Curbing the impacts of COVID-19 on Nepal’s small-scale farmers and seizing opportunities for food system reform

Guest blogger Jagat Deuja puts forward practical measures for minimising damage to Nepal’s small-scale farming sector and ways to build resilient food systems in the longer term.

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Insight by 
Jagat Deuja
Jagat Deuja is executive director of Community Self Reliance Centre, in Nepal
11 May 2020
Women farmers bending over planting crops in a paddy field

Farmers plant crops in a paddy field. The Nepal government is being urged to take measures to minimise both short-term and long-term damage to the country's agricultural sector (Photo: copyright Upendra Lamichhane)

COVID-19 is putting Nepal’s small-scale producers and landless farmers under strain. These groups depend on the country’s agriculture sector to make a living; and the nation depends on these groups for its food supply. 

The lockdown measures may help Nepal win against the virus, but if the patterns of small-scale planting, harvesting and distribution continue to be disrupted, hundreds of thousands will lose their livelihoods, and the whole country could find itself slipping into deep food insecurity.

So far, the relief packages announced by the federal government have not provided enough support to Nepal’s huge numbers of small-scale producers and landless communities.

In the absence of an adequate national response, local government – across many municipalities and wards – has begun locating the most vulnerable families and distributing relief packages. The local team of the IIED-led Empowering Producer In Commercial Agriculture (EPIC) project, which investigates ways to support producers in their commercial agriculture relations, has been supporting these efforts, helping to locate small-scale producers and landless communities in rural municipalities of Gadawa, Dang; Sabaila, Dhanusha; and Gauradaha, Jhapa in southern and eastern Nepal.

While these practical, local measures are bringing immediate relief to vulnerable agricultural communities, the federal government – as well as delivering appropriate relief packages to support small-scale and landless producers – must take broader measures to minimise damage to the agricultural sector in the short term, and plan for a stronger, more resilience sector in the longer term. Here are three things it needs to do:

1. Get produce to market through more central selling locations

The big issue for small-scale farmer is not production – farmers do not have an immediate shortage of food. But with local markets closed due to risks of contamination, they have no means of selling their goods.

The closure has hit dairy products and vegetables particularly hard. Some trading is permitted, but farmers are forced to sell at low prices, set by the traders. The chicken (broiler) industry has also been badly impacted. Chicks ready for sale cannot be exported, and the irregular supply of chicken feed threatens their survival.

‘Collection centres’ set up by small-scale farming cooperatives are one way of keeping the supply chain functioning through market closures. At these centres, members of the cooperative manage the sales to consumers and buyers. They are proving an effective way of keeping farmer produce flowing to market – but more are needed; at least one or two collection centres per municipality.

Importantly, trading in this way keeps the risk of virus transmission low: farmers drop off their produce in one fixed place, and a single member of the cooperative is responsible for selling produce to buyers.

2. Support staple crops get back on track

The lockdown measures put a stop to the planting and harvesting of Nepal’s staple crops – wheat, paddy, maize and rice. Two weeks from the announcement, the government clarified that farming activity was in fact permitted under the lockdown.

So, farmers are back in their fields. But they need support for planting and production to resume. All three tiers of government – local, provincial and federal – must move quickly to get staple crop production fully up and running again.

Farmers are ready to work but struggling to access seeds and fertilisers. Agriculture and veterinary centres that supply seeds and fertilisers are open – but this is not enough. The government needs to make inputs available as close to the farmers as possible through local government dissemination directly or through local cooperatives. And as above, getting the harvest to market will need further government support.

3. Ease pressures on land

There is no doubt that COVID-19 will result in mass unemployment in non-agricultural sectors. This will lead to vast numbers turning to agriculture.

This influx of labourers will put available land under pressure. As demand for land increases, landowners may seek to take back their land, displacing small-scale producers including tenant farmers and sharecroppers. One way of easing land pressures, which in turn will help protect vulnerable, landless farmers, is by putting all available land to use, including fallow land.

Some local governments have already begun developing specific guidelines on how to maximise land use; such guidance could be scaled up and rolled out at national level.

Opportunities for food system reform

COVID-19 has opened the nation’s eyes to the importance of small-scale rural producers for providing the population with fresh and nutritious food. It has highlighted the need for individuals, communities, organisations and government bodies to make traditional agriculture and family farming practices more sustainable and resilient in the face of future crises.

Many are engaged in subsistence farming but there are opportunities for their commercial agriculture activities to provide better returns if based on more equitable trading relations. The cooperative trading model, for example, could provide more direct producer-consumer relations that enable producers to secure better prices and more influence over the value chain.

Establishing models for equitable market linkages for small-scale producers could help the country become more self-sufficient, rather than depending on cheaper imports from India that depress prices.

There is the opportunity for local government to fix minimum prices of their products, to stop black marketing, and for this to continue post-COVID. This will help secure producer's rights to fix the price of their produce in relation to costs of production so that they get a fair deal.

EPIC Nepal’s work aims to empower producers in their market and value chain relations and explore such models with local, provincial and federal government. COVID-19 has highlighted the urgency of this agenda. 

EPIC is funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office through its Commercial Agriculture for Smallholders and Agribusiness (CASA) programme, though the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the UK government. CASA seeks to increase economic opportunities for smallholders by demonstrating the commercial viability of businesses with significant smallholder supply chains and attracting more investment into the sector.

About the author

Jagat Deuja is executive director of Community Self Reliance Centre, in Nepal, which works to secure land rights of landless, tenants and smallholder farmers through pro-poor land and agrarian reform

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