A recent editorial in Kuensel titled “A stunted agriculture sector” grabbed my attention, just because we have been trying to achieve food self-sufficiency since the establishment of the agriculture sector in 1961 together with the commencement of the first five-year plan in 1961. Similarly, an opinion piece by the former Secretary of the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement, Chencho Norbu, titled “The changing landscape of Paro valley” in Kuensel on March 9, 2019 articulates how the lush paddy fields of Paro valley changed. These two pieces, that came up recently, are just the tip of an ice berg, for Bhutan has been struggling to produce enough grains, edible oils and livestock produce for our own consumption.
Rice can be a classic example for it is the staple diet for Bhutanese and the ‘numbers’ on rice imports and produced are not encouraging. Bhutan’s “Annual Statistical Year Book 2018”, shows that, in 2017, we produced about 86,386MT of rice and imported almost an equal quantity of rice: about 78,449MT. Reading through our agriculture statistics shows the wide range of foods we import. However, it isn’t the diverse produce we import that’s alarming, but the quantity we import. Let’s say almost all the food that we have in our stores have been brought-in from other countries contributing to the global food-chain carbon footprint. So much for a ‘least-developed’ country and a highly ‘pro-claimed’ carbon negative country.
Having said that, do we have a choice? Can we achieve food self-sufficiency?
Being in the “heart” of the Himalayas, Bhutan does not have agriculture friendly geography. According to the Land Use and Land Cover assessment of Bhutan 2016 undertaken by Forest Resources and Management Division, Department of Forests and Park Services, only 2.75% of our area is cultivated (may be it is cultivable) agriculture land. This means that about 57% of Bhutanese, who are employed in agriculture activities, are depending on just 2.75% of our land. Well, there is nothing we could do for scanty agriculture land, but what is alarming is, of this 2.75% of our agriculture land, 39% and 10% of potential dry lands and wet-lands were left fallow in 2016, according to the Bhutan RNR Statistics 2016. These numbers tell us that, already scare agriculture lands are left fallow and empirical evidence from Bhutan and elsewhere suggests that fallow land brings in vegetation cover triggering a whole new level of problem: human-wildlife conflict. It is now trendy to refer to it as human-human conflict instead of human-wildlife conflict and that’s a whole new story for another article.
The 2017 Population and Housing Census of Bhutan (2017PHCB) reported, labour shortage; human-wildlife conflict and water shortage/irrigation as the top three cited reasons for leaving the land fallow by Bhutanese farmers. Intriguingly, all these reasons are linked: labour shortage is due to rural-urban migration, which is triggered by un-balanced regional development, which leads to fallow lands. Fallow land brings vegetation closer to farms, which brings wild animals closer to existing farmlands. It is an irony that, while we celebrate having 71% of forest cover [and increasing], we are losing some portion of our agricultural lands to forests. However, this is just a small part of the story, for, we lost prime agriculture lands of Paro and Thimphu to urban expansion.
In the front of water, Food and Agriculture Organization, AQUASTAT data ranks Bhutan 6thin the world for renewable internal freshwater resources per capita at 100,475.50 cubic meters. Though we have one of the highest fresh water per capita in the world, our farmers and households are grappling with drinking water shortage let-alone irrigation water. We are seriously going wrong somewhere, even with the existence of many organisations in various ministries looking after water.
Let’s shift gear and look at the “national issue” – rural-urban migration (as reflected in the 2017PHCB). We have one of the highest rate of rural-urban migration in south-east Asia and one of the most important and often talked about, but a lot ‘over-looked’ drivers leading to it could be the myth of ‘easy’ life in urban centres and employment opportunities. This probably should be ENOUGH reason, for us, to strategize (not relocating ministries from Thimphu to other dzongkhags) and make our rural areas attractive. Given our rich forest cover and biodiversity, enhancing the eco-tourism project could be one potential area, together with making our roads commuter friendly to make our rural areas liveable. One of the important aspects of agriculture friendly infrastructure: farm roads have reached almost all parts of our country. All that it demands is to keep it safe and automobile friendly. Make our rural areas “liveable.”
With continued efforts of our agriculture sector and our ever hardworking farmers, we can still dream of achieving food self-sufficiency. However, since, it isn’t unusual for our farmers to not find market for their farm produce during ‘season,’ investing in environment friendly storage area is, now, call of our time. It is also about time for us to seriously venture into post-harvest management strategies together with investing in marketing infrastructure for our farm produce. Our agriculture sector has been working on improved varieties of crops from day one, and sure enough, we now have some good varieties of food and fruit crops.
Given the scarcity of agriculture land, it will be worth for us to invest in fast growing and producing higher yield varieties of crops together with stress tolerant varieties. However, an important question that demands answer still lingers in the minds of our farmers – losing all the ‘fruits’ of their hard-work to wild animals and weather anomalies, which will be frequent at the pace with which climate change is hitting us. Wildlife insurance scheme may not necessarily work, as it didn’t earlier too, and there are evidences elsewhere of its failure. The best we could do is relax our conservation policies on “pest” animals, make our forests animal friendly and nip the drivers of farm marginalisation.
It is easier said than done but make our rural areas liveable.
Contributed by Sangay Wangchuk
Charles Sturt University
New South Wales