The main source of cash, Yartsa Goenbub not auctioned

Phurpa Lhamo  | Gasa

Up in the highlands of Lunana, Seki Dorji is worried with every passing day of the nationwide lockdown.  Food stock is exhausting and a trip to Punakha, the nearest town, is about 10 days away. Movement is restricted.

If the lockdown continues, Seki Dorji’s stock will last for two more months, fairly better than most Bhutanese. His family of five is mulling to restrict to two meals a day.

“We could have late breakfast and shift to having early dinner. I haven’t done that yet, but if the situation continues I might have to do it,” the 40-year-old said.

By this time last year, Lunaps (people of Lunana) had already auctioned Cordyceps Sinensis (Yartsa Goenbub) and came home with food stock and other goods for the long cruel winter.

With the announcement of the nationwide lockdown on August 11, many Lunaps couldn’t journey to Punakha for trade. About 11, who had reached Punakha returned home the next day. Others on the way, returned upon hearing the news.

Journey to Punakha takes around 10 days and nine nights on foot. From Sephu gewog, Wangdue, it takes around seven days and six nights.

A family of five would at least require 25 bags of 25kg rice, around six cartoons of oil and one bag of salt for the winter. Seki Dorji said that many people in Lunana couldn’t go to Punakha to buy essential items this year.

“The route to Lunana would be completely blocked by snow starting November and would last until late June,” Thanza-Toenchey Tshogpa Pema said. Earlier, Lunaps relied on yak fats for cooking purposes. However, due to religious sentiments, yak slaughtering stopped about five years ago.

Today, milk powder, sugar, salt, and clothes are all brought from Punakha. Vegetables are cultivated with the help of greenhouses in Lunana.

Although helicopter services will continue to Lunana, farmers said that availing it was too expensive. 

Seki Dorji said that one trip through chopper would cost a minimum of Nu 56,000, which can only carry essentials carried by three horses.

Even if the lockdown lifts, farmers in Lunana continue to worry about lack of income.

Protecting Yartsa Goenbubs like babies

Lunana is known for the best quality Yartsa Goenbub grown in the country. It is a good source of cash income for the highlanders. However, around 150 collectors couldn’t sell their cordyceps as the lockdown came into force just before the scheduled auction, starting August 16.

Lunana Gup Kaka, said Lunaps after selling their cordyceps made about four trips to Punakha. These trips, the Lunaps with help from people in Laya, Gasa and Sephu gewog, Wangdue would have to complete before the routes are blocked with snow.

Without sale of cordyceps, a farmer, Samdrup Tshering, said everyone was short of money. “Right now, our immediate concern is food supply. Mine will last for a month at maximum.”

On an average, a family in Lunana spends around Nu 200,000 to buy essential items to see through the winter. This includes the cost of porter and pony hired from the people of Laya and Sephu. It is a good source of income for Laya and Sephu people.

While the farmer’s immediate concern is food, they also have to worry about the deteriorating cordycep quality.

Samdrup Tshering said that cordycep couldn’t be exposed to too much humidity or heat. He added that it was best to sell it within a year’s time. “Over time, cordyceps loses weight. A weight loss of 50 or 100 grams could translate to Nu 30,000 to the collectors.”

There is no storage facility and Lunaps are worried. “We have to take care of it like they are our babies,” Seki Dorji said.

Meanwhile, if the lockdown prolongs, farmers also fear that horses in Lunana would starve to death. Every winter, many Lunaps migrate to Punakha with their horses.

Samdrup Tshering said that of the 200 horses in Toenchey village, Lunana, around 150 would move to Punakha in winter. He added that due to snowfall, the horses wouldn’t have pasturelands and would die of starvation.

The local government and dzongkhag officials are aware of the predicament the highlanders are in. Gup Kaka said that today lists were being collected from the farmers on their requirements.

The dzongkhag officials will discuss with Wangdue and Punakha dzongkhag officials to supply essential items to the gewog.

“Items can be supplied from Sephu, Wangdue and Goenshari in Punakha. We can arrange to go until the border and bring items home,” Gup Kaka said.