My debt to a Nepalese peasant

The recent tragic plane crash in Nepal reminded me of an excursion trip I once made in a similar rickety-looking plane while in Kathmandu on holiday about 15 years ago. The notional reason for this excursion was to see Mount Everest at close quarters. My own reason was to see the tops and flanks of the smaller mountains which lay below and cover a great deal of the country before reaching the dramatic uplift of the Himalayas.

Days before, I’d noticed young men carrying heavy churns of milk down mountain paths that snaked their way upwards, well above the terraces of the rice-growing farmers (where, incidentally, one farmer allowed this hubristic Western tourist to try his hand at ploughing with the community’s one and only water buffalo. Needless to say I made a complete mess of that particular terrace, and received more than a hateful glance from the buffalo!) Back to the milk run, it was finally delivered to a cheese factory in late afternoon. The next day, like a clap of thunder, I suddenly realized that the mountain farmers must be even poorer than the rice farmers below them because they couldn’t afford even a community donkey to carry the milk as it was collected from them, pint by pint, from this goat and that, on the daily round.

Back to the plane, thus while all the other tourists were crowding up-front to see the Himalayas better, I stayed in my seat and looked downwards. The tops of these mountains, still peaky but more eroded than the chisel-edged Himalayas, lay only about 500 feet below so I could clearly see the miles of foot paths that lay between them and occasional patches where grass and vegetables could be grown. Somewhere among them must have been the occasional general store, though I never saw one, because, during the flight, I saw many peasants trudging along the paths miles from anywhere carrying goods on their backs. One of them, I distinctly remember, had obviously bought a cooking pan.

Their destinations were very obvious. Their farmhouses were widely scattered about, usually on the tops of mountains that were vaguely plateaux. It was then, with a shock, I saw that many farmhouses were situated on the very edge of what had been major landslides. Not all of them, but quite a number. The landslides looked fresh enough to me to suggest that they had occurred in the peasants’ fathers’ or grandfathers’ time. No doubt in many instances the farmer had plans, or was in the process, of moving his house further away from the edge, but many of them were within inches of a steep scree slope. Perhaps, in some cases, the farmer judged from the state of his soil that the next landslide might be a generation or two away, there were many that would surely start to go whenever there was a heavy rainstorm. But they stayed because there was no other suitable place to move to. No doubt, whenever it rained badly enough, such a farmer would remove portable items from his farmhouse and he and his family would sit in the rain for the duration.

Nevertheless, this was a graphic reminder that although the agricultural revolution of roughly 8,000 years ago is much celebrated for giving rise to cities, and then advanced civilization and all the fantastic technologies that we are so proud of, it also caused remorseless expansion of population to a level thousands of times great than in hunter-gatherer epochs until every square yard of the face of the earth that could possibly be exploited by manual labour was, in fact, so used. Or very close indeed at the present time.

It is strange indeed that the powerful personal computer I’m now addressing is owed to the same effect that is also causing more than a few Nepalese families to take the risk of living on the very edge of destruction.

Keith Hudson