In her fourth and final blog from her visit to India and Nepal, The Donkey Sanctuary Trustee Christine Purdy describes the impact of the 2015 earthquakes on Kathmandu’s brick kilns and the important work being done by our partner, Animal Nepal.
Only just over an hour's flight from Delhi, but we are a world away from India and now in Nepal. City streets in Kathmandu seem busy but nowhere near as crowded as Delhi. It is of course a much smaller place, but that's not why the traffic is less. For reasons too complex to discuss here there is very little fuel available, and queues of people miles long stretch from the petrol stations, waiting for hours with jerry cans in the cold chill of morning. Houses are also cold (at 7am as I write it is 2oC) until the sun rises, so people and animals alike suffer. With this and last year's earthquake, the tourist trade on which the country so depends has vanished. We read about Nepalis being so resilient, and this is very true, but with all the resilience in the world, the situation here and long-term prospects are not good.
And toward the lowest end of the economic scale, life in the brick kilns goes on and bricks continue to be made. Indeed due to the 2015 earthquakes, demand has no doubt increased, plus the earthquakes have had a direct impact in the kiln areas too. Chimneys in the Kathmandu Valley were severely damaged and needed to be rebuilt, but equally devastating has been the impact on the labour force. Massive and widespread destruction led to the need to rebuild homes in many areas of the country leading to a widespread labour shortage; in addition to which, the government has provided free visa support to those wishing to leave the country to work in the Gulf region, which further exacerbates the situation. The outcome for the brick kilns (amongst many other industries) has been that more children have been drawn into the work force, especially to look after, to load and to lead the donkeys, mules and horses that carry the bricks to be fired. Most of these children are under 16, some as young as 8 and 9.
The Donkey Sanctuary is working in Nepal through a well-established partner, Animal Nepal, which, with our help, employs two vets devoted solely to equine work. The team also includes four Paravets and interns from the local university. We joined their ambulance-centred clinic, where the equines were brought over to be checked, vaccinated and dewormed. Meticulous records are kept to account both for animals and medicines and also to ensure no double treatments. On the ambulance are posters indicating what Animal Nepal can do and providing the telephone numbers of vets in case of emergency. Of the hundred or more kilns around the valley, the two kilns we visited were Bungamati and Shree, with a total of just under a hundred working equines.
The lives of the animals and the people are intimately entwined, and our approach equally needs to be holistic. So we are joining a coalition of NGOs contributing to a very special brick kiln improvement project: Brick Clean Group Nepal. Working together, the three aspects of animal welfare, child labour and the environment are being addressed. It is early stages yet, and people from such ordinarily disparate organisations, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, have not quite got the rhythm yet of working together, but it's coming. And Animal Nepal is waving the animal welfare banner high! It is a monumental task, but if nothing is done, the consequences for the animals will be dire, as well indeed as for the people.
Through Animal Nepal we also work in the Terai, the flatter lands bordering India, where many of the balance of Nepal's some 1,900 brick kilns also use working animals. Part of our work is veterinary, but another important part is reaching out to the owners and children who work the animals. In the off-season for the kilns Uttam Kafle, Animal Nepal's Director, and Arshid, the Vet, travel down to Nepalgunj to run workshops with the donkey-owning community to help the people understand the basic issues of animal welfare, and even to start a small savings programme (micro-credit) so that they are not constantly in debt to various money lenders.
Despite all that Animal Nepal does, there are immense challenges ahead. Together with Animal Nepal, we need to involve government more in equine welfare so that donkeys and mules are not invisible but seen as the significant contributors to the country's economy that they are; we need to promote safe transport for the equines during the 24-hour journey up to the Kathmandu Valley; and even more basically we need to stop the purchase and use of weak and handicapped animals. It is precisely to address these and other issues that we are teaming up with the other organisations who want to improve the brick kiln situation. We shall be undertaking formal research into animal welfare conditions at the kilns with a view to establishing international good practice standards. Animal Nepal will then lobby government to adopt those standards and brick kiln owners and managers to abide by them.
Another study Animal Nepal is undertaking is to determine the condition of working mules in the mountain regions of northern Nepal. These mules carry food, medicines, infrastructure materials to rebuild earthquake affected villages, etc. The number of porters that traditionally carried these loads in the past has diminished significantly over recent years- it's hardly a job a young man aspires to! However there are few roads in these areas, and the numbers of mules being used are increasing to fill the gap.
In all these areas we and Animal Nepal are achieving a great deal, and together we still have a very long way to go. But if it is possible to fall in love with a country and its people, Nepal is the top of the list. The impact of the 2015 earthquakes followed by the devastating fuel blockade that has so far lasted over six months affect man and animal alike (as I can personally attest as we sat in a house for dinner that had just enough rationed fuel to cook the meal but not enough to heat the living room. And the temperature had already dropped to 4oC by 8:30pm). Yet still the topic of conversation over the meal was neither of these issues: it was what more can we do to improve the welfare of the donkeys and mules. Nepal is a staggeringly beautiful country with a beautiful and committed people.
Well, I'm in love anyway, and you would be too if you were here. And all of us will continue to work tirelessly to put the donkey on the Everest peak of government agendas!