Choki Wangmo

Laya— In the aftermath of a devastating housefire that reduced her newly-built two-storey residence to ashes, Pem Zam, a resident of Lungo, was left heartbroken. However, her resilience shone through as she swiftly reconstructed a new house,  thanks to the substantial earnings of Nu 2 million from the sale of cordyceps.

Over the past two decades since its legalisation in 2004, the rare fungus has emerged as the main source of income for many herding families. Each year, three members of Pem Zam’s family spend a month scouring the alpine meadows for fungus, a species that is gradually becoming scarcer due to shifting climate patterns.

Previously, the residents of the 15 cordyceps-collecting gewogs primarily relied on yaks and cattle, but this traditional practice is fading in the high mountains.

Among the 400 species of cordyceps, Ophiocordyceps sinensis, found above 3,800 metres, is the most widely collected species in Bhutan, India, Nepal, Tibet, and several Chinese provinces.

The record price reached as high as Nu 2.83 million per kilogram in 2022

Numerous studies conducted in Bhutan show that the income generated from a month-long cordyceps collection significantly surpasses the earnings from a full year of yak farming. This transition has brought about transformative changes in herding communities, altering their lifestyles and economic dynamics.

One study revealed that until 2009, each household had earned an average of Nu 0.14 million since the start of cordyceps collection in 2004. Collectively, the collectors had accumulated Nu 57 million between 2004 and 2009.

In this year’s cordyceps auction in Wangdue, collectors fetched Nu 5.2 million per kilogram, equivalent to USD 62,650.

The driving force behind the cordyceps market is the demand from Chinese consumers, leading to a staggering 900 percent increase in value from 1997 to 2008. For more than two millennia, this fungus has been recognised as a valuable medicinal product in China, playing a crucial role in traditional Tibetan and Chinese medicine. Consequently, this growth has created a distinct rural fungal economy in the Himalayan plateau.

The cordyceps boom has attracted many to the mountainous regions. For example, in Sephu, the number of households rose from 265 in 2004 to 314 in 2005, reaching 319 by 2018.

The Laya gewog has also experienced a significant surge in households, as numerous young school dropouts  embrace the cordyceps business. “They eschew opportunities outside the gewog due to the lucrative nature of the cordyceps industry,” said Namgay from Lungo.

The gewog now boasts more than 100 young people seeking their fortunes.

The increasing population in these villages has contributed to the development of improved facilities and amenities in the region. In Lungo, Laya, the number of registered households continues to rise annually. With 60 households, the small village is bustling with activity as new homes sprout up within a few years. Moreover, they offer construction work opportunities to individuals from the eastern regions.

Within Pem Zam’s house, one room is brimming with grocery items, while her kitchen shelves are adorned with utensils she purchased for Nu 80,000 from Punakha. As a mother of two, she plans to invest in her children’s education. When cordyceps yields are poor, she still manages to earn Nu 65,000 per kilogram. The record price reached as high as Nu 2.83 million per kilogram last year.

Tshewang, 41, earns a minimum of Nu 1 million from cordyceps sales. He invested in a building in Punakha, which serves as a winter home for his family for three months. Content with his newfound prosperity, Tshewang has no intention of leaving Lungo. Additionally, he derives rental income from his property. A significant portion of his earnings is allocated to his children’s education, with both attending private school and university. “Life is more comfortable now,” he says.

Tshewang finds the task of yak rearing arduous with little financial return. “We were barely self-sufficient,” he says.

In Punakha, Tshewang notes that Lunaps and Layaps own the majority of the buildings. Lunana Gup Kaka reveals that 10 percent of collectors from the gewog have invested in properties in other parts of the dzongkhag, predominantly Punakha and Wangdue.

However, Kaka admits that the earnings are just enough to meet annual needs. With no road connectivity, residents often rely on pony services to transport food, with each trip costing over Nu 100,000. They make three annual trips to Punakha to purchase essential items.

“Once the goods reach Lunana, people have to pay exorbitant rates,” says Kaka.

 For instance, a 25-kilogram bag of rice costs Nu 3,000 in Lunana.

Among those who left the village, four Lungops have ventured into the cordyceps export business. In a year, a Lungo exporter can earn Nu 10 million from cordyceps export.

Sephu Gup Dawa Tshering highlights that for many harvesters in the gewog, between 80 to 100 percent of their income is solely derived from fungus sales.

“With limited agricultural land holdings, our livelihoods used to depend on yaks, but the cordyceps business has significantly improved our living standards,” he says.

Farmers, he adds, utilise their earnings to repay loans.

Research findings indicate a notable increase in household incomes in Sephu. Prior to the cordyceps business, 80.2 percent of households earned below Nu 100,000, but after entering the fungi industry, their incomes soared to over Nu 300,000. As a result, the population and number of households in the Sephu gewog have seen substantial growth, accompanied by numerous new constructions.

Nevertheless, the sustainability of this thriving industry faces significant challenges. Unsustainable collection practices, disturbances to the ecosystem, and the impacts of climate change are causing a rapid decline in cordyceps. In regions like Yaktsa and Nubri in Tsento gewog of Paro, the fungus can no longer sustain the livelihoods of residents.

Gup Chencho Gyeltshen says, “It has become an alternative source of income alongside yak rearing.”

Collectors express deep concerns about the decreasing yield of cordyceps.

“We pray that we don’t run out of this fungus, as we currently lack alternative sources of income,” Namgay voices anxiously.

Without substantial investments, the mountainous regions may face challenging circumstances once again.