Towards Sustainability| Soapnut Plantation Drive


Shovel in hand, a pint of water, and soapnut saplings are the things Ms. Asha Gharti is carrying today as she walks to her field. Today is a special day for her as she is planting soap nut trees on her small piece of land.

Image: Ms. Asha Gharti

Usually, she, along with her family, grows cereal crops every year. This only enables her to put food on the table but the soapnut tree is a glimmer of hope. This is her gateway to earn that extra income to be able to provide her children with new clothes and other essentials in the future with the income generated from her own soap nut trees while preserving her field from landslides. 

Relevance of soapnut trees in the ecosystem

Soapnut trees hold an important value for the local communities in Nepal. Soapnuts or Sapindus mukorossi, is known as “Ritha” in Nepal. Soapnut tree is a deciduous tree that grows in the lower foothills and mid-hills of the Himalayan region. It grows up to altitudes of 4000 feet and is tolerant to reasonably poor soil. One soapnut tree can yield around 30-35 kg of fruit on an annual basis. Soapnut, while being an important part of the lives of the communities, also has huge medical significance. The shells are used to treat eczema and psoriasis. They also have anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and insecticidal properties. The powdered seeds are used for the treatment of arthritis, common cold, constipation, nausea, and dental caries. The poultice of soapnut is prepared and it is applied on the affected portions of joints for relief from joint pains. As a part of the daily lives of the local communities, soapnut trees are a source of shade in the fields, the branches are used as firewood and the leaves of the trees are used for fodder. Apart from this, the soapnut shells are used for washing hair, clothes, and bathing. They are also used for cleaning purposes. 

Traditionally, this is how soapnut trees have aided the life of local communities but now, it has become more than that. With the world moving towards a more organic lifestyle, the demand for soapnut berries has been on the rise. This has opened up a new avenue of income generation for these local communities.

Soapnuts or Reetha, come under the Non-timber forest products (NTFPs). The NTFPs sub-sector comprises about 5% of Nepal’s GDP. The NTFPs make up to 50% of subsistence for farmers in some rural communities in Nepal. Needless to mention that the farmers’ communities in the remote geographies are heavily dependent on these products, soapnut being the chief of them. These trees are particularly favored as they are easy to maintain and their berries do not require much processing. High in demand, the number of soapnut trees is limited in the region. This poses a threat of overexploitation. Hence it is paramount to plan for the sustainability of soapnut trees without hampering the livelihood of the farmers and the balance of the ecosystem. 

An effort towards sustainability

Image: Soapnut sapling distribution drive

Keeping these challenges in mind, Satya International, Seepje B.V, and Cime bvba decided to take a step towards solving the challenge of empowering the locals while preserving the ecosystem. In 2020, they joined hands to launch a soap nut plantation drive in the remote areas of Nepal. With the support of the local community leaders, this collective has been able to plant around 5000 saplings across 16 villages in the region. A total of 28 farmers are a part of this noble project. This drive has empowered more people like Ms. Asha Gharti to plant soapnut trees in their own fields irrespective of the size of land available to them with proper guidance from experts.

A welcome initiative

Image: Sapling plantation in the field

The Soapnut Plantation drive has been highly appreciated by the locals. They have welcomed it as it helps them preserve their ecosystem and also ensure the livelihoods of their children. Mr. Gan Bahadur Pun (70 years) shares “What we plant here today will support our generations ahead. This is not a mere plantation of soapnuts, this is insurance for our children’s future.” In this plantation drive organized in July 2021, we saw active participation of the farmers along with their family members. 

A promise for a sustainable future

Image: Sapling Plantation 

Together the soapnut plantation collective aims at planting around 10000 trees in the next two years. Nepal is heavily dependent on the export of medicinal herbs and aromatic plants for its income. While we take the benefit of the bounty that nature has to offer, we are also responsible for taking care of these forests and do our bit as responsible citizens of the world. This is a small yet significant step towards sustainable sourcing while empowering our communities. We look forward to a future where we function in balance with nature. 

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Written by Poonam Shukla, Director, Satya International

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