High stakes in the highlands
In Bhutan, collection of ‘fungus gold’ generates both cash and controversy.
Unlike in previous years, the auction for the highly sought after fungus known as cordyceps sinensis, or Yartsa Guenboob – known to have medical and aphrodisiac properties – held in Dzongkha, Bhutan's western district of Gasa, was not a cause for joy. Overall collection in 2015 declined sharply to a total of 231 kilograms, and returns were significantly lower than in earlier auctions, where prices went as high as BTN 1.3 million (USD 19188) per kg. Fewer collectors participated, and many went home disappointed.
Official records indicate that 671 kg cordyceps, worth about BTN 469 million (USD 6.92 million), was auctioned in 2014, making it the highest quantity auctioned since cordyceps collection was legalised by Royal Decree in 2004. As the cordyceps fungus has been in major demand in the international market, the price routinely increases every year. However, in 2015, a significant downturn in terms of both growth and quality of cordyceps was witnessed, according to Gyeltshen, a forestry official monitoring the auction in Gasa.
In Wangdue Phodrang district, Namgay Dorji, a cordyceps collector, expressed concern that his collection would not earn more than BTN 32,500 (USD 480). After spending a month in the mountain and hill areas, carrying food on his back, Dorji managed to collect only 50 pieces of cordyceps, while his wife picked around 40 pieces. But Dorji remained optimistic that the next collection season would be better, and placed the blame on unauthorised collectors and encroachers for the decline in quantity and low quality of cordyceps. The couple usually earn around BTN 200,000 to 300,000 (USD 2952 – 4428) per year from cordyceps collection, making it the largest source of income for their family of five.
With the increase in the number of collectors and smugglers, many like Dorji believe a proper boundary survey and stricter rules are greatly needed. Illicit collectors tend to be less concerned about maintaining the environment when picking cordyceps, and this can have detrimental effects. Recently, park officials accompanying local highlanders from Sephu and Dangchu caught groups of undocumented collectors, seized their cordyceps collections and forced them to pay fines. Dorji says that these collectors usually work in groups of seven to ten, encroaching in districts across the highland boundary and pick cordyceps without the required collection permits.
Collectors from Dangchu gewog (a group of five to 15 villages in a district) in Wangdue district said they do not face a boundary issue with neighbouring villages, but do face problems with people from Kashi gewog and districts like Gasa, particularly Lunana gewog.
Similarly, people in Lunana gewog of Gasa district point to encroachment of their boundary areas by people from Dangchu. In 2014, more than 100 people from Dangchu gewog were caught collecting cordyceps in Lunana gewog. Although encroachment is not a new phenomenon among people in neighbouring villages or districts, when it comes to cordcyeps and the money involved, people start taking notice.
On the practice of encroaching other boundary areas, collectors in Dangchu pointed out that it is relatively common phenomenon, and that people from other districts, especially in the east, were spotted collecting in their highland areas despite not having permits. The issue escalated into a broader debate on boundary concerns in the tshogdus, or local councils, of Gasa and Wangdue districts, and was even discussed in local meetings within the context of conducting boundary surveys. After the issue was taken up by the office of the Home Minister Damchoe Dorji, who met with local leaders and dzongkhag officials on two occasions, the immediate conflict was resolved. The internal boundary issue is listed as a point of discussion at district and national Parliament meetings. Collectors believe that if it cannot be resolved in a comprehensive manner soon, the problem will only worsen.
Dangchu's local leaders believe that the land resurvey conducted in 2012 and 2013 indicated that the traditionally claimed boundaries had been divided in a contradictory way. The initial internal boundary survey, according to a local leader Sonam Dorji, was undertaken in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but some people living in the villages at that time do not have any recollection of the survey being conducted. The view that a new boundary survey should be conducted is commonly held in highland areas. Villagers believe the current map shows a boundary that is at odds with their claims and generational knowledge.
The National Land Commission of Bhutan is the highest authority on internal boundary demarcation and reserves the right to conduct land surveys. While the Election Commission also demarcates boundaries for election purposes, it does so by following the lead of the land commission. In 2008, when the country began its transition to democracy, a new internal boundary demarcation was initiated, but this exercise was met with disapproval among the population as they believed lines had been arbitrarily drawn using Google maps. Concerns were raised by both local leaders and citizens during public meetings and local council sessions. Land commission officials have made it clear that further efforts to resurvey internal boundaries to deal with the conflicts that have arisen, especially with respect to cordyceps collection, would require approval in Parliament.
According to local leaders, boundary delineation only became a major issue after the 2004 legalisation of cordyceps collection. Before legalisation, while most people refrained from engaging in boundary claims, it was a salient concern for highlanders involved in rearing yaks and horses. The general standpoint, though, was that having more boundaries would result in more responsibilities. For example, if a high-level guest plans a visit to a community, people would be required to contribute labour to clear roads, cut grass and carry loads. Now, boundary claims have taken on greater significance due to the simple fact that claiming more area has the potential to increase cordyceps collection.
In addition to the boundary issue, another cause for concern among local leaders and citizens is that of collection permits, particularly considering the growing number of collectors every year. According to Gyem Dorji, a local leader from Gasa district, the number of collectors has gone up from less than 1000 to up to 3000. At the same time, overall cordyceps growth fluctuates from year to year, and there are variations depending on the area. So, if an area in a district experiences good growth one year, it is likely that a different mountain area and district will experience a similar growth in the future.
Sonam Dorji from Wangdue district said that to avoid facing internal boundary encroachment problems they began conducting briefings on rules and regulations for cordyceps collectors before they went out. The collectors were told not to encroach in areas of other districts to avoid unnecessary conflicts, but local leaders still point to the need for proper internal boundary demarcation to deal with the situation. The relevance of the issue extends even to areas near the border towards the Tibetan plateau. Chencho, a forest official in Wangdue who has kept watch on the collectors said, "We have to send [those who cross the border] back by advising them and explain rules and regulations of the country."
All collectors have to obtain permits before going to the highlands for collection. With a larger number of collectors and also illicit dealers exporting outside the country, the government proposed to hike the permit fee and royalty for exporters. The permit fee was raised from BTN 350 (USD 5.7) to BTN 1000 (USD 14.77), and a royalty fee of BTN 8400 (USD 124.10) was instituted in October 2014 when buying and exporting one kg of cordyceps fungus.
Because the places where cordyceps collection takes place are hill and mountain areas without much tree cover, it is easier for foresters to maintain vigilance. Foresters check whether collectors have permits, and they also monitor the harvest. If there are three cordyceps plants in one place, foresters allow the collector to pick only one, they restrict the use of tools and digging, and also manage waste pollution, according to Chencho. Additionally, those who are found to be collecting without permits have their collections, bags and tents seized. From his standpoint, however, the absence of clear boundaries for collectors and local areas makes it difficult to enforce rules properly.
Legalising Cordyceps collection
For many Bhutanese, the legalisation of cordyceps collection in 2004, initiated by then-King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, was seen as a favourable policy toward highlanders, particularly in districts such as Gasa, Wangdue, Paro, Bumthang, Trashiyangtse and Trashigang. Prior to 2004, any business involving the fungus was illegal and could lead to imprisonment. Presently, three members from each household are allowed collection, which begins between April and May and lasts for one month. Collection is strictly monitored in order to avoid overgrazing and to limit environmental degradation.