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Return to Chimkhola

After 30 years, geography professor John Metz traveled back to central Nepal to continue his environmental research. 

John Metz Photo provided by John Metz

“One of the lessons I learned was that to understand a culture, you must live it.”

By Jayna Morris
NKU Marketing + Communications 

What does a 30-year research project look like? Ask John Metz.

Metz, an associate professor and director of the Geography program at Northern Kentucky University, spent the last three decades researching human-environment relationships, both locally and internationally.

He attended numerous conferences focused on environmental issues. He published articles in reputable academic journals such as Geographical Review, Environmental Management, Human Ecology, and World Development. In 2010, Metz’s student Chris Kaefe presented results of his and Jennifer Lantz’ assessments of greenhouse gas emissions at the annual Celebration of Undergraduate Research, “Posters on the Hill,” at the U.S. Capitol Building.

Metz joined the Peace Corps shortly after he received his bachelor’s degree in philosophy and  worked as an agricultural extension agent in Iran for three years.

“My time in Iran offered many opportunities to see the world from different perspectives,” Metz says. “One of the lessons I learned was that to understand a culture, you must live it.”

And he did. Metz enjoyed his time in the Peace Corps so much that he extended his initial two-year stay for 15 months, which gave him more time to learn the Farsi language and embed himself into the Iranian culture. When his replacement arrived, Metz traveled through Afghanistan, Pakistan, India,, Nepal, Burma, Thailand, and Japan before he came home to the U.S.

Upon his return, he worked with children in a series of camps—first in a “wilderness school” in Virginia with children in the legal system, then at a summer camp for inner-city children in Cleveland, and then at a week-long camp for children from Cleveland’s school system.

His experiences made Metz want to learn more about the environment and how people interact with it. He learned that geography entails the study of both the biophysical and socioeconomic environments—a combination essential to understanding.

That’s when he decided to pursue a master’s degree in the field. “What happens with most geographers is that at some point they realize they’ve always been a geographer, they just never knew it,” Metz says. 

While his master’s research explored the composition and dynamics of beech-maple forests in eastern Wisconsin, his doctorate degree research landed him in Nepal. His destination was Chimkhola, a small village that sits nearly 6,000 feet above sea level and a three-day’s walk from the nearest road. During his two-year stay, he studied farming systems, forest use patterns, forest ecology, and the processes of deforestation—all to understand how the villagers used the forests to survive.

Chimkhola’s population was growing rapidly back then. The upper elevation village was nucleated—all 200 stone houses were grouped closely together. Surrounding the village were large agricultural fields that took an hour to cross in three different directions.  After harvest, families moved their large herds of cattle and water buffalo onto the fields to fertilize them.

Fast forward 30 years later, and Metz returned to Chimkhola during his sabbatical leave last year to see what had changed.

The village now has reliable electricity, clean water, and outhouses. Nearly 75 percent of village girls and women are educated—a stark difference from 1986 when the number was closer to 25 percent.  

In his 2016 research, Metz interviewed 100 households to compare conditions from now to those in 1986, when he did a similar survey. The main work in 1986 was to interview 40 households bi-weekly to record their activities and their use of forests. The 100-household survey done in 1986 provided a context for the 40 households. It also provided a baseline for the updated 2016 survey.

He found the village relies on farming much less than they did during his first trip.  Only 35 out of 100 households surveyed have plowing oxen, while in 1986, 75 percent of households did.

Now, families rely on money remitted by family members—half of the men between the ages of 20 and 40 work in Qatar, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and other countries—to buy food. And because the nearest road is only one-day’s walk instead of three, outside food and goods are much cheaper.

While Chimkhola is thriving in a different way than it was three decades ago, Metz says there is a bit of a drawback to the lack of farming among the villagers.   

“The downside is the village is becoming much more dependent on the global economy,” Metz says. “As the price of oil goes down, there is less work in the Middle East; a global recession will hit harder. Over generations, the knowledge of how to farm and survive from the land will be lost.”

And with the village’s dependence on purchased food and goods, there is much more waste to clean up.

“Globalization is expanding and integrating even remote parts of the world, making them part of the whole system,” Metz says. “Waste from packaging and modern commerce, which cannot be decomposed, is spreading everywhere—even in this village. Much ends up in the river, flows down through India and ultimately into the seas and oceans.”

Back at NKU, Metz incorporates his travels and research in his classes, and challenges students to approach environmental studies in new ways.

“Most of us grow up with the assumptions and views of our own families and communities,” Metz says. “My goal is to help students identify those assumptions, become aware of alternatives, and choose which ideas seem to make the most sense of their experience. I’ve been lucky enough to have lived in very different countries and to have been able to begin to see the world as the people living there do. My hope is that I can share those visions with my students so they can open themselves to new experiences and better understand their place in the world."