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

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?

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Bhutan In Dire Need Of One Rajendra Singh

Dr. Rajendra Singh, more popularly known as the “Waterman of India” is an outstanding Ramon Magsaysay Award winning water conservationist from India who trained as an Ayurvedic doctor, only to resign and start an NGO called Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS). He and his NGO TBS has built close to 12,000 johads - large community owned dams/reservoirs made of earth and rocks. The johad concept dates back to 1500 BC that helps to hold runoff from monsoon rains which go on to help water percolate into the ground, thereby improving the water table. Through severe draining of groundwater, the Indian state of Rajasthan started to experience crop failures, rivers began to dry up, forests and wildlife disappeared and people abandoned farm work and migrated to urban centers.

Dr. Rajendra Singh’s pioneering work helped rejuvenate dried up wells and rivers across hundreds of villages in Alwar District of Rajasthan, India. In Alwar, water problem is now history.

Photograph of Dr. Rajendra Singh by Mullookkaaran available at

Dr. Rajendra Singh believes that water will be the cause for the World War III.

But it is not his belief, or the consequences therefrom, that causes me to write about him. It is not even the need to replicate his work in Bhutan, that provokes me to draw attention to his pioneering work. It is the other impact that his work has had on the villages of Alwar, Rajasthan:

Reverse migration!

As a result of rivers getting rejuvenated and dried up wells getting refilled with percolated rainwater, youth who had migrated to urban centers began to return to their villages to take up farming and farm work. Parched and fallow agriculture lands began to be filled with greenery. There hasn’t been drought or flooding in Alwar region for the past many years.

Bhutan too is in dire need of one Dr. Rajendra Singh!

No, not to build johads on our hilltops - but to represent poor rural Bhutanese farmers’ interest in the two law making bodies of the Bhutanese Parliament. We need one Dr. Rajendra Singh to bring some semblance of rationality in our wildlife conservation Acts and laws. In the last 10 years since democracy, not one of the seventy two sitting Parliamentarians have cared to address the issues arising out of the disparate nature of our conservation laws.

Year after year, the incidence of Goongtong is on the rise; villages are emptied of young farm hands, farm lands are left fallow; agriculture production is falling; urban centers are getting clogged with economic migrants from rural villages. City dwellers are turned into paupers - in supporting the influx of migrating rural relatives.
Goongtong: Deserted rural homes and fallow agriculture land - farmers surrender to the onslaught of wildlife predation and migrate to urban centers, to seek out alternate life and livelihood.

We need one Dr. Rajendra Singh to help rationalize our outdated conservation laws. We need one Dr. Rajendra Singh to tell the lawmakers that conservation is not about giving primacy to the wild animals, over human animals. We need one Dr. Rajendra Singh to tell the lawmakers that conservation will ultimately suffer if it favors one specie over others because a law that is shorn of equilibrium will espouse retaliatory action from the victimized species.
Farmers resort to employing stuffed synthetic tigers from China - to keep guard over their plantation - while they try to get some rest and sleep from a gruelling day's work.

We need one Dr. Rajendra Singh to urgently do something to try and halt the rural-urban migration. We need one Dr. Rajendra Singh to start our own process of reverse migration, before the exercise becomes too expensive.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Sounding The Hydropower Projects' Death Knell

It has been four long years; it has taken 54 blistering articles at an average of over one article a month! I was the lone crusader ranting away like a man possessed - lamenting at the destruction that continues to be caused by a disaster named “hydropower”.

The deafening silence from the powers that be, in the face of my relentless unraveling of the many ills associated with Bhutan’s hydropower projects, would have discouraged the most zealous of Judean zealots. And yet, I never faltered - I kept on unabated. And now it seems like I can finally take a break - it appears that the moment of awakening is upon us. Look at what TheBhutanese reported in their paper of 10th November, 2018:

For the record, I am not against hydropower - I have never been. I was, and am, against the manner in which they have been done in recent times. I am fully cognizant of the huge potential that hydropower offers Bhutan. Sadly all that we have managed to do so far is turn this potential into a tool of economic bondage and financial enslavement.

I am glad that finally the realization has dawned upon us.

I am also glad that 2 out of 6 of our River Basins will be kept free of hydropower projects: Chamkharchu and Amochu River Basins. You may recall that I had petitioned on keeping Chamkharchu free of hydropower dams and free-flowing.

I do not really care about Amochu - in fact I think we should go ahead and do Amochu hydropower project. From my point of view, Amochu hydropower project would be the most profitable, and environmentally least destructive - but I think I know why it won't be done. And I respect that. I also agree that we should do the Sunkosh project.

I salute the Hydropower Committee Members - whoever they are - who have made the recommendations to go slow and smart on hydropower projects and for asking that two of our River Basins be kept free of hydropower projects. It is about time! Posterity will record them as heroes and future generations of Bhutanese will remember them fondly for their service to the nation.

Obeisance be to His Majesty the King.

Thank you!

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Bhutan Gets A Brand New Set Of Cabinet Members

The madness is behind us - elections are over and we now have a brand new set of Cabinet Members. They may not be the leaders some of us chose - but from here on, they will lead us and our lives will be intrinsically linked to what they do and how they do them.

We know that they will fall far short of their campaign promises. In truth none of us really expect them to live up to every one of their promises. I as a citizen will be happy if they achieve even 30% of their promises. And, in the hope that they will work hard and sincerely at achieving those 30% of their promises, I offer them my CONGRATULATIONS and wish them BEST OF LUCK.

Photograph courtesy of BBS

Prime Minister: Dr. Lotay Tshering
Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs: Dasho Sherub Gyeltshen
Ministry of Agriculture & Forests: Yeshey Penjor
Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Dr. Tandi Dorji
Ministry of Economic Affairs: Loknath Sharma
Ministry of Information & Communications: Karma Donnen Wangdi
Ministry of Education: Jai Bir Rai
Ministry of Health: Dechen Wangmo
Ministry of Finance: Namgay Tshering
Ministry of Works & Human Settlement: Dorji Tshering
Ministry of Labour & Human Resources: Ugyen Dorji

While the new Cabinet Members and their team prepare to take on the task of governance, I would like to submit my very short wish list - just four simple and achievable ones. I most earnestly urge the new government to focus on the following:

For Bhutan Tourism is the most important industry - 10 times more important than hydropower. Thus, first on my wish list is TOURISM. Its benefit reaches every spectrum of Bhutanese society – the government, airline industry, hoteliers, restaurateurs, waiters, laundry man, the carvers and the weavers, the painters, pony drivers, guides, cooks, vegetable seller, vehicle owners, tour operators, taxi owners ---- the list is endless. We need the government to get serious with this sector. Please invest some time and money to keep this sector on track.

We have phenomenal climatic variation and our staggering altitudinal range is unmatched - from 97 Mtrs. at the lowest point to 7,570 Mtrs. at the highest point. Our water resources are among the highest in the world. These natural endowments create ideal conditions for agriculture production. Despite all that, only 5.5% of our land is under agriculture. Energize this sector and reverse rural-urban migration - help eliminate Goongtongs. Make us food self-sufficient and, if possible, let us make agriculture produce as one of our exportable surpluses.

We need the government to turn Bhutan into an energy self-sufficient state. We already are! But something is amiss somewhere. Why are the citizens of a country that produces so much hydro-electricity, required to queue up at the fuel station for hours and hours, trying to buy imported energy? Why is our own electricity out of the reach of the common people? Why are we importing billions of Ngultrums worth of LPG and kerosene, when we produce hundreds of billions of units of hydro-electricity, in the process depleting Rupee reserve, and causing harm to the environment?

Why are we exporting hydro-electricity at more than two times lower the price than that charged to Bhutanese domestic consumers? Why is the government persistently fixing electricity rates at a level that is higher than the imported kerosene and LPG? What is the reason behind making our own electricity unaffordable as an energy source?

Please unravel the mystery of the mathematics behind electricity tariff fixation for domestic consumption.

We have done enough of the talk about being the champion of environmental conservation, about being a carbon negative country. Now lets dispense with the rhetoric and get down to walking the talk. Stop environmental disasters such as Shingkhar-Gorgan road. The construction of the West-East highway was a disaster to begin with - environmentally and financially. It has already caused a serious dip in the arrivals of dollar paying tourists. My heart bleeds at the thought of how we are going to be able to maintain such a behemoth of a road, once built. Please do not ever contemplate projects with such colossal environmental destruction.

Here is wishing all the best to the DNT government. May you bring the change you promised - for the better.