High stakes in the highlands

By Dawa Gyelmo

15 February 2016

In Bhutan, collection of ‘fungus gold’ generates both cash and controversy.
Cordyceps from Bhutan has a huge international market, and it is sold in places such as Thailand, Singapore, China, India, Malaysia and the US Photo : Wikimedia Commons / Mario Biondi

Cordyceps from Bhutan has a huge international market, and it is sold in places such as Thailand, Singapore, China, India, Malaysia and the US Photo : Wikimedia Commons / Mario Biondi

Unlike in previous years, the auction for the highly sought after fungus known as cordyceps sinensis, or Yartsa Guenboob – known to have medical and aphrodisiac properties – held in Dzongkha, Bhutan’s western district of Gasa, was not a cause for joy. Overall collection in 2015 declined sharply to a total of 231 kilograms, and returns were significantly lower than in earlier auctions, where prices went as high as BTN 1.3 million (USD 19188) per kg. Fewer collectors participated, and many went home disappointed.

Official records indicate that 671 kg cordyceps, worth about BTN 469 million (USD 6.92 million), was auctioned in 2014, making it the highest quantity auctioned since cordyceps collection was legalised by Royal Decree in 2004. As the cordyceps fungus has been in major demand in the international market, the price routinely increases every year. However, in 2015, a significant downturn in terms of both growth and quality of cordyceps was witnessed, according to Gyeltshen, a forestry official monitoring the auction in Gasa.

In Wangdue Phodrang district, Namgay Dorji, a cordyceps collector, expressed concern that his collection would not earn more than BTN 32,500 (USD 480). After spending a month in the mountain and hill areas, carrying food on his back, Dorji managed to collect only 50 pieces of cordyceps, while his wife picked around 40 pieces. But Dorji remained optimistic that the next collection season would be better, and placed the blame on unauthorised collectors and encroachers for the decline in quantity and low quality of cordyceps. The couple usually earn around BTN 200,000 to 300,000 (USD 2952 – 4428) per year from cordyceps collection, making it the largest source of income for their family of five.

Illicit collectors tend to be less concerned about maintaining the environment when picking cordyceps, and this can have detrimental effects

With the increase in the number of collectors and smugglers, many like Dorji believe a proper boundary survey and stricter rules are greatly needed. Illicit collectors tend to be less concerned about maintaining the environment when picking cordyceps, and this can have detrimental effects. Recently, park officials accompanying local highlanders from Sephu and Dangchu caught groups of undocumented collectors, seized their cordyceps collections and forced them to pay fines. Dorji says that these collectors usually work in groups of seven to ten, encroaching in districts across the highland boundary and pick cordyceps without the required collection permits.

Collectors from Dangchu gewog (a group of five to 15 villages in a district) in Wangdue district said they do not face a boundary issue with neighbouring villages, but do face problems with people from Kashi gewog and districts like Gasa, particularly Lunana gewog.

Similarly, people in Lunana gewog of Gasa district point to encroachment of their boundary areas by people from Dangchu. In 2014, more than 100 people from Dangchu gewog were caught collecting cordyceps in Lunana gewog. Although encroachment is not a new phenomenon among people in neighbouring villages or districts, when it comes to cordcyeps and the money involved, people start taking notice.

On the practice of encroaching other boundary areas, collectors in Dangchu pointed out that it is relatively common phenomenon, and that people from other districts, especially in the east, were spotted collecting in their highland areas despite not having permits. The issue escalated into a broader debate on boundary concerns in the tshogdus, or local councils, of Gasa and Wangdue districts, and was even discussed in local meetings within the context of conducting boundary surveys. After the issue was taken up by the office of the Home Minister Damchoe Dorji, who met with local leaders and dzongkhag officials on two occasions, the immediate conflict was resolved. The internal boundary issue is listed as a point of discussion at district and national Parliament meetings. Collectors believe that if it cannot be resolved in a comprehensive manner soon, the problem will only worsen.

Boundaries within borders

Dangchu’s local leaders believe that the land resurvey conducted in 2012 and 2013 indicated that the traditionally claimed boundaries had been divided in a contradictory way. The initial internal boundary survey, according to a local leader Sonam Dorji, was undertaken in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but some people living in the villages at that time do not have any recollection of the survey being conducted. The view that a new boundary survey should be conducted is commonly held in highland areas. Villagers believe the current map shows a boundary that is at odds with their claims and generational knowledge.

The National Land Commission of Bhutan is the highest authority on internal boundary demarcation and reserves the right to conduct land surveys. While the Election Commission also demarcates boundaries for election purposes, it does so by following the lead of the land commission. In 2008, when the country began its transition to democracy, a new internal boundary demarcation was initiated, but this exercise was met with disapproval among the population as they believed lines had been arbitrarily drawn using Google maps. Concerns were raised by both local leaders and citizens during public meetings and local council sessions. Land commission officials have made it clear that further efforts to resurvey internal boundaries to deal with the conflicts that have arisen, especially with respect to cordyceps collection, would require approval in Parliament.

According to local leaders, boundary delineation only became a major issue after the 2004 legalisation of cordyceps collection. Before legalisation, while most people refrained from engaging in boundary claims, it was a salient concern for highlanders involved in rearing yaks and horses. The general standpoint, though, was that having more boundaries would result in more responsibilities. For example, if a high-level guest plans a visit to a community, people would be required to contribute labour to clear roads, cut grass and carry loads. Now, boundary claims have taken on greater significance due to the simple fact that claiming more area has the potential to increase cordyceps collection.

In addition to the boundary issue, another cause for concern among local leaders and citizens is that of collection permits, particularly considering the growing number of collectors every year. According to Gyem Dorji, a local leader from Gasa district, the number of collectors has gone up from less than 1000 to up to 3000. At the same time, overall cordyceps growth fluctuates from year to year, and there are variations depending on the area. So, if an area in a district experiences good growth one year, it is likely that a different mountain area and district will experience a similar growth in the future.

Sonam Dorji from Wangdue district said that to avoid facing internal boundary encroachment problems they began conducting briefings on rules and regulations for cordyceps collectors before they went out. The collectors were told not to encroach in areas of other districts to avoid unnecessary conflicts, but local leaders still point to the need for proper internal boundary demarcation to deal with the situation. The relevance of the issue extends even to areas near the border towards the Tibetan plateau. Chencho, a forest official in Wangdue who has kept watch on the collectors said, “We have to send [those who cross the border] back by advising them and explain rules and regulations of the country.”

All collectors have to obtain permits before going to the highlands for collection. With a larger number of collectors and also illicit dealers exporting outside the country, the government proposed to hike the permit fee and royalty for exporters. The permit fee was raised from BTN 350 (USD 5.7) to BTN 1000 (USD 14.77), and a royalty fee of BTN 8400 (USD 124.10) was instituted in October 2014 when buying and exporting one kg of cordyceps fungus.

Because the places where cordyceps collection takes place are hill and mountain areas without much tree cover, it is easier for foresters to maintain vigilance. Foresters check whether collectors have permits, and they also monitor the harvest. If there are three cordyceps plants in one place, foresters allow the collector to pick only one, they restrict the use of tools and digging, and also manage waste pollution, according to Chencho. Additionally, those who are found to be collecting without permits have their collections, bags and tents seized. From his standpoint, however, the absence of clear boundaries for collectors and local areas makes it difficult to enforce rules properly.

Legalising Cordyceps collection

For many Bhutanese, the legalisation of cordyceps collection in 2004, initiated by then-King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, was seen as a favourable policy toward highlanders, particularly in districts such as Gasa, Wangdue, Paro, Bumthang, Trashiyangtse and Trashigang. Prior to 2004, any business involving the fungus was illegal and could lead to imprisonment. Presently, three members from each household are allowed collection, which begins between April and May and lasts for one month. Collection is strictly monitored in order to avoid overgrazing and to limit environmental degradation.

The rise of the cordyceps business has led to a dwindling number of yaks and changing attitudes toward farming work Photo : Nadeemmushtaque

The rise of the cordyceps business has led to a dwindling number of yaks and changing attitudes toward farming work
Photo : Nadeemmushtaque

Collection became a primary source of income for many highlanders, thereby drawing more people to it. The average price went from just BTN 60,000 (USD 886) per kg in 2004 to BTN 670,000 (USD 910) per kg by 2013, as per data in the 2014 Progress Report of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Department of Marketing and Cooperatives. Cordyceps sales tend to be higher when sold at a government auction.

Villages such as Sephu, Dangchu and Kazhi in Wangdue district attest for the significant impact of cordyceps collection as a major source of income in communities. To a limited extent, cordyceps collection has altered the migration patterns from rural areas, and has actually contributed to an increase in the number of people residing in villages like Sephu where cordyceps collection is permitted. Earlier, in Sephu, unfavourable weather and lack of market access resulted in people spending more than six months a year weaving bamboo products at home, and another three months roaming from place to place selling and exchanging the products for other necessities, according to Naku, a 56-year-old villager. Today, many people can afford better clothes and food, and even own vehicles. “Some even own shops in the capital city, and some bought land in urban areas,” Naku said. Children are sent to private schools if they fail to get through government colleges. However, he also noted that there are fears about the sustainability of the cordyceps business, and that it has come as a mixed blessing for highlanders.

Wangmo, a 58-year-old villager of Laya in Gasa district, which is 3800 metres above sea level, recalls how difficult it was earlier to make ends meet. The village is located in northern Bhutan, along the border with Tibet, and it takes up to three days to reach the nearest road in the district. The majority of villagers in Laya were largely involved in rearing yak, and then migrated to urban areas like Punakha and Wangdue regions in winter. According to Wangmo, people would exchange yak products for hay and other necessities, goods and clothing from Punakha, Wangdue and Phuntsholing. Prior to 2004, people even resorted to venturing out in search of food and kitchen utensils, mostly begging from house to house in Punakha district, which borders Gasa district to the south.

However, cordyceps collection has drastically altered the scenario. Many of the once poor yak-rearing indigenous Layap community find their circumstances greatly improved. They do not feel compelled to spend as much time in lower altitude urban areas, and some can actually afford to travel around the country and to border towns in India for shopping. But affluence has also brought social changes, most noticeable among young Layaps, who prefer wearing jeans and Western clothing to their traditional dress of kira for women and gho for men.

Some community members, particularly of the older generation, express concerns about the changes. “We’re losing our culture. The rate of change that we’re witnessing is quite alarming. It’s a very sad thing to happen,” says Sangay Wangmo, who is 60 years old. Local leader Kinley Dorji points out that the community has taken efforts to retain markers of culture, for example by making traditional Layap dress mandatory in schools. Additionally, awareness programmes emphasising the importance of preserving unique Layap culture are now in place.

In the process of social and economic change, traditional sources of income are being displaced. Sangay Khandu, the National Council representative of Gasa district, stated that the rise of the cordyceps business has led to a dwindling number of yaks and changing attitudes toward farming work. In Laya gewog, which has the highest number of yaks and horses, only 70 of the 250 families own yaks and only 100 own horses. Sephu and Dangchu villages demonstrate a similar situation. In Sephu, which is made up of 331 households, fewer than 20 families own yaks, and about 30 families still rear them.

Collecting fungus gold

Of course, an improved livelihood among highlanders due to cordyceps does not mean that earning good money through collecting the fungus is any easier. Every year, as many as 3000 people from seven districts go to collect cordyceps for a month, and collectors face significant difficulties as the search for the fungus requires spending time away from family in mountain areas at the peak of monsoon season. The areas where collection takes place are often between one to eight days away from the nearest road, and people have to carry food and bedding on their backs. Collectors also risk getting stuck at blocked passages and facing the wrath of poachers.

From feeling home sick to being affected by high-altitude sickness, collectors do suffer a significant emotional and physical toll, with some even losing their lives

According to Dawa, a young collector from Sephu, one has to crawl on hills maintaining deep concentration on the ground. The weather is extremely cold and cloudy, and the only thing a collector sees are the sky and the mountain or hill upon which they are crawling. Collectors stay at a distance from one another. “Every cordyceps is earned with luck, if you are lucky enough, you would get uncountable fungus within a few days, but if unlucky you might not get even one in a day,” said Dawa.

The fungus grows only on treeless mountains and high-altitude hills. The collectors generally remain disconnected from outside world. To talk to family members, collectors have to walk about three days down the mountain to access mobile network connections. Nights become sleepless due to fears of losing fungus to others. “Since day one, we carry our collected fungus till the end of our permit time of one month,” said a collector.

From feeling home sick to being affected by high-altitude sickness, collectors do suffer a significant emotional and physical toll, with some even losing their lives. During the last collection season, a young woman collector had to be carried from Gangkar Puensum by 25 collectors to her village Kharsa in Bumthang district, after suffering from altitude sickness in absence of basic medical facilities in the mountains. In June 2015, a young man from Bumthang district had to trek back from Gangkar Puensum before his health condition worsened.

In one instance, a 23-year-old woman collector from Sephu village in Wangdue died after reaching home. She became ill in the mountains, and her husband who was accompanying her in collecting cordyceps carried her for three days. Only upon returning did he manage to find a mobile network and call the health officials and villagers for help. Medical personnel came to help but it was too late, and she passed away during her transfer to Thimphu before reaching the hospital. Another case saw a 30-year-old collector from Bumthang district die due to high-altitude sickness. Based on hospital records, at least six collectors have died since 2006, and around 1280 collectors have returned with altitude sickness.

After such gruelling work, collectors have to sell cordyceps through an auction initiated through local government offices. “We receive money only according to what people pay during auction,” said Namgay, a collector from Laya. “While the rest of the world might think we earn good money, we feel the exporters earn better money than us.” Locally licensed exporters do pay high taxes and fees for cordyceps they sell outside Bhutan, but they receive a price that is three or four times higher than what they pay to local collectors, said a collector named Dorji. Cordyceps from Bhutan has a huge international market, and it is sold in places such as Thailand, Singapore, China, India, Malaysia and the US.

Overall, in spite of the hardships, cordyceps collection still holds the potential to produce a handsome return, though only the lucky few are able to collect about one kilogramme of cordyceps. As some collectors put it, the endeavour of picking ‘fungus gold’ is like competing for a prize on the American reality TV show Survivor.

~ Dawa Gyelmo is a bureau correspondent for Kuensel covering Bhutan’s western districts.

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