Almost all farmers in Aiddhungra, Budechaur and Bagargot villages have abandoned maize and millet farming due to increasing incursions by wild animals
Farmers in the western Himalayas, already reeling under the impacts of climate change and growing outmigration, now have to contend with another threat: wild animals raiding crops.
“I grow vegetables on just one-third of my cultivable land. The rest is fallow,” shared 75-year-old Bharati Budhair to a team of researchers, who recently visited Aiddhungra village in Bhageshwor Rural Municipality, Dadeldhura, to understand contemporary agrarian issues in Nepal’s mid-hills.
“We have been unable to grow much because the climate is so unpredictable. And now these wild animals destroy everything, leaving nothing for us,” added Budhair.
Budhair began working at the land at a young age to help her family produce cereal crops — their primary source of livelihood. But lately, a multitude of primarily climate-related factors have hampered agricultural productivity so much that her farm’s yield can feed her family for barely three to four months a year.
Increasing incursions by wild animals, mostly wild boars, from neighbouring forests have increased over the last decade. Since boars prefer to feed on cereal and potatoes, Budhair’s family has been forced to switch to cultivating vegetables and buy cereal staples from the market.
The vegetables they do grow have to be limited to small, scattered plots of farmland. Budhair’s story is representative of the suffering of hundreds of other farmers in Dadeldhura who have had to give up cereal farming in the face of depredation mostly by wild boars, monkeys and porcupines.
“A group of wild boars entered my field and destroyed the entire wheat crop in five minutes,” recounted Dharam BK of Nawadurga Rural Municipality, Dadeldhura. He estimated that five quintals of wheat were destroyed in that single incident.
He and his fellow farmers routinely spend sleepless nights, guarding their fields against wild boars and porcupines. According to government policy, wild animals can only be driven away, not killed. So the animals have a free run of the fields.
Daytime does not bring reprieve either. Monkeys mostly make their raids during the day. They feed on almost everything: from cereals like maize, wheat and barley to fruits like banana, pear, peach and orange. It is extremely difficult to ward off the animals and fences do not seem to deter them.
Farmers have tried placing animal traps to check wild boar and porcupine incursions, but that too has not worked because these animals quickly discover the traps and change their routes.
Crop raiding has become so extreme that almost all farmers in Aiddhungra, Budechaur and Bagargot villages have abandoned maize and millet farming. Potato cultivation has shrunk by almost 60 per cent. So, although the agro-ecological conditions in Dadeldhura are exceedingly suitable for growing traditional cereal crops, farmers are forced to leave their fields fallow.
Doing so ultimately impacts livelihoods, household food and nutritional security, and the environment. Fallow lands are often quickly over run by alien invasive species, which is another major threat to the ecosystems and neighbouring farms.
Growing local cereal varieties, which are rather climate adaptive, could have sustained the community’s resilience to climate change-induced shocks and maintained the rich agrobiodiversity, thus securing food and nutritional benefits.
Crop depredation is also a major problem in neighbouring districts like Bajhang and Baitadi, and even in districts beyond the border in India. Farmers in Naikina village, Pithoragarh district, Uttarakhand, have also had to leave acres of arable land fallow over the last 10 years owing to the wildlife menace.
To address this problem, it is important to understand underlying causes. Crop raiding could result from a growth in herbivore populations, the loss or decline of their natural predators, and the degradation of natural habitats.
In Dadeldhura’s case, 76 per cent of the total land area is under forest cover, yet the frequency of wildlife incursions has increased significantly. According to forest officials, the problem is monoculture: most are pine forests, introduced over time by successive administrations to restore degraded areas.
Pine trees are notorious for depleting groundwater. In addition, pine trees produce phytochemicals that inhibit the growth of other plants, so there is no understory and forage for herbivores.
Unsurprisingly, Dadeldhura’s pine forests now face water and food scarcity, which is why the wild animals are raiding farms. Farmers believe that this is also related to the change in government policy that prohibits killing of wild animals, a preferred way to control crop damage in the past. Some farmers feel that it is time to allow selective culling.
To make matters worse, most farmers are not being compensated for their losses. In 2019, 68 farmers demanded a total compensation of NPR 1,350,000 from the divisional district office of Dadeldhura, but only around NPR 650,000 was approved.
Dadeldhura’s restored forests make for a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of re-growing degraded community forests.
Careful considerations about possible human-wildlife conflict should inform reforestation policy. In this case, restoration should have ensured the structure and function of diverse natural forests.
Perhaps, then the farmers would have been able to focus on farming and battling climate change impacts and even explore growing in-demand crop varieties. For now, they have their hands full dealing with crop raiding by wild animals.
(This column is a personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Down To Earth)
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