Impacts of climate change on the livelihood of Dhimal women in Jhapa

Published On: June 13, 2024 10:46 PM NPT By: Tanuja Pandey

Tanuja Pandey

Tanuja Pandey

The author is a senior year law student and currently a fellow at the Young Women in Political Leadership Course, Women LEAD Nepal. She also serves as Chairperson at Harin Nepal, an intersectional climate justice organization.

Imagine living on a land, in harmony and aligned with nature for generations. You've only taken what you needed, leaving the rest protected. However, your land has now been grabbed and your identity erased. Everything you once worshipped is gone. Everything you worked for generations to build has disappeared. This isn't a fictional tale. It is the reality for the Indigenous Dhimal community of Damak, Nepal. The changing climate has only multiplied these threats faced by the Dhimals.

While Nepal contributes to global greenhouse gas emissions at a modest 0.02 percent, it is regarded as one of the most climate change vulnerable nations worldwide. As global attention tends to focus on the Himalayas of Nepal, where glaciers are melting at alarming rates, this often overshadows the challenges faced by Nepal's Terai (plains) region, which grapples with unnoticed impacts of climate change. In this region, the Dhimals, an endangered indigenous people of Nepal, with a population of only 25,643 residing in Koshi province, are facing these ongoing impacts. Unfortunately, this issue is not much discussed within Nepal.

As the climate crisis worsens, women from Dhimal communities are pushed to the forefront, making their livelihoods highly vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change.

Sumitra Dhimal, a resident of Arnakhadi, Damak-4, Jhapa, echoes the misery of her community. Sumitra, like many Dhimal women, relies on natural resources for her livelihood. Her income comes from rearing pigs. However, she now has a smaller herd compared to a few years ago. "It used to be easy to find feed for my pigs. The fruits and grains around my house were sufficient. The forest used to supplement the feed. But now, crop yields have decreased, and feed costs have increased. The forest area has also shrunk. This change has made it harder for me and my community to gather enough feed," she explains. 
Sumitra and the women in her community must now travel longer distances to the forest to collect natural feed. This has increased the security risk. The decline in natural feeds has also led to an increased use of commercial pig feeds, often resulting in foul-smelling pigsties.

Dhimal women have been raising pigs for ages. In the past, the forest was dense, and the Dhimals had sovereignty over it. Wood was easily available. Dhimals traditionally built wooden pigsties that were raised above the ground. They laid wooden plank flooring. These structures were well-ventilated to control odors and regulate temperature. These climate-adaptive structures were also a key part of their housing practice for generations.

Ram Bahadur Dhimal, a 64-year-old former ward chairperson from Damak-9, explains, "Over time, the sovereignty of the Dhimals over the forest was criminalized. They lost access to the wood needed for these structures. As a result, traditional wooden pigsties disappeared."
Pigs are sensitive to high temperatures. Rising temperatures impact their growth, reproduction, and overall health. As a result, the cost of subsistence pig farming has increased. It has affected the livelihood of Dhimal women. What once was an income source for Dhimal women is now slowly disappearing in the face of the climate crisis.

Amid the extreme heat affecting Jhapa district, urbanization and closer living quarters with the Khas Aryans have created new difficulties for Dhimal women's pig-rearing practice. Authorities have received complaints concerning pig odors. This has put pressure on some Dhimal women to stop raising pigs in an effort to fit in with societal expectations.

The identity of the Dhimals is deeply connected to the land, forests, and water resources. The word 'Dhimal' finds its roots in two words: 'Dhi,' which denotes proximity to the river, and 'mal,' which denotes lostness. This etymology suggests being lost near the river. Their identity and values are woven into these natural resources.

Similarly, Dhimal’s related ethnic groups like the Tharu and Rajbanshi interpret ‘Dhimal’ differently. They believe the word Dhimal is derived from the words "Dhe," meaning separated, and "mal," meaning Terai or plain region. These etymologies suggest the Dhimal community's historical ties to the plains of eastern Nepal and its rivers. Over time, this connection has influenced their identity, way of life, and cultural practices. According to the Census Nepal 2021, in Damak Municipality alone, there are 5,201 Dhimals. Recognizing their generational presence and significance in the region, Damak Municipality has legally acknowledged the Dhimals as the first people of Damak. Also, a statue honoring Dhimals has been installed in front of the municipality office.

Recalling the historical ties with nature, Devi Maya Dhimal, who has lived in Damak for 70 years, says that her community has always settled near rivers and streams. Subsistence fishing was central to the livelihood of Dhimal women, with snails, crabs, and clams serving as key sources of nutrition for the community. Pointing to a narrow drainage beside her home, she says, "Can you believe a decade ago this used to be a stream? Now you can hardly see it."

"We didn't even need to search for our food in rivers. Flooded fields during the rice-growing season provided a habitat for fish and crabs, which were our food. They also helped control pests and fertilize the crops with their waste,” she continued, expressing her concern, “Now, all the water sources have dried, leaving no fish even in the rivers."

Sharing similar sentiments, Santi Dhimal, 58, a resident of Charakpada, Damak-9, offers a comparable narrative. Reflecting on the drying water sources, she says, "The spring in Damak provided fresh drinking water to the community. Now the spring has dried up. It's truly heartbreaking when the very essence of life becomes a commodity we must purchase."

Historically, Dhimals sustained themselves on wild fruits and root vegetables gathered from the jungle and leafy greens found around springs. They shared these natural resources with the surrounding wildlife. Dhimal women played a major role in gathering such foods. Over time, the Dhimal community has faced the double blow of unsustainable development and climate change, depriving them of their traditional means of sourcing food. According to Som Bahadur Dhimal, a researcher and academician, now forced to rely on market-produced food and contaminated water, they are experiencing increased instances of life-threatening conditions, including cancer.

The effects of climate change are evident even in the traditional alcohol production techniques of Dhimal women. Dhimal women noted that variability in temperature, precipitation patterns, and extreme weather has visibly impacted the fermentation process of local alcohol.

Phool Maya Dhimal, a 59-year-old resident of Sano Kharkhare, Damak-2, is facing severe challenges in making Fatika Gora, the traditional Dhimal alcohol, due to rising temperatures. "Summer has become unbearable," she says. This May, temperatures soared to 40 degrees Celsius in Jhapa. "I had to throw away two large tanks of Fatika Gora, a local alcohol, as it became highly sour and non-consumable due to the extreme heat. If the temperature continues like this, there will come a day when making Fatika Gora will be impossible," she adds.

Dhimal women traditionally produce alcohol from locally grown paddy, particularly harvested in December. This imparted a sweet flavor to Fatika Gora. However, with a decline in local paddy farming, this practice disappeared, as December harvested paddy became solely for sustenance. Likewise, Barro, Terminalia bellirica, was once used as a key ingredient to make Fatika Gora. Barro's use vanished as the forest size shrunk.

Additionally, Phool Maya, who once gathered wood from the Chure region to fuel her stove, now faces a ban on wood collection. She is compelled to purchase wood from the furniture manufacturing industry. This adjustment has increased the overall cost of local alcohol production. It has incurred a substantial financial burden for her. Phool Maya expressed concerns about her sole source of livelihood.

“I feel threatened," she says.

The climatic changes and environmental degradation indeed jeopardize the livelihood techniques passed down through generations if not addressed with urgency. Petani, the traditional attire of the indigenous Dhimal people, weaving is no exception.

"Previously, the thread used for weaving Petani was made from locally available cotton plants. Damak’s temperature was favorable for growing cotton. However, rising heat and changing precipitation patterns have rendered Damak unsuitable for cotton planting," says Ram Bahadur.

Now, Dhimal women use ready-made cotton thread rolls instead. This change has impacted their traditional weaving practices. "Making Petani from a self-made cotton roll is now a thing of the past," says Ram Bahadur.

The impacts of climate change on the Dhimal women of Damak do not stop here.

Many Dhimal families live on public land without proper titles. This forces them into tenant farming. Extreme weather and land fragmentation have impacted agricultural output. This makes crop sharing unprofitable. As a result, many Dhimal men are compelled to migrate in search of work. Yet, obstacles such as limited education and cultural stereotypes often hinder their earning potential.

Bom Bahadur Dhimal, a resident of Charakpada, Damak-9, now drives an auto rickshaw instead of farming. His family owned land until his father's generation. Later, it was grabbed, leaving them landless. "He chose auto rickshaw driving because being a tenant farmer is unprofitable. High agricultural costs, worsened by unfavorable climate conditions, have made farming difficult," Bom Bahadur laments.

Ganga Dhimal, a 37-year-old from Sano Kharkhare, Damak-2, shares a similar story

 to Bom Bahadur. She faces an increased workload as her husband has gone abroad for employment. "My family has quit tenant farming as the costs now exceed the benefits," she says. Growing male out-migration and economic hardship have left women like Ganga to manage both household and subsistence agriculture duties alone.

Younger Dhimal generations are becoming indifferent to their communities’ traditional practices. This presents Dhimal women with an additional difficulty in maintaining and passing on traditional knowledge amidst the challenges of climate change.

Puspa Dhimal, a community leader from Thulo Arnakhadi, Damak-4, stresses the importance of indigenous knowledge held by Dhimal women to adapt and mitigate climate change impacts. This knowledge includes climate-adaptive building techniques, ethnobotany, craftsmanship, veterinary practices, and weather forecasting for agriculture, among others.

"There has been noticeably less investment in the women of the Dhimal community, despite notable documentation of their traditional knowledge and practices," says Puspa. "We need tangible support and recognition."
The ancestral knowledge held by Dhimal women regarding practices that sustain the fragile balance of the Earth's ecosystem for millennia is indeed invaluable. It must be protected and utilized. They have long served as the guardians of the earth. This has placed them at the forefront of climate change impacts. Therefore, securing their rights goes beyond the concerns of Indigenous communities alone; it is essential for the survival of humanity as a whole. Investing in them is a must for securing a just and sustainable future. Effective strategies for safeguarding the ecosystem can only be achieved through their proper access and meaningful participation in national and international policy processes.

According to the National Statistical Office 2021 Census of Nepal, Indigenous Peoples make up 36% of the total population, a sizable portion of Nepal's demographic landscape. Despite their considerable presence, Indigenous Peoples, including the Dhimals, have faced centuries of marginalization, subjugation, and exploitation. The government of Nepal has also adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169, however, these commitments remain largely symbolic. As emphasized by Ram Bahadur Dhimal, “Genuine efforts to combat climate change necessitate the full recognition of Indigenous peoples' identity and their right to self-determination.”

As the climate crisis intensifies, causing indigenous folks great distress, the government must not only recognize the gravity of the situation but also take immediate steps to address it. Failure to take urgent action will result in indigenous people, like the Dhimals, being consigned to mere statues, representing the demise of a once vibrant culture that is lost and forgotten.

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