The start of my self-discovery journey began in early July, and led me on an unimaginable adventure that involved becoming lost for hours in winding dirt roads after eating dal bhat for the third time that day, crossing knee-high flood waters to get to our next accommodation location, living with a family that had not the slightest clue of what I was saying when I asked where the bathroom was, and haggling with locals when trying to buy a skirt because it was only when I arrived did I realise jeans in a monsoon season did not dry overnight.
Did I expect any of this? Honestly, yes. Was I expecting to be nervous in the back of a taxi when I realised road rules did not exist in Nepal? Definitely. Did I expect not to go to the toilet for the first three days because I was scared of falling backwards in the squat toilet? One hundred percent. However, I did not expect the feeling of triumph and satisfaction after I accomplished each of these small challenges.
Before leaving for the Global Challenges International Study Tour in Nepal, I knew that I was in for a tough two weeks. I knew that I would be facing obstacles that one could only ever imagine in western culture, and I expected to feel only relief when I hopped into bed each night. Surprisingly, the only relief I felt was when I was able to escape the heat after walking up a mountain for an hour while carrying a 50 kilogram backpack. I realised after each obstacle I overcame that I was becoming mentally stronger, and I was shocked that I felt such a strong determination to participate in each and every aspect of the Nepalese culture, regardless of how daunting it seemed.
I was also overwhelmed by the eagerness to share by the Nepalese people I spoke to. Whether it was locals working at markets wanting to share stories of their experiences living in Nepal, the homestay families wanting to share their limited amount of food with visitors, or the farmers in the local village wanting to share their knowledge regarding the traditional ways of living, I was constantly surrounded by sharing. This willingness to give was completely unexpected, as I assumed the less someone had the less they were eager to share. On reflection, I could see that this was not the case for many of the Nepalese people I spoke to. In the words of Mother Teresa, “The less we have, the more we give”. I found that even though so many had so little, they were so content with what they had. I know now not to pity those that have less than me, as in some ways they may actually have more than me. Many appeared to be so content with both themselves and with what they owned, and had a smile planted on their face, regardless of the situation.
During this program, I had the opportunity to create an innovative physical product that benefited the rural village of Dhulikel. I worked collaboratively in a small, multi-disciplinary team with other Australian students while partnering with both local ‘design for development’ experts and the community to develop a project with a focus on Nepali farming.
My team noticed that in the Dhulikel village, automatic tractors had replaced traditional ploughing methods within the farms. Based off research, we had expected to see traditional ploughing techniques to be utilised, such as using the land effectively, ensuring rainfall was sufficient before planting seeds, and undertaking tillage methods.
After speaking to the local farmers with the aid of a translator, I was able to understand the reasons behind replacing traditional ploughing methods with modern tractors. Traditional methods of farming were considered to be very labour intensive, less efficient and required strenuous man and animal labour hours. Surprisingly, it also cost more to feed and care for working animals than it did to buy a tractor upfront and maintain it.
However, it was through the discussions with both the farmers and also local community members that we were able to understand the negative environmental impact these modern tools were having on the land. While miniature tractors are very time efficient, the ploughing tool connected to the tractor overturns the soil, resulting in microbes and minerals from deep soil being brought to the surface level. These nutrients are then destroyed by direct sunlight exposure. Consequently, the quality of the soil in the Dhulikel village for farming has depleted. Thus, this method of ploughing with miniature tractors should not be continued.
My team decided to focus on this and create an innovative ploughing tool to address the issue of soil depletion. While addressing this issue, both the productivity of the product and the level of labour required had to be considered. To ensure we were meeting all the requirements of all stakeholders, we had the chance to interview both farmers and local residents. We were then also given the opportunity to test our prototype on a local farm and receive feedback from these stakeholders to improve future iterations of the model.
I found it quite challenging to ensure the criteria given to my team was met within the one model, especially as there was only five days to design and develop a prototype. As a student that has lived in the city her entire life and studies a subject that does not even scratch the surface of agriculture, I was very unfamiliar with farming methods, tools and techniques. As a female within a group of males that lived on farms as children, I felt almost inadequate at the beginning of the brainstorming sessions, as I had little to contribute but a lot to ask. However, upon reflection, I have realised that this was completely acceptable. I was able to learn so much in such a short period of time by asking endless questions while interviewing local farmers and villagers. This then allowed me to develop a new perspective on traditional farming methods that my other group members did not have.
While we were receiving feedback regarding our ploughing tool prototype, I found it very surprising the local’s level of concern regarding the ploughing tool’s impact on the environment in both the short and long term. From my perspective, I had assumed that their main concern would be providing an income to support their family and their community. However, after numerous discussions with the locals regarding the environmental impact of various ploughing tools and techniques, I had noticed that my perception of what I believed their main goals and values were had shifted. I began to understand that their respect for the land that they grew their food in outweighed the need to create a more comfortable life for themselves. This was shocking to realise as I had previously assumed that, like in many western cultures, people are generally primarily focused on their socio-economic status and their level of income. I had taken my experiences from my own western culture and assumed that it was transferable to the Nepali culture.
After considering various viewpoints and perspectives on these values and beliefs, I believe I now understand the reasons behind the people of the Dhulikel community having such respect for the environment. The land they grow their food on is both their entire source of income and is a large percent of the food that they provide their family. If this land was to become nutrient lacking after years of upturning of the soil as a result of ploughing, this income would halt completely. Likewise, they would want to ensure that future generations would have the opportunity to continue working on farms to provide for their own families. Thus, minimising the negative environmental impacts that their farming has on the land is extremely important, and I believe that they are willing to sacrifice some own personal comforts to ensure their efforts are sustainable.
Upon reflection, I now realise the importance of respecting the environment. This is especially important within western culture, where socio-economic status, income levels and power placement are valued so highly. This realisation has influenced the direction of my goals for the future – especially regarding career-related goals.
I am currently studying a Bachelor of Construction Project Management and hope to be working full time in the construction industry by the end of my degree. The construction industry is often generalised as one of the most environmentally destructive industries, with little to no concern regarding the environment.
While this issue has been brought to the attention of many large construction companies, sustainability efforts to create more environmentally sustainable construction methods, techniques and materials have been slow to adopt. This is largely due to the demographics of the industry. The construction sector is a very male dominated environment and comprises largely of an older generation. This specific demographic has been reported to have an “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” attitude. Consequently, the longer term negative impacts of the environment is often overlooked by these construction workers as their efforts are often placed into ensuring the project is completed on time and on budget.
After my experiences in Nepal, I have decided that I would like to delve deeper into the sustainability options that can be utilised within construction projects. I have realised that innovation and creative thinking have the potential to change the course of sustainable construction projects in the future. However, I believe it is the implementation of these new tools, methods and materials that will determine whether they are successfully adopted. Similar to those living in the Dhulikel village, I want to ensure that I am respecting the environment regardless of the industry I am working in. To do so, I have realised that I may need to sacrifice some personal benefits and gains to ensure I can play an influential role that will assist in protecting the environment.