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Dana and I just returned from a long, arduous and wonderful trek to the Upper Arun River Valley in Nepal where the Medicinal and Aromatic Plants project you have supported is flourishing.  (photo #1)  The area is so steep and isolated that in 10 days walking up the valley in a place where everyone farms, we saw neither a road nor a single wheeled implement, not even a wheelbarrow. (photo #2)  We were amazed to see how in the short time of 5 or 6 years, the MAPs project has become an integral part of and support for the ancient Tibetan culture of the Upper Arun.  Of the 2,400 Bhotia households in the villages in the area, 1,900 are now cultivating MAPs plants and selling them across the nearby border in Tibet.
            We visited eight of the villages engaged in MAPs cultivation and talked to many of the women and men involved in MAPs farming.  We were impressed by the enthusiasm and commitment everyone has for the program.  Some villages have 100% participation. We walked with Karma, whom we supported in starting the Upper Arun MAPs program 7 years ago, and with three Mountain Institute field staff who work with the villagers to implement the program.  They are all from the Upper Arun and show an intense dedication, sense of purpose and talent for the work they do.  As Jyabu commented, "Everyday I do social work."  Everywhere we went, the field staff was greeted with warmth and appreciation.
            In Chyamtang (photo #3) we were happy to see Goba Jamyang Bhotia and his wife Chhijik, whom we knew from our previous visit. (photo #4). They work together cultivating about 12 acre of Chiraito (Swertiya chiraita).  Previously, Goba was sometimes a porter and sometimes a farmer.  Now, with MAPs income, he can stay at home and just farm - both MAPs and traditional crops.  Last year they made enough money from MAPs sales to help pay for replacing their old bamboo mat roof with a new blue metal roof (photo #5). With the new roof in place, they intend to use their MAPs income to help send their grandchildren to the new private boarding school in nearby Lingam.  The boarding school, a step up from the neighboring free government school, was started by two young entrepreneurs who likely saw an opportunity created by the new source of income to pay for better education.
            Goba bought 500 grams of Chiraito seeds for next year and is already becoming self-sufficient as a Chiraito farmer.  Now he wants help learning to grow Satuwa (Paris polyphylla), a higher cash value MAPs product.  Goba is 58.  He says that as he gets older he will still be able to farm MAPs because they are less labor intensive and vulnerable.  When asked why the MAPs program is important, Goba made an important observation about the value of the MAPs project to the community: "Everyone is cultivating MAPs, not just the rich people, so everyone is doing better."
            In Hungung we stood in a harvested cornfield and talked to Phupu Bhotia.   Along with her family, she cultivates Chiraito, but is most proud of the 500 hundred high value Satuwa plants she is growing in a steep, shaded
gulley behind her house. (photo #6)
When asked what she would do with her MAPs earnings, Phupu said that she would use the money for household expenses and her children's education. She has 5 sons and 3 daughters.  Several years ago they were having financial problems and could not afford food and education for all of the children.  And so, they got a lama to take away two of the boys, aged 6 and 10, to study to be lamas in India.  If the MAPs program had come earlier, perhaps Phupu could have kept her family together. 
            In Syaksila we went to a house, part of which is a cave.  In the cave next to the cooking fire we met 19-year-old, just married Yazung Bhotia. (photo #7)  Yazung belongs to a women's group that grows MAPs crops as an informal cooperative.  In addition, she grows Chiraito with her family, including her 27-year-old brother Mikma Tenzing Bhotia who has 3 children.  Next year they will have their first harvest.  They want to invest their earnings in the education of their children and of younger brother and sister.  "Maybe someone will go to Kathmandu and study to be a teacher or a doctor."
            Cherjik Ma Bhotia is the president of a women's group in Chepuwa that also grows Chiraito. (photo #8)  Last year they earned $290 and expect to earn $500 next year.  Borrowing money in Nepal is exorbitant; any location to even consider borrowing money is several days walk for Chepuwa. The women's group lends its earnings to members at 1% interest. Incidentally, Cherjik Ma's women's group has 27 women and 9 men.
            Entering the program nearly 5 years ago, Dawa Nuppu Lama of Chyamtang, was one of the first MAPs farmers. (photo #9)  He recognizes the value of the program to the community and the importance of the fact that the plants can be grown in places not suitable for traditional crops ­ retaining walls that create terraces for rice and millet, shaded gullies, and exhausted old steep-slope slash and burn fields.  (photos #10 and 11)  

(MAPs training successfully discourages new slash and burn agriculture.) "MAPs cultivation is good for the whole community because it gives everyone a chance to earn money.  It allows us to use land that otherwise would be of no use."  Dawa has grown cardamom, potatoes, millet, etc. - "It is all expensive to plant and you have to deal with weather and disease, and with animals like deer, pika and sometimes bear. Deer don't eat Chiraito."
            Scattered over 952 rugged square km of the Upper Arun, the Bhotia villages constitute what might be called a supplemented sustainable community.  The lifestyle is sustainable subsistence farming but the land does not produce enough to subsist on, to provide food security in the event of crop damage or the income to acquire better education, health care and amenities such as metal roofs, reliable water sources and efficient, vented cook stoves.  To earn supplemental income, some villagers, particularly men, have traditionally left the Upper Arun to become porters (essentially human mules) or find jobs in Kathmandu or abroad.  This may result in jobs left undone on the farm, absentee fathers, or elderly parents without adequate family support and an erosion of social cohesion.
            As Karma put it:  "As the population grows, the economy needs to be supplemented.  To supplement, people have had to leave, to go elsewhere to work, to carry good on their backs.  When people leave, they don't do the work in the village and in the fields.  Carrying goods on the trail is one way to get extra income, but Chiraito helps people stay in the village to be with children and each other.  Maybe it will help keep the fabric of the community from unraveling." 
            As MAPs crops are maturing and more and more land unsuited for traditional crops is being planted, the MAPs project is beginning to interrupt this pattern of needing to leave the Upper Arun to supplement income.  As a widely shared activity, MAPs cultivation is being woven into the community culture, and as a source of supplemental income, it is helping to strengthen and stabilize that culture.  At the end of a long evening discussion with MAPs farmers in Syaksila, one man summed it up when he said that the MAPs program is "a way to solidify culture and community."

How will the MAPS program affect the present and the future of Bhotia culture in the Upper Arun River Valley?
(photos #12-15)

            What needs to be done in the next two years?  1. Extend MAPs opportunities to small, difficult to access villages not currently participating in the program. 2. Establish marking strategy and infrastructure that will increase to farmers a higher percentage return of the ultimate value of the product they are producing.  3. Help establish cooperatives and shared facilities to increase efficiency and market power. 4. Expand the variety of MAPs species under cultivation, particularly high value species.  5. Continue refresher training and support for MAPs farmers, especially those who have recently begun the program, and provide additional trainings for the field staff. 
                Please let me know if you have questons about this wonderful project. If you are interested in supporting the Upper Arun MAP Project, please contact Rand Jack at

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