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Dying orange orchards of Bhutan

Jul 20, 2009

For years, orange orchards of Manitar have provided the Bhutanese farmers more than just a livelihood option. But due to the sharp fall in the yield caused by climate change, farmers are abandoning their old profession and venturing into more lucrative businesses.

Manitar, Bhutan: Mangal Singh Rai vividly remembers the knee-jerking journey from Manitar to Pasakha, carrying oranges (citrus mandarin) in the early 1980s. Men and horses, laden with fresh, ripe oranges, walking eight hours through the freshly cut mule track, was a common sight then.

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At Pasakha, they would wait for the middlemen in the orange business, bargain for hours and happily return to their villages. The price for orange was not high; it averaged around Nu 50 for a pon (80 pieces).

But the orchards were giving maximum yield and farmers were content. “Business was good. We returned home happy, most of the time,” said Mangal Singh.

The 45-year-old farmer said that orange came as an agent of change in the village and many farmers, realising what the fruit could do, started turning whatever land they had into orchards.

“By the 1990s, orange dominated everything in the village. It was like apple to the northern Bhutanese farmers,” said Mangal.

According to Mangal, that was 27 years ago, when he was an 18-year-old boy. “The situation has changed now,” he says.

Those same orchards of Manitar are lush with orange trees just starting to bear fruit but farmers have lost interest in the once booming business. Most orchards are overgrown with thickets.

“The trees are dying,” says Mangal. Mangal’s neighbours say that the trees started dying in the mid 1990s. “We tried everything but it just got worse,” said a villager.

"Last year, an orchard with 50 mature trees yielded only 10 pons"

The yield from the trees has been dwindling every year. “Last year, an orchard with 50 mature trees yielded only 10 pons. Can you believe it?” said another villager, Purna Bhadur, 39. “It’s frustrating after working so hard in the field.”

Purna said that most household in Manitar had stopped working in orchards. The dying trees had sent some villagers looking for greener pastures. “Many are roadside day labourers,” said Purna.

Ironically, Manitar has been connected by road now, which farmers say is even more galling. “When there was no road, we had good yield but had to carry until Pasakha. Today we’ve road and vehicles, but no yield,” said a villager.

Dying trees

Agriculture officials and experts say that the orange trees could be dying because of climate change and global warming. “Once we thought it was because of farmers’ negligence but, in some areas, they’ve managed their orchards well and yet they face the same problems,” said an agriculture extension officer in the dungkhag, Chimi Lhamo.

Another agriculture official, who did a study on the dying orange trees in Phuentsholing, said that orange grows and yields well at elevations 600 m above sea level.

“The temperature in Phuentsholing has been increasing and it’s above 350 degree Celsius most of the time”

“The temperature in Phuentsholing has been increasing and it’s above 350 degree Celsius most of the time,” he said. “Orange orchards in higher places are doing well. The problem is in the lower parts of Phuentsholing.”

Chimi Lhamo said that they suspected pests and diseases and frequently sprayed chemicals. “If it was due to disease, the chemical spraying would have worked, but it wasn’t doing much,” she said.

Meanwhile, some farmers are considering uprooting all the old tress and planting new ones. Orange trees bear fruit after four to six years and can live more than 100 years bearing fruit, according to sources. “My trees are just over 20 years old,” said Mangal.

Source : Kuensel
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