Sunday, December 30, 2018

Interesting Read: My Old Posts On Cardamom

I am happy to know that India has allowed the exit of Bhutanese cardamom into India. This means that the government does not need to buy the unsold stock currently being held by the farmers. If the government had resorted to what it had contemplated, there would have been serious problems, and, as in the past, few civil servants would have lost their jobs and some farmers and traders would have made millions. Now that the issue is no longer a concern, I am going to let matters be. The sordid affairs of the past will remain buried - until another stupidity is contemplated.

The variety of Black/Brown Cardamom grown in Bhutan. In the early 80's, this was Bhutan's biggest export and highest foreign exchange earner. This horticulture crop is not endemic to Bhutan. It is said that it was brought to Bhutan from Sikkim by the Rai brothers of Sarpang. In the 70's cardamom plantations caused severe destruction to forests, resulting in its nationalization in 1979.

True to character, I understand that the farmers have been giving the government agencies a hard time - while trying to determine the actual stock in the hands of the farmers. Even beyond that, I am told that the farmers were negotiating higher prices for their cardamom - imagine! Isn't it enough that the government is trying to bail them out? They want a huge profit in the process? From these you can foretell what would have transpired - if the government went ahead and acted the cardamom trader.

But I would like to draw my readers’ attention to my two older posts on the issue of cardamom. They are not the whole story - but they make for interesting reading, nonetheless. Do not forget to read the comments. You might pick up some useful knowledge and hints as to why cardamom is bad news.



Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Scary Power Of Hydroelectric Power

Since February 2014, I have been alerting the people and the governments of Bhutan that our hydroelectric projects have the potential to enslave us economically. I just learnt that we are not the only one -  the South American country of Ecuador has been keeping us company – around the same time we began our journey of doom. Read the following:


Even as our government has finally decided to go slow and smart on new hydropower projects, and even as the hydropower committee has declared in no uncertain terms that hydropower projects DO NOT bring any benefits to the local community, some section of Khengpas are wailing for Chamkharchhu Hydroelectric Power Project.

What is with the Bhutanese people? Look at the Bongo Gewog --- the villages in this Gewog sit bang in the middle of two of Bhutan's earliest hydropower projects. But the communities here are so poor that the Rotary Club of Thimphu has to intervene to help them build toilets - 95 of them. The road to the villages is so bad that one trip to the area and our donors are scared witless - so much so that they refuse to travel to any other parts of the country.

Why are the politicians and the governments promoting the idea that hydropower projects will bring benefits to the communities? They damn well know that the hydropower projects have no mandate to build schools, roads and hospitals. Why are people being blatantly misguided and misinformed? Is it self-interest? Or plain stupidity?

Thursday, December 20, 2018

That Creed Of Humanoids Called Civil Servants

On December 17, 2018, I was a most desperate man!

Desperate because I missed the most substantial part of His Majesty the King’s 111th National Day Address from Samtse. As usual, I was at my computer by 5.00AM so that I have time in hand to complete whatever urgent work I needed to attend to, before I start to grope for the remote to switch on the BBS TV to listen to His Majesty’s nationwide address. No luck - my work took me way past the address time. Damn! I missed it.

Not one to be outdone, I timed my day’s evening visit to my favorite bar to coincide with the 7.00PM BBS News broadcast when I was sure they would rebroadcast the speech. They did – but some irritatingly verbose monks and some dullards completely sozzled out of their minds made so much noise it was impossible to hear my King speak. So I decided to abandon the place and head home and watch the rebroadcast on my own TV, within the comfort of my own home. Bad luck once again - no dang signals!

I got up in the morning of 18th …. Still no signal. I put on the TV again during lunch time ---- still no dang signals.

It turns out that my cable operator had some issues so I wasn’t getting any signals. However, day-before-yesterday late night I finally managed to record my King’s speech - whole of it and verbatim! And it was all worth it.

Since the advent of television in the country, I have unfailingly tried to listen to my King’s National Day address to the nation. For, on this day, He makes the most significant pronouncements, giving His subjects a peek - a hint into the past, the present and the future. In fact what He says on that day gives us a sense of how the nation fares.

His Majesty’s National Day address to the nation on our 111th National Day was as profound as ever - with one distinct exception – what He did NOT say outright was a mouthful.

His Majesty expended close to half His speech on the CIVIL SERVANTS - civil servants - that creed of humanoids who are neither civil, nor servants, as I have said many a times in the past.

From the 30th sentence on, 32 of the total 72 sentences of His Majesty’s speech dwelled on the civil servants.

Significantly, His Majesty’s 30th sentence from whence He begins to draw reference to the civil servants, begins thus:

“During the National Day celebration in 2013, I spoke at length about the important roles and responsibilities of the civil servants. Five years later, I feel that it is an appropriate time to, once again, reflect on the important services provided to the nation by civil servants as a new government takes office and prepares to implement plans of national importance.”

Meaning that the civil service has failed to fulfill their responsibilities and play their roles.

His Majesty’s 60th and 61st sentences that end His discourse on the civil servants has a strong message, as follows:

“If, in the next 10 to 15 years, we achieve all our national objectives, the credit will go to our public servants. However, if we fail, it will mean that the public servants have failed.”

Meaning in all likelihood – the civil service will yet again fail to live up to His Majesty’s expectations.

His Majesty’s sentences from 42nd to the 45th are particularly painful to read. He speaks of the civil servants’ global exposure to differing work cultures, their familiarity with emerging technologies, new ways of doing things - arising out of their countless international travels. His Majesty talks of their extensive travel within the country - that which gives them valuable insights into what ails the country.

His Majesty does not make mention of the fact that the only reason the civil servants vie to make those countless foreign trips are to line their own pockets and not to learn or acquire valuable knowledge so that they may help the country.

His Majesty rolls out a most stunning statistics in His 54th sentence: He informs the nation that for every 13 Bhutanese, there is one civil servant! Imagine!

And yet, in spite of all that human capital, His Majesty is so kind that He does not go so far as to say that our progress, if there has been any, is, at most, dismal. Obviously His Majesty’s inference here is that all these 54,000 public servants are none-serving human capital. But here His Majesty does not fail to point out that all 54,000 of them “are granted salaries and benefits by the state”.

His Majesty also points out that the civil servants must learn to correct past mistakes, be receptive to feedbacks, must not be complacent and indifferent and learn to be accountable. Meaning, they are not all of those.

Interestingly, while His Majesty is drawing references to the civil servants in Samtse on national TV with the greatest of restraint, a friend of mine in the US was thinking of our civil servants too – look what she has to say of them:


A mail from a friend in the US - expressing her sentiments about our civil servants

It is a pity. But I have no hopes that they will improve at all. Their problem is pathological and deep rooted. Their interest is personal and not national. They do not serve the people and the country - they survive solely to serve themselves and their self-interest. If His Majesty were to start hammering them now - in three decades time they might just begin to start to change. What can be said of a group of people who not only do not do their job - they cannot recognize those who do?


Corruption is so rampant and blatant - think of the brazen peddling of the car and duty free quota and you want to puke. ACC knows about it and yet they will do nothing about it.

Today I am not going to point out the mistakes of the civil servants - if I do, it will run into thousands of pages. But I do want to end this post with a prayer to the civil servants: please do not cause so much pain to our King. Leave Him with enough time to do his job - not yours.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Cardamom - Oh No --- Not Again!!!!

Over my Bathu lunch at a restaurant in Kawajangtsa, I chanced upon today’s Kuensel article on the cardamom issue ….. The article says “Govt. to buy back about 380MT of cardamom”. What does that mean? Was the stock of cardamom lying with the farmers sold to them by the government? Otherwise how does it qualify as “buy back”?

Our variety of Cardamoms - Brown Jacket Cardamom - it is also sometimes called Black Cardamom. This is different from the more expensive Green Cardamom grown in Guatemala, India and Sri Lanka. The Arabs use them in tea. Pakistan use to be the country that imported most of our Brown Jacket Cardamoms.

Unknown to almost 99% Bhutanese, Cardamom export trade in the late 70's / early 80's saw some unexpected twist of events - primarily because the RGoB was involved in its purchase and export. By the time I became wise to the game, it was too late and it was impossible to prove any wrong doing.

I am doing this hasty article - immediately upon reading of the proposal - because I know that this is fraught with all kinds of peril. The confusion has already started - beginning with the Kuensel headline.

Question: Does the government have that kind of money? Even at Nu.350.00 per KG that total stock of 350 MT works out as follows:

380 MT x 1,000.00 = 380,000 Kgs
Nu. 350.00 x 380,000.00 Kgs = Nu.133,000,000.00

That is Nu.133.00 million. Do we have this kind of money to dole out?

And do not forget - this is only the price of cardamom. You have to factor in collection and transportation cost to a central point (Phuentsholing), re-bagging, labelling/export marking, stuffing into containers, export documentation at exit point, haulage to port of shipment (Kolkata), freight forwarding charges, stevedoring, ocean freighting to destination, transit insurance, Customs formalities at port of exit, etc. All this will take the cost to over Nu.900.00 per KG.

Next, the contemplated price offer of Nu.350.00 includes Nu.20.00 profit to the farmer. Isn’t it enough that the government is bailing them out? Do the farmers deserve profit, over and above their cost? For what?

The DNT government has to remember that you are dolling out Nu.133.00 million over which other farmers have a claim too - not just the cardamom farmers. This is not fair to other farmers who are buckling under multiple problems - the most serious among them - loss of crop to wildlife predation and the creation of Goongtong - some tell me even Yuetong! Why not compensate these farmers too?

But my concern is not so much about the government dolling out money to a select section of farmers - my worry is lot more complicated and consequential.

I fear that we are all set to repeat the disaster that happened - some four decades back - also cardamom related.

Civil servants went to jail, a substantial number of senior officials lost their jobs, thousands upon thousands of acres of government land was usurped, Finance Ministry's coffers went almost dry and some corrupt government officials made millions. One Indian trading firm made hundreds of millions from the well intended but mismanaged good intention. Worst of all, for the first and last time, Bhutan saw the nationalization of private property. Thousands of acres of forest was devastated - all because of cardamom.

If the Royal Government of Bhutan and Ministry of Agriculture is seriously considering taking over the cardamom stock from the farmers for export, I would like to advice that they should consider the perils associated with such a move very, very seriously - before they embark on it. Only yesterday I was telling 3 friends about the sordid affair that was the cardamom trade.

I suggest that a detailed discussion be held - between the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Economic Affairs and all other agencies that will be involved in this misadventure. Having headed the export section of the Ministry of Trade, Industry & Forests in the late 70’s and early 80’s, and having been involved in the business for the entire duration of Bhutan’s cardamom trade with third countries, I can offer some pointers on how NOT TO BE DUPED, once again. Trust me, the country will end up paying three times more than Nu.350.00 per KG!

Remember, as Samuel Johnson said; “Hell is paved with good intentions.”

PS:
I re-read the Kuensel article once again - after going out to buy a copy of the paper. There appears to be some kind of unfounded urgency to buy off the stock of cardamom from the farmers - "within this month itself" - according to the paper. Why? Please remember - there is no rush. Cardamom is not a perishable commodity - its shelf life runs into decades. Before doing anything in haste, it is important to work out the modalities of purchase and take over, if the government really must.

One idea: Why buy? The Royal Government of Bhutan is not a cardamom trader. Instead, why not act as a facilitator? This could be more beneficial to the farmers over the long haul.


Also, this is huge sum of money - can it be just decided between the Ministries of Agriculture and Finance? Does it not require Parliamentary approval - to incur such huge expenditure that is not within the plan?

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Latest Humanitarian Service Project By The Rotary Club of Thimphu

A friend who flew in from Bangkok with a horde of Taiwanese - all 82 of them - was clueless that she was in august company. She grumbled that the chatter was deafening to the point that she got a headache from it all. Alas, if only she knew that amidst the din and cacophony of the high-spirited Taiwanese sat an unassuming, prim and proper Rtn. Gary C K Huang, Past Rotary International President and Foundation Chair of The Rotary Foundation - world’s biggest and most philanthropic public benefit organization.


Past Rotary International President (2014 - 2015) Gary CK Huang from Taiwan, with First Lady posing at the Clock Tower in Thimphu during Handing/Taking over ceremony on 12.12.2018

A total of 89 Taiwanese - majority of them Rotarians from Rotary International District 3461, Taiwan were in Bhutan to coincide with the handing over ceremony of the Rotary Club of Thimphu’s biggest humanitarian project yet. Under a Global Grant from the Rotary Foundation, the Rotary Club of Thimphu partnered with the Rotary Club of Taichung East, Taiwan to donate Nu.10 million worth of Laser equipment and associated accessories, to the JDWNRH. The laser will be used by the hospital’s Cancer Department to treat head and neck cancer patients.

This state of the art equipment is the first of its kind in Bhutan.


Rotary Club of Thimphu donates over Nu.10.00 million worth of medical equipment to the Cancer Department of JDWNRH on 12.12.2018


The AcuPulse CO2 Laser Surgery machine

This is the second time that Taiwan Rotary Clubs are donating to Bhutan. In 2013 two Rotary Clubs in Taiwan partnered with the Rotary Club of Thimphu to donate 2 garbage dump trucks, to the Thimphu City Corporation. And, this will not be the last.


Chief Guest Her Excellency Dechen Wangmo, Minister for Health flanked by the P.R.I.P. Gary CK Huang and District Governor of Rotary International District 3461, Taiwan


The District Governor of Rotary International District 3461, Taiwan, International Service Director and Club President of Rotary Club of Taichung East, Taiwan handing over AcuPulse CO2 Laser & Sinus Instrument user manuals to Mr. Tashi Phuntsho, ADM Officer of the JDWNRH

Before the end of the Rotary Year 2018 - 2019 (end June 2019), Rotary Club of Taichung East and Rotary Club of Thimphu will once again partner to donate another substantial medical equipment - this time a high tech microsurgery microscope costing over Nu.7.00 million. In the next few weeks, I will start to hammer out the few remaining kinks in the Project Proposal for submission to the Rotary Foundation.

It is said that health is the most enduring wealth. If that is true, the Bhutanese people are surely headed for a very wealthy life - all thanks to the spirit of giving of the global network of close to 1.3 million Rotarians spread over 220 countries around the world.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Respite For A While From The Haze Of The Hazelnut

This is the 8th in my series of articles on Bhutan’s hazelnut project. I have time and again accepted that the project is meaningful, impactful and transformative. It is the biggest thing that has happened in Bhutan. If I have been consumed by an irrepressible urge to write so much about this project, it has been because I am convinced that the project needs to be saved, if something is going wrong, as it is perceived to be.

In a world and at a time when truth is regularly distorted to construct perceptions to suite one’s own purposes - with the intention to either mislead or to deliberately misinform, it is important to be vigilant about what one believes. Because truth is not always what it is put out to be.

It is the pursuit of truth that has got me thus far - but what I have heard is based on the truth that is in the public perception. But is it really the truth? The authorities must now step in to find out. An investigation to set things right is now in order.

And, in the name of fair play, it is only correct that the project authorities have the opportunity to tell me their side of the truth. I am waiting. I will begin to write once again once the project people tell me their side of the story.

This project impacts at a national level. If there is something going wrong, the government must step in and rectify the wrong. If the project people have been found to be negligent in their responsibilities to the thousands of farmers who placed their faith in them, it should be pointed out and ascertained as to how they are going to remedy the wrongs.

But the first step would be to remove that veil of secrecy. The perception is that anything done in secrecy - there can be nothing good about it.

Prime example of things done in total secrecy and going horribly wrong: our recent hydropower projects.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Aum Rinsy Dem Is No More

I heard of the sad demise of Aum Rinsy Dem, wife of Lyonchen Jigme Yoezer Thinley, the day it happened in Bangkok, Thailand. I couldn’t believe it - so I called up one of her relatives and asked; “Is it true?”

The answer: “Yes”


The first time I met Aum Rinsy Dem was in 1978 when she came by my office in Phuentsholing. I think she had just finished her graduation. I vividly remember that she had accompanied her aunt, Aum Shekhar. I was then on deputation from the government to the  private sector PPSF, Bhutan’s only factory then and since, producing textile shuttlecocks and pencil slats, out of Acer and Juniper wood.

As time went by she matured into a fine lady of class and elegance, with the bearings of a first lady. I remember her as an extremely gifted orator, a skill rivaled only by her husband.

One of the last times I met her was on 3rd March, 2010, when I went to photograph her husband, then the Prime Minister of Bhutan. Although extremely coy and shy in the presence of her husband of close to 30 years, she still insisted that she be photographed with her husband.

After the photo session, we went into her kitchen - where she served me thukpa.

May her soul rest in peace, and may God give her husband the strength to live out the loss and agony of life without her by his side.

The Hazelnut Project Mystery: What Must Come first - Trees Or Fruits

Lured by the intergenerational glitter promised by the dream merchants, thousands upon thousands of farmers across the country abandoned agriculture production in preference to planting hazelnut trees. By no means I am saying that they did something wrong - they did exactly what they were told is in their best interest. Even in the land of GNH, the pursuit of economic gain is at the core of every individual’s endeavor. As I keep reminding every body, we are as unique as everyone else.

This is not to say that the hazelnut project is not good. On the contrary, there are some who believe that this is the “biggest idea” that has come to Bhutan. I too agree! And, it is precisely for this reason that I find it unforgivable that a project this meaningful and transformative has been, as if consciously, allowed to be headed for ruin and destruction.

Hazelnut trees and fruits are not endemic to Bhutan. The Bhutanese people were clueless as to how it grows, when it fruits - they did not even know how the trees or the fruits looked like. And yet the naïve farmers went headlong into the enterprise - based solely on the words and assurances given by the project promoters and their representatives. The fact that the government encouraged and gave its tacit approval further encouraged the farmers into indiscriminate planting of a tree with which they neither had prior experience nor familiarity.

The project people weaned away droves of farmers from their traditional agriculture farm work and goaded them into hazelnut plantation. That is fine - as I said in my earlier post - it was their choice to make.

What is not fine is: WHY DIDN’T THE PROJECT STOP PLANTING FURTHER?

From the initial 6 Dzongkhags (Districts), the project began to invade the rest of the 14 Dzongkhags, even while their trees remained barren of fruits, years past their fruiting age. In the face of the ongoing failure, why did they not stop bringing more and more farmers and farmland into hazelnut plantation?

Why didn’t they direct their energies and funds, in trying to find a solution to the ongoing problem, knowing full well that their inaction would imperil thousands of farmers across the country - farmers to whom they had made promises of riches?

What exactly is the mystery behind embarking on a ceaseless drive to bring more and more farmers and farmlands into new plantations? Does the success of the project hinge on the number of trees planted, rather than on the amount of yield they produced? Is profit accrued to the project - from the number of trees planted rather than the amount of nuts the trees produced, and sold?

Why else would the project focus on planting, rather than on fruiting?

There is a mystery here - a mystery that needs unraveling!

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Hazelnut Project: More Questions Than Answers

The controversy marred hazelnut project has thrown up a slew of questions, in the aftermath of the ongoing search for a solution to the none-pollenating problem in the hazelnut plantations across the country. Principal among the questions being asked are:

a.  Is planting of hazelnut trees a gainful endeavor for the farmers?
b.  Are the farmers getting a fair price?
c.  How does economic return from hazelnuts compare with those of other crops?

In my conversations with many people on the subject, the above questions get asked, repeatedly. While these questions may be relevant strictly from the academic point of view, to me, they are milk on the floor.

Unless the farmers have been coerced or made to sign on the dotted lines under duress, the project promoters cannot be held responsible for decisions that the farmers made consciously and with their eyes wide open. If the farmers have chosen to plant the hazelnut trees on their land, they had every right to make that decision. If the price offered to the farmers was acceptable to them, they had the right to do so. Unless the farmers were mislead with falsehood and premeditated intention to dupe them, the project cannot be held responsible.

I also do not agree that the project should be held responsible - for delayed fruiting of the trees. In nature nothing is certain. It is not an exact science - the very best of planning can go wrong. The farmers have entered into a commercial transection and they have signed a contractual agreement with the project. Unless the terms of the agreement spell out that the project should compensate them for delayed fruiting, for whatever reason, they have to be prepared to accept the unwritten force majeure clause - the project should be indemnified of all responsibilities - for any act of God.

Not only that, this project is funded in large part by responsible and respectable organizations such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB), World Bank (IFC) and Global Agriculture & Food Security Program (GAFSP). Unless this is a case of dereliction of duty, doubtless these organizations would have, collectively or individually, exercised rigorous stewardship over the project’s implementation and its progress.

Having said all that, I do have a number of issues with the project -principal among them are the following three:

~ Why did the project take nearly a decade to act? Why was the problem allowed to fester for so long?
   Is there an element of irresponsibility in the project's inaction?

~ How did it happen that the project was allowed to deviate from the MoU - of using only barren
   and degraded land? Why was prime agriculture land, in some cases irrigated land, allowed to be used for
   planting the hazelnut trees?

~ Who authorized the use of fertilizers and pesticides in the plantations, when the country's stated policy is 
    to achieve 100% organic farming?

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

None-Pollenating Hazelnut Trees: Search Is On For a Solution

Ten years since the hazelnut plantation started in the East of the country, there has barely been any fruiting. Thousands of farmers in all the 20 Dzongkhags (Districts) have been engaged in planting hazelnut trees - covering thousands upon thousands of acres of land - in some cases fertile agriculture land, including irrigation land.

While the push to bring more and more land into hazelnut plantation has been relentless and hugely successful, year after year the trees remained fruitless. What is admirable is that in the face of such miserable failure, the project promoters remained steadfast and unrelenting - their plantation coverage ranged from 400 Mtrs. to all the way to 3,000 Mtrs. They remained resolute, regardless of the fact that the trees were not fruiting. It is as if they were consumed by an insatiable hunger to plant more and more trees, almost verging on the insane. The fact that there was no yield did not seem to bother them.

One has to admire the dedication of the project promoters. In the face of mounting failure and losses, they kept on. But there is only so much that one can take - at some point one has to wake up to the reality that something is not quite right. Rightly, at long last the project realized that there is something wrong and that a solution to the decade long problem needs a solution. They now began to look for answers and solutions.

One solution they are said to be looking at is: importing of pollenizer saplings. This is a possibility - but it has two problems:

One, the saplings will start to flower only after the third year of planting – without flowers they will not produce pollens. Thus, they do not solve the problem of few thousand acres of plantations that are currently host to few million hazelnut trees aged anywhere from few days to 10 years. Even then, we can still not be sure that the imported pollenizers will be the right variety that will work.

Two, importing saplings may not be permitted in terms of the MoU that is untraceable for scrutiny. Given the numbers that were envisaged, I doubt that import of saplings by the millions would have been allowed. In addition, the NPPC and the BAFRA may not have the human resource – or even the technical capability - to undertake random sampling of the saplings, for pests and plant diseases, when they arrive Bhutan. It would be suicidal to allow import of plant saplings, without ensuring that they undergo rigorous phytosanitary determination. Do we have the competence to undertake the tests necessary? Do we have the storage facility, if quarantine is called for?

In-country grafting from few of the successful pollenizer trees is said to be a possibility - but I have not heard of this route being considered by the project. It will be a slow process - but a lot safer and less expensive process.

Whatever solution is considered, the government has to step in and take the leadership, since national interest is at stake. If import of saplings is the only workable solution, we need to allow it - but under very, very controlled conditions because the last thing we need are alien pests and diseases to be introduced, merely to protect one solitary project.

While we must look for a solution in right earnest, and help the promoters find a solution, we have to also ensure that neither the stick should break, nor the snake must die.

That being that, the next question that begs asking is: What do the clueless farmers do, under the circumstance?

Monday, November 26, 2018

Know your Hazelnut Project

The principal promoter of hazelnut project in Bhutan - the Mountain Hazelnut Venture (MHV) - is targeting a sum total of some eleven million hazelnut trees by the time they are done with the project. But this epic horticulture fortune has unexpectedly hit a snag. Hitting snags is nothing uncommon in business ventures, whether big or small. No one has monopoly over success - the very best planned and financed ventures are subject to failure.

It is not the fear of failure that is bothering me - it is the scale of failure that is scary. It is the typical nonchalance of the Bhutanese people, despite the looming tragedy, that is driving me into a state of delirium. Some of the players in this venture may not survive the impact that will be brought to bear on them.

The sheer size of the operation scares me. Let us look at the numbers.

11,000,000 No. of trees that will be planted
37,000          Total acreage (land area) to be covered by the plantations
15,000          Smallholder farmers spread over all 20 Dzongkhags
60,000          No. of rural Bhutanese who will be impacted
8%                Percentage of national population that could be affected

The trial plantation of hazelnut trees in Bhutan began in October 2008 in Rangzhikhar village, Trashigang. The project promoters had claimed that the trees would start to fruit within three years of plantation, and the farmers’ pockets would be lined with bundles of cash. Ten years hence, the trees show no sign of fruiting and the farmers’ pockets remain unfilled.

The problem is said to be poor or no pollination. It is believed that for some strange reason, this problem is the result of a mismatch in timing - the crucial pollen-shedding period not occurring when the female blossoms are at its most receptive.

Hazelnut trees are monoecious - both the male and female flowers grow on the same tree. However, they are self-incompatible. In other words, to bear nuts, it needs to cross-pollinate. The project has planted pollenizers in the plantations but for some unknown reason the pollination has not occurred. Meaning, the pollenizers are the wrong variety.

This is a disaster. From all accounts, the project is looking at solving the problem but I fear that they took too long to look for solutions. They should have acted earlier – in my view on the fifth year of plantation, at the latest. They should have been alerted to the problem sooner.

But now the hunt is on for a solution to the problem.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Is Our Hazelnut Project Going Nutty?

As mentioned in my earlier post on hazelnut project, this project is a transformative project that has the potential to change lives for thousands of farmers. From accounts related to me, poor farmers in the East benefited immensely - they have been able to afford new Ghos and Kiras for themselves, and new shoes and gumboots for their children. Some of them earned enough to be able to send their children to far flung schools and colleges.

But a decade since it all began, the latent element of Mr. Hyde in the splendid Dr. Jekyll has now begun to rear its ugly head. The project is currently marred in controversy and a whole lot of people are expressing disgust and displeasure at the way things are going. A number of branches of the government, regulatory authorities, heads of local governments and farmers are expressing annoyance at the way things have turned out.

Clearly we have now entered a phase that could spell disaster for the dream project that is the hazelnut project. Before the problem goes out of hand, there is a need to take a hard look at what ails the project. Let us look at what are the charges that is drawing so much bad press against the project. To begin with, let us start with the five or six most serious accusations - we will deal with others, later.

1.  Secretive nature of the project:
It all starts at the start - people accuse that the project was started in great secrecy. That it is shrouded in mystery. No one seems to know who signed the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) - some even say that the MoU is untraceable. No one seems to know the basis of the fixation of the floor price for the crop etc. People are clueless about the terms and conditions of the MoU.

2.  Even after seven years, farmers have not earned anything from their plantations:
The promised income has remained an illusion – farmers have not seen any income. The incredible potential profits have remained just that: incredible, as in fictional – no different from the incredible profits that were supposed to accrue to Bhutan from hydropower. The earnings mentioned earlier above accrued to the farmers not from the harvest of hazelnuts, but from working as labor hands in the project’s nurseries.

3.  Environmental pollution & threat of introduced pests and diseases:
The project is accused of being in conflict with the national policy of 100% organic farming. The project is said to be distributing synthetic fertilizers and harmful chemical pesticides to the farmers. There is also fear that imported pollenizer saplings could introduce alien pests and plant diseases. Although a system of random sampling of the saplings is being worked out, authorities fear that this is not a foolproof system. Quarantine requirement for imported saplings is also said to be resisted by the project authorities, which is understandable given the risks involved, but that is not an option.

4.  The project is in deviance to its stated objective of using only barren and degraded land:
The project is also accused of infringing into prime agriculture land. From what little is known of the MoU, it is said that only degraded and barren land would be allowed to be used for planting the hazelnuts. Incidences have been reported where hazelnut trees have been planted in irrigated lands, including farmlands.

5.  The myth about hazelnut plants growing on barren and degraded soil:
There is strong disagreement among many that hazelnuts will grow on infertile land. The prevalent view is that profitable commercial hazelnut plantation requires fertile soil.

6.  Need for a proper cost benefit analysis
There is serious concern that the economic returns to the farmers from planting the hazelnut needs re-calculation. Most believe that the picture is not as rosy as it has been painted – far from it. Those who have a grasp of it believe that it is a total loss.

A slew of perplexing questions are doing the rounds. It is beyond doubt that there is a serious problem with the project. But there is always a solution to any problem. I hope that the project authorities and the government, in particular the Ministry of Agriculture and the concerned departments within it, will work towards solving the problem. It is important to save this very important project. Nothing this big has ever been attempted before. If this succeeds, the success will be stupendous. By the same token, if it fails, tens of thousands of farmers will end up clutching the fruitless hazelnut trees.

The pointed questions that are being asked are: why has the problem not been reported for the past many years? What was the Ministry of Agriculture doing? What was the Department of Agriculture doing? What were the Agriculture Extension Officers doing? What were the Dzongkhags (Districts) and Dzongdas  (District Governors) doing?

When the initial 6 Dzongkhags where the plantations were piloted failed to report fruiting for the past many years, why was the plantation allowed to proliferate to rest of the 14 Dzongkhags?

Hard questions, but they will need to be answered.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Is Something Going Nutty With Our Hazelnut Project?

It appears that in recent times, Bhutan’s biggest horticulture based FDI project - the hazelnut project that was started over a decade back in the East of the country, has run into rough waters. This is a big bucks project initiated by the privately owned Mountain Hazelnut Venture Private Limited (MHV). One Asian Development Bank project document describes Mountain Hazelnut Venture Private Limited thus:

“Mountain Hazelnut Venture Private Limited (MHVL) is a privately owned company engaged in promoting hazelnut production by smallholder farmers in Bhutan. MHV is 100% owned by Mountain Hazelnut Venture Limited (MHVL), a Hong Kong, China company, which is 100% owned by MHGL, a British Virgin Islands company. MHV, MHVL, and MHGL together form the Mountain Hazelnuts Group (MHG).”

Very complicated parentage indeed.

As I said, this project is a big bucks project. To date, gathered from information available in the public domain, funding is said to be as follows:

Asian Development Bank                                      3.00
International Finance Corporation                         3.00
Sponsors and existing investors                             1.80
Global Agriculture and Food Security Program 6.00
Internally generated cash                                       1.00
TOTAL                                             US$ 14.8 million

Additionally, the Government of Canada is supposed to have made a grant of US$1.3 million - “to help the participating Bhutanese farmers adopt climate-resilient production techniques”, including US$0.20 million from Government of Sweden, “to support the inclusion of poor farmers and women in the value chain”.

According to one very levelheaded Bhutanese, this is a “big idea” project that Bhutan needs. I certainly agree. Look at the promised benefits:

The project targets 15,000 farmers, mostly in the poor Eastern region of the country;

The project is already the single largest employer of rural Bhutanese population – close to a 1,000;

The foreign exchange earning from the export of hazelnut yield, when the targeted eleven million trees start fruiting, will be phenomenal;

The project will use degraded and barren land that is not productive as agriculture land;

The income derived from hazelnut plantation will entirely be incremental to the farmers’ existing income, while not replacing crops that are traditionally planted in the household farmlands;

So, with all these positive aspects to the project, why has this project drawn so much attention in recent times and why are some people so passionately opposed to it? What is the real reason behind such vehement protestations, to the point that some people don’t even want to discuss the subject?

But discuss we must, because this project is too important to be allowed to go awry. It is a rare “big idea” project that has come to Bhutan and it could benefit thousands of poor farmers. It is the responsibility of every single Bhutanese to ensure that we allow this project to succeed.

If mistakes have been made, we must have the courage and humility to accept and correct them. If the project has deviated from its initial promises, we have to point them out and make sure that the project promoters stand by their promises, and remain on track.

Above all, we have to make sure that the project promoters make money so that they remain interested. The farmers must make money because they have been promised that their income would be doubled, through the plantation of the hazelnuts in their degraded and barren lands.

But in our quest to reap benefits all around, we must also be wary of the means we employ to achieve the end. It is here that we must remain vigilant.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

A Bhutanese among 100 most influential women of 2018

As of writing this post (Thursday, November 22, 2018 10:26 AM) the world population stands at 7,658,811,110. Of this total, female population stands at 3,795,646,969.

Now tell me - what does it take to be named one among 100 most influential women of the year, from among 3,795,646,969 women?

It takes someone like Dr. Tashi Zangmo of Bhutan Nuns Foundation. That is correct - she has been named as one among the 100 most influential women of 2018!

Dr. Tashi Zangmo - Photo from http://www.bhutannuns.org/mud-house-for-nuns/

And, I am one proud Bhutanese - among 735,600++ - who is privileged to know Dr. Tashi personally. I had known her since the time she was working in the Ministry of Agriculture - few decades back.

She does Bhutan proud. I have, few minutes back, offered her my CONGRATULATIONS, which she richly deserves!

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

There Is Nothing Nutty About Hazelnut

In May of 2016, a Copenhagen based freelance multimedia journalist named James Clasper authored an article titled “The nutty solution to Bhutan’s deforestation problem”. This article dwells on Bhutan’s only large-scale horticulture venture, started by Mountain Hazelnut, some ten years back.

The hazelnut project is currently marred in controversy. The pollination problem that the project has encountered and the contemplated solution to solving this problem, is causing some serious concerns. In the process, a host of issues are coming to the fore - some perceived, some real. I fear that this issue is unlikely to die down quietly anytime soon - but I am not going to pass a judgment on it, not yet.

Through this post I wish to point out that it is not correct that hazelnut plantation was introduced into the country because Bhutan faced the problem of deforestation. On the contrary, the overarching consideration in allowing this project was that plantations would take place on degraded and barren lands.

Deforestation is not a problem in Bhutan, far from it. On the contrary, one of the very few thinking Bhutanese whom I respect hugely is of the view that Bhutan is over-forested! I completely agree. The economic loss as a consequence and the environmental disaster that this situation could cause needs to be examined carefully - and remedial actions taken to mitigate the fallout from our tendency to be irrationally obstinate about what constitutes environmental conservation. I fear that we Bhutanese have very poor understanding of what conservation is all about.

Our antiquated wildlife conservation acts and rules have already caused a catastrophe that has come to be known as Goongtong. Goongtong is a disaster for the country - but now I fear that this problem is all set to usher in an even more devastating tragedy.

Slowly but surely Goongtong is legitimizing the plantation of cash crops such as cardamoms and hazelnuts, in prime agriculture land. The argument being put foreword is that there are no young and energetic farm hands to do agriculture work anyway – thus if planting these cash crops can bring in some income, however meager, it is still useful.

The question that begs asking is: is agriculture and farming doomed in the land of GNH?