What are the Alternatives? Community Challenges to Capitalism at the Annapurna Eco-village

By Katherine Baxter (Staff Writer)

Diverse alternatives to capitalism are emerging in a myriad of spaces and forms, with the shared intention of creating a more socially and ecologically sustainable world. This article is intended to introduce the grassroots attempts made by the Annapurna Eco-village community in Astam, Nepal to decentralize and challenge capitalism’s role in orchestrating their everyday lives and experiences.

With ever intensifying extreme weather events, deeply entrenched and overlapping structures of inequality, increasing numbers of forcibly displaced persons, evidence of ecological collapse, extremist political climates, hate speech and xenophobia, etc. etc., it can sometimes be difficult to remain optimistic about the direction our species is heading. It can seem daunting and unrealistic to think that we are going to be able to untangle the many disparate, exploitative threads and practices that have tied our collective future in a knot, with our wrists and democratic mechanisms firmly tied up behind our back, disenabling us from even being able to put our hands out to prevent our face from smacking the ground when we fall. Many rainy days here in Edinburgh, it can be quite tempting to sit around doing nothing aside from contemplating how utterly fucked we are. Actually, that’s what I was doing before I started writing this.

But that’s obviously not the whole story. Behind the many alarming headlines, the often cynical academic articles and the endless variety of depressing documentaries on Netflix, there are many individual stories of people and communities fighting back, wriggling lose from the bonds of exploitation and trying reclaim autonomy over how they live their lives and how they meet their daily needs, while at the same time proactively working to bring attention to how daily practices impact the well-being of other non-human life systems as well. This is not to trivialize the seriousness of the challenges we face, but rather to draw attention to an important question given the magnitude of these challenges: what are the alternatives?

The Annapurna Eco-village may be one such alternative. Annapurna eco-village is located in a small, rural village called Astam, approximately 35km northwest of Pokhara in west-central Nepal, tucked up high in the Himalayas away from the hustle and bustle of the urban sprawl encroaching down below. On a clear morning, you’re gifted with 360-degree views of the snow-capped Himalayan peaks. I first heard about the eco-village from one of the children who participated in my research in Pokhara. His name is Sugham, and his uncle is the director of the eco-village. They are part of the Adhikari family, which is a very prominent and influential upper-caste family in the region. We were talking about urbanization in Pokhara when Sugham started telling me about how peaceful and beautiful this eco-village was, urging me to go and “see all the butterflies and beautiful flowers. It’s a paradise up there,” he told me. I asked him if he or his father had any more information on this, and he directed me to a modest advertisement poster on the side of the guesthouse his father works at.

To reach this place is a bit of a journey. You can either take a taxi or a local bus to drop you off at the base of a rather steep and anonymous mountain which you must then climb for approximately 4-5 hours, depending on pace. There is theoretically a road, but very few vehicles are able to climb it. It’s a difficult hike, especially if you’ll be staying for a while and have a pack to carry. There are faded wooden signs scattered along the narrow, damp trail through the jungle, and I found myself lost more than once, having to retrace my steps and return to the next arrow and point of certainty. As I approached, I heard a chorus of birds singing, a cow mooing, a dog barking, and women’s voices singing. When I first arrived, I found everyone quite upset because a tiger had eaten one of the two dog residents (Tashi and Delek) the previous night. Now the sole remaining dog, Tashi, walked around with a 6-inch nail-studded collar to keep the tigers from his neck. Comforting, as I had just walked for 5 hours alone through the jungle.

I spent the next several weeks learning the very sophisticated ways in which this place had been able to bring together different ‘knowledges’ in a kind of synergy with the intention of removing themselves from a reliance on market-based production and distribution. Through extensive, collective efforts to self-sufficiently and sovereignly meet their community’s demands for (1) food (2) renewable energy (3) clean water and (4) alternative livelihood options, I found that the Annapurna eco-village is an example of a bottom-up approach to rejecting dominant processes of proletarianisation and market-based production and distribution in the region.  Furthermore, I learned that it is through powerful synergies between different knowledges and technologies—indigenous and scientific—that this community has been able to achieve this sovereignty. Further, it is through the integration of these knowledge synergies into the local public school that this community seeks to maintain its self-sufficiency and active rejection of capitalist forces.

However, challenges of co-optation are also an important consideration as the eco-village struggles to make ends meet within the dominant market framework in Nepal, while at the same time trying to hold onto their autonomous removal from the market. This positioning continually puts pressure upon this community to make small, profit-oriented compromises, mostly in the form of tourism, in order to keep the larger dream of creating and maintaining an alternative, ecologically sustainable community alive.

Now to go into more detail with regards to each specific area in which the eco-village is pushing back against capitalism:

One of the most significant ways they’re doing this is through localizing food knowledge and practices. Everything eaten and consumed is grown and/or produced in this village, which is remarkable. This is facilitated by extensive indigenous agricultural knowledge sharing (i.e. soil cultivation, seasonal variations, edible/usable plant species, food storage techniques), that has been passed through generations coupled with new knowledge and technologies (all organic) that have allowed them to optimize their crop yields (i.e. alternative forms of pesticide (diluted cow urine)). This localized, autonomous food system has been cultivated through intensive community cooking classes, seasonal diets, reduced consumption, etc. The eco-village is entirely vegetarian, but does rely on a small number of cows, goats and chickens for eggs and dairy products.

Another way in which this community is decentralize is by harnessing various alternative renewable fuel systems, namely solar and biogas. This sophisticated fusion of alternative, renewable energy systems coupled with conservative use allows this community complete energy autonomy.

Furthermore, the Astam community has worked to gain access to and control over clean, non-contaminated water. Water quality and contamination is a huge issue throughout Nepal. Through connections between one of the community members and a few eco-engineers in Japan, the eco-village learned how to implement a very easy water filtration system called ‘Japanese sand-water filtration’. This entails taking particular types of sand from the nearby hills with different granular properties, and filtering the water through it at various layers. They have been able to secure very large storage containers to hold the filtered water for later use to account for changing rainfall patterns.

Another crucial aspect of the success of the Annapurna eco-village is its ability to provide alternative livelihood options for members of the community, helping to remove them from their dependency on wage labor, which often takes them far away into very exploitative working conditions. I spoke to many former migrant workers who had left the village and their families to earn an income in Dubai, Malaysia or elsewhere, requiring them to go into crippling debt to do so. This was the only way they felt they could make money, and they needed money to purchase basic goods and pay their children’s school fees. The eco-village allowed them to return to Astam by providing an alternative livelihood option and minimizing their need for an income.

Basanta (in the red tshirt), for example, had been away working in Malaysia for 6 years in horrible conditions, more than 14 hours a day. He now works as the on-site chef for all the visitors after having taken a cooking class utilizing his extensive knowledge of local food growing practices. By removing the necessity of income to meet daily needs (ie by localizing food, water and energy production and providing free education to children), Astam was essentially able to facilitate a process of deproletarianisation.

Finally, to sediment all of this together in a way that would be structurally sound and firmly rooted, community leaders (both men and women*) were integrating these technologies and the rationale/justification for their use into the local public school. This school had a computer lab, internet, and widespread access to information, which they had secured through a grant from someone who had previously visited the eco-village. In a way, it was a very concrete example of communitarian-cosmopolitanism, where bodies and physical needs were firmly localized, but minds and ideas were connected to the entire world.

As rosy of a picture I may have painted of this community’s relative success in creating a workable alternative, challenges of co-optation are also an important consideration as the eco-village struggles to make ends meet within the dominant market framework in Nepal, while at the same time trying to hold onto their autonomous removal from capitalism. This positioning continually puts pressure upon this community to make small, profit-oriented compromises, mostly in the form of ecotourism, in order to keep the larger dream of creating and maintaining an alternative, ecologically sustainable community alive. Most people in the community are able to justify this as something that also furthers knowledge exchange and synergies due to the fact that the people that are attracted to such a place typically have some concern for sustainability in the first place. This is seen as a necessary sacrifice, for now.

Obviously the challenges that the Astam community face are their own, and thus the solutions they have cultivated are unique to their particular circumstances. But there might be lessons to take away from this model regarding the importance of autonomy and self-sufficiency in the battle against the exploits of capitalism. There seems to be a great deal of potential in community initiatives that creatively and intelligently use targeted knowledge/technological synergies to regain control over the means of production in particularized, nuanced ways.