Himalayan rush doesn’t bring all gold

  • yarchagumba hunt
- Weena Pun, Kathmandu
Himalayan rush doesn’t bring all gold

May 23, 2014-

Although a resident of Jumla, 38-year-old Khadga Dangi had never set out for the mountains in search of yarchagumba, a parasitic fungus that grows out of a moth caterpillar. This year, with an outstanding debt of Rs 500,000 incurred during the construction of a family home, he decided to head towards Dolpa’s fields of mummified caterpillars.

Dangi contacted two Chinese traders in Kathmandu, easily convinced 20 men from his village and around, and on April 23 trekked towards Pyarigufa, Dolpa. The team hoped to gather at least five kilograms of yarchagumba, sell it to the Chinese at Rs 2.2 million per kilo and divide the money among the members according to the number of fungi they picked.

Two weeks into the journey, as the team was nearing Pyarigufa, Dangi lost his footing on a treacherous slope below the Tangtunge mountain and skidded down 55 feet, somersaulting twice. The somersault broke his pelvic bones and two of the left ribs. Fortunately, he landed in a river, which was deep enough to slow

down his fall and shallow enough to not drown him. Unfortunately, the only way out of the river valley was on a rescue helicopter. The river also washed away his backpack containing 800 grams of the aphrodisiac.

For Dangi, the hunt was over. More than that, instead of repaying the debt, he added to it. The helicopter ride alone cost him Rs 600,000. A surgery of the pelvis that was carried out on Friday in Lalitpur cost him an additional

Rs 300,000.

No record exists on the number of injured or dead during the annual summer hunt for yarchagumba in the highlands of Nepal. But those who have joined the seasonal harvest ever since it began in early 1990s say that death and injuries are inevitable, either by high-altitude sickness or by tumbling down the cliffs.

Neither the dead nor the injured, however, receive anything in compensation, even when they have paid entry fees to the respected villages.

Many like Dangi trek to the pastures in hopes of financial success and come back ruined.

“Every year at least five people die in Maikot pasture alone,” says Surbindar Kumar Pun, a veteran yarchagumba gatherer.

The 31-year old resident of Maikot in Rukum has been uprooting the plant for the last sixteen years. When he began his summer adventure, the rebel Maoists were in control of the pastures and Pun had to pay them Rs 100 as a toll fee.

Today, an unofficial Maikot village committee is in charge and as an entry fee levies Rs 1,000 on its residents and Rs 3,000 on outsiders. In Dolpa, the fee this year is higher at Rs 5,000 per person. Traders and businessmen pay more: Rs 10,000-15,000 per person.

This amount only allows the tens of thousands of

people, who throng the alpine pastures every year, to pick, collect, buy and sell yarchagumba. It does not entitle them to insurance in case of accident or death.

“The committee hasn’t thought about the insurance policy at all. No one has,” says Pun. “There is no one but yourself or God to blame for accidents, sickness and death.”

Filmmaker Dipendra Bhandari, who made a critically-acclaimed documentary on the mushroom in 2011 entitled ‘Journey to Yarsa’, says that the government could intervene but its participation in the whole process is minimal. “Once the yarchagumba traders cross the district border, they pay the government Rs 10,000 per kilo as tax. That’s the limit of the government’s involvement,” says Bhandari.

Even then the government has no record of herbal or monetary transactions that take place. According to Pun, some traders pay the VAT bill in advance; before they even buy the plants off the collectors. If they fail to buy as much as they estimated, they will lose the tax money. If they get their hands on more than expected, they will pay accordingly.

“Even then the bureaucrats never weigh the herbs; it’s all guesswork. No one knows how much of the herb or money crosses the district or national boundaries,” says Pun.

Dangi and his team had a bitter experience with the Army guarding the Shey Phoksundo National Park the team had to traverse. Because the team was travelling without a permit, the Army freed them only after receiving Rs 50,000 in cash and a goat worth Rs 20,000.

Still, Dangi, recovering on a hospital bed, says he might climb back to Dolpa next year.

Published: 24-05-2014 08:43

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