"[Design Science is] the effective application of the principles of science to the conscious design of our total environment in order to help make the Earth's finite resources meet the needs of all humanity without disrupting the ecological processes of the planet." –R. Buckminster Fuller
Nepal occupies only 0.09% of world’s landmass, but harbors an enormous diversity of flora and fauna due to the extreme changes in topography from the lowland Terai region to the Himalayas. Despite being one of the smallest countries in the world, it is ranked 21st on the global biodiversity index and 11th in Asia. Today, this biodiversity is facing direct threats both from the clearing of forests and from the rampant urbanization of the countryside resulting in complex socio-ecological changes, including the loss of farmland, the exacerbation of rural poverty, and growing population density in cities as former farm families crowd informal settlements on the edges of urban agglomerations.
As the forests dwindle and rural economies suffer, the youth population continues to swell with Nepal experiencing a demographic youth bulge: 40% of the population is between the ages of 16 and 40. Nearly 40% of Nepal’s more than 5 million young people are unemployed. Many migrate overseas to take low-paying, low-skill jobs often involving dangerous working conditions. The lack of sustainable livelihoods for youth in Nepal’s rural regions further exacerbates deforestation, land fragmentation, and illegal poaching, as young people search for ways to survive economically.
Although the government has separately recognized the need for both conservation strategies and rural youth employment strategies, an unexplored possibility is to bridge the two by engaging rural youth in catalyzing conservation, which can in turn engender sustainable incomes.
KTK-BELT’s Vertical University Project approaches conservation and education in Nepal, the most vertical country in the world, through the design of a “Vertical University” comprising cooperatively owned “Learning Grounds” at various altitudes in distinct ecological areas. Thirty-three such Learning Grounds currently serve as place-based centers for ecological education and skills development. KTK-BELT engages farmers and youth in becoming stewards of biodiversity and their unique local environments, providing livelihood opportunities through the preservation and cultivation of unique plant and animal species, such as the Himalayan soap nut and the endangered pangolin, as well as the preservation of local indigenous knowledge of the flora and fauna, of local agricultural and wild-crafting techniques, and of herbal medical traditions, such as the cultivation, production, and use of 150 unique essential oils found in one particular area.
By connecting farmers and youth in the region and developing a collective ownership model for safeguarding land, KTK-BELT is addressing the threats of encroachment by developers as well as the outmigration of youth seeking economic opportunities elsewhere. One hundred-fifty farming families have pledged to retain their land for the next 7 years after coming to understand their region as a haven of biodiversity with long-term value as well as a base of opportunity for ecologically-grounded livelihoods, sustainable agriculture, and ecotourism.