Officials are adopting a dual strategy for dying mandarin trees—developing newer, resilient versions, and pushing for other cash crop options

Dechen Dolkar

The bright, orange mandarins that used to dot the landscape of the subtropical region were all that 55-year-old Wangdi from Remung in Samdrupjongkhar needed to put his seven children through school years ago.

“I didn’t have to worry about the educational expenses as the mandarin orange business was thriving,” Wangdi said.

However, today, many of his mandarin trees have dried, lost to pest and diseases.

“Farmers do not have any alternative source of income,” he said.

Remung was the large-scale mandarin-growering chiwog, located at 900m to 2500m above sea level.

Despite contending with warmer weather and widespread issues like pests and diseases, farmers in subtropical regions persist in relying on mandarin cultivation for income, buoyed by a consistent market demand.

Wangdi and other farmers like him are precisely the individuals that the Department of Agriculture aims to assist in making a transformative shift toward cultivating hig-value crops.

For those unwilling to transition, alternative crops like mangoes and seedless lime or avocado, the Department has introduced two new mandarin species: Wengkhar-1 and Wengkhar-2.

The varieties were developed at the Wengkhar Agriculture Research and Development Centre in Mongar.

These resilient species are capable of thriving at altitudes of up to 1,700m above sea level.

However, the gradual migration of mandarin cultivation to higher altitudes is resulting in its disappearance among growers at lower altitudes.

Mandarin, a vital cash crop cultivated in 16 dzongkhags, faces numerous challenges, including pest-related tree deaths, shifts in altitude induced by climate change, and diseases like citrus greening that can lead to the loss of entire orchards.

Studies have shown that areas situated within the altitude range of 900m to 1,400m above sea level produce high-quality mandarins.

Officials have noted that mandarins cultivated between 700 to 1,700 metres above sea level have experienced a notable decline in yield since 2014. The average yield per tree was recorded at 20kg in 2021, which is about 10kg less than the previous year.

For example, in places like Goshing in Zhemgang, mandarin orange business thrives with robust production.

Officials say that mandarin orange in the country must be 35 to 40 years now.

In 2021, mandarin production experienced a decrease by about 40,000 metric tonnes compared to 2006,

While the Wengkhar Agriculture Research and Development Centre has successfully developed more resilient orange species, it is also actively striving to create hardier versions of other crops, such as cardamom, which has been adversely affected by soil-borne diseases.

The focus lies on persuading farmers to transition to other high-yielding cash crops as swiftly as possible.

The National Focal Officer of the Fruits and Nuts Programme at the Department of Agriculture, Sangay Dendup, said that while the department was assisting in rehabilitating mandarin orchards affected by tree mortality, they were also actively promoting crop diversification.

High-value fruits like mango, avocado, dragon fruits, and seedless lime are being provided in subtropical regions to replace mandarin.

He acknowledged that many farmers still prefer mandarins over other fruits because they are accustomed to them, considering them a more favourable option.

The government is also involved in large-scale grape cultivation in the country through a foreign direct investment project.

The officials from the department said that they were currently conducting on-farm and on-site research on grapes for commercial production. Different varieties of grapes are being cultivated at various locations in the country to assess their feasibility and suitability.

The mandarin orange harvest this year was good, fetching a good price for farmers across the country.

The Department is also conducting research to replace existing cardamom varieties with disease-resistant ones.

Farmers are being supported through training, resources, and access to markets to facilitate a smooth transition and promote sustainable agriculture in the region.

At the heart of this initiative lies not only the foundation for a resilient and sustainable agricultural sector but also the guarantee of food security for Bhutan.

This story is supported by Bhutan Media Foundation under GEF-Small Grants Programme of the UNDP