We are basically an agrarian society, but of late agriculture in general and rice farming in particular is losing its traditional significance. There is a hastened rate of farmers moving away from agriculture, particularly in rice farming. Due to difficult mountainous terrain and small isolated holdings, rice farming is beset with many constraints making it arduous, drudgery-ridden and non-remunerative. Farm labour is scarce and costly and farm mechanization is limited by geography. Gungtongs and fallow land have become common. Infrastructures such as roads, model towns, hotels and resorts are replacing rice fields. It is time that we look for an innovative and novel approach to seek inspired solutions to restore, sustain and perpetuate rice farming in the country.

Rice plays a fundamental role in our culture, tradition and religion, beside food. Without rice, no religious ritual is complete both in Buddhism and Hinduism. Our diet is dominated by rice providing over 55% of daily calorie intake. At the ecosystem level, rice terraces and landscapes add beauty and value to the natural environment. Rice and wetland ecosystem are critical for biodiversity and wetland faunal species. The wetlands of Phobjikha valley in Wangdue lure migrating Black Necked Cranes to roost in winter. The harvested rice fields in Bomdeling provide feeding ground for migrating Cranes. Thus, rice landscapes promote tourism. The popular Black Necked Crane festival is unimaginable without the wetland ecosystem and rice fields. The swaying of panicles laden with golden grains in autumn as Druk Air descends in Paro leaves a life-long impression.

Let us first take a look at the numerous challenges facing rice cultivation. Major ones are limited and shrinking rice area, farm labour unavailability, irrigation deficiency, wild animal depredation, policy inadequacy and highly unfavorable production economics. The annually cropped rice area averages about 25000 acres, out of about 664,000 acres which is just about 4% of the total agricultural area devoted to rice. Declining labour availability for farming is a concern. Farms are in the hands of the aged, as youths shun agriculture. Wild boar, deer, monkey and elephant raid rice fields and discourage farmers. Due to changing climate and extreme variations in rainfall and temperatures, rice farming is becoming unpredictable and difficult. The investment on irrigation development has been far from adequate. Of around 1192 irrigation schemes in the country, the majority (82%) were built by the farmers before 1961. The government so far developed only about 215 schemes in the form of new construction or renovation. More than half of the rice acreage is still rainfed.

There is no specific policy or law on rice, especially for protection of critical rice landscapes or ecologies. The Land Act, 2007 provides a general protection of the wetlands disallowing conversion to other land uses but it is not implemented effectively. In fact, the government itself flouts the rule by allowing construction of highways, model towns, hospitals and schools in prime rice lands. Unfavorable production economics leads to cheap imports. Despite the efforts of the Department of Agriculture in promoting rice farming, there has been a lack of holistic approach to it. Most of the efforts have been limited to promotion of the classical green revolution technologies to boost production and productivity. Supply and promotion of improved varieties and seeds and inorganic fertilizers has been the main focus of intervention. To a lesser extent, irrigation development and farm mechanization have been emphasized. Such efforts have paid off with increased productivity from 1.53 t/ha in 1981 to over 4.20 t/ha now. The increase is mainly from improved technologies but at a cost of declining rice area and lesser number of farming households. More worryingly, the lack of an ecosystem-wide and holistic approach to rice R & D has started to evince negative impacts. Many important, critical rice landscapes and ecosystems have been scarred by constructions or from fallowing.

It makes sense to understand what other Asian countries have done to uphold and enhance their rice farming systems. Measures range from simple production and market incentives to import restrictions, farmer compensations, diversion payments, input and output (price) subsidies to protection and management of rice ecologies and landscapes through legal and policy instruments. Japan, China, Korea, Philippines and Thailand offer insightful cases. Japan imposes import restrictions with a Tariff-Rate Quota with zero tariff within the permissible quota, but any import outside the quota is restricted by prohibitively high tariff. To recompense for inflation, farmers are compensated for decline in market price below a moving average through Rice Farming Income Stabilization Program. In addition, Japan practices a Diversion Payments system whereby farmers are paid to cultivate non-rice crops to avoid over production and supply of rice in the market.

The Korean economy is dubbed as the Rice Economy and the rice policy is equated with food policy. Annually, imports are determined in accordance with the estimated demand and supply in a given year by the Korean government. From time to time, the government uses rice procurement prices to stabilize production and market. Korea has also invested heavily on irrigation development, farm mechanization and land consolidation. In China, the government provides price policy to promote rice production through attractive procurement prices to farmers. At the landscape level, China provides protection for the entire rice ecosystem. For instance, the Cultural Landscape of Honghe Hani Rice Terraces in Southern Yunnan is legally protected. The property is protected by law as a State Priority Protected Site designated by the State Council of China. In the Philippines, the landscape level protection includes the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras (including Banaue) which were declared National Treasures in Presidential Decrees in 1973 and 1978. The terraces are protected by the Republic Act for protection of the National Cultural Heritage. Individual terraces are privately owned and protected through ancestral rights, tribal laws and traditional practices.

Can we emulate some of the measures mentioned above? We need to do more than just push technologies to the farmers. What we need is an inclusive and multi-stakeholder approach considering policy, legal, socio-economic and technological aspects. Our focus so far has been on technology alone. Provisioning appropriate incentives for the rice farmers should be a matter of priority. We can start by developing a national plan for rice that should include the following.

Involve and engage all stakeholders cutting across institutional boundaries, within and outside the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock to develop a holistic landscape approach for rice ecosystems.

Identify precarious, critical or threatened rice ecosystems, topographies and landscapes essential for food production, tourism, panorama, recreation, local culture and tradition.

Map and designate such areas as national treasure and heritage.

Enact laws to provide legal protection of the nationally important rice ecosystems and institute mechanism for implementation and enforcement. The Land Act, 2007 deals with rice fields owned and operated by households and is insufficient to protect rice ecosystems.

Landscapes defined by rice farming such as in Paro, Punakha, Wangdue, Surey-Samkhara, Radhi, Nobji-Korfu can be designated and linked with tourism.

Plough back some proportion of revenue from tourism for perpetuation of rice landscapes.

In summary, rice farming is an integral part of our history, culture, religion and food system. Rice as a food may be purchased from the market, but the culture of rice farming, the unique rice terraces and the entire rice landscapes cannot be purchased or acquired once lost or destroyed. It is time to formulate a national strategy for conservation and enhancement of wetland ecosystems and unique rice landscapes. We need to move out of conventional thinking and devise appropriate mechanisms to perpetuate rice farming in the country. It is imperative that we uphold and sustain rice farming for a secure future.

Contributed by

Mahesh Ghimiray

Former Rice Specialist in DoA and currently

Lecturer in CNR, RUB