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Nepal's Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Concrete and Chemical Fertilizer

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This summer I am traveling around Nepal with a group of eight leaders from a village named Namje in eastern Nepal who are exploring what has happened to their country in the name of development. They are being led by Rajeev Goyal, an Indian-American who was a Peace Corps volunteer in one of the villages from 2001 to 2003, and Prianka Bista , a young Nepalese-Canadian architect. As we take a journey that is as much moral and emotional as it is physical, I am not sure who are the leaders and who are the led.

The villagers arrived at their hotel in Kathmandu after a 36-hour-bus ride in which they were stuck for nine hours in their broken-down vehicle without food or water in the jungles of southern Nepal. As enervating as that was, it hardly prepared them for the moral squalor of Thamel, the filthy, crowded, disorienting tourist section of Katmandu. The villagers were as distressed by life in Thamel as I was. They walked through the sullied streets with unease and apprehension. One of the women was kept awake for hours one night by the sound of women fighting in the streets. One of the men had his cell phone stolen off his belt on a mini-bus.

On our first full day, we went to visit Huta Ram Vaidya, an 88-year old agricultural engineer who, for the past twenty years, has fought to save the sacred Bagmati River that runs through the center of Kathmandu. The Bagmati is sacred not in the sense that environmentalists consider the Hudson River a sacred vessel, but sacred in a religious sense. It is here Hindus come for religious ceremonies. It is here they come for spiritual moments great and small. It is here on these banks that the dead are cremated, the ashes committed to the river. To befoul these waters would be like renting out the Sistine Chapel for fraternity parties or breaking up St. Peters for condominiums.

Sewers often have a lower percentage of filth in them as does the Bagmati. Vaidya remembers the time when the waters were clean and they came to take sand, first for cement to build a great dam and then to construct the buildings of the growing city. No one said there was only so much sand and that the river would be changed forever, but so it was. The municipalities gave water pipes to the new owners of the concrete homes, but many of them used them not for the drainage of the monsoon, but attached them to their toilets so that the waste would flow into the drain pipes and from there into the river. When this pollution first began, the government was not worried, for there was much water that would wash it away. However, at first there was once only about 15 percent sewage; there is now 85 percent or more.

And all those years Vaidya worked as an activist to try to stop them. The NGOs wrote their plans and raised money to clean the Bagmati, but nothing happened. The U.N. said it would have a plan too, but nothing happened. The government built cement walls around the river to stop the flooding and to hold the filth within. The stench rose above the city and Vaidya decided that it was too late. The river was dead. It was a city of concrete now, cold in winter, and hot in the summer, but that was the supposed price of modernity.

When we had had enough of this poisoned city, we drove forty kilometers outside Kathmandu, past mile after mile of concrete homes and squalor to the glorious green hills. There we spent an afternoon with Govinda Sharma, who has built a permaculture farm using environmentally sound techniques. He told the story of chemical fertilizers and how several decades ago the government, backed by USAID and the U.N. , set out to convince the farmers that they should do industrial farming focusing on one specific crop using chemical fertilizers to increase growth. At first the farmers did not want to put this strange substance on their soil, and many threw the fertilizer away.

But in some places the agricultural agents came in the night and secretly planted fields with fertilizer. When a few weeks later these fields had grown miraculously more than the other land, they told the villagers; one after another they laced their fields with chemical fertilizers that were either given to them free or for only a few cents a kilogram. They did not need manure anymore and many of the villagers sold their cows. They made so much money so quickly that they cut down the forests so they could grow even more. Soon the price of the fertilizer went up, ten times what it first had been, and then the yields on the land grew worse and worse. When they thought of going back to the old ways, there were no cows anymore, and no forests, and the soil was dead.

The villagers remember the day the agricultural agent first came 20 or so years ago, and how at first the farmers turned the chemical fertilizer down, but eventually they went along. They turned their fields to the production of radishes and sent them to Dharan, a few hours away, to be sold in the market. Soon the yields started declining and their rich soil at the top of the village was rich no longer, and now the villagers had to seek some other way.

The villagers blame their own gullibility, not a calculated world system that seduced them. They view the massive use of concrete not as a foreign intrusion but the ultimate symbol of success. Despite all that they have seen, most of them would like to build a home of concrete that rises above the other homes of the village.

And yet this is far too harsh, for what is remarkable about these village leaders is how aware they are of the challenges that lie ahead and how even those who do not want to change know they will have to change.

One of the women is Laxmi Magar. She has little education but has a wisdom beyond many with the most exalted of degrees. As a young woman she would get up at two in the morning and carry a heavy basket of vegetables thee hours down from her hill village to Dharan on the edge of the plains, and once she had sold everything she would return carrying a heavier load of rice. There is now a road that goes all the way to her village, and the staff that she balanced upon has been put away in her house. She could be a single-minded champion of modernity. But she is not and as proud as she is of her village, she knows that its greatest challenges and difficulties probably lie ahead. Only if she and all the villagers work together will they prosper.