Every winter, I spend two or three weeks in my home district of Larkana in southern Pakistan, where I can relax with my family and childhood friends in the guava orchards, enjoying the juicy fruit known for its many health benefits.
But on my most recent visit I was disappointed. Instead of a healthy harvest I found dried up guava trees, with their leaves and fruit turning a deathly black and brown. I could see a desperate look in the eyes of the guava farmers.
In January, a sharp frost, the worst in the last five decades, caused widespread damage to the guava orchards just as they were about to be harvested. The cold snap struck guava trees across thousands of hectares in Larkana, a district of Sindh province.
The guava is a tropical fruit that can tolerate brief periods of cold but not much frost. The sudden cold spell killed tens of thousands of trees, which will now need to be replaced with new plants that take four years to mature and bear fruit.
In Larkana district, where guava orchards spread over 10,000 hectares that usually yield about 90,000 metric tonnes of fruit, district agriculture officials put losses at over 75,000 tonnes – or one billion Pakistani rupees ($9.5 million).
The farmers I spoke to say since they have never experienced such cold weather before, and were caught unprepared. Many of them are unaware of ways to protect their orchards in the future if temperatures plunge again.
In normal circumstances, agriculture department officials would give the farmers guidance. But officials too are unfamiliar with new, erratic weather patterns that are resulting in shorter but colder winters and damage to crops.
Tree damage is the biggest worry for guava farmers, for whom the loss of trees has a much greater impact than the loss of one harvest because of the long waiting time for trees to bear fruit.
‘PUSHED BACKWARD FIVE YEARS’
“We have been pushed backward five years in terms of our income from these guava orchards,” farmer Nabi Khan told me. He leaned against a dried-up tree, with dead leaves and fruit falling from the branches when the wind blew.
Another guava farmer, Razak Solangi, my childhood friend, who is the sole breadwinner of an eight-member family, says he has suffered financial losses of $20,000.
Given the weather’s unpredictability, Solangi and other farmers are considering uprooting dead trees and replacing them with vegetable cash crops that yield two to three harvests a year. Smallholder farmers wonder whether to continue with guava farming, which is labour-intensive because of the need for constant vigilance against pest attacks.
Karam Ali sits by a waterway that passes alongside Aghani road, a major thoroughfare that connects Larkana city with rural villages where guava is cultivated. Watching labourers clearing his 11-hectare guava field of dead fruit, he talks about opting out of guava farming and switching to the cultivation of tomatoes, potatoes and onions.
“How can I persuade myself to replant the guava trees when I am not certain that next year we will not suffer the same kind of cold weather?” he asked. “Maybe, next year it is worse.”
Guavas are produced and enjoyed all over Pakistan, either eaten fresh or made into jams and jellies. But the guavas of Larkana district, which account for over 70 percent of the country’s production, are considered to be the finest.
Although there have been reports of weather-related damage to guava trees in other parts of Pakistan, the losses have not been so severe.
The guava harvesting season from mid-January to mid-February is observed as a festival season all around the district. Farmers look forward to watching their produce being packed into wooden boxes for local consumption and export.
Fathers send baskets of freshly-harvested guava to the homes of their married daughters as a token of love, a tradition followed in my own family. Friends gather to enjoy the fruit, and exchange baskets with each other.
But this time the atmosphere during what should have been harvest-time is gloomy. Some wonder whether they will ever get to enjoy the prized Larkana guava again.
Saleem Shaikh is a climate change and development correspondent based in Islamabad.