Thursday, March 20, 2014

Buried Treasure: Villagers In Uttarakhand Turn To A Lucrative Fungus To Supplement Regular Income

By Swetha Reddy | Dehradun

SPECIAL REPORT Every year, as the snow begins to melt towards the end of April, Mahender Singh Bisht and his friends trek three days from their village of Sai-polo in Uttarakhand’s Kumaon division to fields near the Poting Glacier, about 40 kilometres to the north-west. Here, at an altitude of about 3,800 metres, they spend two or three days crawling on their hands and knees, scouring the ground for the protruding stalks of what is known, in the local Kumaoni, as kira jhar—ghost moth caterpillars attached to the stalks of a fungus that attacks and mummifies them during their underground larval phase. 
The matchstick-sized stalks grow out of the larvae’s heads, almost like miniature unicorn horns, and jut up just above ground. Kira jhar is highly prized in traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine, whose practitioners claim, with no scientific backing, that it is a tonic and an aphrodisiac, and can even treat certain cancers.

Picking it is a delicate operation. “We dig in to about six inches on both sides of the stalk to pluck the mummified body of the caterpillar out of the ground,” Bisht said. “It has to be done with an almost surgical precision.”

The collection of kira jhar (also known by the Tibetan name yartsa gunbu) is a matter of considerable controversy. Soaring Chinese demand has meant kira jhar now fetches prices that put caviar to shame. Its collection and sale has been regulated in Uttarakhand since 2005, but pickers routinely sell to middlemen on a thriving black market. Chandra Singh Negi, an associate professor of zoology at the LSM Government Post Graduate College in Pithoragarh and the lead researcher in an ongoing study of the kira jhar trade in Kumaon, told me pickers have been paid as much as Rs 12 lakh per kilogram. But, he added, “Prices tend to fluctuate a lot since kira is largely trafficked [illegally].”

The Uttarakhand government allows all villages—except those in reserved forests and sanctuaries—to pick as much kira jhar as they can find within the areas controlled by their respective van panchayats (community forest councils). Until 2012, pickers were required to hand their stocks over to the state forest department for auction, and to pay five percent of their earnings to their van panchayats as a royalty. Now, the panchayats are authorised to carry out auctions themselves.

The regulations have benefited neither the state nor the pickers, and hardly any auctions have actually been held. AK Upadhyay, the divisional forest officer of Pithoragarh district until this February, told me that “most of the amount collected by pickers is smuggled [out of the area]; the forest department and the van panchayats have only auctioned negligible amounts since regulation began.” 

Negi said Nepali middlemen and their local contractors offer prices several times higher than what pickers can expect at auctions. In a 2006 paper in the International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology, Negi estimated the black market value of kira jhar sold in just 19 villages in Kumaon in 2004 at $126,667. A study published in Nature in February 2012 found the global market for the caterpillar fungus to be worth between $5 billion and $11 billion annually.

For villagers like Bisht, the additional earnings from kira jhar are especially welcome given the low agricultural yields in Uttarakhand, where a third of the population depends on farming. The state’s own “vision document” for 2027 recognises that “agricultural income cannot sustain [families] for more than four months in a year.”  

Negi said his survey of over 200 villages in Kumaon in 2013 found that almost 90 percent of households were involved in collecting kira jhar. Bisht did not want to reveal the exact amount he had earned from selling kira jhar last year. Instead, he broke down where the money had gone: “About 15 percent was used up on the picking trip, 30 percent to repay loans, and the rest on my children’s school and college fees, and other household expenses.”

The rush for the fungus has had one obvious side effect: the ecological degradation of the high fields where the fungus grows, which are also home to the monal and the musk deer. Malika Virdi, who was the sarpanch of the Sarmoli van panchayat in central Pithoragarh between 2004 and 2010, told me she had found it difficult to ask villagers to exercise restraint while picking. 

Pointing in the direction of the picking fields from the porch of her house in Sarmoli, she said, “How can one ask someone to not strive to earn one’s livelihood in the face of dwindling opportunities?” For Bisht, giving up the harvest of kira jhar is simply not an option. “The only source of income I now have is kira,” he said. “I can’t abandon what pays for my children’s education.” 

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