LONGREAD WITH THE PEOPLE BEHIND A NEW YOUTH COOPERATIVE IN HELAMBU, NEPAL

They are huddled around the computer. Ready for an interview over Skype. We’re about to start fulfilling one of CICED’s ambitions with our new online magazine ViSTA. We want to give more voice to our partners and the people who are involved in our joint projects in one way or another.

Three people are gathered around a camera and microphone at the JUST Nepal Foundation’s office in Kathmandu. We’re going to talk about the cooperative that young people in the Helambu region are setting up. Pasang Tamang and Krishna Bahadur Khadka flank the Gopal Lama. Pasang and Krishna are two of the driving forces behind the new cooperative. Gopal is the head of JUST Nepal Foundation/JNF, CICED’s partner in Nepal and coordinator of the recently completed project Putting Youth on Centre Stage. JNF provides support for young people to get through the many paperwork exercises needed to register a new cooperative.

The cooperative idea

Why a cooperative? Why don’t you just start your own private companies?

“If there are many of us together, we can make everything better”! Krishna speaks first. Pasang follows up: “If we want to live in the villages, we need to make agriculture more efficient. And through collaboration, we gain more energy and belief in our own capabilities. We can support and help each other. We can use the cooperative to drive more favorable procurement and together we can better scale our business.”

The young Helambu people’s rationale for the cooperative is in line with the historical arguments for cooperative enterprise. The first cooperative saw the light of day in 1844 in Rochdale, England, where a group of poor weavers formed a cooperative with the aim of improving the living conditions of its members1. Since then, the cooperative idea and movement has become a global phenomenon. According to the International Cooperative Alliance, there are currently around 3 million cooperatives with approximately 1.3 billion members worldwide2. In Denmark, Kooperationen is the common interest organization for
115 large and small cooperative businesses3. COOP with Brugsen, Fakta, Irma and Kvickly and Arbejdernes Landsbank are examples of Danish cooperatives.

The cooperative movement in Nepal counts over 35,000 cooperatives4 with around 6.3 million members, 51% of whom are women,
and the cooperative sector accounts for around 4% of the gross domestic product. The importance of cooperatives is enshrined in Nepal’s new constitution5 adopted in September 2015. Chapter 4 (Part-4) section 50 ‘Directive Principles’6 states:

It shall be the economic objective of the State to make the national economy self-reliant, independent, and developing it towards socialism oriented economy with equitable distribution of resources and means, by ending all forms of economic exploitation and inequality, with maximum utilization of available resources and means through the participation of cooperatives, and public and private sector for sustainable development, and to build an exploitation-free society by fair distribution of the achievements made so far.
(my emphasis). 

In schedules to the Nepalese constitution, it is emphasized that all administrative levels of the federal structure are responsible for promoting cooperatives (7).

With room for ginger, shiitake, chickens and goats

How many people are involved and who is participating in the cooperative? “At our first meeting, we were 35 young people. Since then, additional
5 interested. We are both men and women. Mostly men right now, but we want equal numbers of women and men,” he continues
Pasang. “Most of us are just poor farmers with a bit of land”. Krishna elaborates: “For example, there is a young woman who grows ginger and chili. She has planted over 35,000 sqft (approx. 3200 m2). Another woman grows shiitake mushrooms on 2500 small logs. Then there’s someone who grows vegetables in tunnels8. Some have started with cardamom, which is very popular in the food here in Nepal and others are trying something new like kiwi fruit”. Together with a good friend, Pasang runs a goat farm and Krishna raises chickens. They have both taken small loans of 100,000 Nepalese rupees (approx. 6,000 DKK) under the micro-credit program that CICED has established together with JNF. The loans must be paid back over a year and at 10% interest, which is half to a third of what they would have paid on a regular bank loan. That is, if they could get a bank loan. In Nepal, banks are also reluctant to lend money to poor farmers. And the difficulty in borrowing money to start making a sustainable living is one of several reasons for the many cooperatives in Nepal. In Denmark and most industrialized countries
In most countries, cooperatives are typically established within a defined field of interest, e.g. a co-op, housing cooperative, dairy cooperative,
cooperative bank or building cooperative. You come together in communities of interest in accordance with the seven fundamentals
cooperative principles (9):

  1. Voluntary and equal membership
  2. Democratic member control
  3. Financial accountability
  4. Autonomy and independence
  5. Education and awareness
  6. Collaboration
  7. Society and community interest

The same seven principles apply to the new youth cooperative in Helambu, but the cooperative form of enterprise in Nepal is also largely driven by the need for a decent alternative to the usurious interest rates charged by Nepalese banks and private lenders to finance new farm, household and lifestyle initiatives.

Therefore, many cooperatives in Nepal are also established with a savings and loan function as a central part of the cooperative’s operations. Members of the Helambu cooperative hand over 10,000 rupees as initial capital and 1,000 rupees for the savings account. With 40 members, it’s a good amount of money to start with and quite a lot of money if the cooperative reaches the 200 members Krishna and Pasang are aiming for in the coming year.

Members can use the cooperative as a savings bank, where money can be borrowed at reasonable interest rates not only for farming or other businesses, but also for private purposes such as weddings or home extensions. Besides the paperwork of registering the cooperative, what are the big
challenges in the coming year? “The 10,000 + 1,000 rupees deposit is a hurdle for many. Most people and especially the young people in this area are poor and 11,000 rupees is a lot of money. But we hope that the benefits of joining the cooperative are so compelling that many will do what they can to raise the deposit,” Pasang says and continues:
“And then we worry about whether the cooperative can live up to all expectations and needs. Young people here have a huge need for funding to improve and increase their production. And maybe we won’t have enough money for all the loans that people want to take out or we can’t raise enough money to buy things for everyone who needs them.

This includes fertilizers, seeds, seeds, tunnels and the like. But we hope that with the support of the local authorities and a lot of young people, we can make it all work.”

Is there any support outside of young members?

Gopal Lama, JNF says that there is good contact with the mayor of Helambu municipality. He has made a contribution of 1 million rupees
(approx. 60,000 kr.) in prospect. It is also the municipality that has the authority to register the cooperative, which is new and a result of federalization and devolution of power. Before the new constitution in 2015, cooperatives had to be registered centrally. The fact that it is now a local matter is a great democratic step forward, but at the same time it causes teething problems. Local administrations are understaffed and often the employees are temporarily
without the right qualifications. On top of that, there are unclear guidelines for the many new administrative tasks, so everything takes time and is full of ambiguity. “It’s also made it quite attractive for the municipality to support cooperatives. Or at least it’s made it less risky,” explains Gopal. “The law states that if a cooperative is dissolved and the municipality has contributed capital, the municipality is first in line to get its money back”.

Problem solving through peaceful means

Krishna and Pasang are now quite optimistic about the possibilities for support. Not only from the municipality, but also from the provincial administration,
which, according to the 2017 constitution, is also assigned responsibilities and tasks to support cooperatives.”We are the first and so far the only cooperative that works across the entire Helambu region and we have members from all seven villages. In this way, we are helping to bridge the gap between former
divisions and conflicts across different groupings. And we believe there will be support for that,” says Krishna. And there has been plenty of conflict and division in Helambu. During the civil war, also known as the Maoist insurgency from 1996 to 2006, the area, which has traditionally been dominated8 by the Nepali Congress Party10, was severely affected by armed conflict. Many NCP supporters left the area and only returned after the peace agreement in 2006.

Today, the Helambu municipality remains an NCP-led island in an area dominated by the Communist Party of Nepal, which since May 2017 is a merger of two former communist parties, including the Nepali Maoists who took up arms in 199611. How the party political divides will affect the cooperative and other cooperation between young people in Helambu is an open question. In Nepal, there is a very strong tradition of fierce – and sometimes violent – rivalry among the political parties’ youth organizations, which also try to hijack and dominate any new non-party youth initiative. Many of the young people involved in the cooperative are also members of various political youth organizations, but so far, the spirit of cooperation from the four youth camps under the Putting Youth on Centre Stage project seems to be strong. “The cooperative is clearly a result of the four youth camps,” says Pasang. Krishna nods vigorously. “We had the opportunity to get to know each other. We had never had such opportunities before. We learned to listen to each other. We learned that we could compromise and that we can trust each other, even if we are different and have different opinions on this and that.”

Listening and engaging in peaceful and compromising dialog is not necessarily something that comes naturally. “Violent behavior has deep roots in Nepal. The political culture has been and is violent. And I’m not just thinking about the Maoist rebellion. When I do workshops with young people and we discuss what should be done better in, for example, their village and how we should work for improvements, they always first suggest some kind of very loud and violent protest against the political powers that be. They know from experience that no one listens if you’re not
ready to throw stones. They’ve grown up with authority figures being violent. At home and at school. Even though it’s against the law to hit children
in school, it is widely used today12. Discrimination on the basis of caste and ethnicity has been prohibited for decades (13), but it is still widespread. When you are always met with violence, you also believe that violence is the only valid language to achieve something”.

The statement comes from Ram Chandra Paudel, who facilitated the four youth camps. Ram Chandra is a well-known figure in Nepali civil society and one of the country’s most recognized actors when it comes to developing dialogue and alternative strategies and methods to violence in Nepali society (14).

Ram and his wife Sharada Sharma are on Skype from their office in Phokara. Sharada has supported the establishment of dozens of cooperatives and savings and loan groups, especially among women, and has also helped the youth of Helambu get started. “The young people in Helambu initially reacted no differently than other young people I’ve done workshops for. They were prepared to take very threatening actions to be heard. But, gradually and with many anecdotes
and with plenty of space to share their own experiences and ideas – and absolutely no lecturing from me – they begin to see the value of listening and respecting each other”. Ram continues: “It was very touching and very telling when I invited the young people on the trip to sit next to me in the center of the circle of participants and asked them if they had ever experienced violence and degrading and discriminatory treatment. Everyone as one has such experiences. Some very violent and traumatic. Not least among girls. Those who have been sent to Mumbai15. And when one cries, everyone cries. Because everyone has scars on their soul. But after a few days, they have also experienced how to have a dialog with each other, respect each other, be respected, gain some confidence again. We do exercises, make games and play with the peaceful dialog as a method. We sing and dance together. And it’s all this that gives hope that young people can do it differently. That there can be cooperation and peaceful dialog on solutions to their major challenges”.

That all sounds great. But what happens when they’re back home and not surrounded by non-violence advocates like you?

“Of course it’s difficult. The family may tell them to do such and such. The girls have to get married, drop out of school, go to Mumbai. But I’m sure, in my experience, young people now have the courage to say no. We did workshops over more than a year and none of the girls traveled to Mumbai or got married against their will. And both men and girls have come to believe that they can make it in Helambu. Out of the 90 who were enrolled in the youth camps, 60 are still in the area and they are all doing either cooperatives or their studies. By mistake, 30 of the registrants had already booked a trip to the Gulf States, and we couldn’t stop them. But we have contact with them and they come home and get back to work,” Ram concludes with conviction in his voice.

Establishing a cooperative was not part of the Putting Youth on Centre Stage project. Therefore, cooperatives as a framework and means to promote dialog and cooperation were not on the agenda during the youth camps. Yet the connection between cooperative and conflict resolution and peaceful interaction is not new. The role of cooperatives in creating and maintaining peace, preventing new conflicts and promoting dialogue and cooperation across former divides and enemies is a well-known phenomenon around the world. A comprehensive study published in 201916 by the European cooperative umbrella organization Cooperatives Europe analyzes the experiences of cooperatives in a number of countries ravaged by conflict and war. Among other things, the report concludes:

This report has demonstrated that cooperatives play important part in a multi-stakeholder approach to social, economic and political 
stabilization in conflict and post-conflict settings. As people-centred businesses, cooperatives improve the jobs and livelihoods of community members and help people overcome social barriers that otherwise would be insurmountable. The cooperative engagement in peacebuilding stems from a powerful tradition of strengthening community building and using people-centred approaches that empower and facilitate local people’s direct involvement in decision-making. Due to a bottom-up strategy allowing space for members to develop skills, which can advance social inclusion, cooperatives have shown that they are better at nurturing relationships between divided people and overcome barriers through meaningful collaboration, thereby promoting democracy and consolidating peace. (17) 

New mindsets in familiar settings

Back to Krishna and Pasang. I’d like to know why they think they and the new collective can better create income and a future when others before them haven’t done so well. Especially after the April 2015 earthquake, Helambu and Sindhupalchok have had the highest migration rate in Nepal.Krishna: “Farming in our area is traditionally just subsistence farming. You’re used to having just a few chickens, a couple of goats and some cultivated land to provide just a little bit of food for your family. But there’s a lot of potential to make it better and more productive”.

Pasang follows up: “We need to make agriculture more productive. And to do that, we need to think differently. We need to be more scientific in our approach. We need to grow crops in accordance with soil tests. And we need to grow more profitable crops. In other words, something that is in demand. We simply need to be more business-minded. We need to know and understand the market. With our cooperative, we can become stronger in choosing the right crops. And we can set up our own marketplaces in the villages up here. If we make a profit, we can sell to Kathmandu”.

When you look at the situation in Helambu, it’s not just wishful thinking, as Krishna and Pasang express. There is plenty of good land in the area. A lot of it lies fallow, which is a chapter in itself, but we’re working on that too. The new constitution gives local authorities the responsibility – and duty – to ensure that all arable land is put to use. However, the two young cooperatists are well aware that it can take time if fallow land is to be put to use. First, landowners must be given the chance and the offer to get started again. And then unused land can be put to use by others if the first round fails.

“There is a huge shortage of meat in the area. Today, we only produce 2,000 goats a year, but the need is 20,000,” says Gopal. “The missing goats are imported from India or other parts of Nepal. There’s no reason for that. They can be bred here. The same goes for lots of vegetables and fruit. The potential is huge. The market is here. We just need to get production going. For example, growing kiwi is fairly new. Last year, the harvest was almost 5 tons. And things like shiitake mushrooms are in high demand”. We wrap up the conversation by talking about the future.

Where will the cooperative be in a year’s time? 

Krishna and Pasang look at each other searchingly, but then the visions come. The four youth camps were very much about giving young people the belief that it’s okay to dream and that you have the right to pursue your dreams and do your part to influence the future: “We hope that we have 200 members and that at least 50 new farms have been established. We have brought some of the uncultivated land into the cooperative. We are self-sufficient in vegetables and we have several marketplaces where we sell surplus produce. We are confident that once we have shown that it is possible to make as much money as you can make by traveling to Dubai, people will come back to Helambu. Because here we can live in dignity with our family and friends. And we don’t have to travel and lose our pride just to work. We must succeed with the cooperative. Not just for our own sake, but for all those who want to go home and live and work in dignity”.

Notes:

  1. For and against the cooperative, Arbejdermuseet: https://www.arbejdermuseet.dk/viden-samlinger/arbejderhistorien/plads-til-os-alle/snorens-3-streng-kooperation/for-og-imod-kooperationen/OmKooperationen – Danmark:https://kooperationen.dk/om-os/organisation/
  2. International Cooperative Alliance: https://www.ica.coop/en?_ga=2.82109718.1062592358.1581613920-425127561.1581613920
  3. About Kooperationen – Denmark:https://kooperationen.dk/om-os/organisation/
  4. The National Cooperative Federation of Nepal: https://ncfnepal.com.np/
  5. After years of debate following the peace agreement with the Maoist rebels in 2006, the second Constituent Assembly since the 2006 peace agreement was finally able to adopt a new constitution for a federal state with 7 provinces and a significant devolution of power to federal and local bodies.
  6. Constitution of Nepal 2015:https://constituteproject.org/constitution/Nepal_2016?lang=en
  7. See Schedules 6, 7 and 8 of the Constitution of Nepal 2015:https://constituteproject.org/constitution/Nepal_2016?lang=enl
  8. A ‘tunnel’ in this context is a plastic-covered mini greenhouse, see for example
    https://www.thespruce.com/growing-vegetables-in-low-tunnels-2539655
  9. The seven cooperative principles: https://kooperationen.dk/media/58538/De-syv-kooperative-principper-2014.pdf
  10. Established in 1950, the Nepali Congress Party has been a leading force in the struggle for democracy. NPC is politically-ideologically a center-left social democratic party and to some extent inspired by the better-known Indian Congress Party.
  11. In the first elections after the adoption of the new constitution and the establishment of Nepal as a secular and federal state in 2017, the alliance of Nepali Communist Party/United Marxists-Leninists and Nepali Communist Party (Maoists) won a massive majority in the two national chambers and in 6 out of 7 federal provinces. The two parties joined forces in May 2018 under the name Nepal Communist Party.
  12. According to. The Act Relating to Children 2018 prohibits corporal punishment of children under the age of 18 both at home and at school.
  13. Discrimination against Dalits, the lowest caste, the so-called ‘untouchables’ has been prohibited by law since 1964. Yet a UN study published in January 2020 refers to widespread discrimination.
  14. Ram Chandra is, among other things, the Secretary General of Alternative to Violence Program Nepal. He is the founder and director of Children Nepal, and lead facilitator of the Bikalpa (Alternative) Training Center in Phokora
  15. ‘Having been to Mumbai’ as a girl usually means that the girl has been sent to the great Indian city to work as a prostitute. Sindhupalchok district, where Helambu is located, has the highest trafficking rate in Nepal. A tradition that dates back to the Rana dynasty, where beautiful young girls from poor families in the area were brought to the palaces in Kathmandu.
  16. Cooperatives Europe 2019: Cooperatives and Peace: Strengthening Democracy, Participation and Trust. A Case Study:https://coopseurope.coop/sites/default/files/COOPS%26PEACE_research_2019_Cooperatives Europe-WEB_0.pdf
  17. Ibid, page 128
Share in your network

Latest blog posts

Sign up for our newsletter