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Bhutan’s changing landscapes

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The house of a working farm sits in a valley nestled in the mountains near the eastern Bhutanese town of Paro. ROBERTO SCHMIDT/afp

Bhutan’s changing landscapes

TSHEMDONA is one of the progressive villages in Lamgong county, Paro, Bhutan. It is about 2.3km north of Paro town at an altitude of 2280m above sea level and surrounded by fertile rice terraces.

Farmers grow a wide range of temperate crops. The village was one of the first sites in the country where improved paddy cultivation technologies were introduced in the late 1970s including farm mechanisation.

Rice terraces are irrigated with water from the Pachu (Paro river) fed by the eastern Himalayan glaciers, glacial lakes, snow melts, and rain in summer. The Pachu followed its natural meandering course through the valley floor with no river protection walls on either side of the banks before 1990s.

Like Tshemdona, many villages in Paro have designated areas for grazing cattle in summer, and community forests for the collection of leaf litter and firewood.

The collections of forest produce were well managed and regulated through the customary rights practised over generations. Forest leaf litter (mostly pine needles) and crop residues provided bedding materials for domestic animals that were usually kept in the ground floor of the traditional houses.

The cattle dung mixed with leaf litters and crop residues made up farmyard manure, locally known as lewhu. Farmyard manure supplied the essential nutrients for the subsistent mixed farming system for many generations.

The farmers incorporated around 3 to 5 tonnes of farmyard manure per hectare of cultivated land, according to some survey reports.

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A view the Paro valley, near the Chilela pass situated between the Bhutanese valleys of Paro and Haa. ED JONES/afp

Traditional mixed farming system

Paddy was the main crop grown in summer followed by other cereal crops like wheat, barley and sometimes millets in winter.

Men till land with the help of draught animal power provided by well-fed bulls. Local pigs were raised for meat to prepare special dishes on occasions like festivals and Lomba (New Year for Parops and Haaps) celebrations.
Farmers cultivated a number of local rice varieties like kochum, kaap, naam, dhumja, and chgekana-nam.

The rich aroma dhumja variety was usually grown in a limited area, specifically Seep (flattened rice) in the early part of the harvest season. Vegetables were produced for home consumption with chillies being the most popular and others included eggplant, tomato, and beans grown along the border of a kitchen garden.

Responsibilities for farm operations were clear. For example, men plough fields and thresh paddy panicles, women transplant paddy seedlings and carrying/spreading manure. There was no wage system. Family members or labour exchange among households on a rotational basis as per the established norm carried out most of the farm work.

Changing farming landscape

Paro valley commercially opened to foreign visitors with the operation of the Paro International Airport from the 1980s. By early 1991, the tourism industry was privatised that fueled the growth of many hotels, resorts and lodges in the valley.

Paro valley was and continues to be one of the preferred destinations for many visitors with attractions like the Taa Dzong (National Museum), Drukgyel Dzong, and Taktshang (Tiger’s Nest).

One of the major breakthroughs for the farming system was the construction of farm roads along the banks of the Pachu and along the foothills of the gentle slopes of the valley in the early 1990s.

These developments attracted many local migrants from the different regions of the country. This influx encouraged the local residents to convert acres of fertile rice fields to offices and residential sites.

This highly contagious wave is encouraging local farmers to convert more rice terraces to other uses.

The number of farmers adopting new farming technologies increased including switching to improved livestock husbandry. New varieties of cereal and horticulture crops are grown widely, and the farm operations are mechanised including harvesting and transplanting, which were usually done by women. Paddy is still the main crop grown in the village, and across the Paro Valley.

Semi-commercial farming

The most popular improved rice varieties grown are Paro No11, Yusirey kaap and Yusirey maap. Traditional rice varieties are either grown rarely for home consumption, and in many cases have totally disappeared from some of the villages.

Use of farmyard manure is still common with some supplements from the use of inorganic fertilisers. Consumption of inorganic fertilisers at the national level has not exceeded beyond 35 to 45kg per hectare in the last decade.

In the region, fertiliser application rates per hectare varied from 150kg in South Asia to 600kg in East Asia, according to the 34th session report of FAO regional conference, 2018.

The cereal yields varied from three tonnes per hectare in South Asia to six tonnes per hectare in East Asia, closely correlated with the fertiliser application rate.

The other popular chemical used in paddy cultivation in the valley is Butachlor, a pre-emergency herbicide. The supplied figure reported was around 350 tonnes in 2016-2017 of which Paro valley consumed around 36 per cent of the total, according to the Plant Protection Centre. After paddy is harvested, crops like potato, peas, beans, cauliflower, cabbages and carrots are sown. Minor cereal crops like wheat and barley are occasionally cultivated, mostly for fodder.

Local cattle population has declined in the village while the number of improved cattle breeds like Jersey Cross cows increased. Many farmers also picked up small-scale poultry farming. These trends are in line with the 2018 report of the Department of Livestock.

The population of Jersey cross (milch) recorded was 28,877 and 614,000 poultry layer birds in the country in 2017 compared to 18,128 milch and 471,000 birds reported in 2013.

Some of the traditional practices like local cattle migration, piggery farming, and the customary rights of community forest management including organised collection of forest leaf litters and fuelwood have disappeared or are disappearing. This seems like the right moment perhaps for social scientists or institutes to document these traditional practices before they are totally lost.

Highly likely scenario

Paro valley has a potential to increase its cropping intensity from 120 per cent (estimated) to over 190 per cent in the near future to meet the increasing food demand. This would mean bringing more fallow fields after paddy harvest under cultivation in the valley by regulating the growing environment and introducing short duration crop varieties.

It is also desirable to supply fresh vegetables from the valley throughout the year to the high-end hotels and resorts instead of bringing from Thailand or India – perhaps, a good way to reduce the global food chain carbon footprints in keeping with the carbon neutral position of Bhutan.

There is adequate water and the valley has many flat rice terraces suitable for mechanisation and installation of modern greenhouses. The water requirement is highest during paddy cultivation; however, this coincides with the monsoon at its peak, thus posing no issue of water shortages.

What is required at this moment is a good policy to discourage the conversion of fertile rice fields to other uses. This timely intervention can save not only the beautiful rice terrace landscape remaining in the mid hills of the Great Himalayan Range, but also contribute substantially to the national food and nutrition security. Kuensel (Bhutan)/Asia News Network

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