Like they have done for the past five years, farmers in Tongla gonpa village in Kengkhar, Mongar have started staying up day and night to guard their potato and maize fields from being ravaged by boars, rodents, porcupines and monkeys.
Located close to a dense forest, Tongla village’s fields are however seeing a decrease in wildlife this year because of a farm road excavation work, farmers said. “But wherever I go, I must still come back to guard my field every night,” farmer Ngawang said.
According to the farmer, the main reason they are losing crops to wild animals is because of Shajula village, an hour’s walk away from Tongla village and which was once prone to wild animals.
“But after they were given electric fencing last year, the animals shifted to our fields,” another 27-year-old farmer said.
Similarly, every year wild boars plundered and reduced their maize harvest in Rotpa village in Gangzur, Lhuntse.
Farmer Sonam Dorji said their village was provided with electric fencing last year. “The farmers worked hard in pitching the fencing poles and fixing the wires but the government has still not provided electricity to the fencing,” he said.
Human wildlife conflict
An important aspect of the agriculture sector, especially the drive to increase farm produce hinges on the frequency of wild life conflicts farmers across the country encounter.
Finding solutions to address human wild life conflict is one of the 15 “partially fulfilled pledges” by the DPT government.
“We will accord the ‘highest priority’ to search for solutions to this problem (people-wildlife conflict) and measures to prevent encroachment and destruction,” the DPT had pledged in its manifesto. “Wildlife legislation and conflict resolution policies will be thoroughly reviewed, government compensation will be considered where major damage or losses to yield have occurred and crop insurance possibilities, including provision of relief fund during crop failure shall also be explored.”
Except for establishing human wildlife endowment fund and setting up over 200 sound alarms and 60 solar fencings at strategic locations, the other “solutions” initiated to address this problem are the revised National Forest Policy, and the development of Bhutan national human wildlife conflicts management strategy.
“Human wildlife conflict is something that we can’t eradicate altogether,” agriculture minister (Dr) Pema Gyamtsho said. “If you want to get rid of this problem permanently, then we have to either stop growing crops or kill all the wildlife.”
But killing conflicts with the Buddhist ethos, lyonpo said and Bhutan’s strict conservation law is another reason. “Most of the animals we have are listed as either endangered or nearing endangered level and you cannot kill species like tiger, leopards and Himalayan black bears.”
Since these are not options for Bhutan, the government, lyonpo said has taken several steps to mitigate the problem of human wildlife conflicts.
These mitigations are however challenged by isolated fields with farmers not practising consolidated farming and the various kinds of predators that enter the fields. “If you look at crops, we are talking about deers, boars, monkeys, elephants to birds; a whole sort of pests that require different techniques to be warded off,” lyonpo (Dr) Pema Gyamtsho said.
Similarly, different animals need different techniques. “What’s effective against wild boar may not be effective against deer or birds and it’s the same with livestock,” he said.
Lyonpo said the government in the last five years “tried out a number of things,” such as the sound repellent, both imported and home made. “But these are not meant to substitute humans from guarding the crops because the animals get used to the alarm after a week or two,” lyonpo said.
The alarms were to be used in a way where farmers still went to their fields but could get up to chase the animals when the alarm went off. “That way they can still be productive the next day,” lyonpo said.
Electric fencing, both solar and grid were also initiated and it has worked in places where the community has taken ownership to maintain these services, lyonpo said.
Singye gewog for example has constituted a committee and hired technicians to fix the lines but it has not worked in places where they wait for the government to fix the problems. “The results are mixed,” lyonpo said.
The government has also dug deep trenches in places like Shompangkha gewog in Sarpang to prevent elephants from entering the fields. Farmers have also been encouraged to grow different kinds of crops and take up bee keeping to keep the animals off their fields. Community conflict management committees have also been established with seed funds to compensate for crops and livestock lost to wildlife, lyonpo said.
According to the minister, human wildlife conflicts have always existed but is now being communicated and reported more often. Agriculture officials estimate about five to 30 percent of crops is lost to wildlife depredation annually.
Now, work is underway to consolidate fields, which are otherwise fenced individually and provide electric fencing to the whole field. This move would help mechanise farming, bring irrigation and save the crops.
After being ignored for years, the government boosted irrigation, the lifeline for farmers by renovating and constructing 575 kilometers of irrigation channels. The government claims that this has resulted in bringing 1,200 acres of land under “assured” irrigation annually.
While it may not have kept pace with the country’s economic growth, the agriculture sector did grow in the last five years.
Challenged with limited and difficult agricultural land, urbanisation, drastic cuts in budget in several Plans, and compounded by human wild life conflicts, the agriculture sector received attention from the government especially after the Rupee issue hit the country.
Bhutan also started growing more vegetables to substitute imports, is almost self sufficient in egg production and has enhanced paddy and dairy production by forming farmers’ group and cooperatives. The government has also built more than 3,000 kilometers of farm roads and distributed more than 800 power tillers across the country.
The agriculture sector was already working on these programs said lyonpo (Dr) Pema Gyamtsho. “What the Rupee issue has done is that it has created awareness among our people that there is money in agriculture,” lyonpo said.
By Sonam Pelden