UPPER AMBORE, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – For more than half a century, raising silkworms was a way to get through the bad times in Pakistani-administered Kashmir. But in 2005 a devastating earthquake destroyed many of the region’s sericulture facilities, dealing a major blow to the cottage industry.
Several years on, however, farmers are again looking at silkworms as a way of increasing their resilience to erratic weather that is threatening their crops.
The worms, which munch on mulberry leaves, can be raised in a spare room, and produce an income in as little as 30 days - a lifeline for farmers whose yields are declining.
“We are poor people who don’t have any source of income except subsisting on farming and (silk),” said Muhammad Niaz, a farmer in Upper Ambore village, in the hills about 5 km outside Muzaffarabad, the northern region’s capital. Water shortages mean he can no longer rely on growing grain, fruit and vegetables to feed his family of six, he added.
Niaz said increasingly uncertain weather in recent years has forced local farmers to look for different ways of earning a living. Climate shifts have affected agriculture more severely in the higher-altitude areas where farming is completely rain-fed, he noted.
“Almost a decade ago, there used to be timely rains and we used to cultivate maize in summer and wheat in the winter, but now we are not even getting fodder for cattle due to changed rain patterns,” he added. Local people say there is less rain overall, and it has become more erratic.
According to agriculturist Khawaja Muhammad Khurashid, unusual rainfall in the Himalayan region is forcing more farmers into poverty due to lost crops. “They are striving for other income opportunities, mainly involving short-cycle crops like silkworm rearing,” he said.
Niaz, 35, inherited sericulture – the formal term for raising silkworms - from his father, but is half-hearted about it these days because he lacks the space to rear enough worms. He has around 40,000 in one room of his thee-roomed house perched on a green hilltop.
Sitting on a chair by the iron stands full of green mulberry branches with white silkworms nibbling the leaves, Niaz’s 84-year-old mother, Muhammad Jan, described how the family took up the practice to survive.
“My husband bought wheat for us by selling the first crop of cocoons in 1970, which was enough for our family of 15 for six months at such a difficult time. We had had nothing to eat due to poverty and that is what made us passionate about sericulture,” she recalled, leaning on a stick for support.
Sericulture was introduced to Pakistani-administered Kashmir in 1952 to provide a source of income for the poor, landless and small farmers, particularly women.
“Sericulture saw its boom in the 1990s, when the government used to distribute millions of mulberry saplings and fertilisers free of cost to attract villagers to silkworm rearing, as well as high-yielding silk eggs,” said Zaffar Iqbal, former director of Kashmir’s sericulture department .
But the October 2005 earthquake, which killed some 75,000 people, devastated the industry.
“We used to sell 90 to 100 tonnes of silk cocoon every year by 2005 when the earthquake struck, destroying the infrastructure of the sericulture department,” Iqbal said.
The quake damaged a wide range of government facilities, including a research centre, seven rearing halls and 11 offices. Silkworm rearing and egg production more or less ceased in the affected areas, affecting the livelihoods of thousands of people.
Muhammad Rizwanullah, an entomologist at the department, said the region used to supply silk eggs (also called seeds) across Pakistan and Afghanistan, but production of seed packets has dropped by more than three quarters since the disaster.
The government’s sericulture facilities have yet to rebuilt, and some of its mulberry nurseries have been handed over to private educational institutions. Iqbal believes saplings must be planted on state-owned land to give the industry a real shot in the arm.
If it does get back on its feet, Iqbal believes it can make a real financial difference to poor communities. He cited the example of Sarai village in Hattian Bala district, which before the earthquake generated more income from one month of silkworm rearing than from its wheat crop which took six months to grow.
But the way people’s homes have been rebuilt after the quake means some farmers cannot pursue sericulture to the extent they would like.
Zakir Hussain, a field assistant with the sericulture department, explained that many families previously had mud houses with large rooms and halls ideal for silk-seed rearing. But these crumbled in the disaster and have been replaced by two-room houses made of concrete with tin roofs, which are too small and hot for rearing worms.
“I want to rear four packets, producing 80,000 silkworms, to earn a livelihood for my family of six, but I could only cultivate one packet due to a lack of space,” said Naz Kazmi, 35, who lives near the sericulture department’s mulberry nursery in Kucha village, 45 km south of Muzaffarabad.
Ghulam Hussain Qureshi, Pakistani-administered Kashmir’s deputy secretary for industries, said sericulture promotion has been neglected mainly because of the state’s budget deficit.
“The government was focusing on the construction of roads and schools, and smaller departments like sericulture have not been included in its top priorities,” Qureshi said.
But new projects have been approved for the new fiscal year which started this month, including the development of mulberry nurseries, he added.
A rebound in Kashmir’s silk industry could also reduce pressure on the region’s fast-declining forests, experts say, as it offers an alternative to people who have relied on timber harvesting for income.
“The revival of the silk industry will have positive effects on the environment and forest conservation,” said Khizar Hayat, the region’s head of forest protection.
Roshan Din Shad is a freelance journalist based in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir.