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Pakistan's mango orchards disappearing as weather shifts

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 18 Aug 2011 22:46 GMT
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MIRPURKHAS, Pakistan (AlertNet) – Increasingly harsh and unpredictable weather is hurting mango production in southern Pakistan, driving farmers to cut down trees in favour of higher-earning crops like cotton, sugar cane and wheat.

But the crop switch is reducing the region’s tree cover, leading to higher carbon emissions and hotter living conditions for many farmers, as well as a loss of culture in a region where mango growing has long been a part of life.

Ali Ahmed Brohi, who six months ago cleared 300 mango trees on his 10-acre plot in Mirpurkhas, 225 kilometres northeast of Karachi, is already wondering whether he made the right decision.

The cotton, sugarcane and vegetables he now plants earn him twice what he made from the 20-year-old mango orchard, Brohi said.

But increasingly hot summer temperatures in India, worsened by the lack of the shade and cool breezes the mango orchard once offered, worry him.

“I can feel a definite change in the climate in our area,” the 40-year-old said.

According to Pakistan’s Federal Bureau of Statistics, mango is cultivated on about 167,000 hectares in Pakistan each year, and the country produces 1.7 million tonnes of the fruit annually.

FOURTH LARGEST EXPORTER

Pakistan is ranked the fourth largest mango exporting country in the world, with exports valued at $20 million annually.

But erratic weather and a worsening burden of orchard pests are making life increasingly hard for Pakistan’s mango farmers.

Mirpurkhas, Brohi’s home, is known as the city of mangoes, where nutrient-rich varieties of the yellow fruit are cultivated.

But the chopping down of decades-old mango trees is now a common sight in Mirpurkhas, as in many places across Pakistan. Farmers say that has brought higher incomes but also more scorching summer days and nights.

“Mango trees help sop up carbon emissions and their canopies naturally regulate the temperature, and particularly keep the summer nights cool,” said Ali Akbar Rahimo, Executive Director of the Pakistan Association for Water, Applied Education & Renewable Energy (AWARE).

The trees also offer a range of other benefits, including slowing rainfall runoff, helping prevent soil erosion, and muffling noise, he said.

CHANGING WEATHER

But farmers say their mango crops have dwindled over last several years because of unexpected fluctuation in temperatures.

“Weather patterns this year were significantly erratic. After a lengthy winter, the tree didn’t enjoy full bloom of spring,” contends Nadeem Shah, who owns 110 acres of mango orchards in Matiari and Mirpurkhas districts in southern Pakistan.

He said that an extended winter and then an abrupt rise in temperature in March this year obstructed process of flowering and fruit setting in his mango trees.

“Flower setting requires temperature of 25 to 32 degrees Centigrade. But, (temperatures) were unusually high in March and remained a little above 40,” he said.

Disease attacks on different parts of mango trees – in part the result of hotter and erratic weather – have added to the woes of mango farmers.

DISEASE PROBLEMS

Horticultural scientist Muhammad Rafiq, at the Sindh Horticulture Research Institute (SHRI), said that frequency of diseases attacks on mango orchards has risen over the last five years. He blames the problem on climate change.

Over the last four years or so, “the winter immediately gives way to a scorching summer and the temperature suddenly jumps from 25 to 35 degree Celsius in April and shoot up beyond 40 degree Celsius in first week of May,” he said. Previously, he said, big temperature hikes came only in May.

For proper pollination and for mango fruit to mature, a temperature of 30 to 36 degrees Celsius is idea, said Ali Lahsari, a senior researcher at the horticulture institute. Such temperatures also help growers avoid the emergence of diseases or viral attacks on the fruit and trees.

“But, this is no more a common phenomenon in mango growing areas of Pakistan, and the temperature this year too touched 41 degree Celsius. Consequently, the flowers burn crisp and the yield drops to a few mangoes,” Lahsari said.

Temperatures between 25 and 30 degree Celsius are suitable for healthy growth of mango orchards and for avoiding disease and pest attacks, agreed Muhammad Ali Khanzada a botanist at the University of Karachi and an expert on mango diseases and cures.

CULTURAL CHANGE

The widespread loss of mango orchards is expected to lead to cultural change in mango growing areas of Pakistan, particularly Sindh and Punjab provinces.

Different cultural festivals are arranged in mango areas and baskets of mangos are regularly exchanged among families, relatives and friends to sweeten relations. 

“Matrimonial ceremonies are particularly arranged from May to August, which is mango harvesting season,” said Manzoor Chandio, a social scientist and historian who studied cultural history at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.

According to the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council, an estimated five to seven percent of the total area under mango orchards is being cleared every year in Pakistan, in part because of climate change-induced problems.

But, independent mango expert and former Punjab Food Minister Syed Willayat Hussain Gardezi  says the rate of loss is now beyond nine percent a year as the frequency of viral and pest attacks on orchards has gone up.

Mango exporters expected that Pakistan could lose its position as a major mango exporter within 12 to 15 years if orchards continue to be eliminated at the current rate.

Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are development reporters based in Karachi, Pakistan.

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