Agriculture: In 2002, Lhamo and her family left their village Langdurbi in Zhemgang to resettle in the fertile lands of Singeygang (Hangay) of Sipsu, Samtse with hopes of a better life.
Lhamo, 49, and her family did not know then that they would have to spend several years struggling to protect their fields from elephants.
After battling the elephants for more than a decade, Lhamo has lost the fight she endured for so long.
She will not cultivate paddy on her 2.60 acres of fields this year. She has opted to begin buying rice.
“I was extremely happy to resettle here and everybody knows I was a healthy person then,” she said. “But I am not anymore.”
Lhamo is not alone in her decision to call it quits this year. Her neighbours will also stop cultivating paddy.
Among them is Chenzom, who has also decided to leave her 1.19 acres of paddy fields fallow.
“We endure so much in cultivation but when it is time to harvest, the elephants arrive from every corner,” said Chenzom, who is also the Singeygang tshogpa. “I cannot endure the sleepless nights anymore.”
As a village tshogpa, Chenzom fully understood the hardships the people endured against the elephants.
Many farmers who had fertile lands in Singeygang along the Sipsu river had left their lands fallow a long time ago, she said, adding that some have even moved and settled elsewhere.
Chenzom said that Singeygang is left with only the elderly today. “The young ones have left to work as barbers and cooks in the towns and cities,” she said.
Along with the people of Singeygang, there are hundreds of people in Peljorling, Jogimara, and Belbotay also battling the elephants. In all, there are around 443 households in Sipsu battling to save their paddy and other agricultural products.
Paddy wetlands in Sipsu are considered highly fertile and productive. As per records maintained with the gewog, there are 1,215 acres of paddy land in Sipsu. But today, more than 50 percent of paddy land remain fallow. And the amount is increasing every year. With more deciding to call it quits, the amount will increase this year.
In Peljorling, Bir Bahadur Pradhan has also decided to discontinue cultivating his two acres of paddy land. Usually, he offered the land to other willing farmers to cultivate in exchange for a certain portion of rice.
“But this time, there is no one, so those who used my lands have decided not to cultivate,” he said. He will not be able to cultivate on his own. “There should be at least 10 people to be able to cultivate.”
Bir Bahadur Pradhan used to harvest more than a metric tonne of rice every year. However, this time he will have no harvest and his stock from last year will be exhausted, which means he will have to also begin buying rice from next year.
Another Peljorling resident, Jevan Chettri, has not cultivated paddy for the last two years.
Jevan Chettri said that the main reason for elephant encroachments is the increasing amount of lands being left fallow. This has led to the fields being reclaimed by the jungle, he added.
According to him, the elephants use the increasing jungle cover to their advantage and make it harder for villagers to chase them away.
The thick forest opposite Peljorling school is particularly a problem, Jevan Chhetri and other villagers said, which according to them is the elephants’ hideaway.
Jevan Chettri also said that there is limited labour in the villages today. The ones who are in the villages are very expensive to hire. “I think the government must allow people to bring in day workers from across the border,” he said.
Although villagers said that the government has done everything in its capacity, one solution would be to establish industries along the border areas from where the elephants come. Some even recommended constructing trenches in certain areas from where the elephants enter.
Some said the number of forest personnel could be increased. Villagers said they would support the foresters.
The Naksal and Chapramari forest across the border are the main routes from where the elephants enter. Although elephants have been around Sipsu for many decades, it was in the mid-2000s when the human-wildlife conflict starting growing, the villagers of Sipsu said.
Across the border, elephants are chased by people using weapons and measures that are not allowed in Bhutan. Elephants have found it easier to encroach into the fields of Sipsu.
In monetary terms, Sipsu today is losing out on generating millions of Ngultrums each year. Without disturbance, locals say one acre of paddy land would generate about 600kgs of rice a year. There are approximately more than 600 acres of fallow paddy land today.
Sipsu Gup Nandaraj Giri said that 80 percent of the fallow lands in his gewog are a result of lack of labour.
“People say it is the elephants that caused them to keep lands fallow,” the gup said, adding it was also because of the labour shortage in Sipsu. “Most of the people especially young adults are in the towns and cities.”
But people are also leaving the villages because of the human-wildlife conflict they have had to face, a Sipsu local, Narayan Giri said.
“Labour shortage is there but it is created because of the human-wildlife conflict,” he said. “People get discouraged and leave for the towns and cities for other means of income rather than agriculture.”
Sipsu today has a population of about 6,140.
Besides the paddy fields, saving cornfields in Sipsu is also a challenge.
Today, people in Sipsu’s affected areas such as Peljorling, Singeygang, Belbotay, Dewachen, and Zhiwaling have started to grow maize in small patches close to their houses. But the elephants have not spared these crops.
Wild boar is another menace the people of Sipsu are fighting today. The conflict is getting worse, villagers said.
Normally, Sipsu would cultivate corn on about 400 acres of land. This has decreased by more than 80 percent today.
Sipsu Gup Nadaraj Giri said that the government is doing everything to support the farmers. The gewog administration had a meeting with the farmers yesterday in collaboration with forest officials.
Quick response teams have been identified from each village. Team members were given torches, rain coats, and gum boots.
However, there is no electric fencing in almost all the affected areas for paddy, corn, and other agricultural items. Jogimara and Belbotay have solar electric fences but these fences have not helped, as it is not effective in the rainy season when there is less sunlight.
Recently a siren was installed at Belbotay. However, locals said the siren is barely audible during heavy rainfall. The siren would also not reach distant places, some said, pointing out that more sirens must be installed.
Meanwhile, in Singeygang, Lhamo is confused about the future. As she collected the leaves of her areca nut trees that elephants had destroyed recently, she said there is no one left at home to guard her house and fields.
Lhamo has two school-going daughters at home, while her husband is in Chukha working as a security guard. Her other two children are living in the cities.
Rajesh Rai | Sipsu