Many suspect illegal import selling as local produce

Choki Wangmo | Tsirang

There are no green chillies in the market, especially in the capital city – the biggest market. Import of chillies was banned after detecting high content of pesticide residue. The few packets available that cost  about Nu 150 for 250 grams are claimed to be procured from Tsirang, Dagana and Sarpang.

When the government allowed import of chillies, farmers complained of not finding a market for locally produced chillies. However, there were no chillies in the market when the import was banned following the detection of pesticides in imported chillies.

Wholesalers and vendors in Thimphu are now doubting if the chilli available in small quantities are those that are illegally imported and sold as local produce.

Chilli plants in Tsirang are at the flowering stage

Kinzang, a wholesaler at the Centenary Farmers Market (CFM), Thimphu, said that some vendors claim that the chilli was brought from Tsirang and Dagana. “I have called the farmers in these dzongkhags and there is no chilli production currently,” he said.

In Thimphu, a kilogram (kg) of chilli costs between Nu 500 and Nu 600. “I was told the chilli is from Tsirang,” she said.


How local are the chillies?  

Chilli farms in Tsirang – a source of local chillies-  are in the flowering stage. After a disease infected earlier batches of seedlings, farmers resorted to replanting new saplings. The agriculture extension officers said that the production might start in the next 15 days.

 Serithang gewog in Tsirang is known for vegetable production with about 70 households involved in large-scale chilli farming. By this time, the gewog would be the first producer of early big chilli in the country, said the agriculture extension officer, D.B Ghalley. However, it was delayed due to extreme weather conditions, he said. “The production has drastically declined and farmers are losing interest too.”

Pema Dorji from Sergithang Maed said that this year he cultivated chillies in only 30 decimals of land compared with 50 decimals last year. The chilli plants in his farm are yet to flower. “Due to cold weather, I couldn’t cultivate.”

Whatever is produced from the local farms benefits the middlemen. Yamuna Sanyasi from Tashithang said that the low price paid to farmers by suppliers discouraged them from growing chillies. She said that the suppliers bought a kg of chilli between Nu 100 and Nu 300 and then sold it at Nu 600 a kg in Thimphu. “We struggle on the field and they enjoy the benefits. If we don’t sell at their quoted price, suppliers tell us that there is no market, she said, adding that they have to sell at a lower price because marketing would be challenging.

Farmers said that in the past few months, they harvested small chillies cultivated last August but it was a small-scale production. “It was distributed within the community and the nearby gewogs.”

A source said that chilli suppliers buy local chillies and mix it with illegally imported ones while transporting it to market.

In an earlier interview, Tsirang dzongkhag’s agriculture officer Dorji Gyeltshen said that dzongkhag’s winter chilli production has dropped due to diseases and infection, with only 4,000 kgs produced till date.

The production by this time, Dorji Gyeltshen, said, could have been tenfold but the cold temperature due to the snowfall and rainfall in higher altitudes affected the chilli seedlings. “There was severe defoliation and stunted growth that affected production,” he said.

The import of cheap Indian chillies, he said, has also affected the interest of farmers and disrupted the gradual increase in production from the dzongkhag.


Sarpang chillies

Samtenling gewog in Sarpang produces the largest amount of chillies every year.  However, production declined this year.

Agriculture Research and Development Centre (ARDC) officials earlier said that it was challenging to produce chillies on a large scale. After pest and diseases hampered local chillies, the centre tried hybrid varieties of chillies that are cold resistant to ensure an increased supply of the spice during lean season.

Despite being one of the largest producers of winter chillies in the country, Sarpang experiences shortages of chillies every year. The number of farmers growing chillies on a large-scale increased in the past two years.

The cost of chilli is at its highest in the market today. A kg of chilli cost  between  Nu 400  and 600 after the import ban on March 8. There are only a few farmers choosing to sell the spice to the local market. Many sell it directly to Thimphu.

According to officials from the dzongkhag agriculture sector, vendors directly reach farmers and offer prices inflating the price. “Vendors have started booking chillies from the source like other cash crops. There was no sufficient production of chillies and also the production did not stop completely. There was a minimum supply of chillies.”

Production from Dagana is at its peak, however. Dzongkhag agriculture officer, D. C Bhandari said that the dzongkhag produces about four metric tonnes (MT) of chillies every week. Except for about 500 kgs consumed within the dzongkhag, the surplus is sent to other dzongkhags.

Officials from the Department of Agriculture under the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests claimed that winter chilli has hit CFM from the last week of November 2021.

“The annual production of chilli is sufficient with surplus production in summer when all the northern dzongkhags come into production. However, in winter, the production cannot fulfil the national demand,” the official said.

The department, officials said, is researching cold-tolerant winter chilli varieties, shift plantation months and use of rain shelters to meet the chilli production in winter.

The department expects 479 MT of chilli this month and more than 500 MT in April.

Additional reporting by Nima and Chhimi Dema