Choki Wangmo 

Petari in Punakha had recorded no incidence of severe drought, water shortage, or soil erosion for aeons. The chiwog has the highest density of Symplocos paniculata, a tree species with significant socio-economic and ecological benefits to its residents. 

Symplocos paniculata, locally known as pangtse shing, is a large-or medium-sized deciduous tree that can grow up to 5-10 metres in height, found dotting the terraces of paddy fields of Petari. Almost every 35 households have 7-20 trees depending on their field size. 

The tree flowers in April and May and starts fruting between September and November. Oil is extracted from the seeds. 

The naturally occurring plant began to spread throughout the paddy fields of Punakha. The tree is highly adaptable and grows naturally on barren, salty, and severely arid soil like degraded land and dry areas but the yield is higher among those on the terraces, said the villagers. 

Pangtse Shing has been instrumental in mitigating climate change impacts in Kabesa, Punakha. 

Petari tshogpa, Pema Tshering, said that there were no extreme events of land degradation, soil erosion, or landslide in the village. 

A conservation biologist and research professor at Korea University, Sonam Wangyel Wang (PhD), said that the tree can improve social and ecological resilience, particularly towards mitigating the impacts of climate change. It can sequester carbon, bind soil, reduce soil erosion, and landslides, as well as regulate temperature and water, directly assisting in adaptation and mitigation efforts.

He said that adaptation to climate change was quickly moving towards ecosystem-based pathways coupled with smart mitigation options. Planting trees at vulnerable sites is the best example of ecosystem-based adaptation and mitigation. 

“In Bhutan, it is a special tree that has ecological, economic, and cultural value.”

Tshogpa Pema Tshering said the tree and paddy fields share a symbiotic relationship. The yield of pangtse shing is higher along the terraces while the trees provide feasible condition for the paddy to grow well. 

The trees provide shelter and habitat for avifauna and insects that provide important services such as pollination and pest control.

A villager, Namgay Dem, observed that there was less incidence of erosion where there are pangtse shing in her field. “In my field, spring water flows from under the trees but it doesn’t happen in many fields.”

Petari has 80 acres of paddy field. 

Socio-economic benefits 

Pema Tshering said, “For centuries, people in Punakha have extracted pangtse makhu since it has a high oil content. The trees also have multiple use — household use, natural dye, medicinal benefits, and biofuel.”

Sonam Wangyel Wang who is from Punakha remembers applying pangtse makhu or oil to keep the skin moisturised when he was young. “Up until I went to school, pangtse makhu is the only oil besides mustard oil that I have known. It is a high grade and 100 percent organic oil that has huge potential to earn revenues.”

“The oil is highly coveted and used for special occasions such as losar, nyilo, local festivals, around the country even,” he added. 

The first pangtse makhu extracted was used to make mengay. The Bhutanese cuisine made from the Symplocus oil is considered a speciality in resorts across the country. 

The oil from pangtse is non-refined, natural, and is used to substitute for other refined oils although the practice is decreasing in the backdrop of imported refined oils at cheaper prices, said the villagers. 

Pema Tshering said that a mature pangtse shing produces about 20-30 kilograms of round-shaped fruits. He said that people extracted oil and sold it for Nu 500 a litre. “The price is attractive.”

The villagers said that for higher yield, the tree has to be pruned, maintained, and the root areas should be burnt, and barks removed. 

The oil extracted through the traditional method retains a maximum capacity to produce two litres of oil per day from 20 kgs of pangtse. 

Kabesa Gup, Tshering Penjor, said, so far no one had optimised cultivation and oil extraction but the Covid-19 pandemic was a lesson to conserve local resources to avoid threats to livelihood. 

Sonam Wangyel Wang who is looking into the project to commercialise pangtse oil production also donated a machine but it couldn’t be used either.

In 2008, the forest department also funded oil expellers in the gewogs but couldn’t be used for the intended purpose. 

The villagers, however, said that the bitter flavour, which was an important attribute of pangtse oil could be retained when produced from traditional procedure rather than using machines. 

The traditional practice for extracting pangtse makhu is found to be labour-intensive. Grinding the pangtse seeds and expelling oil is a tedious and time-consuming, which results in very low yield, Pema Tshering said. 

Threats and challenges 

The traditional ethnobotanical knowledge on plants and their uses, which is the result of thousands of years of experience passed through generations, is rapidly disappearing. This is as a consequence of socio-economic development and land use changes. 

Almost everyone in the village said that they would cut down the trees gradually. 

Namgay Dem said that the yield this year was low since she stopped pruning and care for the trees years ago. “We didn’t collect the seeds in the last few years and the quality deteriorated.”

She has seven trees in her field. 

Nakum, 88, said that she had been cutting the old branches and pruning the 20 trees in her one-acre paddy field. She said that compared to her younger days, the population of the species has drastically reduced due to increased cutting. 

Many farmers complained that the trees blocked sunlight for paddy field resulting in poor paddy yield.

“The species is threatened by deforestation,” Pema Tshering said. 

Last year, the government conducted a community awareness programme on the importance of the species.

The increased import of cheaper oil from India has become a hindrance for domestic production. 

Future prospects 

However, the villagers are willing to cultivate it on commercial scale if the government introduces such conservation and socio-economic benefitting projects. 

The Covid-19 also created panic among people about self-sufficiency. “What if imports are stopped? Then what?” asked Gup Tshering Penjor. 

Since pangtse is a native plant and grows naturally, people said that growing the plant won’t be a challenge. 

Sonam Wangyel Wang said that the cultivation could be promoted by encouraging farmers to look after the pangtse shing currently growing in their fields topped with additional plantation, institute a community-based programme for cultivation, provide technical and financial support for cultivation using the community forest model. 

Currently, there are no recorded breeding technique for pangtse shing.

“On the production side, we will need to develop appropriate technology to harvest and dry the seeds, machines to expel the oil and, more importantly, purification and refinement,” he added. 

Symplocos is a genus that has 350 species distributed in Asia, Australia, Polynesia, and America. Among them 77 species are found to be grown in the mountainous region of eastern China. In Bhutan, it grows at an elevation of 1500-3000 metres above sea level. 

The story is funded by Bhutan Media Foundation’s climate change reporting grant.