Nepal's Provence Where Essential Oils Grow

Happening Issue 93 Jul, 2010
Text by Sushma Joshi / Photo: ECS Media

Provence, an area in the south of France, is synonymous with lav-ender. Rows of aromatic, purple lavender are iconic of that part of that land. The French, of course, are masters at branding and making the world think they are consuming the height of luxury by purchasing their products (be it wine or cheese), but lavender has been a particularly insidious French product. This aromatic herbal essence has managed to wiggle its way into millions of bars of soap and bottles of talcum powder and eau de toilette worldwide. In case you’re wondering what this lavender is, I assure you: you’ve smelled lavender. Believe me, you have. Now, it appears, we may soon have our very own Provence in the southern part of our country.

Close to Nepalgunj, we take the bus in the 40 degree centigrade heat and come upon a small and nondescript processing plant close to a community forest. This is where the Bhagwati Community Forestry User Group processes its essential oils. We walk up, our feet crunching on dried out herbs. The fire is roaring. In the shade, two workers process a powerfully aromatic mint oil which flows up in the tin vessel, pushed up by the pressure of the water to overflow in the canister.

How It All Came About

We walk further into the village. The village, composed of small concrete homes, is surrounded by maize crops, some of which have dried from the arid winter, others of which grow where they’ve been irrigated sufficiently. A farmer offers us a glass of water, then takes us to see his fields. The mint is green and covers the entire field. This is where Seturam Chalauni used to plant his wheat. But in the last four years, he’s discovered that herbal essential oils from mint, chamomile, citronella, eucalyptus and indigenous herbs will bring almost five times as much income.

The forestry user group has used an elaborate network of supporters, from the ‘Ujyalo’ economic development program (ujyalo means ‘light’), to Forestry and Village Development Committee funds from the district development office, to USAID’s Education for Income Generation (EIG) program, as well as a bank loan, to come up with the funds needed to purchase the machinery needed to expel the oil from the plants. With an initial investment of around 16 lakh (1,600,000) rupees, the community pulled together farmers, three factory workers, and a network of buyers to create one of the most successful income generating programs in the country. The essential oils was the brainchild the U.S. Agency for International Development funded EIG project.

Starting with Rs.1000 profit, the farmer has watched with amazement as his new cash crops have brought him increasing bonanza—from Rs.1000 to Rs.33,000 within four years. He started with half a kattha of land (0.0169 hectare, or 0.42 acre), and now he sets aside six kattha just for chamomile and eight for mint (0.2 and 0.27 hectares, respectively).

Blessings In Disguise

The drought, possibly caused by global climate change, has been bad for the rest of the farming community. But for the essential oil producers, the heat seems to have done good. Instead of the four kilograms of chamomile oil, they harvested almost double that this year from the same plots of land. The oil content of the plants appears to have concentrated and thickened with the unexpected arid winter.

One liter of essential oil used to fetch up to 24,000 rupees (around $350.) But once local companies and factories started to find out the local forestry group had started to press and produce essential oils, the demand has soared and the prices have rocked—bringing as much as 33,000 rupees (around $500) for a liter. Today, a farmer who plants five kattha of land with chamomile can expect 33,000 rupees in three months. The beauty of the essential oils is that they are also harvested seasonally, depending which plant is in season. This means that not only do the farmers earn steady and reliable income from a yearlong supply of different crops and oils, but also don’t have to panic if one crop fails. Many of the herbs also grow in the forest or all around in empty land around the villages. The only crops that need to be farmed are mint and chamomile.

So Much For So Little.
The farmers continue to plant their regular crops in between, ensuring food security. A sudden fall in prices of sugar and coffee may cripple the economies of certain African countries, but these kinds of monocultural disasters are avoided with this sustainable farming model.

For farmers, the essential oils seem like a dream crop no fertilizers and pesticides are needed, and the only investment they have to put in is weeding and aerating the land.

The benefits to the community have been enormous. While traditionally the men used to go to Simla in India for seasonal labor to supplement their income, the migration has now stopped. The extra cash provides the cushion needed for a good education for the children. Alcoholism of men, which used to be common, has also stopped.

Liquid Gold
“The government should help farmers with seeds for these plants in other parts of the country,” says Seturam. Clearly, the demand is so high that this farmer is not going to hide his high-income secret under a bushel. Seturam understands that the prices will not drop even if the farming of essential oils increased a hundredfold such is the demand from local businesses like Organic Garden and Indian businesses that come to purchase the oils for medicine, toothpaste, soap and other industries.

“Have you heard of lavender?” I ask. Seturam shakes his head and writes the word down. The potential to expand the business all across Nepal is enormous. Surkhet and Banke Districts have already started their essential oil farming and harvesting programs. If the government were to listen to Seturam, farmers all across Nepal’s impoverished southern border area may suddenly find themselves with crops that will raise their incomes and lives to unimaginably comfortable heights. Farmers in hill areas, struggling with dwindling harvests in the aftermath of brutal climate change winter drought and a much delayed monsoon may find a swift and easy cash crop to replace their traditional crops. And farmers in mountain areas may find that the plants that they’d tossed at their goats and yaks are now fetching a tidy sum.

All that is missing is the initial investment in seeds, machinery, market research, and distribution. If the government had that in place, we may find ourselves with a sweet success story on our hands. And that would be a blessing for the whole nation.

Sushma Joshi is a writer living in Kathmandu. She can be contacted at