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How Australia is helping Nepalese people rebuild after devastating 2015 earthquake

How Australia is helping Nepalese people rebuild after devastating 2015 earthquake

Australia's oldest agricultural aid program is helping to speed up the recovery effort in Nepal from the devastating 2015 earthquake that killed 8,000 people and caused $10 billion in damage.

In the Himalayan country's mid-hills region, some villages lost 80 per cent of homes, and plantation forests established by Australia and other aid donors more than 40 years ago have been crucial to the reconstruction effort.

Initially, community-owned forests were harvested to provide low-cost timber for temporary housing and now it's being used for more permanent structures.

University of Adelaide agricultural scientist Ian Nuberg said the plantations were started in response to severe soil erosion caused by unregulated land clearing.

"Up to the 1960s there wasn't any real control over people using the forest and the population increased, people need the forest to live from and also to graze cattle in," Dr Nuberg said.

Dr Nuberg heads a new forestry aid project with local partners developing better silverculture or forest management to help villagers improve their livelihoods and food security.

He said the earthquake had benefitted the project "in a perverse way" because it made local officials more open to the idea of cutting trees down as part of good forestry management.

The emphasis of the project, which also involves the University of New South Wales, has been on empowering local people to help themselves.

An Australian-built saw mill is making a big difference with profits from harvested timber staying in the area.

According to the Mayor of the Bhumlu district, Guman Dhoj Kumwar, the community-owned forests enabled a quick response to the earthquake, providing cheap timber for temporary housing.

Now the mill's profits were contributing to a community development fund.

"Initially we are focussing on the most poor, the untouchables and women," Mr Kumwar said.

"It will be used for their benefit, but we will also spend this money on community infrastructure such as improved roads and a drinking water system."

The project is also having an impact at a grassroots level, particularly with women who are growing cardamom on the forest floor.

According to the head of a women's co-op growing cardamom, Sushila Kunwor, the low-maintenance, high-value cash crop was helping families improve their lives.

"We use the income from Cardamom to send our kids to school," she said.

"It also helps to pay for health bills. Some of the money is reinvested in farming and some helps us buy food in times of food scarcity.

The forestry project is funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), which is also paying for projects aimed at boosting agricultural production in Nepal.

It is one of the world's poorest nations and, according to the World Health Organisation, 13 per cent of the population is undernourished and 40 per cent of all children under five suffer from stunted growth.

The dean of agriculture at the University of Queensland, Neal Menzies, said much of ACIAR's focus in Nepal was on the Gangetic plains between India and Bangladesh, which had the potential to become a food bowl for South Asia.

"Look around, it's a fantastic fertile place so we can grow lots of crop here," Dr Menzies said.

"The farmers at the moment grow a lot of crop here but not as much as they could, so with introduction of a few new technologies there can be a tremendous increase in the amount of food that comes out of the Gangetic plain."

He said simple changes such as using Australian conservation farming techniques like leaving crop stubble in the ground to improve soil health and retain moisture, could make a significant difference.

"You can see at the end of the project how people's lives have changed, you can see that they've got some more dollars, they're able to send their kids to school, the slightly better clothes they're wearing, the kids are not so poorly nourished," Dr Menzies said.

Australian agricultural scientists like Dr Menzies are working in ACIAR projects in more than 30 developing countries.

"They're not projects that make scientists famous, these are not the projects you're going to write the Nature paper out of and get promoted to professor, but they are popular among University of Queensland staff because they're an opportunity to make a difference," Dr Menzies said.

According to the chief executive officer of ACIAR, Andrew Campbell, 200 years of farming a land of drought and flooding rains meant Australia was well placed to help poor countries grow more food more sustainably.

"Australia's got a lot of expertise in agriculture and agricultural science and unlike say, the United States or Europe, our agricultural sector is not subsidised and so our solutions work without subsidies."

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