A very special District in Nepal
Pipal Tree has been operating in Dhanusha District, Madhesh Province (until last month known as "Province No 2"), since my first visit there in February 2020. The Province, which is in the plains (Terai) of southeast Nepal, is Nepal's most populous, yet in many ways most overlooked by central government. It has the highest rate of child malnutrition nationally. There are so many barriers to social progress - linguistic (only 11% of the population speaks Nepali as a first language), religious, ethnic, gender and lack of citizenship, to name but some. Sometimes the poverty can feel quite overwhelming for the visitor. Besides that, there has been some terrible environmental damage inflicted in recent years, including by ruthless "developers", illegal fellers have ravaged the forests and a sand-quarrying mafia has destroyed river systems. The culprits are protected by corrupt, myopic and selfish politicians who have concern only for their back pockets.
These vulnerable people and marginalised communities stand in the frontline of climate change. They are the victims of that dreadful injustice seen elsewhere in the world as they experience the adverse effects of climate change that are caused by others, including in neighbouring India and China. Their livelihoods are imperilled by rapidly changing weather patterns, their lives at risk from natural disasters such as floods. Yet, the people maintain a certain dignity and there is a rich cultural tradition that cannot be suppressed. This is exemplified by the indigenous Maithili art that the women paint - often on the walls of mud huts - expressing a beauty and their hopes for a brighter future that lie within.
I am proud that Pipal Tree is there to help these neglected communities to help themselves, to restore their forests and provide education to children (and to girls in particular), training and employment opportunities to women. Through this post, I will offer a little snapshot of what I was thrilled to witness and some indications of how we see our initiatives developing over the coming year.
We work through two so-called "implementing partners" in Nepal; it is not permitted for overseas charities to conduct projects directly themselves.
In Dhanusha District, our partner is the NGO, The Mithila Wildlife Trust (MWT), which has its head office in the provincial capital, Janakpur. The leading conservationist and social activist Mr Dev Narayan Mandal set up MWT in 2013 following his return from working with SOS Animal Rescue in India between 2004 and 2012. There's a coincidence here in that between these dates I was living in Nepal when I was heading up the rescue of trafficked Nepalese children from Indian circuses. So, our paths didn't cross in Nepal although they might well have done so in India. For Dev happened to be involved in the rescue of Sloth Bears from the last circus that we removed children from in April 2011, the highly dangerous Great Apollo Circus in Dehradun!
Now his Trust is the only NGO that is working for wildlife within community areas as opposed to inside national parks. And Dev sees that community engagement as being a vital ingredient to success.
On this visit, I was struck by just how well networked MWT has become under Dev's low-key, yet passionate, leadership. For not only is it firmly embedded within the community but it also has strong working links with Community Forest User Groups (CFUG's), the Department of Forestry, other NGOs and within the world of academia.
I loved hearing about how Dev's team has been so hands-on in challenging areas such as snake rescue. From time to time snakes stray into village areas in search of shelter and food. Rather than killing them, villagers request MWT's support to ensure the snakes are caught humanely and safely returned back into the forest. Last year, MWT rescued 97 snakes, the most common of which is the highly venomous Spectacled Cobra. Each rescue provides an opportunity also to educate. A crowd gathers quickly at the site of a rescue and MWT staff therefore has a ready audience for giving advice on snakebite management. Snakebite mortality has been reduced significantly through MWT's public engagement in this way, the key advice being the importance of seeking immediate medical help within the first "Golden Hour" after a bite. Timely use of anti-venom saves lives whereas losing time by consulting with village "healers" is terminal.
Our second partner is the Kathmandu-based social enterprise, Lily's Leaves, that we helped establish in October 2020. The organisation is so-named after its Founder, Mrs Lily Katuwal, and the intention at the time to develop sustainably forest products such as leaves, natural fibres and essential oils, sourced in Dhanusha District. Pipal Tree's commitment is to cover the first five years of Lily's Leaves operating costs until it can become self-sustaining through sales of products and grants for training from other sources. The trainees and workers are vulnerable young women who are identified from Dhanusha District and from Kathmandu valley itself. The latter group include four young deaf women who are being trained as skilled jewellers.
Because of COVID travel restrictions, last year the core aim of developing forest products had to be suspended in favour of providing high quality residential training in tailoring (basic and advanced level six-month courses) and silver jewellery manufacture. This has been part of our "Empowering Girls in Nepal" project that funded the set-up and operation of a training and production centre and a nearby hostel for trainees.
It is remarkable that, in spite of COVID, Lily's Leaves managed to achieve all of its first year objectives, including in terms of training. This is testament to the commitment of Lily and her core staff; they don't give up readily!
We have been supporting reforestation projects at two levels in Dhanusha District. The first of these is a community reforestation project involving 52 hectares of denuded and apparently infertile land to the north of Janakpur. This project launched in June 2020 and is ongoing. The second project area, that launched in December 2021, is the pioneering of the "Miyawaki Method" of creating tiny, rapid-growth forests where less land is available.
Bhatighadi/Murgiya Hariyali plantations
Back in early 2020, when Dev first considered reforesting the Bhatighadi community forest area, he was advised by Forestry experts not to bother. Nothing would grow on what had once been a river bed. The ground consisted of sand and gravel and previous attempts to plant saplings had failed. Undeterred, and following key funding support from the Gemma and Chris McGough Charitable Foundation in the UK, he made a start. When I visited, I was able to see for myself that the saplings have survived and are ready to flourish when the monsoon rains arrive in three months' time. In fact, the saplings exhibit a 93% survival rate compared to the average 18-20% survival at other community forest plantation sites. What have been the ingredients of his success? Probably the simplest answer is that you can't do this "on the cheap" and if you try to, the money is totally wasted. Specifically:
- The plantation area must be secured with (reusable) cement posts and chain-link fence. This prevents domestic animals such as goats and wild animals like deer from grazing the land. Even then, large deer such as Blue Bull have shown their ability to jump fences and the plantation requires patrolling.
- Pits that are up to one metre across and half a metre deep need to be dug to receive compost and imported fertile soil. Dev tells me that the thousands of regular pits that have been prepared are actually visible on Google Earth!
- After saplings have been planted - all 75,700 of them - they require watering. To that end, a private donor funded the purchase of a tractor and water tanker that allows water to be transported to this remote area. By the way, good relations are fostered with the Department of Forestry by lending the tractor when it is not in use for other non-MWT reforestation projects. These include for watering the trees that have been planted in the central reservations of new roads that now radiating out of Janakpur.
- Funds also need to be invested in control of weeds and other invasive species. There is a constant band of very happy women working in the plantations to prevent the saplings from becoming engulfed.
- Central to the success is a strong local partnership comprising committed CFUG's, the Department of Forestry (which donates all the saplings free of charge) and MWT. Note that last August the Bhatighadi CFUG scooped a national prize, the Ganeshman Singh Award, as the top CFUG out of 22,000 CFUG's across Nepal. It was the dedication of this CFUG that ensured only a handful of saplings were lost in the wildfires that swept Nepal last summer.
This project is more than about just planting saplings and providing short-term work and the prospect of long term livelihoods to local people. For Dev took me to see the research that is underway in one section of the Bhatighadi site. We met two college students who are collecting data to establish the most successful approach to sapling survival, especially in terms of retaining water in the pits. They were measuring such criteria as pH, humidity and temperatures for a range of species and different substrates in the pits. The substrates included Water Hyacinth compost (an invasive species), hydrogel (a biomedical polymer) and even used surgical facemasks. The data these young women are collecting will inform future plantation work in inhospitable terrains. When I asked Dev if he was inputting this information to an academic centre in Kathmandu, he replied, with a smile, that MWT would publish directly into a top scientific journal.
Finally, there has been one further recognition of our success at Bhatighadi. Through his pre-existing contact with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), Dev has managed to secure a grant that will allow the forest to become a pangolin conservation area. The pangolin is highly sought-after in China through the illegal wildlife trade for its scales and meat. The ZSL will pay for alternative livelihoods for 60 families while providing a safe haven at Bhatighadi for this critically endangered species.
Future plans: The work on the Bhatighadi plantation started in May 2020 and at nearby Murgiya Hariyali in March 2021. Both projects are scheduled to end in July, after which time we expect minimal upkeep to be necessary. Our follow-on project that will launch at the end of May will be a new Gurkha Memorial Forest that will create a wildlife corridor for safe migration of endangered species. The corridor will follow the course of the Baluwa river that runs south from Murgiya Hariyali to link with the Dhanushadham Protected Forest, a last vestige of virgin forest that once covered the Terai. Details of this exciting project to follow.
Possibly our most exciting project visually is the Dhanushadham Bird Park that is taking shape not far from the future site of the Gurkha Memorial Forest. This involves creating a nature reserve using a rapid-growth forest technique as designed by Professor Miyawaki in Japan. Essentially the technique involves excavating to a depth of five or six feet, placing a layer of compost, replacing the topsoil and then, counter-intuitively, planting saplings in close proximity to one another (nine per square metre). Rather than competing, the saplings seem to support one another and, if the saplings are chosen appropriately, can produce tree cover at three height levels creating a great ecosystem for wildlife. The forest will grow ten times faster than a conventional forest plantation with increased carbon sequestration potential while cooling and cleaning the air of an urban environment.
The Miyawaki Method is suitable for small areas of land - the size of a tennis court is the minimum - that may be all that is available in an urban setting. The Method has been used in India, Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere, but we have been pioneering it in Nepal. One of our aims is to use this as a demonstration site where one section is being reserved as a conventional plantation that will act as a control. Already, the project has attracted keen media interest and Dev has been approached by others who wish to copy the Method, which is exactly what we want!
The project is being conducted by phases as funds come available. Phase 1 got underway at the end of last year with a major earthworks operation on public land that returned a river that had once skirted the site to its original course and dam building to keep it there. And of course the plantation had to be fenced off as described above. The site secured from potential flood risk and animal intrusion, in December MWT invited the local community and nearby schools and colleges to take part in an exciting day's work on behalf of Planet Earth. Each of 57 households in the nearby village was given a sapling to plant. In total, 12,150 saplings were planted, comprising 76 species some of which had become locally extinct. Two months later, I gazed over a site that seemed ready to burst into growth come the monsoon rains.
Then came the start of my contribution with the installation of the first two of my glass mosaics of native Nepali birds that I made previously in my studio in Devon. Ten more will be sited at the Park over the coming year, recognising the support of some individual donors and Foundations. On this visit I was particularly pleased to install a Pitta Bird mosaic in acknowledgement of the funding support of the lead donor, The Jephcott Charitable Trust (UK) and a White-throated Kingfisher in memory of my friend and leading Soroptimist Carys Brown who passed away at the end of last year.
Future plans: Phase 1 of the project has now been completed, aside from the siting of new mosaics. Phase 2 is fully funded and launches this month. We have identified a further area of land that can be used to extend the forest under a Phase 3. We expect this to be the basis of a matched funding appeal in the week of 22nd - 29th April under the Big Give Green Match Fund. See the map below to gain an idea of the layout of the forest.
I am very pleased to accept commissions at a minimum of £500 each (material costs are approximately £200 and my time is "free") if you would like to leave your mark in Nepal too! When the park is completed, it will be not only a haven for birds but a major tourist attraction that will ensure its sustainability. For further information, mail me.
Pipal Tree is enhancing education for the poorest and most marginalised in Dhanusha District also at two levels; we have been supporting mainstream schools through capital and revenue funding and developing a successful Community Learning Centre model.
The largest school that we are supporting is Shree National School at Bhatighadi. This community school serves the children of the CFUG families i.e. many lower caste and ethnic minority groups. Unfortunately, out of the 540 or so children who are eligible to attend from within the school's catchment area, only 240 do so. That is scarcely surprising, given that the school (which dates from 1961) is dilapidated and under-resourced. Children and their families see attending school as a waste of time. Through incremental development of the school as funds become available, we are seeking to achieve a standard that is as good as the best of the local private schools. The Chairman of the school committee is also the Chairman of the CFUG and he has pledged that he will encourage families to send their children to a refurbished school.
Our support started last year with the appointment of a teacher support officer, Ms Jina Tamang, whose secondary role is to liaise with families and motivate them into taking up this new educational opportunity. Jina is well qualified for the role as she had been teaching in a private school (so is well aware of the standard we aspire towards!) and is from the local community, herself a member of an historically downtrodden caste. Over the past six months, through 100% funding provided by Guy's Trust (UK), we have been able to build a computer room, addressing one bizarre shortcoming - the school having a computer teacher but no computers! It was a real pleasure for Gemma and I to officially open the facility, doing so through a Facebook live-link with Guy's Trust supporters. The build was completed within budget, the small surplus being carried over to the next classroom development.
The second school that we helped out last year was a Madrasa that serves the Muslim community in Dhanushadham. The Muslim community is generally considered to be worse off than the lowest of the Hindu "untouchables". A Hindu would have no truck with a Muslim with deep suspicions fuelling segregation. Since his return from living and working in India, Dev has worked towards breaking down those social barriers, including inviting Muslims to join events and share food. His example is now being followed by the rest of the community and relationships have become very good. This was further helped by the MWT offer to build an extra floor on the Muslim school, the Madrasa, using grant funds provided by our friends at Hatemalo in Germany and the UK registered charity, Last Night a DJ saved my Life. This was the first time that any outside organisation had offered to help the school and the gratitude that I experienced during my visit was very tangible. That said, the offer came at a price and that was that the children should also be encouraged to join the mainstream education available at the local community school. This represented further integration, but also addressed the underlying issue that the Muslim education (teaching in Urdu) was not recognised within Nepal. Now children can follow the national curriculum and obtain worthwhile certifications. Our progress in terms of numbers has been excellent. Before this build, only 66 children were attending the school regularly, due to space limitations. Now there are 138 regular attenders. Of these, 102 children are also taking part in mainstream education.
Future plans: Our next major goal at Bhatighadi school is the renovation and refurbishment of four classrooms (estimated cost £20,000) and the demolition of an existing classroom to make way for a two-storey block of four classrooms (estimated cost £51,000). Once these tasks are complete, we will need to purchase desk/chair units for 400 students at an estimated cost of £5,300. At the Madrasa, the Principal asked if we could help with the construction of a compound wall around the very large site, estimated cost £8,400.
Community Learning Centres
MWT has been providing extra tuition support to the children of the Musahar ("rat-eater") and Dom communities in Dhanusha District, these being the lowest castes within "the untouchables". This is designed to provide children who attend under-resourced mainstream schools with the extra help with homework that they cannot receive at home from parents who are largely illiterate. This assistance is designed to counter absenteeism and drop-outs. Girls are especially at risk since dropping out of school almost leads automatically to child marriage. The younger the girl, the lower the dowry payment and girls as young as 12 are becoming married, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
The results have been dramatic. The initiative started in 2013 with just 28 children attending a Community Learning Centre at Dhanushadham. By 2020, these had increased to 90, at which point we built a new centre to provide additional space. Since then, the numbers have swollen further to 286 and this year we will be building a second centre, five minutes' walk away, to accommodate the older children. This has become the only community in south Nepal where 100% of Musahar children attend the mainstream schools. Most telling of all was Dev's comment during our visit: "The children come to our centre to get educated; they go to the schools to get the necessary certificates."
There has been a further benefit in that the tutors are young people from the same community who are attending college. The modest salaries that we pay allow them to cover college fees and living costs so that they have a chance of completing college and entering professions. Two years ago, one of these tutors and his brother moved on from their appointments to join the Nepalese army, being the first members of the Musahar caste ever to do so. Young people such as these not only teach but inspire their younger brothers and sisters in their studies.
I visited the centre with Gemma, whose Foundation had funded the building project. During the visit, Gemma distributed coloured pens and stationery which was very well received by the children!
Future plans: We now have a highly successful model that we can roll out to the other seven Districts in Madhesh province. We will continue to build centres (approximate cost £25,000) as funds become available. The annual operating costs in terms of tutor salaries and material costs such as stationery comes to approximately £5,000 per Centre.
Knowing Lily Katuwal as I do, I was not at all surprised by the sense of industry at the Lily's Leaves training and production centre in Kathmandu. When I visited, these young women were working skilfully to meet orders for face masks and school rucksacks, while in the dispatch area bundles of goods were awaiting distribution to paying customers and as charitable gifts to the poorest children at community schools. Lily visits these schools in person to oversee the process, taking the opportunity to speak to girls - and boys - about subjects such as menstrual hygiene and girls' rights.
Just a few months ago, the centre would have been even busier while it hosted the tailoring training courses at basic and advanced levels. These have been temporarily suspended while Lily and her team research new post-COVID opportunities and restructuring.
Future plans: There are two immediate objectives:
- The set up of a satellite training and production centre in Dhanusha District: This will be staffed by young women who were trained in tailoring skills at Lily's Leaves in 2021 - the trained women themselves becoming the trainers. This will allow future trainees to be taught in their own language (Maithili rather than Nepali) and will be more cost-effective through there being no need for residential facilities. We expect this centre to become operational mid-2022.
- Pilot projects to develop forest products: We are now ready to move forward in exploring how to produce natural fibres and essential oils, linking in with MWT's community forest programme. We have identified a distillation apparatus that can be borrowed to trial the production of oil from Pire grass, the oil having medicinal uses. Pire grass grows prolifically in the forest and is indeed one of the "weeds" that has to be cut away from around our new saplings.
Onwards and upwards in 2022!