Prem Sharma, PhD
Department of Rural Development, Tribhuwan University, Nepal
The Shangri-La on the Earth
Nepal is a tiny country, lying between two adverse giant countries- China and India of Asia, on the earth. It has highest elevation- Mt. Everest (8848 meters, Garuda (deepest Gorge)- Myagdi Tatopani, birth place of lord Buddha- Lumbini, multi-facet dimensions of bio-diversity, rare and endangered lives/species such as red panda, one horned rhinoceros, multi-ethnic culture with genetic replenish blood of Sherpa- Appa Sherpa who scaled Everest 21 times and made a world history, honey hunting to trophy hunting. The paradise and Shangri-Las of the earth surface are partially explored and familiar to all. However, thrilling and great mysteries of the world still remain hidden. Records of the past who made Nepal known (to) in the world are the heroes and builders- Gautam Buddha, Arniko, rulers of Lichhabi and Malla dynasty, Bir Balbhadra, Bhimsen Thapa, the brave Gurkhas and King Prithivinararyan Shaha and still their successors/generations are struggling and endeavoring to get the unfinished tasks complete.
But most heroes and pioneers were either overshadowed for different reasons or were overlooked and even eventually forgotten. Nepal is rich in its natural and manmade resources. Unique and variance biodiversity, flora and fauna, hydro-power, tourism, natural beauty and panoramic scenes and sights are over surfaced. They are easily seen and experienced. However, most mineral resources are yet unexplored and understudied in length and breadth. GON Department of Mines and Geology (1973) has small collections though it claims that all 75 districts have been scanned. Actually the department was established as irrigation in 1988 BS. It has hardly 3 million research budgets which is quite an insignificant amount. Till date, mineralogy is very poor rather say it is in a primitive stage in Nepal. These/some sample collections from small studies/surveys indicate that potentialities and minerals are abundant across the country. But what about the situation of the underground treasury such as mineral resources of our country which still is unexplored mystery. Though few of our ancestors since Paleolithic (Stone Age) down to Neolithic (metallic age) heavily relied upon local stones and minerals for their arms and weapons, tools/utensils to survive. So, they used to manage all required minerals or utensils by extracting them from nearby. The ancient people who had explored different minerals and mines according to their needs and capacity can be regarded as pioneer explorers and expert engineers in their own right. Now the metallic wares are gradually being replaced by plastic wares however, in basic uses they cannot be still undermined.
Iron mine in Nepal
Because of variance of altitude and topography of Nepal, several minerals are found in different quality and quantity across the county. Phulchoki (10 m. tone), Theso (1 m. tone) and Phalam Khani (10 m. tone) are some remarkable iron mines of Nepal. But none of them are economically rich and viable. They are of low grade and exist in small quantity. According to information of Department of Mines and Geology, the following mines exist: lime stone (probably the best quality in the world), magnetite (Fe3o4), iron (Fe) and copper (Cu), Nickel (Ni), etc. About 70 to 75 mines await its operation. Nepal is going to meet its 80% demand, to become self reliant, for cement within next couple of years.
But prominent geologists (such as Dr. Torn Sharma, Sarbajit Prasad Mahato) and officials of the Department of mines opine that lime stone and semi-precious mines (stones) are economically viable. Geochemist studies reveal that Nepal is not a mineral rich country. Rulers of the past forced the marginalized castes, which hardly possessed land and pasture, to extract the mines. Then they used to excavate certain quantity of iron and copper as Kipat pratha (Akhtiyari) to meet their daily needs especially in western Nepal. It became later their livelihood profession.
Out of 14 zones and 75 districts of the country, Dhaulagiri zone, comprising of 4 districts, is very rich in natural resources- hydropower, tourism and mineral. Salt, iron, Copper, Sulphate and Gold i.e. nun dekhi sun samma (from salt to gold). About a dozen VDCs of Baglung, five VDCs of Myagdi and two VDCs of Parbat are named after mines. The zone is very famous for this. The pioneers and engineers of the mines such as Musha (Chhantyal), Aauri (Magar), Aafre (Kami) and Subba (Thakali) were involved in the past to excavate the mines near their settlement/villages. These typical words attributed to the then miners. They had specific job description- Chhantyal and Magar used to excavate the mines/ores, Kami used to purify and make weapons and day to day needed utensils and the Thakali manged the marketing and support financially. Thakalis were smart so they quit the traditional job and migrated to urban areas but the rest are still languishing in their traditional settlement and location. Now one can find this scene in most of the villages in Myagdi and Baglung districts.
Nepal is rich in natural resources- hydro-power, tourism, bio-diversity and minerals. Besides other districts across the country, Dhaulagiri zone with its 4 districts- Mustang, Myagdi, Parbat and Baglung are equally potentially viable in hydro-power, tourism, bio-diversity and minerals. Before the dawn of democracy (1951), people of western Nepal used to fetch salt from Chhushang, Mustang. They rarely went to Indian border and depended upon them as today. For clothes, they used to wear their local woolen and allo made clothes. Donkey and sheep were used as means of transport. Mustang is such a district where Shaligram, fossil of ancient lives, could be found. The river Kali and Krishnagandaki which flow from Lomangthan and Muktinath down to Myagdi have their sources as being the acclaimed pilgrimage sites. Thousands of devotees visit Muktinath throughout the year, the Indian nationals included. It is believed that there is a Gold mine in this area. But it has not been identified yet. Gold particles are found in Kaligandaki sand even today. According to a geologist, Dr. Toran Sharma, actually mines in Nepal are not economically viable, because mine ore less than 60% are not accepted as economically viable. The major mines of Dhaulagiri are- salt, gold, lead, blue diamond, copper and iron.
Myagdi, Baglung and Parbat were/are famous for copper and iron mines. Kuinekhani, Maglekhani, Malkabangkhani, Gurjakhani, Machhimkhani/Takam (c), Thadakhani/Pakhapani and Chhapakhani/Wokarbot (c) VDCs of Myagdi; Phalamkhani and Bhogsingkhani (c) of Parbat and Khunkhani, Nargakhani, Bangkhani, Bhuskat, Lekhani, Rangkhani, Pandapkhani, Shishakhani, Ghaiyakhani (c), Tamelakhani/Taman, Damek and Lukurban, Khunga VDCs of Baglung districts are named after the mines. People who are still residing nearby those mines are mostly Kami (blacksmith), Chhantyal, Magar and few Thakalis. Why it was so because these are the people who mostly were involved in this occupation in the past. Blacksmith and Chhantyal are yet eager to be engaged in this business/occupation. Chhantyal were/are known as Musha (rat) having strong sense power who could detect the location and size of the mines even by the smell.
Let's visit two sites famous for iron and copper.
This is Khunga-9, Lukurban Phalamkhani. Lukurban iron mine is located at the foothills of Durlek hill 5 hours far from Burtibang. Close by the mine are settlements of blacksmiths, Magar and Chhantyal who used to excavate iron from the mine and prepare daily need utensils for locale and 5/6 people excavated up to 25/30 kg iron in a day. These are few sites of mine crater. Blacksmith used to use single cow/oxen leather for pumping the furnace. Two persons simultaneously used to pump with two khals (khalantis) for melting and purifying the ore.
Ores were/are rampantly scattered on the banks of the Lukurban brook. Miners hardly used to go inside the tunnel of 10/15 meter distance, i.e., the ores were easily available on the out surface.
Some miners had lost wives, daughters and other family members when trapped/buried inside the mine. Still the locale blacksmith have iron utensils being used in their homes. The mines over there were in operation till mid 1970s. Lukurban is one of the samples of them. Miners had to pay royalty (rupees Rs 70/75) annually to Mukhiya. Mines are closed today because of various reasons. Now the master/engineer or mine owners are involved in bamboo works (basket weaving), labor works and in so... (Hazes farm). This is Takam/Machhinkhain, Magdi. Teachers of Hem Higher Secondary School, Shibam, Takam are interested to operate this copper mine. One can see the copper mine tunnel which gets expanded inside into three sub-tunnels. The locale claim that there are other several such mine tunnels around the area. Iron ores are rocks and minerals from which metallic iron can be economically extracted. The ores are usually rich in iron oxides and vary in color from dark grey, bright yellow, deep purple, to rusty red. The iron itself is usually found in the form of magnetite hematite, goethite, limonite, or siderite. Hematite is also known as "natural ore". The name refers to the early years of mining, when certain hematite ores contained 66% iron and could be fed directly into iron making blast furnaces. Iron ore is the raw material used to make pig iron, which is one of the main raw materials to make steel.
98% of the mined iron ore is used to make steel. Indeed, it has been argued that iron ore is "more integral to the global economy than any other commodity, except perhaps oil.” Iron is serious stuff. It not only makes up the Earth's core, but it is the base of civilization. Iron was long ago categorized as a base metal, as opposed to the noble metals like gold and silver, but in fact its fundamental role makes it a "base metal" in quite the other sense.
Iron mine (Phalamkhani) Parbat:
Phalamkhani for iron and Bhogsingkhani for copper VDCs of Parbat are remarkable villages for mines. The Phalamkhani mine is 24 square km long and is estimated to spread across into neighboring Lunkhu and Thanamula VDCs. A study estimates that the ore contains 40 to 60% iron. It contains 2 millions tones of ore. Iron ore below 80% or so is not accepted as economically viable mine. This area is formerly known as Pachhim 4 no. Painjyu Parwat under the administration of Syngja Nuwakot. The then 24 se feudal Sen King used to rule the region prior to the expansion of Gurkha Kingdom by Prithivinarayan Shaha. At that time (6/7 decades ago, around the dawn of democracy in 1951), the local blacksmiths used to excavate iron and copper from these mines. The 24 se rulers of Nuwakot, Painjyu, Dhunwakot and the locales of that region used to use the products of them. All daily needed utensils, weapons and tools were met with these mines. Each miner had to pay 602 Dharni Phalam (1,232.8 kg iron or equivalent worth Rs 300) royalties annually to the ruler thru Talukdar/Mukhiya. It was about 50% of the extraction. This is Phalamkhani VDC and this village is called Ghantari. The village is having a settlement of (over 90%) Kami (blacksmith). Their ancestors were called Aaphre, which mean iron miners. Around their settlement/home one can find kit (scrap) en-mass/in abundance.
Some bridges (Modibeni, Babiychaur and Karnas over Kaligandaki) and local buildings were erected from this mine. Recently Nepal Parwart Khani Uddyog Pvt, Ltd is awarded a contract to excavate the mine for 20 years. It has to begin it work within 180 days.
Reasons of the close of the mines
There are no more reasons of closing of the mines. The reasons were:
o Shortage of gol (charcoal) as all the jungle were deforested by the miners
o Import of cheap and easy metals from India
o The royalty of the Takshar (local tax) raised/increased from Rs 75 to 300
o Land ownership registration started.
Thereafter the central government directly began to collect the land revenue then the Mukhiya system ceased/stopped.
Dawn to dust, the Blacksmith must!
What’s your mane? (An interview was conducted with 90 year old Bhave Sunar). His forefathers were mine hunters post the hunting life/era. He spent about a decade or so to continue his father’s profession. But latter he became a hali (tiller) of Subedi and Gautam Braham of Betyani village when the mine got closed. His family members spread out in search of jobs out of his village. All Aafres turned poor and had to leave their village. Now he possesses this beloved wife, home and a buffalo shed. He spends his night nearby the fireside, cooks his meal, care his belongings on the upstairs climbing a lisno (wooden step/ladder). Then he goes to this bed. He cares his old wife, cattle, shuli (maize store) and few chickens. At his nineties, he still participates with neighbors for social works. The poor old fellow has no jobs these days as he has become too old and his kith and kins left them alone. They are outside the village for work and better opportunities.
Toran Sharma Geologist, NESS Thapathali.
Sarbajit Prasad Mahato, Director General, Dept. of Mines and Geology.
Shreeram Maharjan, engineer, General Dept. of Mines and Geology.
(www.geology and mines.com).
DDC. 2057 BS. District Profile. Kushma: DDC Parbat.
Interviews with concern locals and Experts