Conserving traditional crop varieties with modern opportunities in Bhutan


Sonam Tobgay, Chairman of the buckwheat group, with his wife, Nazom, and the buckwheat products.

Bhutan’s wealth of national crop diversity underpins the country’s food security.  It also provides genetic resources that may become beneficial and profitable for future use.  Much of this diversity is held in traditionally cultivated varieties of crops, such as buckwheat. However, in Bhutan’s Bumthang Valley farmers had virtually abandoned cultivation of the formerly-staple buckwheat for other cash crops such as potatoes.

To encourage conservation of Bhutan’s valuable crop diversity, the Bhutan ‘Integrated Livestock and Crop Conservation’ UNDP-supported GEF-financed project helped Bhutanese farmers to reclaim virtually forgotten crop varieties while diversifying their income. In Bumthang Valley, the project supported a group of farmers to develop 18 buckwheat products, including cakes, biscuits and pizzas, and to open a shop to promote and sell them, creating new market opportunities.

“Previously the buckwheat husks were just thrown away, but now we earn a profit from this waste. This year, we plan to introduce another product line – buckwheat wine which we think has good market potential,” said Sonam Tobgay, Chairman of the Bumthang Buckwheat Group.

Highlights

  • Bhutan’s National Gene Bank was significantly expanded to hold a vast number of crop and animal genetic resources for research and long term use, resulting in enhanced national capacity for ensuring crop and breed diversity.
  • In Bumthang, buckwheat production increased by 56% and a community seed bank was established to conserve buckwheat and other traditional varieties.
  • Buckwheat was just one of several traditional crop and livestock varieties promoted by the project, which supported farmers at pilot 18 sites.
  • Overall, 555 farmers benefitted directly from the project, receiving training on improved agricultural practices.

Through the new market opportunities created for traditional crops like buckwheat, farmers are diversifying their incomes. The market price of potatoes could fluctuate beyond their control but as a group they can control the price of buckwheat.

With the project’s support, the group shared their experiences and provided training to other nearby farmer groups. As a result, other farmers have shown an interest in replicating the successful efforts of the Bumthang group.

The project also created a community seed bank to conserve buckwheat and other traditional varieties, and distributed seeds for free to farmers who wanted to grow them again.

As a result of the project’s work in Bumthang, the area of land under buckwheat cultivation more than doubled and buckwheat production increased by 56%. The group has established pooled savings and expanded to include 30 additional contract farmers who supply buckwheat grain.

For Phurba, a founding member of the group, the revival of this traditional crop has provided her with additional skills and a sense of pride.

 “I learned a lot of new skills like baking and accounting, and I got to travel to different places to showcase our buckwheat cakes,” said Phurba.

Buckwheat is just one of several traditional crop and livestock varieties that the project worked to conserve and promote through supporting farmers at 18 sites. Other traditional varieties of crop and livestock promoted under this effort included breeds of barley, soybean, maize, rice, yak, poultry, pigs, sheep, Nublang (a local cattle breed) and horses. In total, 555 farmers benefitted directly from the project.  The project also supported improvement of the national gene bank through providing equipment and technical support, and training gene bank staff and extension officers at local governments.

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