The US, climate change and the farmers of Nepal

As climate change makes their lives increasingly precarious, Nepalis reflect on the US withdrawal from the Paris Accord.

Nepali farmers story
Significant changes in weather patterns are affecting farming communities across Nepal [Gregory Reck/Al Jazeera]

Saipu, Nepal – Three weeks after US President Donald Trump announced that “as of today, the United States will cease all implementation of the… Paris Accord,” Shiva, a subsistence farmer in the Nepali village of Saipu, says: “It’s like God is mad and has disappeared and something evil is taking over the sky.”

“Look at my corn. It’s thirsty, but there is no water any more.” He pauses and then quietly adds, “climate change. The people who are causing this are killing us.”

Trump promised to end the “draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country” because “we don’t want other countries laughing at us any more”. But Shiva and his fellow farmers aren’t laughing as they speak about how climate change is threatening them all.

We were in Saipu to research the politics of reconstruction in post-earthquake Nepal. More than 80 percent of the structures in Saipu were rendered uninhabitable by the earthquakes of April and May 2015. Only about 20 percent have been repaired or rebuilt with the aid of government grants and loans that have burdened many with excessive debt.

‘The whole cycle of life is changing’

Despite the suffering that they have endured for more than two years, Shiva and the other subsistence farmers who have gathered know that climate change is the real danger.

“The earthquakes destroyed our homes, school and health clinic, but those we will eventually rebuild,” a man named Gopal interjects. “But erratic weather with little rain is already bringing the final disaster.”

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Anguished expressions settle on their faces as the conversation escalates. “It rained heavily in March when we needed dry weather to plant corn,” a woman named Kalpana adds.

“And then it was dry in April and May when planted corn needed water. It’s never been this way. The corn is small. We should be harvesting it now and getting ready to plant rice, but everything is running behind. The whole cycle of life is changing.”

She looks up at the cloudless sky, which should be dark and full of life-giving rain at the beginning of the monsoon season. She knows that the rhythm of subsistence farming that has evolved over the centuries is not some arbitrary human choice, but is dependent upon reasonably predictable natural cycles.

Her observations about climate change are not made causally. They are the result of traditional knowledge of a topic that has always been a matter of survival.

Farmer after farmer tells the same story: it rains when it’s supposed to be dry, and it’s dry when it’s supposed to rain; rotating crops of corn, millet, rice and vegetables requires weather predictability which is no more; mountain streams that make agriculture possible on the steep slopes and which provide drinking water are drying up; days are warmer, making mosquitoes flourish and goats and cattle sick.

Climate change: A catastrophic reality

In this village with no electricity, where the basic fuel is wood, and there are no vehicles aside from a couple of tractors and four-wheel drives to ferry people and supplies up and down the landslide-prone road, residents know they contribute nothing to the factors creating climate change and, yet, are on the receiving end of its consequences.

According to the World Bank, Nepal’s entire CO2 output in 2013 was only 0.2 of a metric tonne. Before 1995, it was less than 0.1 of a metric tonne per year. Despite Trump’s claim that the United States is the world’s leader in environmental policy, the World Bank says that in 2013 the US contributed 16.4 metric tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere.

According to Statista, a website that compiles statistics on a variety of topics, in 2016 the US produced 15.99 percent of global CO2 emissions, second only to China.

The Berkeley Energy and Resource Collaborative in 2014 concluded that the US had contributed more than 20 percent of all global warming since pre-industrial times.

The subsistence farmers of Nepal, like billions of vulnerable people across the globe, are the victims of the excesses of a bloated global economy that fattens the few at the expense of the many. For these people, climate change is not some abstract, debatable idea that a country like the US can wish out of existence. For them, it is a catastrophic reality.

Floods in the US, floods in South Asia

The August 2017 floods in Nepal, India and Bangladesh are a case in point. While the US – and much of the global – news media focused on the floods in Houston, Texas, the human cost of the flooding in South Asia was largely overlooked.

Although the calculation of the damage is still mounting, at least 200 people died as a result of the floods in Nepal, and 1.7 million have been severely affected, as 65,000 homes were damaged or destroyed.

As many as 40 million people have been directly impacted across Nepal, India and Bangladesh. While monsoon rains are part of the normal climatic cycle in the region, there is little doubt that the ferocity of the rain increased dramatically as a result of climate change.

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The farmers of Saipu do what they can. They protect their forests with the razor-thin hope that this might mitigate the fury of climate change. They conserve as much water as possible hoping that the rain will fall normally once again. They plant seeds hoping that, against all the odds, the crops will produce enough to sustain them. But they know that it is the decisions made in distant places that truly determine their fate.

Shiva finally exhibits the satirical humour for which Nepali farmers are famous. “Now that the US has decided not to cooperate in stopping climate change,” he smiles, alluding to Trump’s announcement, “they have only two choices: reverse the decision and stop putting pollution into the sky, or move everything and everybody from Nepal to the US.”

Everyone around him laughs. For a moment, the anger and frustration they feel disappear. But then the laughter fades, and a momentary quiet takes over.

We recall the statement US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt made at the Paris Accord withdrawal ceremony: “We owe no apologies to other nations for our environmental stewardship.”

We wonder whether Pruitt could bring himself to tell these Nepali farmers that.

Then an elderly man named Devi, who has so far remained silent, speaks softly. “I used to think the USA was smart, but now I know that they are just selfish and irresponsible,” he says.

Everyone nods in agreement. 

Gregory Reck is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Appalachian State University in the US. He has conducted ethnographic field research in rural Mexico, India, Nepal and the Appalachian region of the US. His diverse research interests are unified by his interest in investigating the complex ways that global capitalism penetrates and exploits rural communities around the world.

Dinesh Paudel is an assistant professor in the Department of Sustainable Development at Appalachian State University. His current research explores the politics of post-disaster reconstruction in Nepal, the geopolitical dynamics of Himalayan environmental changes and the relationship between international development interventions and political transformations in Nepal and the Himalayas.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policies.

Source: Al Jazeera