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Composed in 2013, below is the story and photographs of a remarkable project in the remote Upper Arun River Valley of Nepal - the Upper Arun Valley Medicinal and Aromatic Plant (MAP) project,  a classic "teach a man to fish" tale. 

Meeting Karma:

In 2000-01, Dana and I lived for a year in Kathmandu.  During that time I did volunteer work for The Mountain Institute (TMI), an American non-profit dedicated to conserving mountain environments while improving the quality of life for mountain peoples. 
At one point TMI asked if I wanted to go on a two-week trek to scout out the site for a new Nepali national park on the Jaljale Himal, where forests of 34 of the 36 native varieties of rhododendrons grow.  This was an exploratory trek with a group of Nepali men who worked for or contracted with TMI.  I was directed to go to a small, airport where someone would meet me with my ticket.  When I asked how I would recognize him, I was told that he would recognize me; I would be the only person there with a white face.
At the appointed time, I went to the little airport and waited awkwardly while looking around for someone who looked like they were looking for me.  A beautiful, slight young man approached and said "Rand, sir."  After a moment I realized he was talking to me.  He said, "My name is Karma.  I have our tickets on Cosmic Air."  I knew immediately that everything would be fine, and thus began a great adventure that led to my writing this letter. 
The Jaljale trek turned out to be more of a challenge than anticipated.  One man fell and broke about 4 dozen eggs he was carrying (which inspired a giant omelet); we got lost; a snow storm buried our tents; the trails were sometime vague, steep and icy; we ran out of food and in one day had to drop 9,000 feet into a valley in search of something to eat, a search that produced a bag of sugar and a goat. I soon noticed that Karma, who had been contracted for the trek, was always by my side, and when we were descending a particularly steep and icy trail, Karma gripped the back of my collar. I soon realized that his main job was to bring me back alive.
As the trek went on, I became increasingly impressed with Karma.  He was intelligent, observant, thoughtful, diligent, reliable, curious, courteous, and patient, traits not often found in young men in Nepal.  While the rest of the guys, some regular TMI employees, were playing grab-ass or throwing rocks at yaks, Karma was recording in a notebook what he saw around him ­ soil erosion, plant varieties, overgrazing, harvesting of rhododendrons for firewood.  When we returned to Kathmandu, I told the TMI director what an exceptional person Karma was and urged him to hire Karma as a TMI employee. He did.
The Bhote People and our trek to the Upper Arun Valley:
Over the years, Karma and I stayed in touch.  He regularly invited Dana and me to go with him to his village in the Upper Arun River Valley to meet his family and his people.  The Arun River enters Nepal from the Tibetan Plateau and flows between Makalu and Kanchenjunga, the world's third and fifth tallest mountains.  The people of the Upper Arun Valley belong to the Bhote ethnic group.  Like the Sherpas, they migrated from Tibet to Nepal 500 to 600 years ago, but unlike the Sherpas, they settled in the relatively obscurity of the Upper Arun Valley next to the Tibetan border, rather than on the route to Mt. Everest.  The area was closed to foreigners until 2003.
In 2007, the armed insurrection in the mountains of Nepal had quieted, and we finally accepted Karma's invitation to walk with him to Chyamtang, his village in the Upper Arun ­ an eight-day walk.  Rather than hiring commercial porters to carry our food, tents, etc., I asked Karma to find men from the Upper Arun Valley who had come for work to Kathmandu so that we could pay them to go home for a visit.  Karma had not been home for several years and his six-year-old son Pemba had never seen Chyamtang.  Pemba decided to walk, or as it sometimes turned out, run with us.
The Upper Arun River Valley is stunning.  After the first three days we saw no other foreigners.  The trail, maintained only by local villagers, sometimes disappeared under recent rockslides.  We climbed over a makeshift bridge made of sticks lashed together with vines.  News of Karma's arrival spread by word of mouth.  As we approached Chyamtang, we were greeted by Karma's family and friends, dressed in their finest clothes and adorned with heirloom necklaces of amber, coral, and jade.
Though culturally rich, the Bhote people of the Upper Arun are very poor subsistence farmers with annual family incomes of about $125.  In a tough, rocky environment, they grow millet, maize, barley and potatoes.  Most farmers raise a few goats, pigs or chickens.  All work is done by hand, with occasional aid from an ox.  Food scarcity is a constant problem, a problem that becomes acute with any crop failure.  Slash and burn agriculture is widely practiced.  Poverty driven deforestation and over harvest of wild medicinal plants for sale in Tibet are serious problems, as are illiteracy and lack of health care and sanitation.
Bhote people are Buddhist, but their Buddhism is mixed with ancient pre-Buddhist beliefs.  Shamans and lamas share responsibility for mediating between the physical and metaphysical worlds.  They have a special observance to ward off crop damaging hailstorms. 
For a week we slept on wooden pallets in the smoky house of Karma's brother, joining the life of the village and visiting other settlements nearby.  It was a fascinating and heartwarming time.  When we got ready to leave, so many people put garlands of flowers around our necks that we could not walk.
The beginning of the MAP project:
On the way back down the Arun River Valley with Karma, we began to ask "why not a project cultivating medicinal and aromatic plants (MAP) for the Bhote people in the Upper Arun such as Karma had started in another area of Nepal?"  The people are smart, industrious and used to working cooperatively.  They love and trust Karma.  Though suffering from overharvesting, medicinal and aromatic plants grow wild in the region.  A virtually limitless market exists among the Chinese and Tibetans just across the border and beyond in China itself.  And most importantly, there is nothing Karma would rather do than bring a better quality of life to his people, and he knows how to do it.  
In 2008, Dana and I agreed to fund the first two years of the Upper Arun River MAP project.  In 2009 we brought Karma to Washington for 5 weeks and arranged training visits for him with a local native plant nursery, the Washington State University Agricultural Experimental station, a large herbal plant company with facilities here, and several small organic farms.
The MAP project:
In the Upper Arun from 2010 through 2013, Karma and his team trained and supported 1,296 farm households in the propagation, cultivation and harvesting of medicinal and aromatic plants, impacting the lives of well over 5,000 people in remote mountain villages several days walk from the nearest road. Nurseries have been constructed, including shaded seedbeds and low bamboo and clear plastic greenhouses. Women's groups, clubs, cooperatives and multiple households are working together. TMI has distributed seeds to participating households. 95% of the MAP trained farmers continue to participate in the program, gradually enlarging their cultivated areas.  Of the 452 farmers trained in MAP cultivation this year, 42% are women.
Earnings from MAP cultivation are accelerating because harvest of most plants begins in the second or third year.  In 2014, 350-400 of the early participants are expected to become self-sufficient in their ability to produce and purchase seeds.  MAP farmers have more than doubled pre-MAP income and some have increased pre-MAP income several-fold.  Earnings in 2014 are expected to increase 60 to 70% over 2013 levels.  This is a life-altering boost in a region where traditionally families survived on an income of less than $125 a year. 
Increased income from MAP cultivation has already precipitated significant life changes in the project area. The added income has increased food security in the Upper Arun Valley and supports community water and sanitation projects. MAP cultivation provides an alternative source of income for young people who might otherwise migrate to the cities or abroad in search of work.  Farmers are now spending MAP income on their children's education, sending them to boarding schools and college.
Farmers are also using their higher incomes to purchase metal roofing to replace bamboo mat roofing.  The bamboo mats require replacement every three to four years, necessitating harvesting of the locally threatened bamboo species that grows very slowly and is a source of food for the Red Panda and Himalayan Bear.  By using metal roofs, the pressure on these species is reduced. MAP farming has also provided an alternative source of income to the illegal harvest and sale of timber to Tibet/ China apractice degrading  to local ecosystems. And, cultivated MAP products are replacing the environmental damaging and unsustainable harvesting of wild plants.
MAP income has also made possible the low-cost purchase of efficient cook stoves brought to the Upper Arun by TMI to replace traditional open, unventilated indoor cooking and heating fires. The new stoves reduce unsustainable wood fuel harvesting by up to 50%, often from wild rhododendrons, and decrease extremely unhealthy indoor air pollution, a problem with which Dana and I became very familiar when we trekked to the Upper Arun with Karma. TMI is bringing an additional 200 cook stoves to the Upper Arun in 2014. 
In the picture below, Rinen Bhote sits next to her new cook stove, supported by the old metal cooking frame.

Fifty-four year old Rinen from the village of Pharang was widowed 20 years ago.  All of her life she has depended on traditional knowledge and hard farm labor to barely maintain a subsistence livelihood.  In 2012 she learned of the MAP program.  Though nervous about departing from the traditional practices of village life in the Upper Arun Valley, Rinen saw an opportunity to change her life and enrolled in the MAP training program.  She now cultivates several MAP species on about a quarter acre of land. 

Through TMI, she has used her MAP income to purchase an efficient cook stove that is vented to the outside and uses about half as much fuel as her traditional open hearth cooking.  Renin says that she is already healthier because of the smoke-free environment in her home.  Next year she expects to earn enough from her MAP production to pay for her 20-year-old daughter Ching Chippa's college education, something unimaginable before the MAP project came to the Upper Arun.  For her earlier education, Ching Chippa had to walk three hours a day; now she will be the first person from the village of Pharang to get a college education.  Rinen says that the MAP project is a way to help empower women economically.

Below are some photographs from Karma to help you visualize MAP cultivation in the Upper Arun Valley.


Support for the Upper Arun MAP project:
Dana and I continue to support the Upper Arun MAP program because we believe we can do more good for our dollars here than we can anywhere else we have ever seen.  A relatively small amount of money can significantly aid a fragile mountain environment and make lasting changes in the lives of many people, including children who otherwise would be frozen into a life with little opportunity and considerable risks.  People are learning skills that will vastly increase their quality of life and that can be passed down through generations. We know the people on the ground doing the work and have complete confidence in their dedication, frugality, competence and character. 
Through contacts in Nepal and in the U.S. office of TMI, we are able to monitor the work that is being done.  This October we will visit the Upper Arum MAP project.  We feel that it is a real privilege to participate in this adventure, and I taken on responsibility to raise the money needed to support the Upper Arun MAP project.  With help from a couple of friends and three small foundations, I have been able to raise  $40,000 to $45,000 annually for the project for the past four years. 
I have made arrangements with TMI that any money we donate or that I raise will go directly to this project with nothing taken out for TMI overhead.  TMI is a U.S. 501(c)(3) organization, so contributions are tax deductible.

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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