- In Nepal, the Chepang people have long relied on the chiuri tree (Diploknema butyracea or Indian butter tree) for timber, fuelwood and butter.
- According to folklore, the Chepang tribe, the chiuri tree and bats are all part of a three-pronged system of survival, as each helps the other two; that system — and the chiuri tree — has fallen to the wayside.
- Now, young Chepangs are trying to revive the chiuri tree and market the valuable fruits.
SILINGE, Nepal — On a sunny afternoon, 70-year-old Dhanikram Praja squats on top of a hillock overlooking the lush green rows of trees dotting his farm, distinct from his other trees, which have already shed their leaves. The chiuri (Diploknema butyracea or Indian butter tree) saplings he planted three decades ago on his farm in Silinge, central Nepal, are now in their full glory.
“For Chepangs like us, the chiuri plant is everything,” said Nita Praja, Dhanikram’s grandaughter-in-law. Like Dhanikram, Nita is a member of the Chepang tribe, which has been living in Nepal’s hills in Chitwan, Makwanpur, Dhading and Gorkha for centuries. “We often talk about Chepang chiuri and chamero [bats], and the way they work together.”
According to folklore, each member of the trio is necessary for the survival of the other two. The Chepang people are needed to look after the chiuri trees; the trees give the Chepang tribe butter, timber and fuelwood that they can sell or use; the bats pollinate the chiuri flowers to produce fruit and are also a traditional delicacy for the people.
However, despite the role the trees play in their culture, growing chirui trees has fallen out of popularity and the community has seen a militarized conservation model restrict their access to protected areas, farmlands and resources. The community finds itself in dire need of additional livelihoods outside of protected areas and subsistence agriculture — and, especially in the modern economy, additional cash.
Now, a group of young, educated Chepangs including Praja’s grandson and granddaughter-in-law, Prajwol and Nita, with help from different agencies, are trying to go back to their roots by regenerating the chiuri forest and restablishing it as a source of income. Chiuri fruits are versatile commodities and have great commercial value, they say. They can be used to make butter for cooking and different types of cosmetics, including lotions.
“We believe that chiuri trees hold the potential to uplift thousands of Chepangs out of poverty, as well as help the environment,” said Bishnu Prasad Acharya, Rapti-Manahari divisional forest officer. The Chure region in Nepal, where the Chepang live, is considered one of the most geologically fragile areas of the country. It is made of loose rocks and sediments often washed away by floods and rain. Chiuri trees thrive in such conditions and help prevent soil erosion.
The forest office is working to connect the community with national level industries that can process the fruits to produce food-grade oil.
As part of another project, a chiuri producers’ group of 40 farmers was registered with the local government as a small- and medium-sized enterprise (SME) that conserves and plants the tree. The project is a joint effort by the U.N.-backed Forest and Farm Facility (FFF) and various nongovernmental organizations like the Mount Everest Forest Botanicals Alliance, a grassroots national platform for collaboration across the forest and farm products value chain.
Although the FFF project just came to a close after three years of operation, the Mount Everest Forest Botanicals Alliance still continues to engage with the community. It is piloting the plantation of coffee seedlings under the chiuri tree. “If the coffee trial is successful, it will further add value to the chiuri trees,” said Nita.
According to Acharya, 2,000 saplings were planted on 5 hectares (12.4 acres) of community forest land this year. His office plans to double both the number of saplings and the area next year.
“This is their keystone species. This means that it is central to the Chepang culture, and no other species could provide the same benefits,” said Yadav Uprety, professor of botany at Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu.
Reviving the butter tree
The Chepang have been at the front lines of Nepal’s militarized protected area-based conservation model. In March 2022, authorities razed their homes for encroaching upon protected areas, such as the Chitwan National Park, which is famous for its one-horned rhinos and tigers. Authorities arrested individuals reportedly involved in wildlife crime. Traditionally, the Chepang community lived a nomadic lifestyle and practiced shifting cultivation until more recently settling in their traditional territories to engage in subsistence agriculture with the chiuri plant being their past mainstay.
Despite the central role the plant plays in the Chepangs’ lives, the trees, even at Praja’s farm, are now dying a slow death. Regeneration of saplings is pretty low and the existing trees seem to have reached maturity. It takes at least 6-7 years for the saplings to grow and bear fruit. Traditionally, the community didn’t have other means of livelihood, so almost everything revolved around the tree. But now, due to modernization and the ease of travel, people are more interested in working away from farms.
“This can be attributed to the changes in lifestyle of Chepangs,” said Aitaman Praja, chair of the local community forest user group.
“People also rear goats and leave them to graze around without caring for the saplings,” Aitaman said. The digging of rudimentary roads has also had an impact on the trees, said Nita. When roads are built, trees are uprooted and sources of water disturbed.
The other problem is that with the phasing out of the ownership document system by the government, the trees became common property. “The problem with common property is that it is owned by everyone, but no one takes care of it,” said Acharya, the forest officer. Now, the project is trying to promote collective ownership of chiuri trees. If the farmers are part of a group and the profit is shared among them, there can be an incentive to look out for fellow farmers’ trees as well, say project organizers.
The FFF project trained the group on sustainable harvesting and processing and showed them the possibility of selling the processed chiuri fruits at a price that can give the farmers about a 10-15% return.
They don’t have numbers related to income, as they are yet to sell the fruits in the market, said Rijul Bhaskar Gurung from the Mount Everest Forest Botanicals Alliance. During the flowering season, they release honeybees near the chiuri plants. When the bees make honey, it has a distinct flavor of the chiuri flower.
Gurung said his organization wants to help sell the fruits in national and international markets and has been talking to cosmetics companies in India, but they don’t have enough volume at the moment to get good prices. “So, we are focusing on increasing production [of the fruit, butter and honey],” he added.
“Thanks to the project, we now see the potential to supplement our income from the chiuri tree,” said Nita, who, along with her husband, is also planting coffee seedlings under the chiuri tree.
In addition to this, honey from bees that feed on nectar from the chiuri flowers is also growing in popularity, as most of the honey sold in the local markets is high in processed sugar.
“In the past, selling honey was one of the means to earn a living for Chepangs, but that, too, was threatened as we didn’t have trees,” said Dinesh Praja, who runs a honey production and marketing company. “Many people from distant places come to Chitwan looking for chiuri honey,” he added.
Dhanikram, who observes his grandchildren go about with their lives, said he has firm belief in the new generation. “I have a firm belief that our grandchildren will revive the chiuri trees and help us get back to our roots,” he told Mongabay.
Banner image: Dhanikram Praja points towards chiuri trees he planted decades ago to explain the trees’ importance for Chepang people. Image by Abhaya Raj Joshi/ Mongabay
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