Cardamom dream turns ashes

Cardamom was once the main cash crop for farmers in the southern belt.

Saplings were brought all the way from the Indian plains of Assam as farmers invested in the crop that had lucrative yields. Those days a kilogram of cardamom could fetch up to Nu 2,000.

Consequently, living standards improved in the villages and mud huts were replaced with decent concrete buildings, and cheap clothes, with branded ones. With farm roads connecting the villages, an increasing number of boleros started plying affording opportunities to earn through travel services.The local economy in hamlets was booming so much so that lore had it that some of the affluent villagers were now treating Nu 1,000 denomination note as a paper spoon to eat snacks sold in the streets and some went to the  extent of using the service of the chopper ignoring farm roads.

Youth were now inspired to work in the fields with cardamom selling like hot cakes.

However, over the years, the cardamom dream has turned to ashes.

Cardamom prices have plummeted leaving the hopes of thousands of farmers shattered. It has come to such a point that farmers have no hopes of reviving their dream. They feel it is a lost cause.

The farmers are now exploring alternative opportunities of alternative cropping. “We are back to cultivating other crops after losing hope in cardamom,” sighs Kul Man Gurung from Tendu, Samtse. 

For almost two years, cardamom costs only Nu 450 for a kilogram except during a few occasions like the Muslim festivals, Eidand Ramadan. During such occasions, consumption and demand increases leading to price increase for some days.

Most of the Bhutanese cardamom is exported to Siliguri in Indian, Bangladesh and to the Middle East countries.

Earlier when cardamom trade was booming, farmers sent their children to school and organized religious functions and weddings at villages. The living standard had definitely improved in the rural pockets through cardamom trade.

Boleros and other light vehicles also reached the villages connected with farm roads easing travelling struggles. The Boleroes became yet another source of income for the owners.

Back then, other businessmen like grocery shop owners were into cardamom business on the sidelines. Farmers were offered credit facilities for daily groceries needed back home which was later deducted from the crop during season.

Currently, most of the loans remain unpaid and credit un-cleared at the shops. Some have sacrificed their ancestral lands to repay.

It all started with low yield and fluctuating prices in the market. The price has now reached Nu 500 at the most for best quality product.

The government during their election campaign promised to consider resolving the issue. Keeping the promise after win, they directed Food Corporation Limited (FCB) to venture into ‘Buy Back Scheme’ with allocated budget of Nu 50mn. Nu 20mn has been spent on buying 50MT from eight cardamom growing dzongkhags. The farmers were paid from Nu 390 to Nu 470 based on the quality.

Despite some resistance on the price which was way less than expected, the farmers have agreed to the FCB’s floor price. The price since then has surged in the market but has not met the expectations of the farmers.

Bhutanese traders accuse the Indian traders across the border for fixing cardamom prices but  say that they cite the market rate in the global market. “When they are fixing the rate, we are left with no option. We can’t risk for higher rates than the market rate,” a local trader in Phuentsholing said.

Bhutanese traders have also explored options to export directly to Bangladesh or Arab countries but are yet to see it through. One of them is Bhutan Export Business Line based in Phuentsholing having branches in Gelephu and Samdrup Jongkhar.

With all these ups and downs, cardamom remains a hope for thousands of farmers who still prioritize the crop over others. Tools to groom young cardamom saplings are intact in the stores of every household. “Since, we started with hope, let us reap at least one more harvest,” a farmer says. It takes atleast three years for a sapling to mature and yield.

Krishna Ghalley from Phuentsholing