Bhutan, landlocked between India and China, is just 38,394 sq km in size. Photos: Andre Leu.

THE Kingdom of Bhutan, in the eastern Himalayas, is on track to develop a 100 per cent organic sustainable agriculture industry to boost the country’s economy and food security, and relieve rural poverty.

In the past few years, the Royal Government of Bhutan and its department of agriculture have put in place a Strategic Plan to develop a national organic program and have held ongoing discussions with the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) to assist the country in its 100 per cent transition to organic agriculture. The royal government has also appointed a number of international advisers to help guide the Strategic Plan process.

Challenges include identifying viable organic crops and value-added products, the types of organic inputs to be used, organic certification issues, farm labour constraints and developing domestic and international markets for the Brand Bhutan organic products.

The country is a perfect platform for sustainable agriculture. Being a predominantly devote Buddhist country, the Kingdom of Bhutan embraces a philosophy that has a deep sense of oneness with all things natural, thus chemical fertilisers and pesticides are not commonly used.

Buddhism prohibits violence. Organic agriculture is a non-violent farming system which facilitates living in tandem with nature. In agriculture, the use of synthetic agro-chemicals like fertilisers and pesticides which destroy the soil, beneficial microbes and insects is contradictory to the Buddhist way of life. Many farmers in Bhutan avoid killing pests like insects and wild animals with the use of pesticides.

About 80 per cent of Bhutan’s population live in rural areas and directly depend on agriculture and livestock for their livelihoods.
About 80 per cent of Bhutan’s population live in rural areas.

Bhutan’s approach to development is guided by a concept of “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) enunciated by His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuk in the late1980’s. This holistic approach features the four pillars of GNH: good governance, sustainable use of natural resources, protection and conservation of the environment and the preservation and promotion of cultural heritage.

Bhutan is landlocked between India and China and is a country just 38,394sq km in size. The country is mostly mountainous and the elevation ranges from 150m above sea level in the south to 7,550m in the north, resulting in extreme variation of climate, geography and bio-diversity.

About 72 per cent of the area is under forest cover, 10 per cent of the land is covered by snows and glaciers, about eight per cent is used for agriculture and human habitation. The remaining areas are under pastures or meadows, lands used for shifting cultivation (tseri) or barren rocky areas. Shifting cultivation is a system of subsistence agriculture that involves clearing forests, cultivating the land for few years and then leaving the land fallow – however the government is actively phasing out this type of cultivation.

The Bhutanese call their country ‘Druk Yul’ or the ‘Land of Thunder Dragon’. The country has a population of about 700,000 with some 65,000 farming households scattered in small and remote villages. About 80 per cent of the population live in rural areas and directly depend on agriculture and livestock for their livelihoods.

Agricultural activities make up about 95 per cent of the income of the rural poor. The majority of the producers are small and marginal with an average land holding of 1-2 ha. Most of the farmers are located in the remote mountainous areas away from main roads. The difficult terrain coupled with inaccessibility limits the farmers from selling their produce at markets.

The royal government’s national organic program is tasked with reducing poverty and food insecurity in Bhutan’s rural areas.
The national organic program is tasked with reducing poverty & food insecurity.

Most poverty is concentrated in the rural areas, especially amongst the small and marginal farmers and landless households. In Bhutan, poverty in the rural areas is about 38 per cent against the urban poverty of about four per cent. The royal government’s national organic program is tasked with reducing poverty and food insecurity in these rural areas by determining the requirements of small and marginal farmers to adopt sustainable agriculture on a large scale.

IFOAM president Andre Leu said the Kingdom of Bhutan had “some very good systems in place” to develop an organic agriculture industry. “Bhutan has a great potential for sustainable agriculture by choice and design. Their organic development is very productive and they have many very competent people working in the agricultural department and government,” Mr Leu said.

“IFOAM delegates travelled to Bhutan and toured different organic farms last year (2012). We met with government officials and farmers to see how IFOAM could assist the country in achieving its Strategic Plan,” he said.

Agriculture production, mainly cereals, in Bhutan is generally based on a low level of purchased inputs, and cultivation primarily undertaken with animal draught power or human labor. Purchased inputs are limited to improved seeds and small amounts of fertiliser and pesticides, for which seasonal credit is often used. Soil fertility depends primarily on the use of farmyard manure and compost. Sustainable land management campaigns by the government have increased the use of contour building and other land management tools by farmers.

Paddy and maize, the two major cereals of Bhutan, both suffered severe production losses in the past. However, in recent years, production trends have improved as a result of improved agricultural practices, including integrated pest management and improved irrigation services.

In Bhutan, the synthetic fertilisers and pesticides have been used in agriculture for the last two decades. Since most of the farmers and their arable land are in remote mountainous terrains, these inputs have not reached them. The farmers who live near the towns with main road access are using more of the fertilisers than pesticides.

Bhutanese farmers mainly grow rice, maize, wheat, buckwheat, barley and millet, plus other foods such as chillies and garlic. Some of the region’s specialty products include yak products – meat, cheese, woollen and leather products – which are produced by the nomads or yak herders. Rice and maize account for 90 per cent of total cereal production in Bhutan.

The staple food of the Bhutanese people is rice, closely followed by maize. Bhutan’s rice production meets about half of national demand, thus a significant amount of rice is imported from India to make up the shortfall. The total cultivated rice area is estimated at 19,410 hectares and represents 74 per cent of all farming households. Production of rice on a commercial scale is limited due largely to a shortage of arable land and farm labour, low cropping intensity, inadequate irrigation and crop losses to pests, especially wild animals. Studies have shown pest damage from boars, monkeys and elephants ranging from 18 to 71 per cent of crop values.

Bhutan imports 30 per cent of its cereals mainly rice, 75 per cent of edible oil and 50 per cent of pulses to meet its domestic requirements. Only few households have enough land to meet their needs by farming alone. A majority of the farmers depend directly on off-farm livelihood sources like forest produce, while the remaining migrate to towns and cities.

The felling of timber is carried out during the no-moon phase.
The felling of timber is carried out during the no-moon phase.

Agriculture has a strong influence on the customs and rituals of Buddhism and vice-versa. Seed planting and land ploughing are planned for a time close to the full moon, while the felling of timber is carried out during the no-moon phase. Farmers also practice many rituals for crop productivity and pest prevention at the time of sowing and transplanting, during crop growth or after the harvest.

Seed conservation and sharing of seeds is also an integral part of the farmers’ lives. Many farmers cannot afford organic certification to obtain a better price in the domestic or international market, so a system of group certification operates for a group of farmers who are in close proximity to one another, whose farms are uniform in most ways and who are organised under one management and marketing system.

Grower groups implement their own system of internal control, supervision and documentation of production practices to insure compliance with organic certification standards. The grower groups also oversee education programs to ensure that all members understand the applicable organic standards and how they apply to their specific operation. Grower groups are also required to use a centralised processing, distribution and marketing system.

Fair trade is an alternative approach for developing trading partnerships that aims for sustainable development of excluded or disadvantaged small producers in developing countries. The royal government and the Ministry of Agriculture are actively helping farmers move towards organic agriculture by supporting the farmers’ incomes during the conversion and education phases, and resolving often extreme distress in rural farming communities resulting from high input costs, low returns and increased debt.

The government is also working towards the increased self-reliance of farmers through inclusion of local seeds, manures and indigenous practices for plant protection; encouraging more mixed farming; and preparing farmers for competitive marketing through value-adding and developing quality, specialty products.

Acres Australia Archives – Issue #100