Lunana Village

Understanding what happened at Lunana

A press release from the Department of Forest and Park Services under Ministry of Forests and Agriculture on friday night said that a group of people illegally collecting cordyceps in Lunana hit a soldier from the Royal Bhutan Army with rocks, causing serious head injuries.

According to the press release, the soldier was medically evacuated by helicopter and is undergoing treatment. Several other soldiers on patrol who sustained minor injuries during the incident are being treated by a doctor on duty at Lunana.

The incident occurred on 12 May. It said over 300 people from the villages of Sephu and Dangchu had entered Lunana to illegally collect cordyceps. A 5-member patrol team of RBA and forest personnel on duty at Tshokina, Lunana, found them.

The release stated that when the patrol team attempted to send the poachers back, some of the people began throwing rocks, causing the injuries.

Images and video clips on WhatsApp sent by the people at the site allege that the people had come to the site around three days ago, and a RBA/Forest patrol had roughed up a local youth which the people informed to the local government and the police.

They claim that the people were told to wait in their camp areas on 12 May for the RBA/Forest patrol to come there and talk to them. A source said they were ready to move away if commanded to do so. But then things went wrong from there as the clips allege that there was some altercation and a local was hit on the head and the clips allege that a RBA soldier fired some bullets in the air. A stray bullet hit a person in the stomach while another was grazed. They had pictures of empty cartridges which were also floating online. The clips say that the firing caused a lot of panic and people started running around.

There are pictures and videos of a lot of commotion and two people were injured of which one had head injuries and was bleeding while another was lying down with a bullet wound to his stomach.

An updated press release from the Department on Saturday informed that the injured cordycep poacher being treated at Tshojong BHU succumbed to his injuries.

Attempts were made both from Paro and Bumthang for medical helicopter evacuations but it could not be carried out due to bad weather conditions.

The clips claimed that the people had been collecting cordyceps every four years since 2006 and they had permits from their Gewogs.

However, the clips from the locals do not explain why a RBA soldier was injured so seriously that he had to be airlifted while others also sustained injuries.

Sephu Gup Dawa Tshering alleged that he heard that the badly injured soldier sustained his head injuries as he tripped and fell when there was a lot of commotion.

The Gup said after hearing of some earlier altercations and manhandling of some poachers by officials and other issues he had sent his Mangmi and three Tshogpas to the location to resolve the issue.

He said his Mangmi was at the location on the day of the incident. He said his Mangmi tried to identify himself to the Patrol and intervene but it did not work.

The patrol assumed the Mangmi was one of the poachers and asked him to sit down with a gun pointed at him according to the Gup. He said the same was done to a Tshogpa and this lead to disquite in the crowd.

Before this meeting, it was already clear several incidents had already taken place between the patrol and poachers.

The press release said patrol team has reported 6 separate incidents between April 21st to 11th May 2022 of poachers from Sephu and Dangchu being caught with illegal cordyceps. In these previous incidents, the poachers verbally abused the patrol team and tried to intimidate them with knives.

A source said that the people there were mainly large numbers of youths or men with patangs by their side and sticks in hand and they were quite aggressive in their demenaour, not going back despite repeated incidents, warnings and violation of the law.

The Gup said the patrol in one earlier incident had engaged in confiscating  the knives of one group who were also manhandled.

With tensions already high, things did not go well and soon there was firing in the air to control an irate crowd and all round chaos and confusion that just got worse.

The Sephu Gup denied that the Gewog had given permits to these people and he instead said the Sephu and Dangchu Gewog Administrations had been sensitizing the people that it is illegal.

He, however, said the people do not listen as many of these people are poor with very limited land holdings of 10 to 13 decimals and so they take it as a chance to make an annual revenue.

He alleged that it was not just the people from the two Gewogs there but people from Punakha, Bumthang and even the Eastern Dzongkhags were there too.

The Sephu Gup demanded an alcohol and drug test of the patrol members on that day.

While the local government functionaries claim they were trying to sensitize people and resolve the situation there is a video of the Dangchu Gup Phub Dorji in a recent meeting in Thimphu (before the incident) where he is questioning why only people in Lunana are allowed to collect cordyceps within Lunana.

He questions the action being taken against poachers from Dangchu and Sephu Gewogs saying it is a violation of human rights. He says there can be a ‘Ukraine-Russia’ situation too.

One of the key unstated reasons to protect the right of highland communities to collect cordyceps in their area is to ensure that settled border populations do not move out from border areas which can impact national security.

This is especially when this is the only source of thier livelihood in a very difficult and remote location.

Whatever the provocation or sequence of events, the press release shows that the RBA/Forest patrol had been attacked when they were asking a large group of people breaking the law to respect the law and go back.

The release said that there are strict regulations in place to prevent over-harvesting, which would lead to extinction of the fungus.

“The right to collect cordyceps from a particular area is limited to those highland communities who live in the gewogs where it is found. However, there have been many incidents of intrusions by people from outside these communities to poach Cordyceps,” the release stated.

It also says that they had been stopped and turned back with warning. It is a serious offense to assault uniformed personnel on duty.

The Saturday release said there are still over 300 people in Lunana to illegally collect cordyceps. The Sephu Gup on Sunday said that people have started coming back.

The release said the 10 member patrol team was accosted by a huge group of these individuals.

It said they assaulted the armed force personnel, and attempted to snatch their weapons, while others began pelting stones from a higher ground. Nine of the patrol team members received various injuries from the stones and direct assault. One of the foresters in the team was hit on the head with a sheathed knife.

To avoid any further incidents, the 12 RBA personnel including the military doctor, five foresters, and 70 Lunaps who have permits to collect cordyceps in their own area vacated their camps, leaving behind all their items fearing getting assaulted by the poachers if they remained.

Lunana Cordyceps is the best grade with a kilogram expected to fetch up to Nu. 2.1 million this year.

This has led to an unprecedented surge of intrusions from outside groups into areas assigned by law to people of Lunana. The Jigme Dorji National Park, which issues cordyceps collection permits each year with consideration for sustainability, issued permits to 549 persons from Lunana to harvest cordyceps from Lunana gewog.

With over 300 people from Sephu and Dangchu (Wangduephodrang) intruding into Lunana to illegally collect cordyceps this season, there is a risk of overharvesting in Lunana, which threatens to eradicate the only livelihood that the Lunaps have, the release said.

This story has been updated in this online version to reflect additional developments and information.

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