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The waning land of apples

MAR 09 - Anytime you happen to mention to people in Kathmandu that you’ve just returned from a trip to Helambu, they ask you, almost invariably, “Did you bring back apples?” In fact, Helambu has become practically synonymous with the

fruit, and it is the first hit you’ll find if you google ‘Helambu’. Of late, however, apple production has witnessed a worrying decline, a source of anxiety for locals whose livelihoods and identities has long been associated with the sweet, red apples that the area has made famous.

“There are no more apples here,” says Dorje Lama, 61, a Helambu local. “The time when this region was popular for its apples is soon going to be long gone.”

Thanks to its fertile land and favourable year-round temperatures, Helambu had seen the birth of many an apple farm on its soil in decades past. Places like Ghangyul and Tarke Ghyang were particularly well-known for their apple bounty, which went on to be sold all over the country.

Despite plentiful harvests, however, matters were delicate then too, according to locals. Difficulties in transportation meant apple farmers had to manually carry the produce down to the Melamchi bazaar, but they never seemed to make expected profits. “In the past, a lot of our apples would go to waste in Melamchi, simply because of the lack of an organised marketing system,” says one of the cultivators. But the recent construction of roadways into Helambu in relation to the Melamchi Water Supply Project

has made transport to and from the markets comparatively

easier today.

“If apple production were to improve, the region would see a tremendous boost in income,” says Dinesh Tiwary, Chief of the District Agriculture Development Office in Sindhupalchowk. “We could make Helambu apples famous again.”

But problems extend beyond the accessibility of roads. According to farmer Dolma Lama, 59, it has become increasingly difficult to raise apple trees, which have begun to be infested with insects at their budding stage, making them difficult to salvage, pushing away the possibility of a lucrative harvest. “We’ve tried all we can to protect the plantlings, but nothing has worked,” says Lama. “My son Pasang has just put in a few new plants, and we’re resting all our hopes on them.”

Aside from environmental issues, the lack of skilled human resources is another prominent reason why Helambu’s apple

production is falling short of what it used to be. Tiwary says that the population in the region has gone down significantly; many of the younger generations have either moved abroad or to Kathmandu for purposes of education and employment. Dorje Lama attests to this, “Only us old folks and young children are left in the village, but there’s only so much we can do. Those who could  make use of new techniques and scien-tific ways of boosting production leave and never come back.”

In December 2010, Tiwary and his team had visited Tarke Ghyang, the VDC that boasts more apple farms than the others in Helambu. “We saw quite a few things when we got there,” he says. “For one, the seedlings were brought in from high up the mountains and weren’t of very good quality, and we found the farms lying neglected.” Tiwary believes that while climate change might play a small role, it is ultimately the neglect or the lack of expertise amongst farmers regarding organic farming and sustainable measures that is at the root of the problem.

It was during the same visit that Tiwary’s team also organised a day-long orientation and training programme intended to impart the basics of productive apple farming to the locals, but it was very sparsely attended. “I think that showed the kind of commitment our farmers have,” Tiwary says. “Sure, environmental problems, plant diseases, even market economy can have some impact, but the largest issue here is the inadequate engagement of human resources.”

Whatever is going in the high-altitude farms of Helambu, for those in Kathmandu and elsewhere in the country, ‘Helambu ko syaau’ still has the same pull, and vendors can be found passing off other apples as those from Helambu. For a region whose image as the Land of Apples has become embedded in the national consciousness, it would be a shame if that were no longer the case. “We implore all sectors to take an interest in the issue,” Tiwari says. “It’s a question of identity.”

Posted on: 2012-03-10 09:02

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