The living standard of the country’s highlanders has improved through Cordyceps business every year, but it comes at a high cost, both social and environmental, a survey conducted by the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment (UWICE) revealed.
Despite the stringent monitoring in place with strict rules and regulations, officials from the agriculture department agree that there is high pressure on environment.
Director of the department of agriculture and marketing cooperatives (DAMC) Dorji Dhradhul said, “It is a serious concern for us and also for the ministry, but it is not possible to monitor with foresters in the field outnumbered by collectors.”
“We are trying to create awareness through educational program, but only a few seem to be convinced. If the issue gets serious then the ministry might have to revisit the rules and regulations like reducing the number, from three collectors from each household to one, in order to have less impact on the environment. Less collectors mean less impact,” the director added.
This problem is further compounded by growing problems of littering and it is felt that, if not unregulated and unmonitored, the impact from the collection of this highly priced fungus while helping improve livelihood will leave some of the last pristine alpine ecosystems of this planet transformed for the worse.
Every year, from mid May to mid June, the collection season for the Cordyceps begins in the high alpine environment and the extend of environment degradation was categorized in four which were degrading shrub lands, littered landscapes, changing grasslands, and associated forest degradation.
A study by UWICE found that more than 78% of collectors interviewed said that they used Rhododendron and Juniper wood for cooking during the period of Cordyceps collection. The extensive use of slow growing Rhododendron and Juniper wood as fuel also pose a risk of such shrub lands from getting decimated completely.
Fuel wood is scarce in the high altitude collection grounds which are above tree line. With just available wood being Rhododendron, Dwarf Juniper and Willow, which are harvested extensively leading to opening of the areas in the fragile environment. Such openings may accelerate the process of mass wasting, thereby leading to many ecological and environmental hazards.
Studies reveal that it takes nearly 169 years for Rhododendron aeruginosum to attain the base diameter of just 8 centimeters, with an annual increment of only 0.6 millimeter. The slow growth of Rhododendron coupled with huge extraction by the collectors is a big concern. It’s, however, known fact to the collectors.
Some of the collectors The Bhutanese talked to said that it should be made compulsory to stop burning wood and go for kerosene and LPG.
Garbage management is another concern as mostly plastic and bottles wastes are not disposed off properly. Collectors throw garbage either by the side of the stream rocks or underneath the rocks, which might be hazardous to both fresh water biodiversity as well as to the people living downstream.
To address this problem, some collectors have come up with suggestions to have a proper designated disposal site. Some also said that temporary shops at the site should be discouraged.
Changing grasslands was another issue affecting the environment. Cordyceps collection coincides with the time when the young shoots of grass start to grow and with people collecting Cordyceps trampling on the grasses, the grass quality decreases and so does the feed for the yaks.
Digging for Cordyceps at the site is also a concern since it not only disturbs the grassland ecosystem, but may also accelerate soil erosion.
The amount collected from the sale of the Cordyceps has increased the purchasing power of the highlanders. There is a trend of buying power chains in the communities, and this may lead to harvesting of more of timber for construction of house and roofing, and fire wood.