Choki Wangmo

With cheap alternatives flooding the market, the traditional practice of producing oil from Pangtsi shing (Symplocos paniculata) is fast disappearing in recent years.

The tree is widely distributed in Punakha and densely in Petari.

The villagers, however, are interested in large scale commercial plantation but without policy change and government support, the current practice is tedious with low economic returns.

Socio-economic and environmental benefits 

Although pangtse shing has many other benefits as medicines, natural dyes, and as a therapy in agriculture, it is popularly used for extraction of oil in Punakha but on a smaller scale.

The major components in the fatty acids of Symplocos paniculata fruit oil are palmitic (32.2 percent), oleic, stearic (104.5 percent), linoleic, (58.5 percent) and linolenic acids (3.17 percent).

The whole fruit contains 36.6 percent oil, of which 79.8 percent is unsaturated fatty acid. The transparency, smell and colour of the oil produced from the seeds are similar to that of ordinary cooking oil such as peanut oil. About 750ml of pangtse makhu is sold at Nu 500 locally.

Pangtse trees are found in Goenshari, Kabji, Chubu, Teowang, and Shengana-Bjemi gewogs in Punakha. According to the Economic Development Plan of the dzongkhag, every household in these gewogs has around 60 pangtse trees which produce 300 to 700kgs of pangtse oil.

People from Petari said that oil extraction had been practised for more than 25 years. The seeds are harvested during the eighth and ninth month of the Bhutanese calendar. The oil extracted by this traditional method produces two litres a day at the most from 20kg of pangtse seeds engaging three people. The overall cost of production is Nu 1,500.

A conservation biologist, Sonam Wangyel Wang (PhD) said that pangtse oil is organic and highly nutritious that it can compete in the international markets with other high-value oils such as olive. “If done well, this can contribute towards our country’s foreign currency earning as well as increase the income of our farmers. The farmers in future can also earn from carbon trading.”

He said that commercialisation of the oil is possible, particularly at the household level.

However, according to the cost-benefit analysis conducted in Yuwa village in Punakha, the income generated from the traditional extraction is found to be financially unsustainable.

Apart from its household uses, symplocus paniculata has notable ecological uses. It can adapt to different temperature zones and varying soil conditions. The study on its adaptability and potential has found that it can also propagate in “barren, salty, and severe drought soil like degraded land and dry areas”.

Differences in geographical, ecological, and socio-economic features of Bhutan make it feasible for the plant to not only grow in dry and degraded areas but also at a commercial scale.

Due to its developed root system with a large active absorption root surface and high tolerance to diseases and insects, this species plays an important role in maintaining ecosystem function and eliminating desertification and erosion.

Policy gaps 

Pangtse oil was popular in the past and most sought for. But in a changing industrial atmosphere, rudimentary processing with low output, poor economies of scale, and high cost of energy and time discouraged villagers in Petari. Without an enabling policy and government support, processing has remained fragmented, minuscule and suffers from low yield.

Currently, most of the trees are removed to make way for other cash crops. The RNR statistics do not have published data on the yield of pangtse trees.

Villagers said that the practice of extracting pangtsi makhu was not recognised or a policy implemented. The yield has greatly reduced with the deterioration of previous practices. The progeny of this species has weakened resulting in slower regeneration and people depend on imported alternatives.

Considering oil consumption habits and imports, there is a market for pangtse oil. The product, however, needs to be made competitive in terms of price and packaging.

The Food and Nutrition Security Policy 2014 acknowledges that domestic production of oils and fats is negligible and more than 90 percent of oils and fats are met through imports. The records have shown an increasing trend in imports.

Decades ago, more than 70 percent of oil and fat imports comprised refined vegetable oils (sunflower and soya-bean) and hydrogenated palm oil (dalda).

According to the Bhutan Trade Statistics 2019, the import of animal or vegetable fats and oils and their cleavage products; prepared edible fats; animal or vegetable waxes amounted to Nu 1.4 billion.

The import trend could decrease with government support to those interested to take up commercial pangtse oil extraction.

Opportunities and policy recommendations

The government support through commercialisation projects in pangtse makhu production could encourage villagers to maintain the trees that are naturally growing. Initiatives and encouragement from the forest department and artificial regeneration of Symplocos paniculata could also help in reviving the diminishing practice.

Pangtse shing plantation and upgrading oil extraction technology would help increase the production and also create market demand.

Kabesa Gup Tshering Phuentsho said that the forest department funded a pangtse makhu oil expeller each to Shenga-Bjemi, Toewang, and Chubu gewogs to revive the production of pangtse makhu years ago. However, the project failed as the expeller was used to extract mustard oil.

To make it competitive with its substitutes, experts said that there should be interventions by the government to encourage large scale plantation, enhance oil expeller techniques, and train locals in making it a viable economic product.

Senior forestry officer  with the Social Forestry and Extension Division, Tshewang, said that the department was exploring pangtse oil production in Kabesa gewog for enterprise development. He said that a farmers’ group was formed in Petari last year but they couldn’t yet venture into large scale production.

He said that the department recently consulted with the non-wood forest products managing group in the dzongkhag and have plans to upgrade the interim framework. “In the future, the department is expected to carry out a feasibility study about the availability of resources for large scale production and then will explore machines required for production. The study will determine the way forward.”

The department, however, did not receive formal applications for large scale production.

National Council’s member of the Natural Resources and Environment Committee, Pema Dakpa, said that the government policy supports any kind of oil production within the country.

He said that if the feasibility studies showed prospects of commercialisation, farmers should work with the agriculture extension officer. “The best way forward is to start a pilot project with farmers’ group.”

In the beginning, he said, it would be difficult to produce a refined oil but with right equipment, refining processes would be easier.

A study recommended that investments in biotechnology and modern technology will help cultivate this species for large scale production and other industrial uses that bring about progressive social change and cultural autonomy.

Pema Dakpa said that focusing on the pangtse oil will reduce pressure on mustard cultivation which requires more farmland. “Since pangtse grows naturally, the land can be used for other purposes like paddy cultivation.”

If the trees impact paddy cultivation as claimed by farmers, he said there were ways to maintain and control growth.

This story is funded by BMF’s second phase of climate change reporting grant