A six-hour drive from Pokhara as the nearest city, the village of Nalma sits perched atop verdant hills of terraced rice fields in central Nepal. The Himalayan mountains of the Annapurna region rise in the distance, their snow-capped peaks a stunning backdrop. The unpaved roads are dirt paths inlaid with iridescent rocks that glitter when touched by the sun’s hot rays.

Time goes slowly in Nalma, where roosters serve as alarm clocks when the first light pierces the sky, signaling that it’s time for a cup of piping hot masala chai tea topped with yak milk and a piece of haluah, rice flour that’s been lightly fried. This is fuel for days filled with a repeating series of household tasks like sweeping, cooking, feeding the chickens, and taking the mountain goats out to graze. Electricity is spotty, and kids make their own fun by chasing each other in squeal-filled games, sending the chickens flying into panic.

Life here may seem simple and idyllic, sheltered from the woes of the world beyond. But the reality is quite the contrary. In fact, this is a global village, inextricably tied to foreign economies and cultures, and grappling with the inevitable changes that such exposure brings.

   The village of Nalma lies in the hills, on one side stretching the Himalayas. Most of the land here is used for rice fields, gardens and housing. CIFOR Photo/Mokhamad Edliadi


For the past decade, the young male work force of Nalma, as in other villages around the country, has looked outside Nepal’s borders for better economic opportunities than local agriculture provides. Nearly three-quarters of Nalma’s young male demographic now works overseas.

Official figures say that migratory workers now contribute nearly 30 percent of Nepal’s GDP, and that’s likely an underestimation.

However, as forthcoming research shows, the promise of higher wages abroad is significantly changing land use and socio-cultural dynamics in villages back home, in ways that require serious consideration by policymakers.

“Migration has a really long history in Nepal,” says Bimbika Sijapati Basnett, a Social Scientist based at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), who is overseeing research on the topic. “It has been happening for many generations. But since the mid-2000s, we’ve been witnessing a significant rise in migration rates. Pretty much every day, hundreds of predominately male [workers] from both urban and rural areas migrate abroad, mostly to the Gulf countries and Malaysia for employment purposes.”

Policymakers are well aware of the fact that Nepal is one of the top three remittance-receiving countries in the world, but their focus until now has been largely on safe migration and minimizing risks that come with menial jobs overseas.

Together with local research partner Forest Action Nepal, Sijapati Basnett and colleagues are examining the impact of out-migration from rural areas on agriculture and forest management, particularly through lenses of gender and social dynamics.

   Young men walking out of the village of Nalma to work in Lamjung and Besisahar. CIFOR Photo/Mokhamad Edliadi


The social hierarchy of Nalma is two-pronged. First, it is divided into two main groups: the Gurungs and the Dalits. The Gurungs, who served the British during their empire in South Asia, comprise the landed upper class. Currently, they’re in the most able positions to leave Nepal and pursue better lifestyles—better health, education, jobs—in neighboring cities and towns and as far afield as the United States and Portugal. The Dalits, on the other hand, are Nepal’s lowest caste, and first came to Nalma to serve as agricultural laborers for the Gurungs.

As globalization opens up pathways for Dalits to move abroad to earn better wages, many young men are leaving Nalma behind, rattling the established ways of village life.

“These two social groups have been incorporated into the process of migration in different ways,” says Sijapati Basnett. “In the Gurungs, we see that those who are left behind are elderly, and they depend even more than they did in the past on the Dalits to sharecrop their land or manage it under other contractual systems. And yet they are less willing to change caste-based hierarchies in the village. The Gurungs have an ‘improvement committee’ that determines village life, including the price of labor and land. Wages have been artificially kept low, and the Gurungs prefer to hoard their land to maintain their identity and culture, rather than sell it off.”

However, while the aging Gurung classes are becoming dependent on Dalits, the Dalits have little incentive to continue in this patron-client relationship when better wages can be earned by working in the Gulf states, with greater prospects for economic mobility than in the village .

“Dalits’ relative dependence on agriculture is declining. You see that remittances are becoming a big part of household incomes and women, children and the elderly are left behind amongst the Dalits too.”

   Sita Pariyar, left, works in the rice fields with other women in the village of Nalma. CIFOR Photo/Mokhamad Edliadi


This raises the second prong: Nepal’s patriarchal culture. As men work overseas, women are left to manage the home front alone for years on end. This opens up opportunities for women to take on new roles as decision makers in their families and communities. It also bombards women with an overwhelming amount of work, as they perform their usual tasks in addition to taking on those usually performed by men. But not all types of men’s jobs are seen as replaceable by women, and the higher value accorded to men’s work, as compared to women’s, lives on.

“There is a saying in the village that if women plough the field, all the water will run off from the place,” explains Samata Manandhar, a researcher for Forest Action Nepal working alongside Sijapati Basnett. And yet ploughing is seen as the most important job, one that marks the start of the agricultural calendar, acute shortage of which has meant that previously cultivated agricultural fields are under-utilized or left barren.

Because migration out of Nalma has been happening for so long and has taken on new guises in the current era, Samata says that it’s an ideal village for conducting research to shed light on these issues and bring them to the government’s attention.

“We have not seen any discussions about the effects of migration in agriculture and forestry policy discussions,” Sijapati Basnett says. “There has been a lot of research on migration, but most focuses on the economic impact and well-being rather than social relations. [In Nalma] we can see all different aspects of migration, which is why we selected it. We need to think more carefully about what is happening with those left behind, with the migrants themselves, and with the land and forests in areas experiencing growing rates of migration.”

   An aerial view of Nalma. CIFOR Photo/Mokhamad Edliadi

This research was conducted in collaboration with Forest Action Nepal.

For more information on this topic, please contact Bimbika Sijapati Basnett at
This research was supported by UK aid from the UK government.
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Topic(s) :   Food security Gender