KARMA CHIMI | Thimphu
Swertia chirayita, commonly known as chirata or Ja-tig (Dzongkha) and Khalu in Tshangla, has been a blessing to the community of Lauri in Samdrup Jongkhar.
Swertia is cultivated by 58 households in Lauri gewog and operated under Pedmai Tshothang Ngomen Khalui Bedrur Dey (PTNKBD) group.
“We are constantly building the capacity of the group members in the field of marketing and export procedures,” said Leki Wangchuk, Biodiversity Supervisor from National Biodiversity Centre (NBC).
The 58 households doing the chirata plantation generate additional income in their hard-earned livelihood beside their potato business.
The residents share that they have been provided with an opportunity and that they are taking advantage of it.
Likewise, Sonam Dorji, 60, who is amongst the 58-household indulging in the business says that he earns around Nu 70,000 in a year from chirata and helps in providing assistance to their children and buying household necessities.
NBC is preparing for the shipment of 1740 kilograms chirata to Chanel Parfums Beaute’s (PB). The farmers received Nu 1.305 million from the raw materials and another Nu 1.305 million will be received by the government as royalty for the year 2022.
Chanel PB is considered as one of the world’s leading manufacturers of luxury fragrance, makeup and skin care products.
The SUBLIMAGE L’EXTRAIT, a Chanel PB product using an active ingredient from swertia chirayita, domestically grown in the Lauri gewog under Samdrup Jongkhar Dzongkhag was officially launched by Chanel PB based in France in October last year.
The collaboration with the Chanel PB on access and utilization of the plant for possible use in the cosmeceutical products started in December 2013. Now the plant is sold at Nu 750 per kilogram to Chanel PB.
When it comes to product and market sustainability, Leki Wangchuk, said it is too early to comment because the product is out in the market very recently and moreover, it will be determined by the consumers.
The annual requirement of raw material from the group in Lauri gewog by Chanel PB was tentatively fixed to 2000 kilograms.
Harvesting is done in August when the plants bear flowers. The entire plant along with flowers and leaves are uprooted and sun dried for 3-5 days depending on weather.
Leki Wangchuk said with the successful domestication of swertia chirayita, it is now sustainably sourced from the farmers’ field and used by Chanel PB without depleting its stock in the wild, rather it has contributed to an increase in the wild population due to non-harvesting from the wild.
Swertia chirayita is a triennial herb and takes three years to reach maturity. It is harvested manually after every three years during the flowering cycle and then researched for active ingredients for skin-restoring complexes specific to Chanel PB.
The future prospect and sustainability of the product looks bright for the swertia. The Chanel PB has agreed to explore diversification of the skin care products in a recent meeting convened between NBC and Chanel PB.
Once the group members are confident of the marketing and export procedures the role which is being shouldered by NBC will be slowly handed over to the PTNKBD group to perform the swertia related business independently.
In addition to the monetary benefits, the group also receives various non-monetary benefits such as capacity-building training and the supply of tools and implements required for growing chirayita.
From the monetary benefits they receive from the Chanel PB, annually, the group contributes Nu 100,000 to the Bhutan Access and Benefit Sharing Fund (BABS) as a symbolic contribution towards biodiversity conservation efforts.
This venture has immensely benefited the group in enhancing their livelihoods, particularly in terms of supporting their children’s education. This secured income proved to be their lifeline to the farmers, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when the borders were closed and the region was declared a high-risk zone with the restriction of movement outside the region.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock and Chanel PB are also working on a few other potential medicinal and aromatic plants and have reached to an advanced stage of research and development. Further, Chanel PB contributes Nu 1.5 million annually to the BABS fund as a contribution for giving access to Bhutanese genetic resources.
Lately, the locals share that wild boar contributes to low production and poor quality of raw materials because it destroys the entire field in search of food.
In 2019, 500 kg of swertia were even sent to Germany to study the feasibility of using it for the liquor industry. The blending of swertia in liquor was found promising especially in improving aroma but the continuity has been hampered by Covid pandemic. However, NBC is trying to re-establish commerce with Germany.
Swertia chirayita cultivation in Bhutan
Chirata is one of the most important medicinal herbs used in both traditional and conventional medicines for curing various diseases.
It is characterized by its bitter taste and is locally used in curing hepatitis, inflammation, and digestive diseases, chronic fever, malaria, liver disorders, gastritis, constipation, and skin diseases.
All parts of the plant are used as medicine by different indigenous groups. Besides being used to cure diseases, the beverage industry has also shown interest in Bhutanese chirata to produce alternative bitter products.
It is a triennial herb which grows up to 1.5 meters and has a single, stout, elongated stem, with branching at the tip. The colour of the stem is greenish-brown when the plant is young and changes into light violet as the plant attains maturity.
The stem is cylindrical at the base and quadrangular upwards. The roots are generally small, light brown, twisted and gradually tapering. The flowers are greenish yellow tinted with purple petals. The seeds are light to dark brown in colour.
The plant is endemic to temperate Himalayan region and is distributed between the altitude range of 1500 to 2500 metre above sea level in India, Nepal, and Bhutan.
It is a shade loving plant and grows among the thickets of forests on sandy loam soils rich in humus.
According to the “Flora of Bhutan”, 19 different species of chirata are found in Bhutan. Among the species, swertia chirayita is the only commercially valuable species in Bhutan, which is found in Zangthi, Tshothang, Dungmanma, Momring, Raynang, Raynangwong, Lauri and Serzor villages of Lauri gewog under Samdrup Jongkhar District.
In the past, this plant was collected from the wild by the locals without any management plans and regimes and sold mainly to India through an open auction process fetching just about Nu 150-200 per kg of dried material depending upon the quality.