Fungal Gold Rush
The Ura valley in central Bhutan is famous for its over 100 species of mushrooms, of which some 50 are edible. Their cultivation has become a major source of livelihood for the people of the valley. The fleshy and edible species of the macro fungi, locally known as ‘Sangay Shamu’, are an important source of income for the local people as their harvesting contributes to income generation, food security and conservation of biodiversity.
However, to keep pace with the growing demand for edible mushrooms, development of infrastructure and human capacity is essential. The widespread promotion of cultivation and production of mushrooms has a comparative advantage over other crops because of a limited number of landholders in Ura.
Some of the popular species of edible mushrooms are the matsutake
mushroom and the chanterelle, etc. The matsutake mushroom is known for its distinct spicy odor and grows at an altitude of 3,000 meters. It is found in clusters at the base of pine trees and is collected once a year. The harvesting season starts from the month of July and lasts till mid-September. The increasing growth of edible mushroom has led to a collective activity where people gather to pluck mushrooms. In Bhutan, the ‘matsutake festival’ is observed in August to celebrate the harvest of this distinct mushroom.
A large number of people attend the festival to cherish the beauty of the valley's perfumed trails and experience the unique mass activity of discovering and plucking mushrooms. The festival also offers a perfect opportunity to the people to visit some of the valley's sacred temples, enjoy the local delicacies and observe the nuances of Bhutanese village life.
The main aim of mushroom cultivation is to reduce the current rate of poverty and increase rural income. It further tends to promote product diversification for the tourism industry in Bhutan through indigenous products such as edible mushrooms. This also promotes eco-tourism, cultural tourism and community based tourism that in turn generates income which is necessary for the sustainability of the people.
While there are many positive aspects of the picture, disadvantages are also evident. Poisoning is a major source of concern as collectors, especially the young and untrained, are prone to collect poisonous mushrooms as they can’t differentiate between the various types. Another problem is the lack of government concern about potentially harmful activities such as dumping of industrial waste in the areas where mushrooms are grown, heavy metal contamination and use of excessive pesticides or other chemicals for crops that can affect the growth of mushrooms.
Showing interest in the promotion of edible mushrooms, the management of the Thrumshingla National Park has taken some initiatives in collaboration with the Ura Mushroom Conservation and Tourism Association ( UMCTA). The steps include training collectors in sustainable harvesting methods and teaching them new techniques. While the trained personnel pluck edible mushrooms, the untrained ones from other areas harvest those mushrooms which have been left behind by the trained pickers. Despite limited staff, both organizations are working hard to ensure sustainable harvesting.
The matsutake mushroom grows at an altitude of 3,000 meters and is found in clusters at the base of pine trees. It is known for its distinct spicy odor.
A plan to build a highway which will pass through the area to increase its accessibility for tourists has hit a snag due to some logistic and budgetary constraints. This has affected the number of tourists visiting the valley, thus decreasing the demand for mushrooms. Regardless, the demand for mushrooms in the local and international markets is much higher than their production. The matsutake mushroom is exported to Japan, Korea as well as to some South Asian countries.
The local farmers in Ura are dependent on mushroom collection since they cannot grow many crops besides potatoes and some medicinal plants. The National Mushroom Centre has been working with mushroom collectors, especially the farmers' group, to find ways to market fresh mushrooms. Almost all the wild mushrooms grow during a short span (July to September, during the rainy season) and the fresh market is very limited. Therefore the mushrooms collected from remote and distant locations tend to fetch a low price even in the local market.
Over exploitation of wild edible species can pose ecological and environmental risks to the people of Ura. Much work needs to be done to organize an inventory of mushrooms, many of which are found in a few localities only. This can be done by utilizing the local knowledgebase.
A well-managed plucking of mushrooms, quality control, price regulation and conservation of the mushroom ecology through sustainable harvesting techniques can lead to greater national food security and more opportunities through promotion of cash crops.
Lastly, the training of farmers in mushroom cultivation, setting up trials and demonstration, providing technical and material support to poor farmers to set up mushroom farms, introducing wild edible mushroom for home consumption, sustainable harvesting, management and marketing can lead to greater progress in the field.
Some other steps that can be helpful in promoting mushroom cultivation are taxonomy and inventory, culturing and domestication of wild mushrooms, creating awareness of mushroom poisoning, research and development of training material for sustainable production chains, capacity for certification of agriculture products and processes, branding and packing of agricultural products and a keen understanding of global food safety standards.