Local highland leaders feel Laya incident holds lessons for the future

7 women and 3 men fell victim to a landslide at Ri-Druzhi in Laya on 20 June at mid-night. The 10 deceased includes a sole bread earner of the family, a mother and a daughter and youths in their 18 and 19 years of age.

It was learnt that 12 tents were pitched at the camp site with 50 people (cordyceps collector) and of the 50 people, 10 lives were lost to the disaster, 5 are recovering in JDWNRH while the rest were evacuated back to their homes.

Though there are reports of deaths every year among the collectors, such a major incident has happened for the first time in Laya. The cause of the deaths in the past were due to altitude sickness, falling from cliff, drowning, climate issues and being hit by boulders.  

Gasa Dzongrab Dorji Gyeltshen shared that this group of people have been collecting cordyceps for the last two decades and it is not that the incident took place because they did not take extra precaution. The place of occurrence was the same old place where they used to camp in the past years.   

However, he said, “The unfortunate incident took place due to the loose soil in the middle of the night which is why they could not be saved. They would not have expected such an incident to happen. Had it happened during the day time, they would have somehow escaped.”

Though they received the information, there was no way that they could react immediately given various factors. First, the incident took place in the middle of the night and secondly, to inform about the incident the survivor had to walk for more than an hour to reach a place to get connected to network, he added. And it is not that all the 10 deceased just got injured; they were covered by debris.

In addition, he said that to avail the chopper services they have to follow process and the chopper could not go in the middle of the night. Luckily the weather was favorable the next day and they could at least evacuate the injured victims to the hospital, he added.    

“This kind of unfortunate incidences may come and go and some deaths have been happening during the Cordycep collection. Though such disaster may not happen, the people should be cautious in the future,” the Dzongrab added.

He said that they cannot blame anyone for the incident as the collectors put in so much effort to earn for their living and setting the camp had to do with the availability of water, protection from the weather and other necessities. However, despite the difficulty, they may try to camp at a safer site, he added.     

Nevertheless, people may again forget this with time and they may go back to what they are doing today, he said.

Laya Gup Lhakpa Tshering said that this incident was shocking news for the community and a learning experience for those who would go for collection in the future. He said, “We will now need to discuss on how to ensure their safety and to do this it may take some time. However, for now we would advocate to people on their safety henceforth.”

They never knew such an incident would occur out of the blue, he said, adding that they did not feel the need of monitoring their camp sites nor they had idea on how they can prevent this from happening.

Meanwhile, Lunana Gup Kaka said, “We have been in the business since 2004 or so but such an incident did not take place in our gewog, but I have heard people losing their lives.”

The collectors have no permanent area to camp, they camp wherever they find it comfortable and most of the times they camp below the lake, in narrow area as like in recent incident and near a river, he said.

He said, “Until now we have not realized the importance of advising people on where and how to find a safer location to camp. Though we do tell them on do’s and don’ts while issuing their permits, we have never looked into this matter.”

He said the recent incident was a learning experience for them as well as a lesson for future Cordycep collectors, as it gives them the opportunity to take precautionary measures in advance, he said.

He said that in his gewog the number of collector depends upon the availability of the cordyceps.

Chhoekhor Gup Pema Doengyel said that similar incident took place in Bumthang in 2009 claiming 8 lives and since then there was no major incident caused by natural disaster, however, every year there are reports of one to two death due to altitude sickness. Only in 2019 there was no death nor a casualty reported. In 2020 one death case was reported, he added.

He said, “People keep going every year even when they know such disasters are taking place and knowing that every year few lives are lost. Even after 2009 incident, the number of collectors remained unchanged. However, they are somehow being more cautious and careful.”

They are going as they can earn well and the only way to ensure their safety is by advocating more on precaution measures they should be taking, he said, adding that they usually give them the instruction on do’s and don’ts when they give them the permit.

With such incidents they would be more cautious on where they pitch their tent in future. Otherwise, there is nothing much they can do to ensure their safety, he added.

Meanwhile, he said that the number of cordyceps collector has declined comparing to last year and the probable reason could be because they did not get the expected rate last year and there was no good market due to the pandemic. This year there was only 495 collectors while it used to be more than 800 in the past years and they would return by end of June.

The bodies of the deceased were air lifted to Gasa and until the cremation, Dzongkhag will initiate the rituals. The bodies were cremated on Monday.

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