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Chimi Dema | Tsirang

Tika Ram Gurung, 71, and Subita Maya Gurung, 69, sent all their five children to schools, built a new concrete house, and bought additional farmland with earnings from cardamom.

From providing employment to marginal farmers to improving the economic well-being of the households to restoring ecological health, large cardamom-based farming has been one of the most promising livelihood options for farmers in Dagana and Tsirang.

With close to 5,500 commercial cardamom growers, Dagana and Tsirang contributed to more than 25 percent of the cardamom production in 2019. However, persistent pests and diseases due to changing weather patterns and climate is leaving farmers uncertain about their future.

While the effects of climate change have significantly altered traditional management practices, as well as the crop cycle, farmers are further challenged by inadequate support and skills in soil nutrient management, manuring and integrated pest and disease management across the growing areas in the dzongkhags.

Large cardamom in Bhutan

The locally grown cardamom, called the large cardamom, was first introduced in Bhutan in the early 70s and has since become an important high-value cash crop and a major source of livelihood for a large number of people in the southern region.

Large cardamom is a shade-loving plant and grows in hilly areas on marginal lands with gentle to medium slopes and loamy soil. Over the past decades, however, farmers have been growing the crop in a wide range of terrain, from humid subtropical belts to warm agro-climatic belts up to 2,300m due to its high market value.

Today, except in Bumthang and Thimphu, large cardamom farming cultivation is being expanded to all other dzongkhags in Bhutan. According to Annual Agriculture Statistics 2019, the crop is cultivated on 16,415 acres of land, producing a total of 1,413 metric tonnes of cardamom in the year. Bhutan has over 23,000 cardamom growers as per the RNR Census Report 2019.

The only two varieties of large cardamom which were officially released in the country are Barlangay and Golsey.

The major cardamom growing dzongkhags as per the RNR census report are Chukha, Samtse,  Sarpang, Tsirang and Dagana. Tsirang and Dagana produced 185 MT and 171MT of cardamom respectively in 2019.

Although cardamom production grew  from  2015 to 2016, it dropped after 2017. The country produced only 1,542MT of cardamom in 2018 and 1,413MT in 2019.

Annual production and harvested areas of cardamom from 2015 to 2019 (Source: RNR Statistics 2019)

The harvested area under the crop decreased by 2019. There were 15,615 acres of harvested area in the year.In 2019, the country exported 1,128MT of cardamom to Bangladesh.

Challenges facing cardamom growers

In recent years, cardamom farmers have been facing a number of challenges due to the changing climate: the impact can be seen in the reduction of productivity, production stability and incomes of the marginal farmers.

Infection of rhizome rot disease has increased with increase in the number of leaf eating caterpillars and aphids that destroy cardamom and reduce productivity, according to farmers.

From the same field where Tika Ram used to harvest at least nine mons (1 mon is 40kg) of cardamom about three years ago, he could harvest only four mons last year.

It has been around three years since he noticed his crop infested by diseases and pests. “I lose at least 60kgs of the yield to diseases every year since,” he said.

Tika Ram and his wife, Subita, live in a temporary shelter in Geserling, Dagana for half the year, tending to cardamom cultivation and management every year.

The increasing demand for large cardamom in the local and global market in recent decades has encouraged the elderly couple to bring more land under cardamom farming. A decade ago, they bought a two-acre land and expanded their cardamom cultivation.

“We have been earning at least Nu 1,50,000 annually until recent years,” Subita Maya said.

Tika Ram said that he had even burnt infested plants in an attempt to remove the disease and pests. “I also sprayed pesticides several times, but nothing helps.”

While what exactly has affected the crop remains unknown to the farmer, he said that the insects damage rhizomes and capsules of the plant. “The infested plants rot and decay,” he said.

In Tashithang, Lak Bdr. Moktang said that the leaf eating caterpillar and its larvae were damaging his crops.

The incidence of this disease, he said, happened during October through March. “It also reduces the flower size of the plant,” he said.

The farmer said that the infestation advances overnight, defoliating leaves. “I’ve tried numerous methods. I uprooted them and started a new plantation. But the same disease keeps affecting it,” Lak Bdr. said.

He said that he could harvest only 30kg of cardamom this year. “In the past, I used to harvest at least 22 mons from a five-acre plantation area.”

In addition to pests and diseases, weed has been invading Ganga Prasad Gurung’s cardamom field in Tashidiing.

The farmer said that the unidentified weed plant has been encroaching the plantation area of cardamom, thus hampering its growth.

In Doonglagang in Tsirang, farmers said that incessant monsoon rains affected flowering of cardamom. About thirty percent of the total plantation was damaged, according to the gewog Mangmi DB Mongar.

Pests, diseases and climate change: Is there a connection?

Climate change can affect the population size, survival rate and geographical distribution of pests and the intensity, development and geographical distribution of diseases, according to experts.

An expert said that climate change increased the activity of insect pests in two ways.

First, rising temperatures boost the rate at which insects can digest food –causing them to demolish crops at a faster rate.

Second, in temperate regions, warming temperatures could cause insects which are ectothermic (cold-blooded) to become more active and, thus, more able to reproduce.

Incidences of diseases and pests, according to a Senior Resilient Livelihoods Specialist with International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Surendra Raj Joshi, are more frequent in lower altitudes than in higher and cooler areas.

He said that the transmission of viral disease to cardamom crops was directly linked with the movement of Aphids, which grow on leaves of shade trees, especially in the Alder (Alnus nepalensis) and other weeds in cardamom farm.

In several cardamom growing areas, aphid infection has been noticed during winter and pre-monsoon season.

“The increasing temperature along the advancing altitudes as recorded in recent years might have been favourable for the growth of aphids, leading to widespread incidence of viral diseases such as Chirkey and Foorkey on cardamom plantations,” he said.

Incidence of aphids also increases the incidence of molds (fungal infection). Aphid could promote the growth of mold by excreting honey dew in the leaf, Surendra Raj Joshi said. Species of black-coloured fungi or molds, he said, covered the leaf of large cardamom, and in severe cases, the black growth might even block the sunlight and interfere with photosynthesis.

Generally, the regular winter rainfall, he said, used to control the aphid population. “However, the dry winter and lack of rainfall for a longer period is promoting its growth.”

Chirkey disease 

Known to have been transmitted by corn aphid (Rophalosiphum maidis), which is one of the prevalent insect vectors, experts said that Chirkey disease reduced photosynthetic activity of the leaf area dramatically and infection continues to reduce flowering,resulting in low fruit yield.

In plants infected by Chirkey, farmers in Kilkhorthang in Tsirang said that brownish spots appeared all over the leaves and became brown and dry.

Cardamom leaves infected with Chirkey disease in Kilkhorthang

Rhizome Rot 

Also known as clump rot, the disease, Agriculture Specialist with ICIMOD, Kamal Aryal (PhD) said,  is caused by fungus Fusarium sp.

“It is the fungal disease identified by the National Plant Pathology Research Centre in Nepal,” he said.

According to the Package of Practices (POP) document prepared by ICIMOD to promote climate-resilient cardamom value chain in Nepal,  rhizome rot has been an increasing problem in the cardamom farms across its growing elevations resulting into sharp decline of productivity and plantation area

Generally observed during summer and winter, the infected plants show yellowing of the leaves and wilting of the rhizome and stem parts. The POP document recommends removing,  drying and burning of infected plants to prevent the spread of disease.

 

Pests of Cardamom 

Leaf Caterpillar

The leaf eating caterpillar (Artona chorista), experts said, initially would feed on the chlorophyll content of the leaf lamina from under the surface. 

“The infested portion of the leaf appears like white paper,” said Kamal Aryal.

As the infestation advances, the leaf undergoes defoliation, leaving the midrib intact, according to experts. The disease is said to appear in both the dry season and pre-monsoon season.

Cardamom infested with leaf eating caterpillar in Geserling

The caterpillar Larvae (Clelea plimbiola), according to Surendra Raj Joshi, is one of the major insects which is causing damage to the large cardamom. “Its incidence is increasing in recent years,” he said. “However it is not as severe as viral and fungal diseases.”

 Infested cardamom leaves with caterpillar larvae 

Warm and dry environmental conditions, he said, favoured the growth of such insects.

Besides caterpillar, other common pests affecting large cardamom are: shoot fly which damages the emerging shoots, stem borer, white grubs and capsule borer, Kamal Aryal said.

The larvae of the stem borer (Glyphipteris sp.) bore into the pseudo-stem and damage the plant, he said.

“The capsule borer larvae bore the fresh capsule and damage the seeds.”

Among the diseases, fungal blight, moulds, Leaf streak disease, chirkey (Mosaic streak) and foorkey (Bushy dwarf), he said are some of the common diseases that affect the plants in various stages.

According to experts, climate variation, prolonged dry periods and erratic rainfall patterns have increased the incidences of several pests over the years. “Such climatic conditions favour the spread of pests, making the plant susceptible to other diseases and pests or environmental stress conditions,” an expert said.

What experts recommend

To help maximise the gains and sustainability of large cardamom, experts recommend reviving large cardamom-based integrated farming through climate-smart innovations and practices for agricultural sustainability.

Surendra Raj Joshi said that the government should provide support for promoting Climate Resilient Practices (CRA) that take into consideration the holistic approach.

“CRA includes smart practices, which are low cost, affordable and context specific,” he said.

There are six major elements of CRA to improve large cardamom farming:

Weather-smart practices, he said  include alteration of planting time and the planting of recommended local varieties that are resilient to extreme weather conditions, assessment of rainfall requirements, snowfall and frostbite in cardamom.

Soil/nutrient-smart practices include production and application of manures, compost production, green manure, inter-crops, weeding to maintain soil health/organic matter.

Knowledge-smart practices, focus on strengthening linkages and making information available to value chain actors.

Water-smart practices, he said, focused on effective and efficient use of water at different stages of the value chain, highlighting technologies that farmers should apply to ensure water availability – irrigation, mulching, shade, etc.

Energy-smart practices, he said, focused particularly on harvesting/post-harvest management.

Gender smart, the intervention should focus on inclusive growth and benefit sharing, ensuring that technologies and practices will not put more labor burden on women.

Support by the Government 

To improve cardamom farming, the Agriculture Department Director, Kinlay Tshering, said that the department made disease free and high quality cardamom seedlings available for any growers who would like to get it.

The department has also come up with improved cardamom curing and drying technology to add value chain to cardamom.

Using electricity and off-grid, through efficient utilisation of firewood, she said were two improved curing and drying methods that the department introduced for obtaining best quality product.

“Given the budget constraints, we cannot  provide free of cost to all growers but where the need is critical, we have been providing on a cost-sharing basis,” she said. “We have demonstrated the methods in number of cardamom growing dzongkhags and trained many farmers.”

When it comes to production in between, Kinlay Tshering said that chemicals were available but farmers can avail only recommended ones from the National Plant Protection Centre with channeling through respective extension officials.

Given the plantation areas mostly in forests, she said that farmers cannot apply chemicals rampantly to their crop.

She also said that packages of practices are also available and farmers practising all recommended packages don’t face such problems.

On new diseases and pests, Kinlay Tshering said that research was being carried out. “We would come up with recommendations once it is done.”

After cardamom growers informed about diseases and pests to Dagana National Council member, Surja Man Thapa, provided the farmers of few villages pesticides from NPPC last year.

He said: “In the past, we never had these diseases and pests. It is a recent phenomenon that our farmers are facing.”

He said that he had distributed pesticides to help farmers control the pest.

During the NC session in December, last year, the Natural Resources and Environment Committee proposed the government to look into cardamom varieties which are suitable to climatic conditions of  the country and to explore markets in third countries, as well as to add value to the crop.

The story is funded by MoIC’s Department of Information and Media content development grant 

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