The First EU Agriculture Project in Bhutan

The European Union (then known as the European Community-EC) started supporting the agriculture sector in Bhutan from 1982. The first EC project was on Pests and Disease Management of Crops, Plant Protection Unit, under the Department of Agriculture. Some of the highly visible outputs were the establishment of the National Plant Protection Centre in Simtokha, the regional plant protection offices at Bajo, Khangma and Bhur; the collection and safe disposal of obsolete old plant protection chemicals from the fields; and the creation of a pool of qualified national plant protection experts in the country. The Development of Agricultural Support Activities (DASA I) project (1990-1995) was the second agriculture project supported by the European Union (EU). One of the visible outputs of this project was the establishment of the Soil and Plant Analytical Laboratory (SPAL) at Simtokha, Thimphu. SPAL began its operation from 1994.

SPAL primarily produces soil and plant data for farming communities throughout the country. Data is also provided to a number of clients including Soil Survey, Soil Fertility, Land management, and Soil microbiology sections of the National Soil Services Centre (NSSC), and the Regional Research Centres under the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests. The professionals and facilities of the Centre are comparable to any other well know institutes in the region, if not better. The establishment of NSSC is also one good example where different donors and agencies collectively contributed to a common nationally determined concrete outputs through continuous dialogues and concerted coordination.

Soil and Plan Analytical Laboratory

The idea of establishing a soil and plant analytical laboratory in the country was conceived during the implementation of the project “Yield Increase through Related Inputs” implemented by FAO in the 1980s. Soil samples collected from the farmers’ fields were sent for analysis outside Bhutan since there was no soil laboratory facility in the country. It took weeks and months to get the soil test results, and often crop yields of rice, wheat, maize and potato response to fertilizer applications were interpreted without soil data.  The establishment of a laboratory was prioritized and planned at Simtokha on a plot area of 300 meter square.

The EU consultant fielded through DASA I for the establishment of SPAL from Skalar company based in Breda, the Netherlands said, “Let us keep aside the proposed laboratory plan; and it may be good to ask what the country requires in the distant future; and with regard to the budget, it can be reconsidered based on the justifications.” He also jokingly added “sky is the limit for the European Community.”The construction area was increased from 300 to 600 meter square to fit two laboratory buildings: one for physical and another for chemical operations. The total cost of the project went up eight times including purchase of laboratory equipment from European member countries. The proposal to increase the scope and size of the laboratory was well received by the Planning team of the Department of Agriculture.  The project management team approved the revised proposal after a series of dialogues and negotiations. The physical construction of the laboratory was completed, and equipment/facilities were procured and installed within the project period. The laboratory started its operation from 1994 with a small team of five staff including the laboratory chief and analytical chemist.

Birth of the National Soil Service Centre (NSSC)

The SPAL complex hosted the office of the Sustainable Soil Fertility and Plant Nutrition Management Project  (1996-2000).  This project was financed through the Sustainable Development Agreement signed between the Royal Government of Bhutan and the Dutch Government with a budget of US$3.473 million. During the same period, Bhutan Soil Survey Project financed (DKK 4.82 million, 1997-2003) through the Environmental and Urban Support Program supported by DANIDA was also housed within the SPAL complex in Simtokha. The project constructed an additional building to house the office of the soil survey team. Investments from these EU and EU members supported projects, provided a pool of national experts in the area of soil fertility, soil survey, sustainable land management and soil microbiology. There was a huge shift from a team of international experts in the early part of project period to a team of national experts providing the same services by the later part of the project period. After the closure of these projects, all soil and plant analysis, the soil fertility and soil survey services were mainstreamed into the programs of the Department of Agriculture, leading to the creation of the National Soil Services Centre (NSSC) during the 8thPlan period (1998 to 2002). After 25 years of establishment, some of the laboratory equipment are still in operation, and it is now time to review, and explore possibilities of using these facilities for climate change information generation.


Why Invest in Soil information?

The soil nutrients are removed annually through crop harvests and need to be replenished to maintain soil fertility. Farm yard manures, organic composts or inorganic fertilizers are applied to replenish the soil during soil preparation for the next crop. If application rates of fertilizers are higher than what crops can absorb, excess nutrients pollute local streams and water bodies. One of the ways to avoid pollution of water bodies is to check what nutrients are available in the soil, and what nutrients are removed from the soil through crop harvests. This is done through soil and plant analysis after the harvest. These analyses can provide the type and right amount of nutrients required for the next season based on the crop to be planted. Soil sampling is the first important step, and the results are as good as how well the soil samples represent the farmland. Another important parameter of interest to climate change scientists is soil organic matter analysis. SPAL can analyze this parameter too. A visit to NSSC today could be crucial for a better farming environment tomorrow.

Two Landmark Events of the Centre worth sharing

The NSSC was the led agency in planning and execution of the first National Land Management campaign led by the Minister of Agriculture, Lyonpo Sangay Ngedup, during the monsoon season of 2005. This campaign was conducted at eight sites in the eastern part of the country and brought together, policy makers, scientists, local leaders and community members to work side-by-side, learning from each other for 21 days. This exercise was an important input in the formulation and implementation of the Sustainable Land management (SLM) Project financed through GEF and implemented by the World Bank from 2006 through 2012 with a grant of US $ 7.6 million. The project produced good sets of SLM practices with special focus on inclusive local community participation.

In 2010 September, a team from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests collected soil and biodiversity data from 14 geo-reference plots along the Snowman Trek at altitudes ranging from 2,900 to 5,000 meters above sea level.  The report “Soil and Plant Biodiversity assessment” was produced and now is available on NSSC website.  The trip was supported by UNDP/GEF medium size project. These geo-reference plots would serve as the baseline data for future researchers to study impacts of global warming on the soil properties and biodiversity of the Eastern Himalayan range.

Contributed by Chencho Norbu