Nepal: Challenging caste-based prejudices, over coffee

Jane Carter, 09 December 2014
Nepal: Challenging caste-based prejudices, over coffee

My recent visit to Nepal provided much scope for reflection, and I wanted to write at least one posting about the people whom I met in the field. I’ve referred in other postings to social discrimination based on caste , and how this is being broken down. Here is an illustration drawn from a visit to our coffee promotion programme (CoPP) , which supports the organic production of coffee by smallholder farmers in 12 districts of Nepal. It works through local coffee cooperatives, which are organised into a coffee cooperative union in district level – this is a good way to facilitate supplies of inputs as well as sales of certified organic production.

There have been internal discussions in the past about the degree to which CoPP can focus on the economically poor and socially disadvantaged, given that owners of smallholdings who have enough land to grow coffee are unlikely to be the poorest in the local community. Project staff have thought about this criticism, and clearly discussed it with members of the coffee cooperatives. My field visit to a group of coffee growers in Sindhupalchowk was intended to see how the matter has been addressed.

The settlement of Karkikhar is perched on steeply sloping land, dropping down to the waters of the Sunkoshi (river) below. We first visited the cooperative building, where local women were sorting/grading the coffee beans, glad of their wages of NRs 250 a day (around US $ 2.5). It’s not a huge sum, but the work is relatively pleasant and not physically demanding. Then met with some of the coffee growers themselves; the cooperative is made up of three groups, each of some 20 or so members. The membership is of men and women of different caste and ethnic groups; Brahmin, Chhetri, Tamang and Dalits. To join, you have to have planted at least 100 coffee bushes, but recognising that Dalits do not have much land, they are granted membership if they only have 50 bushes.

What the cooperative committee was keen to point out was an agreement with the local community forest user group (CFUG). A CFUG is a legally recognised body made up of the households using a particular forest area – in this case, the steepest land below the main settlement, which is covered by rather poor sal trees(Shorea robusta). There is a huge amount of literature on community forestry in Nepal , but what is important here is that CFUGs are expected, and legally obliged, to practice democratic decision-making. They are also supposed to ensure that the poorest members of the group gain specific benefits from the forest. Since the members of the CFUG members and the coffee cooperative are mainly the same people, they came up with the idea of Dalits having the opportunity to plant their own coffee bushes (up to 35 each) within the community forest.

A small meeting was organised in the Dalit hamlet to discuss this scheme. It was apparent that the women gathering were not altogether happy with the (Chhetri) CFUG chairperson and (Chhetri) cooperative members. The meeting quickly became heated. It turned out that the big problem for the women was water – not just for their coffee bushes, but for all their needs. Their settlement was (typically, given their discriminated position) on the driest land, and they longed for a reliable water supply. Building a water tank had been discussed and agreed. Why hadn’t the work been done? The CFUG chairperson was angry; he had expected to show his foreign guest how well all the different castes and groups got on together, and the Dalit women were not playing their role. He pointed out it was their fault that the water tank wasn’t yet built, as they were supposed to contribute their labour. Their expectation was to get everything free. After some further argument, the meeting ended in agreement to fix a time to do the work.

To roll back in time some 15 – 20 years ago, such a meeting would have been very different. Indeed, it would probably not have occurred at all, and a water tank for use by the Dalits would have been an unlikely prospect. Most certainly a group of Dalit women would not have openly criticised or questioned a relatively wealthy and influential Chhetri man. The job creation for women and special provision for Dalits through the CoPP project are certainly positive in themselves, but important beyond this are the signs of a more fundamental change in attitudes between people who have lived for generations under very strong patron-client relationships.

Jane Carter
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