How is it possible to starve when you live in an area where vegetables grow well, within sight of a road that would take your produce to market? In Nepal, a country seemingly tilted on one side, where gorges are thousands of feet deep and rivers are raging torrents, it is all too easy.The mountain village of Devisthan shows how precarious life can be in Nepal, where more than 70 per cent of the population subsists on less than $2 (£1.30) a day. Though it is close to one of the country's main highways, reaching the roadside takes two-and-a-half hours on foot down steep and perilous mountain pathways. Goods have to be transported by porters, using bamboo baskets carried on their backs, or by animals.
Many farmers cannot afford to hire a porter, and are forced to carry their own produce to market. Some suffer injury from the heavy loads, and if the produce is damaged, they get less for it. The growers are at the mercy of the middlemen in any case. As one farmer put it: "We had to sell our vegetables for a very low price, as the traders knew we wouldn't carry the load up again, or pay more money to the porters to do it."
Devisthan is in the far west of Nepal, where climate change has caused erratic rainfall, drought and floods, damaging harvests and driving up food prices by 18 per cent in the past year alone. When the UN World Food Programme says 3.6 million people in the region risk starvation, the smallest additional problem can push a family over the edge. In the case of Gyan Ghale, a 45-year-old farmer from the village, it was a stomach ulcer.
"My life was hell," he recalled. "I already had heavy debts and had sold almost everything to pay them. Then my illness caused large medical bills. I didn't know what to do. I had lost all hope." He admits he was close to committing suicide over his inability to feed his family, yet today, two years later, he has 15 people working for him, has paid off almost all his debts and is about to get proper medical treatment for his ulcer.
The transformation in Mr Ghale's life was brought about by Practical Action, the charity supported by The Independent on Sunday's Christmas Appeal. True to its name, Practical Action did this not with handouts, but with an ingenious technical solution which made the terrain work for local people rather than against them. Devisthan is one of 19 villages where the charity has helped the inhabitants build what it calls a "gravity ropeway". These operate on the same principles as the cableways that carry tourists and skiers up and down mountains in the Alps, though here they are used only for goods.
Two linked trolleys, on pulleys, run on separate steel wires which are suspended from towers. As the full trolley comes down, the weight of its load pulls the empty one up, ready for the next load. The charity has also introduced cable crossings, known as tuins, to ferry people and their possessions over rivers, boosting the prosperity of many communities. So far 27 have been built, with another three on the way.
Co-operatives have been set up to run and maintain the ropeways, and to market the produce they carry. Practical Action is also training farmers in improved growing methods. The result: families earn more, eat better and can send their children to school.
At one village, where it used to take five hours to carry goods down the mountainside, nearly 100 people helped to hoist cables over a river and up the slope to build a ropeway. "Now the goods get down in about a minute," said a Practical Action worker.
Transport costs, which once made mountain farmers' produce barely profitable, have been slashed so sharply that many porters, lacking work and seeing how well the growers are doing, have turned to farming themselves.
Mr Ghale, whose vegetables travel down the mountainside in just 90 seconds, says the ropeway in Devisthan village is "truly a blessing". Practical Action is planning to build five new gravity ropeways itself, and is helping the Nepalese government with another 15. Other agencies, having seen their effectiveness, are joining in, and the technology for both the ropeways and tuins is being exported to regional neighbours such as India, Bangladesh and Bhutan.
One ropeway costs just under £12,000, less than the price of most family cars in Britain, but the benefits extend to whole communities, and in the most sustainable way. The modest fees charged to use the ropeways and tuins ensure that when they reach the end of their life, in about 20 years, there will be funds to replace them. Gyan Ghale had his life turned around: the generosity of IoS readers could help to save many more from desperate poverty.
What your money can buy
You could help transform poor families' lives. So please, give whatever you can to help lift more people out of poverty today.
£100 Buys 120 metres of steel cable for a gravity ropeway.
£250 Pays for an audio tower to transmit news and price information.
£460 Pays for an engineer for a month to build a gravity ropeway.
£600 Covers four training sessions for farmers on improving food production techniques.
CLICK HERE TO DONATE TO THE IOS APPEAL