Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha, is located in the lowlands of the Terai region of Nepal and in the northern rim of South Asia’s Gangetic plan.

Rediscovered in 1896 after a century of excavations and studies, Lumbini was inscribed in UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1997 given its outstanding value as “one of the most holy and significant places for one of the world’s great religions” (Criterion iii) and “an important evidence about the nature of Buddhist pilgrimage centers from a very early period” (Criterion vi).

Recent excavations at the Lumbini World Heritage Site (WHS) revealed that amid the gradual development of ritual architecture in the area, Lumbini became the center of a large complex of structures used by followers and residents in the xxxx. More than 100 structures have been identified, including the remains of the palace where the Buddha spent his childhood in Tilaurakot – Kapilvastu.   For the protection of these sites and sacred landscape associated with the Buddha’s birthplace and early Buddhism, the Government of Nepal, with UNESCO support, delineated the Greater Lumbini Area “from Tilaurakot-Kapilvastu in the west to Ramagrama in the east, the border to India in the south and extending five kilometers to the north of the East-West Highway.” Totaling 3,665km², the area lies today in Province 5, encompassing three of its 12 districts, Kapilvastu, Rupandehi and Nawalparasi West.

Integrating the Buddhist Circuit in Nepal

In 2019, the Nepali Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation through the Lumbini Development Trust, which is responsible for the management and protection of the Greater Lumbini Area, requested the World Bank support to achieve its goal of “maximizing the economic benefits to the local communities” in the area, as envisioned in the 2020 National Tourism Strategy Plan.

Despite 50 years of planning and investments, the persistent poverty, gender disparities and low living conditions in the Greater Lumbini Area combined with rampant environmental degradation and its uncompetitive tourism development have prompted the Government of Nepal to plan and promote a more inclusive and sustainable development of the area.  To this end, three foundational activities are been financed by the World Bank, including (i) a situational assessment of the Greater Lumbini Area, (ii)  formulation of a master plan framework that links its dispersed assets while integrating them to the region’s larger Buddhist Circuit, and (iii) business support to vulnerable women entrepreneurs in the area.

Activity 1: Situation Assessment

The first step taken to inform planning and further action was the recollection of the Greater Lumbini Area’s history and the assessment of its current status. From December 2019 to October 2020, a series of studies, analyses and discussions were conducted, including:

  • An overview of the historical context and main events that have shaped the area since the birth of the Buddha around 600 BCE in Lumbini until the beginning of the 21st century.
  • A profiling of the area as its stands today, from an ecological, human, social, economic, infrastructure and governance perspectives.
  • A compilation and review of (250) reports and plans prepared on and for the area in the last decades by the government, donors, non-governmental agencies.
  • Consultations with a range of stakeholders at public, private and community levels on the preliminary findings and possible way forward.
  • The spatial mapping of the administrative and revenue boundaries of the area, its main connectivity systems, natural and cultural assets, land use trends and poverty indicators.

The resulting Situational Assessment Report on the Greater Lumbini Area was launched in November 2020. In a nutshell, the situation assessment showed that Nepal geography has put enormous pressure on the Tera’s flat and fertile lands – the country is located in some of the most challenging terrains in the world with about 75% of its land covered by one of the highest mountain ranges in the world. Furthermore, the location of the Greater Lumbini Area in the eastern part of the Terai, where major civilizations have flourished, evolved, diffused and some eventually disappeared, has also played a major role in its advancements and decay. Inhabited since c. 1300 BCE, the Greater Lumbini Area’s occupation has been marked by two distinct trajectories.

The first is characterized by the geographic and physical features of the area conditioning human occupation in vernacular settlements organically established along meandering rivers and water bodies that run southward. The mostly low-impact subsistence activities and small-scale trade with neighboring kingdoms practiced by those ancient civilizations contributed to maintain the integrity of the area for millennia.

The development that has been promoted in the area since the 19th century marks the second trajectory of its human occupation. Positioned as the heart of Nepal’s industrialization and main border trade point with India, the Greater Lumbini Area has been extensively modified with unprecedented impacts on its landscape, natural endowments, cultural assets, and traditional populations. Massive waves of immigration of people from the hills of Nepal, Tibet, Burma, Mizoram, Bangladesh, and other places, searching for new economic opportunities, especially since the 1930s marks the beginning of this process. The related construction of highways, roads, and electricity infrastructure across wetlands and forests, the establishment of polluting industries near water bodies and archeological sites, the expansion of agricultural fields over grasslands, the misuse of water resources, the unplanned growth of cities, and the indiscriminate production of waste further impacted the area.

Contemporary development of the Greater Lumbini Area has not only occurred at the expense of its natural endowments and sacred historical assets but also has not met the aspirations of its people.

Today, despite having some of the most significant Buddhist sites in the world and being an important ecological hotspot, the Greater Lumbini Area cuts across some of Nepal and South Asia’s poorest areas. Its districts face numerous developmental challenges from inadequate or absent basic services, lack of income generation opportunities, and gender-based discrimination and violence. Tourists visit mostly for a few hours and spend very little money locally. Visitors report that there is not much to do, and point out the poor maintenance of sites, inadequate services, and a paucity of information as some of the main reasons for not staying longer and spending more. Air and dust pollution from neighboring industrial plants and local unregulated cement and brick factories have not only led to unhealthy living conditions but are also threatening the area’s assets and once peaceful atmosphere.

The challenge is not only to extend visitor stays and increase their expenditure locally through improved services, engaging and accurate interpretation, and attractions, but to ensure that the Greater Lumbini Area’s living, spiritual, historical, cultural and natural heritage are properly protected and managed as an integral whole.

Activity 2: Master Plan Framework

Based on the findings of the situational assessment, a Master Plan Framework is being prepared to guide a more prosperous and livable development of the Greater Lumbini Area. Developed as a practical tool, the framework aims to inform the design and implementation of multisectoral interventions for the immediate rescue as well as long-term integrity and wellbeing of the area, its assets, and people. It builds upon the Greater Lumbini Area’s history and defining elements, providing the government, investors, professionals, communities and visitors with targets and standards for more inclusive and sustainable choices, actions, and behaviours.    

The Master Plan Framework presumes that human pressure on the area’s fragile cultural landscape and assets will only intensify with natural population growth, continued urbanization and industrialization, cross-border trade, and tourism. The associated increase in demand for land conversion, extraction and use of natural resources and production of waste will be intensified as competition for limited resources. This reality, however, is not set in stone. It can be reverted and redirected into a different path if development is well planned and managed.      

To this end, the Master Plan Framework first repositions the area from a polluting industrial pole back to its comparative advantage as the core of the “inner circle” where Buddhism was born. It then expands its significance from a collection of disconnected ancient sites and fragments of natural endowments to a living cultural landscape in a continuous state of change.

The basis for planning then turns from mitigating a degraded and poor area to unlock the untapped possibilities of a cultural landscape that contains the remains of an intricate river system, flora, forests, and grasslands as well as sacred structures, indigenous villages, and trade routes. This cultural landscape has witnessed continuous transformations and been shaped over time by not only geological conditions and climatic events, but also by the influence of a range of civilizations and human presence. Each intervention carried distinctive historical, social, religious, cultural, and ecological importance. The focus now is on ensuring that current interventions are a positive evolution for its livable and prosperous development from now onwards. To guide this renewed path, standards and actions are proposed to activate while protecting the intrinsic natural features, strategic economic position, and above all, significance of the Greater Lumbini Area as the birthplace of the Buddha. Emphasis is put on rescuing the area’s character and reconnecting its multiple sites and tangible and intangible assets, such as queen Maya Devi’s walking route from Tilaurakot-Kapilvastu to Lumbini, through low impact green infrastructure and services, multi-modal infrastructure, cross-border facilitation, heritage stewardship measures and incentives for job creation. 

Activity 3: Support to Women-led Enterprises

The situational assessment also showed persistent gender-based discrimination in the area – a fact in direct conflict with the Buddha’s life and virtues, as well as Lumbini’s reverence to motherhood.   

To address this context, a value chain analysis was conducted to identify binding constrains and entry points for local women to break through it and be able to determine their own choices in life. Building upon their grit and drive to make a difference for themselves and their families, the Strategy focused on supporting vulnerable women to blossom their entrepreneurship drive and set models for women empowerment. Two actions are being supported to this end:

  • Amma Café is a social enterprise located inside the Lumbini World Heritage Site to be managed by young women from surrounding poor communities. The goal is set up a business that serves as a model for young women in the area to pursue their economic independence. The café will be established in a pavilion located in front of the Sacred Flame within the site. The works for the adaptive reuse of the building are ongoing and will be completed in April 2021. A business plan has been prepared and 18 young women from the local communities have been selected to work on and manage the café.  Their selection was based on their grit and change making attitude as well as the positive support of their families. These young women will receive life skills and barista training from established businesses persons working in the area and in Kathmandu. To further guide and support them to run the café, a Board comprising of distinguished women entrepreneurs in Nepal is being established. The uniforms of the baristas will be handmade by the tailors and Dhaka weavers from Amma Cooperative and some of the food ingredients, such as honey, will be purchased from it as well.
  • Amma Cooperative is a collective women-led enterprise aimed to support existing women entrepreneurs in the area to improve their businesses through their combined demand for direct access to raw materials, better pricing, market linkages and delivery to clients outside their villages. To start the Cooperative, 120 entrepreneurs have been selected out of 400 women entrepreneurs identified in the value chain analysis. Living in Kapilvastu and Rupandehi districts, they currently manage home-based businesses with no competitive marketing linkages. Those have been clustered into six services and products: bee farming, cooking, Dhaka weaving, mushroom farming, tailoring and Thatch grass crafting. Their selection was based on the entrepreneurs’ skills, drive as well as commitment to serve as a role model to other vulnerable women in the area.

To start the Cooperative, 120 entrepreneurs have been selected out of 400 women entrepreneurs identified in the value chain analysis. Living in Kapilvastu and Rupandehi districts, they currently manage home-based businesses with no competitive marketing linkages. Those have been clustered into six services and products: bee farming, cooking, Dhaka weaving, mushroom farming, tailoring, and Thatch grass crafting. Their selection was based on the entrepreneurs’ skills, drive as well as commitment to serve as a role model to other vulnerable women in the area.

Based on a practical business plans, the women entrepreneurs will receive a support package containing:

  • Digitalliteracy for the entrepreneurs to access mobile banking, online marketplaces, and support networks through communication apps.
  • Skills modelling from leading women on design, finishing and packaging. Equipment may also be provided to improve quality and quantity of products. 
  • Business management, today a major limiting factor for the entrepreneurs to improve and grow their businesses, will be addressed through training in bookkeeping, financial management, customer handling, etc.
  • Marketing and sales training for the entrepreneurs to develop their own brand and proper pricing of their products toaccess larger markets.
  • Gender-based Violence awareness raising programs tailored to the families of the entrepreneurs and their villages.