How rice became a staple in the hills and mountains – and why that’s unsustainable

|     Tsering Ngodup Lama     |

KATHMANDU (The Kathmandu Post/ANN) – Until a decade ago, in the remote village of Lo Manthang in Upper Mustang, the village fields would be lush with barley and wheat in the months of July and August. Red flowers of buckwheat would blossom and blanket large swaths of fields.

The three grains were the village’s staple: From barley, people made tsampa, usually eaten for breakfast. For lunch and dinner, it was usually dhindo or roti made out of buckwheat or wheat.

“It used to be a beautiful sight,” said Indra Dhara Bista, a 49-year-old resident from the village. “The entire village used to eat these grains.”

But not anymore. Today, the same fields, once luxuriant with local crops, are now mostly barren—and the villagers’ diet has been replaced by rice.

“As a child, I remember eating rice only during Lhosar, our most important festival,” Bista says. “Today, the majority of the villagers eat rice.”

People working on a paddy field. – THE KATHMANDU POST/ANN

It is not just the residents of Lo Manthang for whom rice has become the new staple food. Over the last 20 years, rice—white rice in particular—has increasingly become the entire country’s dominant grain, eclipsing all other major crops, both in production and consumption. This dependence on rice has been particularly alarming for the country’s mid and upper hilly and mountainous regions, where rice doesn’t grow, or even if it does, grows in limited quantities. As a result, local residents in these parts of the country are increasingly reliant on a staple food that is not native to their region.

But how and why did rice become a staple in regions where people have thrived on local grains for centuries, and what does it mean for the country?

In Nepal, rice has always been more than just a grain—it is an indicator of social status.

“Rice was the most expensive of all grains, and in places like Kathmandu, it was the preferred choice of grain for the ruling class of Ranas and Thakuris,” said Joint Secretary at the Ministry of Agricultural Development Yogendra Kumar Karki. “In the villages, the only people who could afford rice were village heads and landowners. That’s how this whole notion of rice as a ‘superior’ grain got ingrained in our society, and it became a grain that everybody aspired to eat but only a select few could afford to.

“As much of the population in the hills and mountains is economically backward, rice was out of their reach. And rice consumption was concentrated mainly in the Terai region, where it grew in plenty, and in the then urban areas like Kathmandu,” says Karki. Grains like buckwheat, millet, barley, etc, that were consumed daily by the majority of the population, were considered inferior.

Up until the 80s, the domestic demand for rice was so low that the majority of rice produced in Nepal was exported. In fact, rice was the country’s largest agricultural export. But from the mid-90s through the early 2000s, the demand for rice began to soar. From the mid-2000s, demand ballooned.

For Madan Rai, a development activist, this surge in the demand for rice is intricately linked with the rise of foreign employment and increasing road access.

“The money that Nepali workers sent home to their families provided many with a steady income, increasing people’s purchasing power. The country’s road network too was expanding, reaching hills and mountains, which made it possible for rice traders to transport rice to villages in the hills and mountains,” says Rai. “So many people started buying rice, the superior grain, and made it a part of their diet. This goes on to show how deeply ingrained this whole feudal mindset is in our country.”

But it is not just an ingrained feudal culture that has led to an unhealthy dependence on rice -the Nepal government and aid agencies have also played major roles, especially in the far west regions like Karnali.

“The government, at the beginning of the Panchayat, started airlifting rice to Karnali to tackle ‘food scarcity’. The truth is, people in the Karnali region have survived on local grains for centuries, and the region never reeled under food scarcity,” says Rai. “What the government called food scarcity was actually rice scarcity.”

Activists like Rai point to a vicious cycle of dependence where many farmers stopped growing local grains after receiving subsidised rice from the Nepal Food Corporation and the World Food Programme (WFP), leading to more ‘scarcities’.

From 1996 to 2010, WFP implemented ‘Food for Work’ programmes in seven districts in the country’s far west and five districts in the midwest. Under the programme, workers were paid in rice. From 2006 to 2012, WFP airlifted mass quantities of rice to ‘drought-affected’ regions, but this only further aggravated the situation.

“If you go to the hills and mountainous regions of the country, you will see tracts of land that once used to be arable, where local grains were grown,” says Rai. “They are now barren or overgrown with vegetation. Many farmers have stopped growing local grains altogether or have significantly reduced production.”

This wholesale shift towards rice in the hills and mountains is costing the government millions every year. The Nepal Food Corporation (NFC) – the government organisation tasked with sending and distributing rice to remote districts in the country – has already sent 15,239 metric tonnes of rice to different parts of the country, so far this fiscal year. This cost the government NPR440 million in transportation alone – out of which, NPR174.52 million, nearly 40 per cent of the total, was spent on Humla. The district, which has a population of just 50,858 people according to the 2011 census, received 1,540 metric tonnes of rice, which comes down to 30.4kg of rice per person. According to government data, the average rice consumption in the country is 87.75kg per capita.

The rice that’s transported to Humla is not enough for the people there, as whatever little rice the district gets is not equally distributed. “People with connections end up withdrawing quintals of rice,” says Rajesh Rokaya, a local from Simikot, Humla. In a remote region like Humla, a 30kg sack of rice costs NPR1,800 at the NFC depot; the same sack costs NPR5,000 at non-governmental outlets. “The difference is a lot of money in a region where jobs are scarce and the cash economy is next to non-existent. Stories of people selling household items, barley meant for their mules, to buy rice are common,” says Rokaya.

In Humla’s neighbouring district of Dolpa, the government has already spent NPR46.49 million to transport 1,200 metric tonnes of rice this fiscal year. Dolpa has a population of just 36,700, according to 2011 statistics, which, again, is 32.69kg of rice per person.