Born into Burden

Mar 26, 2011
*Special to asia!

In a country beset by innumerable social and environmental trials, a handful of perceptive individuals in Nepal are invoking behavioural change through the guardianship of some of society's most peripheral members.


568 Donkeys at Bol Bum Brick Factory return to their sheds at dusk after a 12 hour work day. Standing just 1.5m tall, these small pack animals can haul up to 140kg on their backs at a time. It was observed that the animals will not halt work despite festering flesh wounds, as long as they are capable of walking. In 2010, Animal Nepal conducted an emergency health clinic at this factory when a spot check found animals in dire straits. (Photo credit: Debby Ng)


In George Orwell's 1945 dystopian allegorical novella, Animal Farm, it is the donkey and the horse that toiled ceaselessly and without any misgivings, for a society that didn't recognise their existence, let alone, their contributions. In a nation like Nepal, where social and environmental trials fester around every corner, it is easy to overlook the welfare of some of society's truly voiceless and vulnerable members.

For six months out of a year some 2,000 equine and their owners travel from Nepalgunj, in Nepal’s southern lowland borderlands, to work in the anachronistic brick kilns of Kathmandu Valley. Entire families, comprising women and toddlers, endure an enervating and dangerous journey with their working donkeys from the borderlands to the capital city.

During the season, the equine will work for as long as there is daylight, hauling loads of bricks from between the outdoor drying docks to the firing kilns, and from the kilns to the storage houses. A single animal can haul up to 140kg at a time despite festering sores from harness abrasions. As equine are prey animals, is it in their biological design not to display symptoms of stress or weakness until they are almost completely consumed by their disease. This means that several ailments are allowed to go untreated until the situation becomes malignant.

As equine are prey animals, is it in their biological design not to display symptoms of stress or weakness until they are almost completely consumed by their disease.

A field study done by Animal Nepal Senior Veterinarian Dr. Sudeep Koirala in 2010, found as many as 28 equine packed onto the back of a truck. “The loading is very cruel. Instead of using a ramp, the donkeys are pulled up into the truck - two men pull on the ears, one man on the tail, while two others push the legs of the donkey.”

Dr. Sudeep reported that during the long journey, the donkeys are not provided with any food or water. “The driver drives at a very high speed, up to 110 km per hour along winding mountain roads, and breaks abruptly without any regard for his live cargo.” Dr. Sudeep recognises that the poor and uneducated donkey owners endure abuse during the journey too, which is the reason a large part of Animal Nepal’s work is to develop the capacity of animal owners, and this is achieved through an in-depth understanding of the challenges that animal owners face throughout the process.

A report by Animal Nepal founders Pradmada Shah and Lucia de Vries describes that “brick factories generally operate away from the public eye. No labour inspector ever visits the kilns to monitor the thousands of migrant labourers, and no government department monitors the over one thousand horses, mules and donkeys that work here. Brick kilns form isolated villages where human and animal labourers toil to produce the bricks needed to build our comfortable, earthquake-proof houses.

The work in brick kilns is seasonal, lasting only the length of the dry season, and attracts the poorest of the poor. Although the moulding of bricks only starts in November, the contracting of labourers, both human and animals, starts as early as August. Naikis, or middle men, sign deals with kiln owners on the number of labourers to be provided.  They use loans to lure the most desperate to Kathmandu: flood victims from Sarlahi, Tharus from Dang, Dalits from Kavre and Makwanpur, landless from Rukum and Rolpa. Those who cannot afford to go to India or abroad end up working in Kathmandu’s brick factories. Once they have taken a loan from a naiki they are bonded; their salaries, minus the loans, will only be paid when the season ends.

A study by Chhimeki, an NGO working in urban health and nutrition, revealed that almost all workers who took up a seasonal jobs in kilns live below the poverty line and suffer from a food deficit. Apart from the fire masters, who are young men from Bihar, India, the Nepali workers come with their families. Women and children support the men in moulding and drying the bricks.”

Animal Nepal is enhancing the welfare of animals through developing the capacity of people. Children and especially women who follow the cortege along this journey to the brick kilns are afflicted with physical abuse from disgruntled donkey owners. On site, human counterparts live in squalid conditions and a polluted environment. Inculcating a caring and compassionate environment amidst the misery and maltreatment is more than just animal work, it is inciting behavioural change.

American behaviourist and social philosopher Burrhus Frederic Skinner coined the learning theory, which states that complex behaviour is learned gradually through the modification of simpler behaviours. Imitation and reinforcement play important roles in these theories, which state that individuals learn by duplicating behaviours they observe in others and that rewards are essential to ensuring the repetition of desirable behaviour.

In the brick kilns, verbal and physical violence drawn out by adult donkey handlers is mimicked by children who can barely walk. Seated in the dirt, next to a resting donkey, a toddler picks up a stick larger than the length of her body, and gives a donkey a knock on the head. The children laugh when the animal flinches. The children do not act out of maliciousness, but the behaviour is condoned by adults, and the laughter that is drawn from the action is a form of reward in this bitter environment. As the toddler grows older, the stick becomes larger and the strength is multiplied, even though the action is simple and the same. Donkeys have a natural lifespan of about 24 years, but in the brick kilns, it varies between 3 to 15 years.

Although a veterinarian by practice, Dr. Sudeep also functions as a disciplinarian in the brick kilns. He talks to the children and advises them not to prod the donkeys with more strength than is necessary, and not abuse the animals for fun. By giving care to the animals and talking patiently with the animal handlers, Dr. Sudeep is attempting to augment the social environment that will nurture learned behaviour.

debby ngDebby Ng forayed into journalism following failed attempts at becoming a world-class equestrian. A wildlife crime investigator, underwater photographer, dive master and founder of a marine conservation organisation, she spends what remains of her time writing about the environment, its wildlife, and its people.

Contact Debby

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