Despite stiff penalties, the roots of the plant are collected before harvest season

Farmers, highlanders, and cattle herders are roaming the forests of Dagana digging up Paris Polyphylla, which they call as ‘Cordyceps of the south.’

Paris Polyphylla is known as Dou Sethochem or Dochu Kewa in Dzongkha, Thoksampa in sharchop kha and Satuwa in lhotsham kha. It grows at an altitude up to 3,300 meters and is found in eastern, central and western parts of the country.

Three men walk up the worn out path through a dense forest. On their backs, they carry big bags filled with ration to last for the next 10 days.

As it is not yet paddy transplantation season in their village, they have come to dig the root.

“We don’t know what the root is used for but there is a huge demand for it in the market,” the younger man of the three said.

Just the day before, they negotiated a better price with a local collector, who agreed to pay above the local market rate. He even offered to pick them up from the closest road point while returning from the forest.

They call their friends and relatives in other dzongkhags as far as Lhuentse to enquire about the price in the market. They went to negotiate after learning that collectors in Wangdue and Lhuentse are paying Nu 1,250 a kilogramme for fresh roots of the plant. A kilogramme of dried root fetches Nu 5,100.

They said that despite the increase in demand for the root, the price has not changed significantly.

“Now we know numerous buyers so we want to ask them to bid and give us a good rate,” the farmer said.

They said the collection is rampant in most parts of the country and the number of people collecting the rhizome has increased manifold in the past few years. The increased competition for the root is pushing people to unharvested areas in neighbouring forests or virgin forests.

“We’ve to go to new places every year,” he said. “Last year, we went until the point opposite to Gaeddu College,” he said.

Paris Polyphylla is exported mostly to China, collectors say.

Most of them earn at least Nu 40,000 year from selling the roots of the plant.

A cow herder at Jitekha said that for now there is plenty Paris Polyphylla in the area.

“In the past week alone I’ve collected a kilogram of it, which I collected occasionally while herding cattle,” he said.

But Pago, 74, from Genekha, Thimphu said the plant is becoming scarce now.

“Earlier we would find it plenty along the path but not anymore,” he said. “The plant is eaten by highlanders as a vegetable.”

The collection of Paris Polyphylla was legalised sometime in 2014. However, it can be collected only during harvesting season between October and November when the roots of the plant have matured.

But it was found that many collect it illegally before the season, which still continues today.

Collectors know it is illegal to dig the root at this time of the year. But they cannot wait until the official harvest season.

“It is easy to spot the plant at this time of the year compared to the harvest season in October when the plants wither,” a farmer said. “We can’t locate them.”

The forest department in 2015 issued an office order that anyone found collecting the roots of the plants without a permit or outside the harvesting season would be penalised.

A fine minimum of Nu 5,000 with possible extension up to Nu 50,000 depending on the degree of offence and compensation at fair market value of the forest produce involved will be imposed. The market value was fixed at Nu 3,000 a kilogramme for dry and Nu 1,000 a kilogramme for fresh roots. The fines and penalties were standardised for illegal collection to discourage illegal practices.

The department legalised collection of the plant to make people harvest it in a proper manner so that it would be sustainable.

Some of those harvesting the plants know that it is not the right time to collect as the roots are not fully mature and the flowers are just blooming.

Forestry research shows that harvesting early hampers the regeneration of the plant. If collected during the right harvesting time, the roots will be matured and there will be natural regeneration.

Paris Polyphylla has been used in traditional Chinese medicines for years. The plant can be used as a pain reliever, antiphlogistic (removing heat), antispasmodic, diphtheria, for fever, headache, wounds and burns, among others.

The root’s paste is applied as an antidote to poisonous insect and snakebites, while also to alleviate narcotic effects.

Some said that the government could allow farmers to cultivate it on private land for commercial purpose, which would allow them to make a good income.

“In the face of increasing wildlife depredation of crops, this would be a good idea,” a farmer said.

Mangmi of Tseza gewog in Dagana, Rickey said the agriculture ministry should explore ways to allow its collection at this time of the year.

“If the government can issue permits and demarcate areas each year, it could be sustainable and there is no need for people to pay penalty,” he said.

With many digging the plant  every year, he said the plant could  be lost in the next few years.

Tshering Palden | Dagana