3.1. Determining Driving Factors of Farmland Abandonment
Multivariate Linear Regression (MLR) analysis was applied to determine the major driving factors prompting the abandonment process of mountain farmlands in Nepal. The results of the multivariate regression are presented in Table 2
. The results revealed that farmland abandonment is positively and significantly influenced by the seven independent variables: availability of road accessibility (β = 0.010, þ
= 0.004); Farm distance from residence (β = 0.127, þ
= 0.039); Household head age (β = 0.056, þ
= 0.013); Landowner currently living places (β = 1.457, þ
= 0.033); ownership of farmland (β = 0.095, þ
= 0.002); Salary and business (β = 2.777 × 10-6
= 0.007); and Remittances (β = 5.650 × 10-6
= 0.016). Conversely, there were significant but negative influences of household size (β = −0.361, þ
= 0.041) while the remaining ten variables such as mountain elevation, market access, farmland productivity, irrigation access and education of household head, access to credit, farm income, livestock income and wage labor activities, did not have significant relationships, although the direction of their relationship to farmland abandonment bears important policy implications in the mountain region.
This study identified eight distinct factors—mountain road accessibility, farm distance from residence, household size, household head age, landowners living places, ownership of farmland, salaried jobs and business and remittances—affecting the process of farmland abandonment in the mountain region of Nepal. However, the roles of these driving factors are not equally distributed. Household characteristics such as; farmer’s household size, household head’s age and landowners living places significantly influence the cultivation of farmland. The leading roles of economic agriculture and forming the mountain social landscape are diminishing factors, as farmers, who formed the majority in the past, are becoming a minority. This study also revealed that mountain society and the lifestyle of farmers has been changed substantially in recent decades. The most significant changes have been; (i) the abandoning of farmland and their own society and migrating to urban areas; (ii) the decline in farm and livestock ownership and involvement in off-farm activities; a salaried job or business. As illustrated in the focus group discussion, participants felt that “farming took a long time to get something from field” so their income was not steady whereas joining in other sectors such as salaried jobs or in business allowed them to earn a monthly income. Thus, every household is trying to change their profession”.
The results demonstrate a positive and significant relationship regarding the household head’s age. As indicated by the above results, more than 80% of households were found to have only aged people at home. These results seem reasonable because growing migration to cities and abroad have a marked aging effect on the household populations in Nepal [22
]; as active household members migrated, elderly people became responsible for farmland management and community social activities. Additionally, in Nepal, household heads are the only ones who make the decisions in the management of farm activities or the abandonment of farmland [43
]. Household heads who were under 40 found strong and logical capacity in the adoption of new technologies for farming, seeding and plantation. They were more aware of seeds and production information and got necessary support from the government and non-government organizations. To contrast, illiterate and older farmers were not looking for such opportunities, which inhibited them from continuing farming activities. Furthermore, they did not accept any kind of training related to farm and farming activities. Their cropping patterns were whatever neighboring farmers did on their farm. Furthermore, farm activities over the basin were highly labor intensive. Farmers have to plough land two or three times, maintain terraces yearly, cultivate crops and take out weeds and harvest crops. Farm machinery such as tractors cannot be used due to steep slopes and small terraces [44
]. Household heads are the major source of labor for farming activities. When farmers want to improve farmland, active laborers were required in substantial numbers for constructing terraces, dams and retention walls, which is beyond the affordability of the older farm owner.
Remittances were another important factor affecting farmland abandonment in the mountain region of Nepal. Regular cash flow from remittances and pensions (from retirement) have been a traditional and important feature of rural existence [45
]. The majority of household incomes were collected from remittances and spent on daily basic needs such as education, health, food and more [46
]. The increasing role of remittances including labor migration, pension, seasonal migration and so on in Nepalese households and the national economy of Nepal is widely discussed in the empirical research and national reports [4
]. During this study’s household survey, many respondents proudly expressed that “remittances have enabled family members to move to urban areas for a child’s schooling at private schools. It has also improved the living conditions of mountain communities. Old parents were convinced to care for the parental home without involving any farm-activities. Additionally, elderly parents at rural homes were enjoying modern facilities such as television with a cable network, refrigerator, cooling fans and more. Remittances additionally allowed mountain farmers to consume urban food like noodles, biscuits and cold drinks and so on despite fresh produce and the availability of traditional foods such as popcorn, soybeans and local drinks (Wine and Jaand).”
Land ownership status also indicated a positive and significant relationship in the abandoning of farmland. It is the reality that the amount of farmland determined the household social status, access to credit and political participation in Nepal [48
]. The greater the quantity of land owned means the better ability to benefit from public services such as education and health. However, an undeveloped status of agriculture, a lack of irrigation, the use of traditional technology and the subsistence production of farmlands have rendered even relatively large landholders into the state of abandonment [27
]. Furthermore, the people who possess small parcels of land that provide very little income are less interested in agriculture. These people, therefore, do not pay much attention to farming or land management. Thus, if the land productivity was high and labor was available to farmers, lands were farmed on a share-cropping basis and a fixed proportion of land production was shared with the landowner. However, in that case, farmers were not adopting new practices and modern seeds because they thought that most of the benefits went to the landowner.
The farm distance from the farmer’s residence also shows a closer relationship to abandoning the mountain farmland. Farm cultivation and management required regular attention [28
] so farmlands far from the residential house cannot be properly maintained. Additionally, there are not any defined grazing fields in Nepal [49
]. Existing farmlands (during the off-season), abandoned farmlands as well as nearby forest areas are normally used for grazing. A large area of abandoned farmland has allowed for the propagation of shrubs and other unplanted species resulting in the degradation of pastures. Following the conversion of farmland into forest, many kinds of wild animals such as rabbits, rats and monkeys are heavily increased around the nearby farmland areas [50
]. Farmers use traditional measures to prevent these animals such as using an elastic weapon/ (slingshot) and regular monitoring of the croplands, however, these measures are not effective for the larger farmlands or farmlands more distant. This study’s FGDs found many farmers expressed that their farmland use was disturbed by grazing activities, forest animals and invasion of alien species on neighboring abandoned farmland. Farmers believed that cropping at only one farm attracted many wild animals at once.
3.2. Impact on Social System
Social landscapes are important in the mountain regions, particularly for farming activities as well as natural resource management [51
]. It is well established in the traditional mountain landscapes, which formed due to a generic organizational pattern of private and common agricultural land units distributed along the altitudinal variations [52
]. The units also have a distinct and recognizable structure for providing institutional support in terms of natural environment (soil, vegetation), social environment (institutional organizations, irrigation and/or water supply management), farmland planning (terraces), farmland activities, employment opportunities and socio-cultural functions [53
] and, in turn, farmers are delivered farm and other natural resource based products. The authors have presented how abandoning farmland has an increasing impact on labor exchange system, social systems, practices, networks and relationships in Nepal.
3.2.1. Indigenous Labor Exchange System “Parma”
“Parma” is one of the most prevailing, interactive and dynamic social systems for giving and receiving help for labor services in turn collectively [26
]. The system simply refers to interchanging help at the time of planting or harvesting crops, building shelters, roofing houses and more. People in the mountain community lend “Parma” labor to each other to complete the household work. The systems are pooled together to implement village-level projects, such as building irrigation ditches or channels, or facilities for drinking water. The system enables people to live even in harsh conditions (during natural disasters) without any modern infrastructures and facilities [26
]. Thus, it developed a rich stock of social institutions among mountain communities.
Since the establishment of mountain communities, Parma was practiced among farmers. The increasing abandonment of farmland has seen the practices of “Parma” being less or not practiced among societies. Regarding the focus group discussions (FGD), participants strongly mentioned that there were no longer household members to participate in “Parma” activities. Additionally, there were no farmland activities requiring the “Parma” system. The practice of “Parma” have begun disappearing in most of the communities. Although the system was like a social trust established to help each other or to support agricultural functions in time of need, it was mostly found among the people of the same social groups or communities settled at one location. Thus, this type of practice, on one hand, brought the social community closer and on the other hand made it easier to perform agricultural functions. Therefore, since the practice of “Parma” activities have dissipated, the value of traditional systems will be hindered and it will lead toward social landscape fragmentation in the future.
3.2.2. Irrigation Management System
The irrigation management system is another means for the mountain farmers to organize themselves and is invested heavily in the construction and maintenance of their own irrigation canal. The system is also one of the many traditional systems that has existed in the mountain region for several centuries [55
]. According to the irrigation management system, irrigation dams at the source and many smaller feeder canals are built of earth, rocks and wooden blocks and passed along the edge of farmland terraces. The source and smaller feeder canals are rebuilt or simply maintained and cleaned from scratch at the end of each monsoon, normally in the months of May–June and October–November, before the plantation of rice and wheat respectively. However, the making of bunds, constructing headworks, building irrigation canals and ditches, setting and adjusting field canals did not happen suddenly. Groups of farmers conceptualized their ideas and decided what to do first and who should do what; they argued, had conflict and settled disputes, built and rebuilt, coped with floods, landslides and droughts and, in the process, created social rules and regulations.
Water was allocated through a rotational system whereby fields were irrigated on a turn by turn basis. Initially, it was allocated to the land nearest to the source. Once the fields were fully irrigated, the gates were closed and the outlets to the next farmland were opened. These processes were continued until all fields along the command area received water and then the process began again. Each household member was concerned about the water availability and status of irrigation canal. All household members voluntarily were involved in the repairing of canals. Normally, each household was expected to provide one family member as a laborer for one day and while the expected labor contribution was higher, it was, regardless of how many farmers or population existed there. However, the decreasing numbers for labor participation and the increasing difficulties for the management of the irrigation system in the recent years through the abandonment of farmlands in the command area, found many feeder canals damaged. Local farmers expressed that some of the irrigation canals were blocked due to abandoned farmlands inducing sedimentation, terrace damage and mudflows. They also stated that the indigenous irrigation systems have been unsustainable in the context of skewed farming activities and/or the increasing abandonment of farmlands.
3.2.3. Drinking Water Management
Natural springs are the major source for drinking water supplies throughout the basin. Usually, delineation of water resources, techniques for harvesting and management of water supplies were traditionally organized by the farmers themselves. Building stone and concrete walls, fencing boundaries with wire, planting trees and restricting access of people and animals are the farming community’s efforts toward conserving drinking water resources. The supplies of water are settled according to the local environment and living conditions of the societies [57
]. Additionally, local people share religious beliefs to protect the natural springs. According to beliefs, the place where a natural spring originates was the place of the Snake Goddess. They believe that polluting the habitat of the Goddess or cutting of bushes and trees around the springs causes natural calamities such as drought, landslides and more. Recently, the water from the springs is pumped and stored in cemented water tanks in a nearby village, however harvesting and supply management are still community based to a large extent.
Well-maintained terraced farmland can act as a reservoir detaining water for spring sources [58
]. Many spring water sources are vanishing or drying up due to people leaving ancestral settlements as well abandoning terraced farmland leaving no one to maintain the systems. Some of the water resources that a household had been using for many years have been completely dried. Additionally, many water sources have less discharge, making it difficult to have supplies for drinking, livestock and irrigation purposes. Soil sedimentation and the occurrence of landslides and so on are also noticeably due to farmland abandonment leading to severely affected water sources throughout the basin. Participants in the FGDs expressed that increasing farmland abandonment, thus lack of human resources and regular maintenance of natural springs, are snowballing the drinking water shortages in the region. They also claim that household workloads are increased due to more time required for washing clothes, maintaining general cleanliness, and/or drinking water forage. Some households resort to collecting water during the night while others are obliged to collect unclean water, inviting water-borne diseases. Thus, it is urgent to identify strategies for improving drinking water sources to prevent human and environmental disasters in the mountain region.
3.2.4. Social Practice, Rituals and Festive Events
There are a lot of social practices, traditions, cultures and festive events (Birth, Marriage, Death, Bratabandh, Shraddha, Annual puja, Jatra, Naach and so on), requiring day-to-day neighborhood relationships [59
]. The Hindu religion requires one member of each village called “Puret” or “or “or “Dhami” or “Lama”, to be assigned to perform these social ritual practices and festive events. Literally, these members are a “ritual leader,” but traditionally they were used to specify an informal cultural institution, referring to the social landscape dated from the establishment of village. Under this person, villagers perform religious activities, organize social and agriculture-related festivities, bring reforms in traditions and customs, strengthen social and production systems, manage resources, settle cases and discussed activities for recreation and social solidarity. The practices are varied from small gatherings to large-scale social celebrations and commemorations. Particularly, these practices are referred to a person or a group of persons who want to be involved. Festive events are a key part of public life and often opened to all members of society. These events often take place at special times and remind farmers about the community’s place in the worldview and its perception of its own history and memory.
These social practices are important for shaping everyday community life while making it familiar to all members of the community. Most importantly, these help to mark the passing of seasons, historical events in the agricultural calendar or the stages of a person’s life. Additionally, the practices are significant to reaffirm the identity of those who practice them as a group or a society. However, these kinds of functions are now socially doomed. Communities indicate that, since many farmers are moving out and abandoning their farmland, it is hard to find ritual leaders and gather the population in the villages. There currently are no ritualistic and festive events of any kind, even once.
3.2.5. Indigenous Governance Systems, Practices and Other Infrastructures
The practices of indigenous governance systems—Kulharis and Mukhiyas—evolved over long periods of time in the mountain region. Kulharis and Mukhiyas are people who play a central role in facilitating actions and/or increase access, use of resources and assets. Especially under the Kulharis system, whole farming communities are divided based on farm sizes and allocated water resources either one full day or a limited few hours to irrigate their fields as a result. The governance systems are locally adopted, environmentally sound and suited to the specific mountainous biophysical conditions [61
]. The governance system and practices are renowned for the art of using farmland, maintaining soil fertility as well as water and forest resource management, which has been passed from generation to generation. Additionally, they work to preserve the cultural and natural environment, which are directly linked to the community’s socio-economic life.
Under the governance system, mountain people have a strong sense of community stewardship, since the whole community takes responsibility for protecting, maintaining or managing properties such as farmland, irrigation canals, forest and grasslands. Keeping animals in an open farmland, migratory flocks of sheep or goats, crop rotation, terrace riser slicing, trapping, use of forest fodder, burning of trash, use of forest soils and black soils and burying of dead animals are executed under the indigenous governance system and practices. Likewise, the making of ponds for water collection and water shade management are major social practices under the governance system, which helps in the conservation of forests as well as keeping the source of water clean. Nevertheless, since the abandoning of existing farmlands began, the practices of the indigenous governance systems have been forgotten or have disappeared. Relationships of trust among farmers, common rules and connectedness among social groups, which were necessary for shaping individual farm activities and creating a unified mountain social landscape, have declined. Furthermore, the use and maintenance of existing infrastructures (temples, schools, shops, banks, health post, micro-finance and other local facilities and so on) have decreased, which in turn further accelerates the loss of people from mountain rural areas or makes it more difficult for middle aged people who wish to return to begin a career in the mountain regions.
3.3. Farmland Degradation and Eco-Environmental Vulnerability
An overview of visual observation remarked that terrace damage, gully formation and encroachment of vegetation (grass, shrubs and trees) are caused by the abandonment of traditionally used farmland (Figure 3
). The areas where abandonment has taken place, found all the abandoned farmlands (100%) have terrace damage; however, the process of plant succession showed little evidence. Regarding the 38 abandoned farmlands observed, 28.9% (11) suffer from gully formation and mud flows. Only 15.8% (6) were found with a dominant stage of forest, a well-known successional stage in the re-colonization process of agricultural land following abandonment. A total of 52.6% (20) abandoned farmlands have advanced stages of tree development dominated by Artocarpus lakoocha
, Flemingia congesta
, Garuga pinnata
, leucaena spp., Iris clarki
, Ficus lacor
, Ficus semicordata
, Ficus hispida
, Morus alba
, Bauhinia variegate
, Cajanus cajan
, Litsea monopetala
, Bauhinia purpurea
, which will eventually create a forest environment. Some of the abandoned farmlands, 7.5% (3), were already transformed into rock lands. The succession of grasses, shrubs and trees were perceived along the damaged terraces. The greater majority of the abandoned farmlands show a general successional pattern composed of Melia azedarach
, Garuga pinnata
, Ficus lacor
, Litsea monopetala
, Acacia catechu
, Acer oblongum
, Adina cordifolia
, Alnus nepalensis
, Bauhinia veriegata
, Bridelia retusa
, Castanea sativa
, Castonopsis hystrix
, Castonopsis indica
, Cedrela toona
, Cryptomeria japonica
, Dalbergia sissoo
, Erythrina variegata
, Garuga pinnata
, Leucaena leucocephala
, Litsea monopetala
, Melia azedarach
, Lynia ovalifolia
, sapium, Rhus succedanca
, scima callichi
. Figure 3
and Figure 4
show the process of eco-environmental conditions with respect to the overall abandoned farmland.
Farmland abandonment that indicated terrace damage and plant succession in the mountain region of Nepal follow the same fundamental trends commonly described in European mountain areas [13
]. This results from general changes in national development and social mobility and have important farmland degradation, threatening environmental and ecological consequences in the mountain region of Nepal. The visual observation in this case study’s area allows the authors to reveal some general aspects of abandoned land dynamics such as terrace damage, gully formation, and, naturally, plant succession. Mountain farmland is being more and more marginalized and is declining in this sense. This study’s results also show that some abandoned farmlands have been transformed or processed into a dense forest which calls for further investigation to assess the local specific character of this development and to further enhance the understanding of the farmland abandonment process in mountain areas.
Over many decades, farmers invested much energy in terrace construction and maintenance as the best means for developing and retaining farmland soils on hill slopes in the mountain region [28
]. The destruction of terraces not only indicates the losses of one’s farmland but also involves the disappearance of one’s communal involvement and their roles and practices in the mountain landscape. Abandonment might increase the likelihood of soil loss when terraces are unmaintained [63
]. The resultant removal of traditional land management practices (clearing and or terrace formation) almost inevitably leads to ecosystem change, which in turn potentially leads to loss of important biological or cultural values [62
]. Ecosystems such as managed farmlands are often very rich in species but these species depend on continued land management to persist, for instance. Once management is removed, other species are able to become dominant and the ecosystem could lose species or be transformed into another ecosystem-type, particularly since forest species are able to establish there [50
]. Thus, the ecosystem development after farmland abandonment can be viewed as experiencing degradation because the system is developing away from something that is valued in the community.
The plant succession process after abandonment governs the sustainability of the landscape environment, biodiversity and provision of forest ecosystem services, particularly in the high mountain areas [3
]. The authors agree that densely distributed wooded forest, if underused, can contribute to the increase in species habitats and forest products. However, the oldest abandoned farmlands, which the authors believed increased the forest species due to the greater time since abandonment, were not as expected in the study areas. Wherever woody trees were succeeding, their densities were not enough for species habitats. Additionally, farmland abandonment does not automatically lead to plant colonization since terrace damage or landslides take place prior to colonization. Furthermore, the farmlands were intensively used for grazing, thus making favorable conditions for terrace damage, mud flows, soil erosion, leading to increased run-off and damage to the ground level vegetation and grassland ecosystems.
Additionally, the losses of soils somehow lessened after the succession of plants [65
]. However, the increasing succession foresees less heterogeneity overall and increased homogenized land cover categories in the basin in the long run. The expansion of unplanted vegetation, especially shrubs on abandoned farmlands, reduced the value of the cultural and aesthetic qualities of the mountain landscape [8
]. The changes are welcomed in some cases and in others it is considered as a threat by invasive species [50
]. Therefore, in agreement with different assessment studies in mountain regions and scenario analyses [66
], the future trend is expected to reduce ecosystem diversity in this case study area.