia David, and her artist daughter, Isabel Coulton. I will coordinate their inputs with the artistry of young local women who delight in painting in the Maithili style. The mosaic itself will be constructed and assembled by deaf artists whom I trained in an earlier mosaic mural in a different part of Nepal about ten years ago. I am expecting this project to attract huge media attention nationally and internationally. That is critical to amplifying the impact of our project. 

There's more. We will use this project as a focus for engaging with schoolchildren in classroom projects, in field visits and in plantation/artwork. This will involve developing classroom teaching resources that can be rolled out to other schools. Through Greta Thunberg, we have seen how powerful children can be as climate activists and we aim to develop Nepalese schoolchildren as today's advocates, tomorrow's environmentalists.

But we need your help!

Can you help us find a major donor, a corporate or a grant-making body that will become a core sponsor for this important project? The budget is £82,000 and at the time of writing we need to raise £39,100 to turn this vision into a reality. If you can help in this way then please drop me a line. Failing that, please pause to donate a few pounds using this link.

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