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Farmers lose hope as cardamom crops fail

It is four in the evening. The day is gradually giving way to dusk. Thick clouds surround the environment. The whole day has seen drizzling rain, not a beam of sunlight is in sight.

Khamba Singh Ghalley, after hours of tiring labor calls it a day. He returns from his cardamom orchard looking weary. Not only because of the hard labor he has done but because of the harvest he expects this year. “Cardamom has served us well but now it is time to bid farewell to the crop,” he sighs removing leeches from the muddy gumboots he is wearing.

Khamba Singh has lost hopes of surviving on cardamom earnings alone now. The other villagers have developed similar feelings after the harvest started decreasing annually.

Khamba Singh spends most of his summer cultivating cardamom. It has helped him financially. Earnings from cardamom had helped him educate his children and celebrate major festivals for more than five years until recently when the harvest fell. The decreasing yield is a concern for all the villagers of Laptsakha, Khempagang and Panbari of Samtse.

Multiple diseases have attacked the so called ‘sensitive’ crop across the country.

Cardamom cultivation had gained popularity and spread like wildfire across the nation owing to its bumper harvest and niche market in the last decade.

However, over the past few years, the yield and price of cardamom has deceived these delighted farmers. Now, the farmers worry over its declining yield and the slumped prices. Recent years have seen a yield that has decreased by more than half according to the farmers. The cardamom farmers have cultivated the crop in almost on all their farmlands sparing only their houses.

The craze for cultivation heightened with increase in market prices and accessibility. No land was left fallow and the farmers went to the extent of cultivating on Government Reserve Forest and other areas illegally. Every family in the village owned cardamom orchards then. They skipped other staple crops like cereals and vegetable cultivation. The talk those days used to be only about the prices and the quantity of cardamom harvested. Most had forgotten to cultivate other crops. The farmers were a rich lot.

Five years ago, cardamom price had reached up to Nu 2,000/kg. And some earned up to Nu 2mn annually from cardamom. Every farmer could earn a minimum of Nu 5,00,000 annually.

In fact, cardamom helped the farmers financially to educate their children their children, improve living standards and celebrate every festival lavishly over the years. The high earnings helped farmers to buy their own vehicles particularly Boleros. Some had multiple Boleros. Their earnings encouraged them to take loans from the banks to buy vehicles hoping to repay from the earnings. “People thought they could repay up to Nu 1mn within two or three years,” said Khamba Singh Ghalley from Panbari. Panbari and Khempagang under Tading gewog alone once had more than 60 Boleros.

Some even lost lives learning to drive on the newly constructed and unpaved Samtse-Phuentsholing highway after buying vehicles. Laptsakha Chiwog Tshogpa Gun Raj Ghalley said that around five accidents have occurred in the last five years.

Rup Kumar, 36, from Laptsakha had bought three Boleros two years back. Now he has sold two. He had to pay Nu 27,500 per month to the bank. “The yield those days were favorable. I was confident, I would make timely repayment but cardamom betrayed me and I was compelled to sell my vehicle.”

The market price today has fallen drastically and fluctuates between Nu 400 and Nu 500 a kg. Today, these are the same farmers who are worried about income from cardamom cultivation. While diseases like Blight is wiping out the crop, the drop in prices is making farmers miserable. It has been more than three years since farmers noticed their plants infested by blight.

However, farmers claim that four types of diseases have infected their crop. They say that the leaves dry after the roots rot. Also a disease which they locally call ‘Furkey’ has become a common cause of declining yield. The farmers have lost hope after failed attempts to save the crop. “We tried numerous methods. We uprooted them and started new plantation. But the same disease is affecting it,” said Aita Raj Bhujel, from Khempagang. He said earlier it was easy to spend Nu 1,000 but now he has to think twice before spending Nu 100.

Even in Dorokha, the yield has fallen, worrying farmers. Though with a road, it has become easier for the farmers to reach the product to the market T.N. Phuyel from Dorokha said that the harvest is so low they do not have enough to sell.

Now, people have started recultivating other crops and vegetables. They have been uprooting the cardamom crop in their fields. “Without going back to cereal cultivation, our survival is at stake. We have now confirmed that cardamom is a past story. We have to look for ploughs and oxen which remained unused for years,” said Mahindra Ghalley from Khempagang. He had planted 9,000 saplings on 10 acres of land which all died without harvest.

Samtse Dzongkhag is one of the highest cardamoms producing dzongkhags in the country with 1,162 Metric Tons (MT) of cardamom harvested in 2016 which fell to 1,008MT last year.  In Samtse, cardamom is cultivated in almost every part of the dzongkhag. Starting from Norgaygang to Tading gewog, farmers cultivate cardamom either large scale or small.

The dzongkhag agriculture sector is emphasizing post harvest management system for the farmers to groom the plants without concrete remedy to resist the disease. Dzongkhag Agriculture Officer Chogyal Norbu said that the sector is encouraging the farmers to look for alternative cropping and continue cereal cultivation. “We are encouraging them to go for other cash crops like kiwi, avocado and other vegetables which could earn,” he said. Also the dzongkhag is planning to continue to work on winter chili cultivation and start mass banana cultivation.

Since cardamom thrived for almost a decade earlier and was wiped out, Chogyal Norbu said that the same thing could happen again. “We are encouraging farmers not to rely too much on them. They should start growing alternative crops for which we are ready to help them,” he said.

Cardamom disease has spread nationwide and without a solution, the only option for the farmers is to look for alternative cropping. It is expected to revive after all the plants are wiped out, the land is left fallow and cultivation is restarted after some years.

Krishna Ghalley from Samtse

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