Paddy cultivation area halves since 2016

According to the Land Act of Bhutan, 2007, wetland can be converted to other uses upon approval from the agriculture ministry

Despite the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests (MoAF) targeting to increase rice self-sufficiency to 60% by the end of the 12th Five Year Plan from the current state at 34%, paddy cultivation area has declined over the years.

The harvested area for paddy cultivation has declined by almost half from 53,055 acres in 2016 to 30,314 acres in 2019, RNR statistics report. The harvested area for paddy was 52,368 acres in 2017 and 37,268 acres in 2018.

“Conversion of wetland for constructions purposes and human settlement, town planning and government offices are the main causes for the decline in paddy cultivation area,” said Namgay Thinley, Chief Agriculture Officer, MoAF.

According to Land Act of Bhutan, 2007, wetland can be converted to other uses upon approval from the agriculture ministry.

Section 92 of the Land Act states that a landowner without a house and having only inherited wetland in his or her Thram can apply for one plot of 50 decimals in rural area for residential land.

Meanwhile, Section 166 of the Land Act states that for conversion of wetland to other land categories for purposes other than residential land, the landowner have to submit a written application to the local authority. The local authority would then verify the proposed conversion and either reject, or submit the application with its recommendation to the MoAF.

MoAF would assess the feasibility based on the technical criteria including availability of water, soil and environmental conditions and if approved, the ministry would intimate the Land Commission Secretariat to effect the changes in the Thram (Land Title certificate).

Namgay Thinley also said the shifting of farming from paddy to other more profitable crops like vegetables have also led to loss of arable wetland.

Additionally, irrigation water scarcity and labor shortage as paddy is labor intensive has also contributed to decline in paddy production.

“Limited and shrinking rice area, farm labor unavailability, irrigation deficiency, wild animal depredation, and highly unfavorable production economics are the major challenges of paddy cultivation,” said Namgay Thinley.

To address these issues, the Department of Agriculture is promoting electric fencing to reduce crop losses to wild animal, farm mechanization to combat labor shortage, carrying out wetland terrace consolidation and new paddy field development to expand the area under paddy cultivation.

The ministry also initiated the renovation and construction of new irrigation channels to reduce irrigation water problem, promote new paddy cultivation technologies and high yielding varieties to increase the productivity, and breeding of paddy varieties preferred by Bhutanese.

“The ministry has bred nine varieties till date,” he said.

Decline in the area of cultivation has also affected the production, RNR statistics reports. From 80,261 metric tonnes (MT) of rice produced in 2015, 83,332MT in 2016, 86,385MT in 2017, it saw a reduction of 63,890MT in 2018, and 49,948MT in 2019.

However, Bhutan has a potential to produce about 92, 514MT of rice if all its arable wetland of 56, 069 acres is cultivated with paddy.

About 27% (14,923 acres) of the total arable wetland (56,069 acres) is left fallow as per the 2019 Agriculture Statistics mainly due to lack of irrigation water, labor shortage and wild animal depredation. The import of rice increased to more than 84,584MT in 2019 from 71,503MT in 2018, according to annual RNR statistics. This is an increase by 18%.

In order to supplement the rice shortage, the ministry is promoting other nutrient-rich cereals like maize, wheat, buckwheat, barley, and millet in high altitude areas, said Namgay Thinley.

Additionally, the ministry has introduced a new cereal crop ‘Quinoa’ often referred to as a “superfood” or a “super grain” to enhance the food and nutritional security of the Bhutanese.

The ministry also plans to gradually integrate other cereals into Bhutanese diet for food diversification to promote a healthy society.

Thukten Zangpo from Thimphu