What the cordyceps unearthed in Laya

Amid unprecedented development, the remote community is experiencing challenges earlier unfathomed

Livelihood: Laden with loads, mules meander up the barren barley fields through a cluster of traditional houses, inching closer to their destination for the day. A trail of dust rises behind them in the late autumn sun as their bells echo from the snow clad mountains.

But the scenic ambience defies the health of this highland hamlet. Laya is not at her best.

The villagers are preparing for their annual migration to warmer valleys and have begun packing their incense (sangzey), yak products and other essentials.

Accompanying them to their winter home is the gloom of the cordycep auction held some three months ago.

“It is one of the worst years since the collection of the worm was legalised in 2003,” rues Lhaba Tshering from Lungo.

But since its collection was legalised, the worm has changed the face of Laya. Gewog officials said income poverty rate has today slumped by more than 90 percent.

Lhaba Tshering recalls his childhood as hard and humble. “We were basically nomads living in tents depending on few livestock and bartering its products for rice, chillies, and other essentials.”

“There were times we begged for food in winter in the neighbouring districts,” he said.

While the legalisation of its collection was a blessing to this highland community, it has also turned the lives of these people from one extreme to another.

If they struggled in dilapidated tents with only flour and black tea for meals then, today these families boast of two-storied houses, decked elaborately in rich traditional paintings and adequate horses to earn a handsome living.

However, the effects of their rapid prosperity have started to show.

“With so much money they never handled in their entire life now at their disposal, the community runs the danger of wasting them,” a long-serving civil servant in the gewog said.

Elders have realised the peril and say the symptoms of over dependence on the worm are showing.

The lucrative business from the worm has caused its youth to leave school and splitting the close-knit families into nuclear homes.

Laya Lower Secondary School saw two students drop out last year and another three this year. Children also drop out from Bjishong Central School where they are provided with all essentials.

“When we go door to door towards the end of the year, parents say they would enrol their young ones in school but that doesn’t happen,” dzongkhag education officer Choney Dorji said.

Parents come up with all kinds of excuse to request leave for children during the cordyceps collection time, he said. After the collection, they do not return to school.

Once a parent, who had retained a student at home approached the school’s principal and said his boy was sick and that the village astrologer had warned him to not walk in the direction of the school.

In another incident, a class three topper student fled school and his parent had come to seek leave the next day. The child never returned to school since.

Out of school youth in the villages think going to school is a waste of the invaluable opportunity available to them. According to the youth, they are better off in the village picking cordyceps and helping their parents earn a better living.

“It’s not that we don’t want to send our children to school, but if every one is in school who would remain here and work,” one of the parents said. “This is who we are and our children should continue this living.”

But the lot loitering around school with fancy hairstyle and attire has left teachers worried about such lifestyle influencing the little ones to also leave school while village elders are worried about their tradition and culture being diluted.

Since only three individuals are allowed to collect cordycep from each household, families are splitting. This rule is cited as the main reason for the increasing number of houses in the gewog.

Layaps pay at least five times the national daily wage to construction workers, who flock from across the country to cash in. A few have as many as four houses while many own at least two.

For instance, Lungo village has seen its number of houses increase from 33 to 65 in the last nine years.

With the death of the gewog’s lone butcher last year, many households with smaller herd of livestock have sold their yaks to Lunana.

The change in Layaps’ fortune has reversed their roles as well. Foresters who were once their worst fears have now turned into the guardian of their livelihood.

The issue of cordycep’s sustainability is at the heart of their fears for their children’s future.

“Park officials are doing their best to ensure that only we benefit from this resource and in sustaining it,” Kinley Dorji from Pazhi village said.

The gewog is likely to prosper further. It will be connected with electricity, a bank, community centre, and motorable road within a year.

“Once the road comes through, we can deploy more horses for tourism as we can then bring in all our ration by car from Gasa,” Lhaba Tshering said.

Laya is officially two days from Gasa and second highest gewog in the country, after Lunana. These ethnically distinct inhabitants of the mountains have a distinct language and customs exhibiting cultural coherence and vitality.

As the first recipients of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, who unified the country, Layaps played a significant role in his safe passage and journey.

The humble and generous Layaps say they have lived hell and heaven in a single lifetime.

Most Layaps today earn millions from cordyceps sale and through tourism as the place is strategically poised on the numerous popular trekking routes.

Young men play the national game on the latest imported compound bows worth more than Nu 100,000.  There are as many archery ranges as villages in the gewog and scores of arrows, each costing at least of Nu 1,200 a pair, snap in each game as they strike the boulders aplenty near the targets. The quivers are almost instantly replaced with new ones.

The community slowly brought in television, expensive solar lighting, satellite television dishes and modern cooking appliances.

Elders in the village recount of harrowing experiences as they resorted to illegal ways to pull through their impoverished lives.

Now a prosperous horseman and gardener, Kinley Dorji from Pazhi was once even fined for illegally harvesting cordyceps.

“Even at night we ran helter-skelter when the foresters raid our camps, or else we could be imposed severe penalties,” he said. “The foresters would destroy our utensils and shred our tents to pieces, so that we would not return to continue picking cordyceps, but we had to.”

Tshering Palden

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