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Betting on Barbote

Original photograph by Ian Stettner

Beneath the high road to the district capital, large blue houses dot the hillside. Below them, you find one-story teal bungalows swallowed up by wild gardens and chickens. And below them, down the steep, uncut path through the jungle community, sit the clustered shacks of ironsmiths and tailors. As the 21st century rapidly transforms the hilly communities of Barbote, this stratification may be one of the few aspects of life that stays the same. Uncertainty is increasing for everyone, but as is often the case in rural Nepal, the worst of it rolls downhill.

Caste has been outlawed country-wide since 1963. Yet, when I asked an old-timer his opinion on the practice, he looked at me as if I had asked his opinion on gravity. Caste structures marriages and friendships, regulates which jobs you can have and whose households you can enter. The communities that form within each group are incredibly close. The village raises the child, and the child grows up to nurse the village; one neighbor helps another, and the next year is paid back in kind. The future isn’t scary because your community provides assurances; if you fall, there is a safety net. 

But what happens when the harvests come late? What happens when the land becomes scarce and the kids move away? What happens when the pace of change outstrips the ability to adapt? What happens when it is too quick to notice?

The monsoon season came eight days early last year. This year, it was four weeks late. That was four dry weeks that no food stocks had accounted for—four weeks of missing grass for Barbote’s cows and corn for its people. But when I spoke to Rohit, a member of the Brahmin caste who grew up in a large blue house by the road, he discussed it as an inconvenience. He explained that even though they had not predicted the delayed season, families with larger plots always harvest extra in the wet season, keeping the surplus to trade with those who have less. 

Having to eat these reserves did not mean much for Rohit, but for the lower caste (Dalit) family on the other side of that trade, climate change just got very real. In Barbote, the average Dalit individual has less land and a smaller yearly harvest than his Brahmin counterpart; he often does not produce enough corn and grass to sustain his household during the off-season. In a normal year, he depends on this trade to supplement his yield. This year, there wasn’t enough to go around, and his family spent those four weeks struggling to subsist. 

The story here is not that climate change is causing uncertainty in rural Nepal—it’s how uncertainty is felt differently across the caste spectrum. And climate isn’t the only thing that’s changing.

The population boom in Nepal over the last few decades has led to crowding. Locals tell it this way: If a father of two can survive on one hectare, are his children expected to raise families on half as much? Two generations ago, families of 10 could easily occupy the land of their fathers. But with every generation, the pie is cut, leaving smaller and smaller slices for those who come next. 

Take Suraj, an elderly Brahmin man living in one of those big blue houses up the hill. A decade ago, he wagered that his land wasn’t big enough for his four children to raise families on, so he made a sacrifice and sent them off the farm. The loving family is rarely all together at once, but what he has given up, he has traded for certainty. As his children establish themselves in Kathmandu and other urban centers, they can rest assured the farm will never have to produce above its capabilities.

When the Dalit has to contend with added uncertainty, he has no such luxury. He lacks the means to send his children to university or the land for them to build a family. If you spend enough time in Barbote, this is something you notice: Brahmin individuals belong to two groups—those under 18 and over 40. Nearly every middle-aged person, including Rohit, has left in search of broader pastures, some to Jhapa in the south, the rest to Kathmandu. But if you take a trip down the hill to the lower-caste Rai or Kami communities, the houses are full. Sons with wives live in their parents’ homes, and clusters of houses take on the appearance of small villages. 

Perhaps most troubling, caste isn’t merely organizing these effects; it’s growing stronger because of them. As educated adults flee rural Nepal, the cities liberalize, but the remaining composition in the countryside is remarkably resistant to change. Old-timers with traditional beliefs bounce their age-old prejudices off impressionable youths. 

The last realm of change is technology. Barbote has had electricity for 10 years. Smartphones for five. The industrial revolution is being exported wholesale to a region where 90 percent of the work is subsistence agriculture. The effect this is having on society is indisputable, although it may be hard to quantify. Take for instance Khanal, a young Brahmin. He works with his parents in the rice paddies during the day and runs a Lionel Messi Instagram fan account by night. His friend Pravin might have never been to Nepal’s capital, but he’s seen tours of luxury Manhattan apartments on YouTube. Even if only select Brahmins ever have the means to move off the farm, everyone with a smartphone in Barbote has a foot out the door. Rohit put it bluntly: “We cannot survive doing farming; the older generation—our fathers’ generation—could, but we cannot.”

Barbote used to be predictable. Farmers foresaw their harvests. Children believed in their prospects. Fathers grew old with their children. 

It’s not clear what happens next: whether change will continue to deepen caste divides, or if its rapid pace will eventually strip away at caste itself. The only thing that can be reliably predicted about Barbote is that it will change.