CULTIVATING the future in the HIMALAYAS

|| By Lynn F. Monahan; Photos by Sean Sprague

With snow-capped Himalayan peaks towering overhead, Maryknoll Father Joseph Thaler leaves the village of Melamchi-Gyang and begins a three-day, 25-mile hike to visit other mountain villages of Nepal.

From an altitude of more than 8,000 feet, the missioner, a Sherpa guide and three companions descend 2,000 feet, cross a small river on a narrow wooden suspension bridge and make a grueling two-mile climb up the next mountainside to the village of Tarke-Ghyang.

There Father Thaler plans to scope out possibilities for implementing an income-generating project to improve the livelihood of the local people and help preserve their traditional Himalayan cultures. After trekking more than four hours, the missioner from Covington, Ky., arrives at Tarke-Ghyang.

“It’s one of the more beautiful villages that you would see in Nepal and most of the houses that we’ve seen are empty,” Father Thaler, 64, says. “It would be nice if people could stay in the village, but for many of the young people, there are no jobs here. … We just see elderly people and maybe 10 children under the age of 15.”

 Father Thaler, left, was surprised by the enterprise of Nepalese villager Chinn Dorjee Lama, right, who began a fungiculture business after taking a workshop on mushroom growing.

Father Thaler says working-age Nepalese in villages like this across the Himalayas have sought work outside the country, where they are exploited as cheap labor and young women are easily trafficked and forced by desperation or threats into working in brothels. Others, he says, live in deplorable conditions in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, where as many as 10 people may cram into a tiny apartment that lacks good water and is without electricity most of the time.

To give young people reasons to stay in villages like Tarke-Ghyang, the Maryknoller works with a Nepalese non-profit organization called Trans Himalayan Environment & Livelihood Program, or T-HELP for short. The local organization, some of whose members are successful Nepalese business and professional women, seeks to develop and promote income-generating projects in the rural communities, especially for women and indigenous Himalayan people, with technologies that are environmentally friendly to the sensitive alpine ecosystems.

A few days before beginning his trek, Father Thaler stopped to visit Chinn Dorjee Lama, a 32-year-old man in the tiny community of Thimbu. Dorjee has been able to remain in his village because of training in mushroom cultivation he received in a T-HELP workshop.

Mushrooms for eventual sale sprout from straw-filled plastic bags in Nepal’s Himalaya Mountains, where Maryknoll helps villagers develop marketable products. On facing page, villager Lari Sherpa shapes charcoal briquettes made from brush and waste organic material.

“Everybody told me, ‘If you start mushroom farming, this is good for you, better than going overseas,’ ” says Dorjee, who spent six years working in Malaysia. While back in Nepal to see his ailing father, he attended a training program on mushroom growing. After the training he decided to invest in growing mushrooms, using the money he would have spent flying back to Malaysia. With this money he built a straw thatched building in which to grow mushrooms. To date, he has 250 plastic bags stuffed with sterilized straw and seeded with mushroom spores. Cuts are made into the sides of the bags and mushrooms grow out of these holes.

“Basically this is just starting, so I am thinking I want more mushrooms,” he says, adding he plans to expand as he develops markets for the mushrooms.

Father Thaler says Dorjee has taken the T-HELP training and run with it. “I was shocked to see what he has built,” the priest says of the mushroom shed as large as a two-car garage. Production of mushrooms in Nepal is insufficient to meet demand, in part because of tourism, he says.

With prospects for earning a living at home, Dorjee plans to stay in Thimbu and get married.

The lack of jobs and the flight of young people abroad is draining human resources and having a devastating impact on Nepalese society, especially in the rural communities, says Yankila Sherpa, a member of the T-HELP board of directors and a former Minister of Culture, Civilization and Tourism for Nepal.

“There’s real social damage being done because young people are leaving the families,” she says. “Children are left behind. Elderly people are left behind. Young women leave the children and go away with other men and they are trafficked to Bombay or other parts of the world.”

Sherpa says the government of Nepal is going through a difficult period and is unable to address such social issues, so it is up to the private sector and non-profit organizations like T-HELP to tackle problems such as jobs and environmental issues.

Ananda Shova Tamrakar, president of the T-HELP board who holds a doctorate in agriculture and pest management, says 80 percent of the Nepalese are farmers, yet they lack sufficient food and many survive on subsistence agriculture. Besides finding ways to help rural people generate income, T-HELP is training farmers to make organic fertilizer to help preserve the Himalayan environment, particularly its highland forests.

Father Thaler says T-HELP came to Melamchi-Gyang in the Helambu Valley of Nepal two years ago to work with the tiny Hyolmo ethnic minority, a branch of the Sherpa people who live in the Himalaya Mountains and are famous as trekking and mountaineering guides. He says the Hyolmo group consists of only about 6,000 people whose culture and identity are threatened as their young migrate.

T-HELP has three main projects designed to generate income for villagers: mushroom growing, making charcoal briquettes and vermiculture (cultivation of earthworms to produce compost as a natural fertilizer).

In Melamchi-Gyang, Father Thaler visited villagers who are successfully engaged in all three enterprises after taking part in T-HELP workshops.

Karsang Ghale, 77, shows the missioner a four-foot long, one-foot wide wooden box lined with blue plastic and filled with compost and earthworms. Nearby is an orange-colored plastic bowl with which Ghale started his vermiculture composting. The compost improves the quantity and quality of vegetables grown by the villagers, and a better diet means a better quality of life, Father Thaler says.

One of Ghale’s neighbors, 68-year-old Sili Doma, shows off a similar boxed composter, with tin tacked under it to keep out rats and mice. Doma tells Father Thaler that with the increased production from her garden, she sold more than 30 pounds of vegetables. “She never would have had vegetables like this, and now she’s been able to supplement her budget,” the priest says.

Lari Sherpa, 39, a villager who also serves as T-HELP’s local contact, mixes charcoal dust made from twigs, brush, leaves, straw, corn husks and other plant material with dry clay and water to make briquettes.

“The villagers in Melamchi-Gyang use a lot of firewood while cooking,” says Noor Banu, who works for Father Thaler as a Maryknoll project administrator. “To save the trees and the environment, T-HELP came up with an alternative.” Briquettes, she explains, are eco-friendly, smoke-free, and burn hotter and longer than firewood.

“The people in this village of Melamchi-Gyang have taken what we presented to them and obviously have done it much better,” Father Thaler says.

On their trek, the missioner and his group hike to a village called Shermathang, where the missioner notes a lively school and the sawing and hammering sounds of construction.

“The village seems to have a lot of activity in different houses,” Father Thaler says. “We’re quite hopeful that within the next six months we can actually begin a program here.”

Featured Image: Maryknoll Father Joseph Thaler discusses a project with villagers in Nepal’s Himalayan highlands to help them produce marketable crops and products and give young Nepalese reasons to remain in their communities.

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About the author

Lynn F. Monahan

Lynn F. Monahan is editor-in-chief of Maryknoll magazine and served as a Maryknoll lay missioner in Peru in the 1990s. A graduate of Syracuse University, he has worked for newspapers and newswires, including The Associated Press and Bloomberg News. He holds a master’s degree in writing from Manhattanville College, and is the author of the award-winning novel Pistaco: A Tale of Love in the Andes. Twitter: @LFMonahan