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Chepangs: Living on the edge

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In Picture: LANDING: The family of Man Maya Chepang and Tara Maya Chepang in the fast-denuding Chure Hills are victims of frequent landslides.

Chepangs do not own land, but face landslides every monsoon

Makwanpur, July 8, 2016: Rajkumari Chepang lives in the forested Chure Hills of Makwanpur district. She was poor, but a landslide made her poorer. Two years ago, just when her ripe maize crop was ready for harvest, a landslide took away her farm.

With no land to till, the 47-year-old mother of three, is now a construction worker. Accompanied by her husband, she walks two hours to reach the town of Manahari every day. At times, she has to travel even further.

“After the landslide, I can grow nothing but bananas, and this is not sufficient to feed my children,” she said, staring at what is left of her terrace farm. “I need a job to feed my family.”

In Raksirang, a village north of the East-West highway, Rajkumari is not the only Chepang woman who has been affected by landslides. Some have lost their homes while others have seen their fields swept away as the rains wash down the fragile denuded slopes around them.

Rajkumari Chepang was poor but a landslide last year made her poorer.
Rajkumari Chepang was poor but a landslide last year made her poorer.

Tara Maya Chepang of Raksirang also lost a patch of her maize field last year. Fortunately, she still has enough land for planting. She says: “Usually it does not rain on time. But when it does, it rains so heavily that we live in the fear of landslides.”

Raksirang lies in the Chure Hills, and is mostly inhabited by the Chepangs, one of Nepal’s most neglected semi-nomadic forest dwellers. Nirguretar is a typical Chepang settlement in Raksirang, and has 14 households perched along a ridge. It has suffered multiple landslides in the last few years.

“We see small landslides eroding our land every monsoon,” says Tara Maya. “I am afraid a big one will sweep us all away one day.”

A report published by the United Nations Development Programme says over 90 per cent of the human settlements in the Chure region of Makwanpur face land degradation, and the threat of landslides is highest here. The report pinpoints deforestation and slash-and-burn agriculture as the main reasons for soil erosion.

Most Chepangs do not own the land they have been living in for generations. Even so, they have never tried to migrate to safer villages. Ram Kumar Chepang, one of the few literate men in Raksirang village, says: “Even if we want to leave these landslide-prone villages, we do not know where to go.”

Chepang 3

The Chure Hills occupy the southern half of Makwanpur which is vulnerable to disasters caused by either too much or too little rain. “Because of its fragile geology, Chure is vulnerable to landslides,” explains Subodh Dhakal of Tribhuvan University. “Poor and marginalised communities like Chepangs who live on steep hills are at risk.”

The National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET) has categorised landslides as the third most common natural disaster (after floods and forest fires) in the district, recording 106 major landslides there between 1973 and 2013.

With climate change and erratic weather, fragile areas like the Chure are even more vulnerable. Pratibha Manandhar, a government meteorologist says: “It is not just landslides. Droughts are also getting more frequent with rising temperatures.”

Some NGOs like the Makwanpur Development Institute (MDI) have encouraged the Chepangs to plant bananas, pineapples and broom grass to generate income and bind the topsoil. “These plants strengthen the slopes and survive even in drought conditions,” says Khop Narayan Shrestha at the MDI.

However, a majority of the Chepang families still practice slash-and-burn farming, which exacerbates the problem of land erosion and landslides, says Basanta Raj Gautam of the Rastrapati Chure Conservation Program: “The Chepangs are aware of landslide threats, but unaware of what cause landslides, and do not know how to be safe.”

By Riwaj Rai