Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018


Food insecurity in upper Humla: A fallacy or reality

Written By:


March 15, 2015


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Rabindra Roy, PhD

Rabindra Roy, PhD

Humla is one of the poorest and least developed districts of Nepal. Humla – a mountainous district – possesses harsh climatic conditions with rain shadow region and rugged geographic terrain. Humla has a population of 40,749 of which 51.57% is male and 48.43% is female according to census 2001. This population is distributed in 6,974 households and an average household size is 5.8. The population density is 7.21 persons per km2. Humlis [people of Humla] lives in compact settlements with flat-roofed, two and half storied houses built in the Tibetan style. Simkot is the district headquarters of Humla, which is situated at elevation of 2,945 masl. Humla has been divided into three regions namely lower, middle and upper Humla. The division is based on the location from Simkot. Lower Humla is situated in the south of Simkot; north and north east of Simkot are known as middle Humla; and, upper Humla, which lies north-west of Simkot.

Womens carrying rice in Humla, one of the most remote district of Nepal

Womens carrying rice in Humla, one of the most remote district of Nepal.

This article is based on the study conducted at two Village Development Committees [VDCs] viz. Khagaalgaun and Syaandaa of upper Humla to look at the daily livelihood. Khagaalgaun and Syaandaa VDCs have unique attributes in terms of social groups represented in Humla. Khagaalgaun VDC are occupied by Lama social group who belong to the Tibeto-Burman language group. Chhetri-Thakuri and Dalits social groups dominate in Syaandaa VDC who represent the Indo-Aryan language group. Language spoken by the Lama social group is known as Lama language. The language spoken by the Chhetri-Thakuri and Dalits is generally called Humlis Khas language which is similar to Nepalese language however Humlis Khas language has different pronunciation than Nepalese language. Lama social group is locally known as “bhote” and “Jadaan”, whereas Chhetri-Thakuri and Dalits social groups are called “topitaale” and “Khasaan”.

Khagaalgaun VDC has a total of 195 households with total population of 1,318 [male 53.19% and female 46.81%] and, Syaandaa VDC has 302 household with a total population of 1,844 [male 49.84% and female 50.16%] in 2008. Family size per household was 6.76 in Khagaalgaun and 6.11 in Syaandaa VDCs.

Food Security

In Humla, food security is the most fundamental need and has been addressed by the delivery of subsidized food. Before the emergence of “chartered rice”, famines were not a prominent feature of Humla. The supply of airborne subsidized rice since mid 1970s has increased the dependence on this staple. But more than 60 percent of subsidized rice is allocated to government officials working in Simkot including security personnel. Moreover, poor people do not have enough money to even buy subsidized rice.

The Government of Nepal has been providing subsidy rice to Humla since past 30 years. It annually spent more than NPR 60 million in air-transportation to charter rice and salt to Simkot from either Surkhet or Nepalgunj. This subsidy rice – however – is not enough to feed all Humlis, and the distribution is only confined within Simkot and other village development committees in its vicinity. This practice has engendered a recipient mentality among Humlis and further promoted a rice-based diet or “Bhaate Culture” among all social groups of Humla. Cultivation of indigenous cereal crops such as barley, foxtail [Kaaguno], Panicum [Chino] and finger millets [Kodo], buckwheat [Tite and Mithe Fapar], amaranth [Maarshyaa], beans [Simi] etc. has been declining every year. Another problem of a more psychological nature is the mindset of many Humlis to see themselves as “people apart” and to regard everyone else as outsiders, even people from other parts of Nepal, who are referred to as “Gorkhalis.”

Humla is still a neglected region. Government officials, who are posted in Humla, feel punished, and keep trying to get transferred to another district and leave Humla as early as possible. Thus, development of Humla has remained at a low level.


Livelihood activities

In Humla, agriculture combined with trading is the mainstay of livelihoods. Most cultivated lands, however, are marginal in terms of soil fertility, and situated in difficult terrain. As a result, agricultural production cannot support to feed every member of household throughout the year. Trade is the other important pillar of livelihood in upper Humla. People living in upper Humla used to be dependent on trading salt and food grain to the northern and southern parts of Humla to supplement their agricultural livelihoods. The trade has a six months cycle. The movements of traders have been inhibited by internal changes of Nepal, such as the establishment of community forestry, which is closing off areas to herders and obstructing the passage of traders using sheep and goat caravans.

The study revealed that the total average food sufficient months for both Khagaalgaun and Syaandaa VDCs was 7.83 months [235 days] per year. Food deficits are generally experienced from mid-February [Falgun] to mid-June [Jestha] and from mid-August [Bhadra] to mid-October [Kartik].

In Khagaalgaun and Syaandaa VDCs, agriculture is the major livelihood activity. Livelihood activities to make money are trading and employment. The trading activities include NTFPs, timber, pack animals transportation, Furu [wooden bowl used for drinking Tibetan tea and local liquor “chhyaang”] trading, operation of small shop. Employment includes daily wage labor work in development activities as seasonal employment and regular employment in GOs and NGOs. Cash income from these activities is used for buying foods, clothes, medicine, expenses for children’s education, and other household requirements.

Feeding habits

Wild edible plants: livelihood option in food deficit period

The rotten rice distributed by WFP in Humla in 2008.

The rotten rice distributed by WFP in Humla in 2008.

Humlis take two meals a day. Humlis usually do not take a third meal in between the morning and evening meals. Lakkad, Roti and Chino bhaat are the major food stuffs consumed in regular meals in the study areas. Lakkad is the most commonly and regularly consumed food stuff and is made from bitter buckwheat and prepared as a pan cake [buckwheat cake]. It is the main course in the regular meals in Humla. Roti [flatbread] made from wheat flour, and from a mixture of wheat and millet flour is another food item. Humlis eat chino bhaat prepared from panicum millet [Panicum miliaceum] and cooked as rice “bhaat”.

The Lakkad and Roti are mostly supplemented with wild edible plants such as the tender leaves of the stinging nettle [Urtica dioca] throughout the year except during the period of mid-May to mid-June when the plant is usually found to be infected with insects, and between mid-December to mid-January when the plants are dry. In addition, the stinging nettle is consumed more between mid-March to mid-May when food deficit reaches at the highest level [peak]. In these months, every household has less stock of food grain. To cope with the situation, Humlis mix stinging nettle with bitter buckwheat flour, and cook it in water and prepare soup which they call Faando in Humlis Khas language. In this way, Humlis coped during food deficit months, and fulfilled their nutritional requirement from wild edible foods. Since oil was not needed in the preparation of Faando it was considered to be good for the health [since boiled foods are regarded as healthier than oily foods], and at the same time it saved money. In this connection, Humlis preferred stinging nettle more than vegetables such as cauliflower, cabbage, pumpkin, brinjal etc., because according to them it tastes better than other vegetables, particularly the vegetables grown from hybrid seeds distributed by the District Agricultural Office under the Government of Nepal and some other NGOs working in the agricultural sector/s. In the Humlis‘ experience, vegetables grown from hybrid seeds do not taste as good as wild edible plants, and it is necessary to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides to grow them, whereas the stinging nettle is found in the natural environment, and is organic. Additionally, stinging nettle is easily available in nearby settlements, farmlands and pasturelands.

In this context, Chakra Bahadur Buda [40 years old] of Syaandaa village said, “We would be dying of starvation if ‘God’ had not give us this stinging nettle. The combination of the curry of stinging nettle and Lakkad is the best among all staple plants available in Humla. This wild plant is life for us.”

Dry leaves of “baanko” [Arisaema flavum] and bhaande paaltaa [uncultivated bitter buck wheat] [Fagopyrum tataricum] are used as curry in the winter when stinging nettle is less available due to snowfall. Tender leaves of baanko are collected during the months between mid-May and mid-July and dried under sun light, and stored for consumption during winter.

Tuber of baanko is used as the main course of meals during mid-August and mid September when there is less food grain in store because they had already consumed food grains from Jethaansi baali [summer crops] and are waiting to harvest the Kaartike baali [winter crops]. When baanko tuber is consumed in regular meals, Humlis called the process, Chhaaka taarne, which means saving food grains.

Cultivation of economically valuable NTFPs species

In Karnaali region, during food deficit periods, people often rely on wild edible plants such as the tuber of “Baanko” [Arisaema flavum] stinging nettle throughout the year. Thus, wild edible plants are supplementary foods to cope with the food deficit periods and therefore, wild edible plants become major part of daily livelihood. And, the sale of economically valuable NTFPs species is another livelihood option to earn money and to buy food grains. These direct consumptive values of NTFPs play a pivotal role in livelihood, since, the region has been facing food deficit from many years due to the harsh climatic condition, physical inaccessibility and lack of other facilities in agricultural sectors. Food deficit periods are experienced by every household in Karnaali region. Their extent and intensity depends, however, on the amount of land available to each household and on its productivity. But these problems could be addressed through cultivating available economically valuable NTFPs species both in private and community land as a main source of household income to reduce protracted food deficit crisis in the region. This could be one of the main livelihood options after agricultural production.

Selling of NTFPs species was a key livelihood opportunity found in the study VDCs. People from the study area collected these NTFPs species nearby government forests and pasturelands and, sold them to the local brokers at respective villages. About 72 percent of the total households were involved in this business as a primary collector. People involved in the collection of NTFPs species depended on the human resources available at households. The main tradable and economically valuable NTFP species were “atis” (Delphinium himalayai), “jatamansi” (Nardostachys jatamansi), “kutki” (Picrorhiza scrophulariiflora) and “guchchi chyaau” (Morchella conica).

It was recorded that primary collectors sold “atis” at the rate of NPR 600 to 800 per kg at the village market. “Jatamansi’ was priced between NPR 60 to 100 per kg, while the price of “kutki” was fixed at around NPR 180 to 230 at the village market. “Guchchi chyaau” was sold at NPR 10 per piece [NPR 10,000 per kg]. The price was fixed according to the market demand at Nepalgunj and the quantity available at the household level. Thus, if a household collected more quantities of any NTFPs species, it earned more, and the household had more bargaining power with the local trader. It was noticed that people from both Khagaalgaun and Syaandaa VDCs used only their free time in collecting NTFPs, and took this job as a secondary source of income, to be indulged in only during their spare time.

Economically valuable NTFPs species were found to be depleted. The reasons were both over-collection and premature harvesting. Because of food deficiency, people are under pressure, and need to make money from NTFPs collection. There is also a competition among primary collectors to collect more NTFPs. In addition, local traders sometimes encourage the primary collectors to collect more quantities, particularly of those species with a higher market demand.


In the upper Humla, Humlis are engaged in various livelihood activities such as agriculture along with trading and employment to fulfill their basic household needs. Agriculture alone is not capable of addressing the problem of food insecurity. Cultivation and trading of economically valuable NTFPs species have high potentials to mitigate the existing food deficit problem in the studied VDCs. Humlis invest more time and labor in agriculture throughout the year, and government agencies and NGOs working on development sectors have also given more priority on the improvement of agricultural production even though agriculture has limited potential for improvement due to the conditions of harsh climate and rugged geographical terrain. In this context, this study concludes that the cultivation of economically valuable NTFPs species in the unproductive private agricultural land has a greater potential to improve the precarious livelihood in the studied areas, which does not yet receive due attention from development agencies. In this context, ‘one NTFP species, one village’ approach would be suitable option.

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