In search of miracle berry in Himalayas: How sea buckthorn is transforming lives in Lahaul

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In the land of Chandra and Bhaga rivers, only the tough survive. Flanked by snow-peaked mountains, glaciers and little top soil, the region can really get you high, like 11,000 ft and above. Temperatures range from sub-zero to 25°C, with heavy snowfall making life very difficult here. Yet, a plant with green leaves, thorns and succulent orangish berries — sea buckthorn (SBT) — beats the odds. It is a miracle plant filled with benefits from regulating blood pressure to boosting immunity, and perhaps that’s why it has even caught the fancy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The problem is, it’s not available to most of us. So, I took a trip to Lahaul valley, which is home to two sub-species of sea buckthorn berry — hippophae rhamnoides and hippophae salicifolia — to find out more about them. After all, the Modi government has designated sea buckthorn as “one-district, one-crop” for the Lahaul region.

But why sea buckthorn? Lahaul areas are native habitat for this nitrogen-fixing shrub. It has a male and female plant. The female gives fruits — the sea buckthorn berries — which are highly nutritive ‘super food’ loaded with vitamins, minerals and other medical qualities. Historically, from Greek to Tibetan medicines all have used this miracle berry to heal people. As this shrub is deep rooted, it helps in climate mitigation, and water and soil conversation too. It’s also often used as a tool for animal-human conflict resolution. Currently, every part of the plant is used, leaves used for tea, pulp for juices and jams. And hence the ‘miracle berry’ title.

Sea buckthorn berries plucked. Image courtesy Indra Shekhar Singh

Coming to Lahaul, the entire valley is filled with sea buckthorn bushes, especially alongside the rivers. But at this point of the year, they were recovering from the winter fruiting, and new shoots hadn’t come. From the road they appeared dead, but reality was something else. Jisspa, 25 km from Keylong, is where I met Tashi Angrup, a 46-year-old organic farmer. He was an early bird when it came to introducing a variety of crops in the region, but his connection with SBT was different. In 2007, he created a two lakh sea buckthorn plants nursery.

“We gave out saplings as part of a desert development programme of the Indian government. Currently, the government has abandoned that policy. Overall, there is no policy for SBT promotion in the area,” Tashi said. He himself had to abandon the SBT nurseries as it was plagued by “marketing and lack of government support”.

“The Tino belt is particularly good for SBT, as the berry size is bigger and plants have less thorns,” Tashi added. Now I was tempted to take a closer look. I drove to Gemoor village and walked to Bhaga river to see the shrubs for myself. On the walk back, I stopped at Sonam Galsung aka Gyan Uncle’s teashop. Born in 1940, Gyan accidentally discovered the ‘miracle berry’ 30-35 years ago.

Gyan uncle in Gemoor. Image courtesy Indra Shekhar Singh

“People in the village didn’t know about SBT, although it grew everywhere. Once four-five Ladakhi and one foreigner came to a dhaba to eat. The foreigner spoke Ladakhi. I asked about him, and then I was told that he has been working on SBT for eight years. I recognised that these berries grow here,” Gyan said. The next half-an-hour, he took me down memory lane. From selling his first SBT jam to making SBT tea. It soon became clear that the thorny shrub has had a lot of problems, but its potential is still unharnessed.

“We don’t get labour as the harvesting season for SBT and peas clash. Plus, it’s also the fodder cutting season. The scarcity fuels wage inflation. And taking berries out of the plant is not easy, due to thorns, one person can at best harvest 3-4 kg a day and for 500 ml juice you need at least one kg of fruit. And if the berries are not processed in a day, they go bad,” Gyan explained.

Women processing Seabuckthorn in Miyar. Image courtesy Indra Shekhar Singh

Despite the problem, he alone sells Rs 50-60 thousand worth of pulp, each season. Packaging and marketing were other troubles plaguing the trade. After speaking with others in Gemoor, it became clear that most of them consume the SBT among themselves, and only little remained for the market. This was a very niche product.

Now to understand the issue better, I met Tashi. He had spent almost a decade working on SBT. Apart from being a farmer, he was also Khardang’s deputy pradhan. “Farmers in Lahaul earn much more through crops like cauliflower, lettuces and other exotic vegetables. Hence, not looking towards SBT. Even the government has been silent, despite Prime Minister Modi’s declarations. No government funding for SBT has reached the villages. I believe that in a Rs 2 crore project the government can plant over 200 hectares of wasteland with SBT. Given the unique forestland rules, which allow for planters of the tree to harvest its fruits in perpetuity, it can provide additional income to communities. But a lot needs to be done,” Tashi added.

He was confident that by planting the salicifolia varieties on wastelands, Lahaul could be transformed both ecologically and economically for the people. Now given that 70 lakh tourists visit these areas yearly, there is enough local market for the produce. The need was to get GI tags for local varieties and market them as Lahaul souvenirs, Tashi explained.

Dried Sea buckthorn shrub. Image courtesy Indra Shekhar Singh

SBT is also causing a mini-economic revolution in Lahaul. Women and mainly single or marginalised women have come to the aid of SBT. Women-led self-help groups (SHGs) are forming in the region and slowly organising as a cottage industry producing various SBT products — teas, jams, juice, et al.

I travelled to the Miyar valley to meet one of the government-supported SHGs. Miyar was one of the remotest places I had visited. Here I met Rigzin Choedon, the president of the local SHG group called Khandoma. This 50-year-old, along with 25-odd women, has successfully managed to reverse the odds. “When we started this self-help group, we had women from all walks of life join in. We identified the area and started work. The government supported us through the SECURE Himalaya Project (GEF-UNDP-Forest Department project). We got a processing unit, electric kettles, filling machine, hygiene kit and received FSSAI protocol training for processing juice,” Rigzin said.

Khandoma has definitely received government help and now its members hope that other initiatives will also spring up in the area.

After hearing all about SBT, I wanted to give the government an ear; I spoke to DFO Dinesh Sharma to find out what was happening. “There is no government policy yet. No nodal officer has been assigned either. But we at the local level through the SECURE Himalaya Project have been helping entrepreneurs start processing SBT. Women in Miyar have already started on this path,” Sharma said.

My next question was on Tashi’s suggestion of converting wastelands into SBT plantations. “SBT can’t grow everywhere, we need to carefully study the land and see if it makes agronomic sense,” Sharma added.

Despite challenges, the SBT mission provides new opportunities. As it was time to drive back to Delhi, I stopped one last time at Gyan’s shop. Sipping tea, I saw the Bhaga river one last time, with sea buckthorn shrubs basking in the sun waiting to bloom again.

The writer is an independent agri-policy analyst, writer and agri-talks show host. He was also the former director, Policy and Outreach, NSAI. Tweets at @indrassingh. Views expressed are personal.

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In search of miracle berry in Himalayas: How sea buckthorn is transforming lives in Lahaul
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