Women's engagement in high-value export-led agriculture has contributed to their social, economic and political empowerment
Economic prosperity is the prerequisite to peace and stability. Unemployment, livelihood problems and economic insecurity are perennial sources of conflict, political instability and social tension the world over. Therefore investment in employment generation and inclusive growth is vital for post-conflict stability and for preventing recurrence of conflict. As women, children and the elderly are innocent conflict victims, post-conflict recovery program must emphasize their concerns. Further, often peace agreements envision state building as a pathway to political stability, with economic development as one of its pillars. If we examine the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, there are also several provisions related to economic stability and state-building. State-building is a pragmatic means to improve state-people relations, and enhance public ownership of state restructuring.
In this context, I have conducted a three-year research into relation between agrarian transition (conceptualized through women's engagement in high-value agriculture) and state building. The study was conducted in the Mechi Hills of Nepal from 2014 July with specific focus on women's engagement in cardamom and ginger farming. The study reveals that meaningful engagement of women in high-value export-led agriculture not only generates massive employment opportunities for rural people but also contributes to social, economic and political empowerment of women. As a result, many youths working in Gulf countries have returned and engaged themselves in value-chain cash crop farming: in nursery, plantation, weeding, harvesting, cleaning, grading and packaging activities that demand huge labor force within specific time.
Women have created several 'women agriculture cooperatives', 'mother's groups', and 'women's groups' to finance high-value agriculture crops. In doing so, women have to form executive committees through which they hone their leadership and develop-making skills. Once they are in a position of sanctioning and monitoring loans, their social recognition is enhanced. Hence local political parties offer them different positions in their political units. Similarly, their engagement in commercial agriculture has enhanced women's access to economic resources.
In short, women's engagement in high-value export-led agriculture has contributed to their social, economic and political empowerment. But they are also facing several challenges. The most serious problem cardamom grower farmers faced was the Chhirke, Furke and rhizome rot diseases which had seriously affected cardamom production. Many farmers gave up farming, while others started with new local variety called Salakpure.
Cardamom growing farmers were also not able to add value to their product especially in grading, processing, packaging and labeling. They didn't have the requisite skills, nor the required investment or storage facilities. Farmers were not able to generate higher profit as Indian collectors give them only farm-gate price. Then Indian traders add value through proper grading, processing and packaging and labeling. Though there were projects to help farmers with value addition and export promotion, they were not of much help.
So even as Nepal is one of the biggest cardamom producers in the world, Nepali cardamom growers and women farmers aren't benefitting much. Whereas Indian collectors got almost 7-10 times more benefit from Nepali cardamom simply because they can add value and export the final products to Middle East, where the demand of black cardamom is high. If we can somehow arrange for pre-export storage and quarantine facilities, auction market, trade-mark facilitation and transport facilities (air cargo), Nepali farmers stand to gain a lot.
This is right time to address these problems because the government has in its recent budget included the "Prime Minister Agriculture Modernization Scheme" and the Specialized Agricultural Zonation and Agriculture Insurance Scheme (krishibima), which are both related to cardamom farming. Further, Nepal Trade Integration Strategy identifies 11 agriculture commodities including cardamom. Similarly, three out of four flagship programs of Agriculture Development Strategy (ADS)—Value Chain Development, Decentralized Science and Technology (Research-Education-Extension) and innovation (e.g., piloting), and Agriculture Enterprises Development)—are directly related to the problems faced by cardamom farmers. Hence there are enough policy frameworks if the government is serious about supporting the cardamom value-chain.
If government can address the problems faced by farmers in general and women farmers engaged in high-value commercial agriculture like cardamom, ginger and broom grass in particular, there is a scope for generating huge employment opportunities for rural youth. They can be engaged in any point in the value-addition chain: production, grading, processing, packaging, labeling and export. This in turn will empower rural women and contribute to national growth.
The author is with Nepal Centre for Contemporary Research (NCCR)