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Tuesday 21 February 2006
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NEPAL: Food insecurity and market access in contested districts

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

©  Naresh Newar/IRIN

Most mountain districts, like Humla, pictured, are regarded as food deficit areas. Humla has one of the worst food deficits in the country and the Human Development Index of the area is believed to be one of the lowest in the world.

KATHMANDU, 2 Feb 2006 (IRIN) - Food shortages during the pre-harvest seasons of March and August have been part of life in rural Nepal for decades. Since the start of the Maoist insurgency in 1996, analysts have been concerned about the impact of the conflict on a rural population that already lives near or below the global poverty threshold.

Until recently, much of the available information in Nepal on the impact of conflict on food security, agricultural production, nutritional status and market access has been largely anecdotal. A recent exception to this is vulnerability monitoring by the World Food Programme (WFP), which started in the far and mid-western districts of Nepal in October 2002.

WFP data offers a broad insight into the scale of the problem. Earlier this year, this UN agency reported that 39 of Nepal’s 75 districts were food-deficient, with serious constraints to food access in many mountain districts. An estimated 60 percent of rural households could not produce enough food to meet their basic requirements and were in need of supplementary help.

Identifying what food defecits result from conflict, as opposed to chronic underdevelopment, has been difficult.

In September 2005, an non-government organisation's (NGO's) field assessment found that the nutritional and health status of people varied markedly depending on the area visited. It also confirmed that the conflict had been a catalyst for the deterioration in the living conditions of most of the population.

An earlier study, conducted by David Seddon and Jagannath Adhikari in 2003, challenged some preconceptions. The exodus of young people from rural Nepal has long been held as a cause of agricultural decline. It has also been suggested that food security was made much worse due to livestock depletion by the Maoists or security forces.

In fact, Seddon and Adhikari maintain that farming has been kept up by elders who have largely remained on the farms, while the depletion of animals has affected specific communities, but has not been a general phenomenon.

Instead, the study found that by far the most significant impact of the conflict on food security, has been the reduction in physical movement, which has “reduced the volume and value of goods transported and services provided”.

Market access in Rukum District

Lack of access was confirmed by local farmers in Nepal's Rukum district. While they had little trouble working the fields, their greatest obstacle was the inability to move freely around the district. This had deprived them of vital supplies, seeds, the ability to graze livestock unhindered, and most importantly, access to the local market.

Speaking anonymously, farmers in a village 4 km from the district headquarters, Musikot, claimed local Maoists restricted the movement of people or goods in the area and especially into the army-controlled hill town.

Frequent political strikes and government curfews mean that goods from villages often will not reach markets in district centers. Many villagers, such as this goat trader in Rukum, have to take difficult and dangerous routes around the district.
Credit: Naresh Newar/IRIN
“We are a farming community. We produce foods and take them to the district market. But we have been completely denied that access,” he said.

This had put the farmers in a conundrum. “Going to market under cover of night and hoodwinking local leaders is extremely risky,” he said. Farmers here were also at a competitive disadvantage, as other villages without a permanent Maoist presence were more able to smuggle food into Musikot much more easily and safely.

The entire local market had changed due to the conflict, said the farmer. They were now being instructed by local Maoists to take their produce to other parts of the district that were not under army control.

A nearby village, Sakhe, used to be the main potato supplier for the area. “Now they don’t grow as many potatoes and don’t bring them here [Musikot]. Instead they have to take potatoes to markets that are much further away,” he said.

A local agricultural supplier based in Musikot, Prem Jung Malla, said business had been very bad over the last five years. “There’s been very little movement to the district town, and the other side [Maoists] stop people from leaving the villages. People are scared of both sides of the conflict, so movement has dropped,” he said.

The restrictions on movement have directly affected crop production, as farmers were not able to secure agricultural inputs at the right times of the year. Malla said the Maoist blockades could last for several days at a time, and disrupt supplies so much that farmers would not have sufficient fertiliser or inputs to maximise their yield.

“Sometimes they just miss their sowing seasons for certain crops,” said Malla.

Maoist fees and taxes

According to the farmers, the local Maoists now had control of the most profitable local businesses, including forestry and the herbal trade. The area was rich in one particular herb called yasha gumba, which was sought after in India for its medicinal properties.

To make matters worse, the farmers were being pressured to sign up with the local Maoist business committee, for which there would be a joining fee. “So again they are raising money from us. But if we do decide to sign up with them, then the army is going to suspect us of having become Maoists,” a farmer explained.

Equally unpopular was the rebels’ tax regime. In the past, only traders dealing in herbs and crops would be responsible for paying taxes. Since the Maoists had arrived, ordinary farmers were also expected to pay. Maoist taxes ranged from 1 percent for food, up to 10 percent for luxury items. Alcohol was prohibited and televisions were subject to a 50 percent charge.

Local traders said there was no option but to pass these taxes on to farmers, which in turn meant they could spend less on agricultural inputs.

Temporary Reprieve

The unilateral ceasefire introduced in September 2005 has made a significant difference to movement in the Rukum district, as the local Maoists are rarely seen. Although people are still extremely wary, goods are now arriving on time and farmers are venturing out from the villages to buy essential seeds and supplies.

A farmer from Rathamartha, Sashi Ram Oli, who had travelled to the district town to buy seed potatos, stated that he would never have made the journey had it not been for the lull in the fighting. Prior to the ceasefire, he would rarely leave his house, except at night to check irrigation canals and livestock, he said.

His frustration was palpable: “They need to settle this conflict at the centre. I would follow whoever is in government. But my life as a village farmer is hard enough. I don’t need all this.”

Food crisis or not?

WFP currently monitors over half of the 75 districts in Nepal and will be extending its monitoring to 19 new districts in 2006. WFP Representative in Kathmandu, Erika Joergensen, maintained that the results reflected chronic food insecurity in the hills and mountains, but did not point to an imminent food crisis. However, she did acknowledge the situation could deteriorate.

“We could easily see increased vulnerability in those areas where we’ve seen movements of people. We could certainly see increased needs if people started to move,” she said.

To date, WFP’s approach has been to supplement local food intake, with food-for-work and education projects. “We firmly think that the best approach is to reinforce the structures already in place,” she said. This approach was well-received by local communities. The food-for-education programme had led to a rise in attendance at schools, particularly among girls, while the food-for-work schemes have led to road building in some districts.

The food security projects, which support 450,000 people per day, were considered to be “80 percent effective”, with a portion of projects suspended for “a number of reasons” - a reference to the difficulties of working in contested areas, where food aid may be blocked by one side or the other.

Joergensen said not a day went by when she did not question whether they had “got it right with the current approach”. But she did not think that the current situation warranted a shift to a relief mode, which could undermine WFP’s aid in support of local structures.

Due to increased insecurity since 2003, WFP and NGO partners had introduced Quick Impact Programmes to 10 badly affected districts. In addition, a new software and satellite communications technology was being introduced to enable WFP in Kathmandu to track the national food security situation more accurately - on a weekly basis, instead of every month.

Joergensen was also taking the precaution of ordering in special communications and logistics equipment in the event WFP was called upon to react quickly to a crisis.

Pockets of Vulnerability

A field assessment by one international NGO, Action Contre la Faim (ACF,) in September 2005, highlighted very different nutritional and health conditions, depending on the district visited.

Yusuf Hammache, Asia Desk officer for ACF in Paris, said the report was an opportunity to dispel polarised views that Nepal is either a development challenge or facing an apocalyptic crisis.

For example, conditions in Kathmandu or on the Terai (the southern plain along the border with India) and some parts of the far west, were best suited to a development approach as economic exchanges and amenities continued to function relatively well, he said.

However, substantial regional variations mean Nepalis do not experience the year in the same way. Other districts had witnessed seasonal food gaps, forced or voluntary migration and increased vulnerability.

“It has become clear to us that there are pockets of vulnerability in the country and the conflict has been very much the catalyst for the degradation,” he said.

Mark Segal, conflict adviser in Kathmandu for the UK’s Department for International Development, maintained there could be sudden deterioration at a local level. “Some local communities are very vulnerable, very poor and could be pushed over from a tolerable, manageable situation into a real crisis,” he said.


 Theme(s) Democracy
Other recent NEPAL reports:

Grave danger for civilians due to the conflict,  21/Feb/06

Terrorism or liberation? Life in a rebel-held village,  20/Feb/06

Overview analysis: A people’s war?,  20/Feb/06

The political context of the crisis in Nepal,  20/Feb/06

Escaping rural violence and hardship – the reality of displacement,  17/Feb/06

Other recent Democracy & Governance reports:

ZIMBABWE: Mugabe delivers broadside to neighbours, 21/Feb/06

SYRIA: US funding offer for NGOs draws mixed reactions, 21/Feb/06

UGANDA: Official campaigns end two days before polls, 21/Feb/06

SOUTH AFRICA: Govt adopts more focused approach to help orphans, 21/Feb/06

ANGOLA: Ready to play larger security role in Africa, 21/Feb/06

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