In the eastern Himalaya, climate change and its impacts are making farming a less predictable livelihood for mountain communities. Generating extra income to make up for potential shortfalls is more important than ever. Fortunately, through some hard work and innovation, large cardamom is proving to be a potential boon for farmers in this area.
Because large cardamom can be grown only under specific conditions – such as those found in the eastern Himalaya – growers can produce a niche crop that can demand high prices in the market.
Farmers have noted this trend: large cardamom has become the most important cash crop in eastern Nepal, southern Bhutan, and in the Sikkim and Darjeeling Hills of India. Large cardamom grows in hilly areas on marginal lands having gentle to medium slopes and loamy soil. Not only does it provide an additional source of income but cardamom cultivation helps restore ecological health in areas where it is grown.
However, in recent years, large cardamom farmers have faced numerous challenges to sustain production, primarily from pests and disease, climate change impacts, and fluctuating market prices. Over the last three years, the price of large cardamom has plunged almost threefold following a significant drop in international prices. The price plunge has left a large number of farmers worried.
To help maximize the gains and sustainability of large cardamom in these areas, ICIMOD’s Himalica programme is working to develop “climate-resilient value chain development” for large cardamom. The value chain approach is a holistic development of cardamom farming, from the field to market. Its philosophy is grounded in the “nature-people” relationship that characterizes farming in the eastern Himalaya.
With support from the European Union, ICIMOD’s Himalica program has partnered with the Environment Conservation and Development Forum (ECDF) in Taplejung, Nepal for the past two years to confront these challenges. Farmers from around the region can visit 12 pilot demonstration farms to view and learn about climate-resilient practices for growing large cardamom. These site visits are complemented by training and on-site coaching from local farmers and technical experts from ECDF. These pilots also feature demonstration plots for other farm products, such as kiwi, shitake mushrooms, and bee keeping.
Besides farm demonstration, Himalica also focuses on issues of post-harvest processing, packaging, and providing more efficient paths to markets where these products can find a larger consumer base.
Through these simple, low-cost and climate-resilient practices, Himalica hopes to build capacity of farmers to produce and promote high-value, mountain-niche products that can fetch a healthy sum in the market place. In Taplejung alone, more than 400 households have adopted some of the practices on display in these pilots and they are reporting positive returns on their investments. Together, these packages of climate-resilient practices will enable mountain-farming families to anticipate and recover from changes or shocks to their production systems, thus insuring their health and livelihood in the long run.
The approach in Taplejung can be replicated in any of the value chains throughout the Hindu Kush Himalaya and beyond. And the individual practices can also be easily adapted and adopted by local communities in other areas.
Topics like these will be discussed next month at ICIMOD’s upcoming conference: “Resilient Hindu Kush Himalaya: Developing Solutions towards a Sustainable Future for Asia” from December 3-6. Sharing ideas and knowledge in forums like these will go a long way towards building resilience in mountain communities.
Examples of Climate Resilient Practices
Weather smart practices — Selecting crop varieties based on weather trends (e.g., drought and/or frost tolerant). Weeds should be left intact until winter passes to prevent field frostbite, particularly on new plantations. Harvesting should be delayed when rainfall is predicted. Mulching can be used to protect the bases of bushes from snow.
Soil and nutrient smart practices – Plant leguminous trees or shrubs for soil nutrients. Apply cow urine or “jhomal” as natural fertilizer and pesticide. Intercrop nitrogen-fixing pulses or beans to enrich the nutrient base. Thin out older (>15 years old) and dense alder trees. Use slashed pseudo-stems, weeds or leftover fodder resident with dung for mulching to conserve soil moisture. Plant marigolds in cardamom fields to control harmful insects.
Water smart – Dig several pits throughout the plantation to store water during the rainy seasons. Make water ponds above the plantation to improve soil moisture. Create plastic water ponds to hold water after monsoon. Use sprinkler irrigation during dry periods at least twice a week.
Energy smart – Promote an improved dryer model that consumes less fuel wood and emits less carbon. Use hard wood species such as chilaune and katus that provide more heat when burned. Monitor flames consistently while drying cardamom pods and reshuffle the capsules to improve the moisture content.
Knowledge smart – Promote ICT-based information market prices, and distribute weather and crop advisory services to help producers minimize risks and increase bargaining power. Create social capital in communities by working in groups and cooperatives. Facilitate buyer-seller meets and buy-back arrangements, and engage producers groups in collective business enterprises.
Contributed by Min Bdr Gurung
Institution Development Analyst, Livelihoods at International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD),
Surendra Raj Joshi is the Programme Coordinator – HIMALICA Initiative at ICIMOD and
Harish Chandra Chilwal is the Himalica Project Coordinator of ECDF.