It is that vine which creeps by the tree trunk in their forests and bears green leaves for its own purpose of life through photosynthesis. In any case, such a leaf would serve its purpose and with time, fall down on the forest floor as it is with every plant until the next generation of young leaves sprout.
But only if the farmers in Sektena chiwog under Gakiling gewog in Haa dzongkhag would ever let it happen.
This is because the farmers in the area are said to be minting a good cash income through harvest and sale of Betel leaf (Piper betle). They are said to wander in the jungle in droves to collect the leaves to be sold in the nearest town.
Betel is the leaf of a vine belonging to Piperaceae family and includes pepper and kava. It is valued as a mild stimulant and for its medicinal properties. Betel leaf is mostly consumed by many Bhutanese people. In addition, it constitutes a major component of the country’s custom and tradition. It is served during the Zhugdrel Phuensum Tshogpa (the grand inaugural ceremony of important events).
More than 34 households from the four villages in the gewog do not cultivate the betel leaf but collects it from the wild. “Betel leaf business is profitable because the leaves are light to carry and easy to collect,” village Tshogpa Somdhan Rai said.
The farmers are known to travel about two days to Haa town to sell the leaves and earn income of about Nu 9,000 in three trips that the farmers make in a month. With the money they earn, the farmers buy household items like oil, tea leaf, clothes, salt, rice and other household essentials. Some even use the money to fund their children’s education.
“We do not have to pay royalty for collection of the betel leaves,” the Tshogpa said. And so, for the farmers, it is profitable to do betel leaf business. “In addition, it is easy to transport and also fetches good cash price too,” said one farmer who has been in the business for few years.
However, the business is said to be like a double-edged sword.
According to the forest officials, the farmers collect the betel leaves in an unsustainable manner which destroys the vine that creeps by the trees. “Such an orthodox harvesting threatens the long term sustainability of the plant,” dzongkhag forest officer (DFO) Tempa Gyeltshen said.
Betel leaf is becoming scarce due to over-harvesting. The Haa Dzongkhag Forestry Sector (DzFS) reported it is doing the best to overcome the problem of diminishing resources.
As an initiative, the DzFS provided technical guidance in betel vine farming to a trial cultivator in May 2012. Two sheds were constructed, beds were prepared and top portions of mature old/young vines were planted. Half feet long healthy cuttings with three nodes were used as planting materials. Cuttings were planted in holes 5cms apart in furrows. While planting, one node was buried in the soil and the second node was kept at the surface.
The soil around the cutting was pressed firmly to encourage quick germination. Artemisia leaves were used as mulching material. In the absence of rain, the cutting was watered four times a day.
The farmers were educated for proper shade and irrigation for the successful cultivation of the plant. “Betel needs constantly moist soil but excessive moisture should be avoided,” Tempa Gyeltshen said. He added that Irrigation must be frequent and light.
Application of different kinds of mulching leaves at monthly intervals is believed advantageous for the growth of the betel. In this particular case, only a few stumps survived with dark, healthy and promising leaves. This was attributed to the planted stumps being young. Further, the plants were not watered daily during the hot and dry summer months.
As a result of the experiment, farmers are now willing to re-cultivate the plant in the coming season. The study will be further supported by the World Bank through rural livelihood project in the 11th Five Year Plan.
Betel leaves have been chewed along with areca nut since ancient times in Bhutan. It is believed that these two stimulants come together producing a ceremonial and highly symbolic value in many countries including Bhutan.
The betel plant is an evergreen and perennial creeper with glossy heart-shaped leaves and white catkin and originated in South and South East Asian countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh.