Climate change threatens silk industry in NE India

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 7 Dec 2010 17:15 GMT
Author: Amarjyoti Borah
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p>GUWAHATI, India (AlertNet) - Rising temperatures and changing weather patterns linked to global warming are threatening the silk industry in India's northeast, jeopardising the livelihoods of more than two million people, researchers say.

For generations, the people of Assam state have depended on the production of an organic golden silk known as Muga, but this has declined in recent years, slashing the income of Muga farmers, silk weavers and others in the trade.

Climate change is at the root of the fall in natural silk production, environmentalists say.

"The silkworm is vulnerable to variation in atmospheric temperatures since the worms that produce the cocoons are reared outdoors," said Sangita Gogoi of the Centre for Environment, Social and Policy Research, a non-profit organisation in Assam.

"The ideal temperature for rearing silkworms ranges between 24 and 32 degrees Celsius, with a humidity level of 80 to 85 percent, but in the last few years, temperatures have risen and this is affecting production," added Gogoi.

Muga silk, known for its glossy fine texture and durability, is produced from the cocoons of the Muga silkworm moth, or Antheraea Assamensis, found only in Assam. Muga yarn cannot be dyed or bleached, so it keeps its natural golden colour.

As natural silk production has fallen, so has the commercial production of Muga yarn, according to the Assam Sericulture Department.

Since 2007, the state has fallen short of its annual target of commercial Muga yarn production by between 24 and 34 metric tonnes a year. In 2009, the state produced 109 metric tonnes, missing its goal of 134 metric tonnes, and the state is a long way off its 2010 target of 150 metric tonnes, department officials say.

"Harsh climatic conditions are affecting silk production, which in turn affects its commercial production," said C K Dihingiya, a senior official at the department.  

GOLDEN THREAD

Over 7,140 hectares of land in Assam is under Muga cultivation, which is a highly labour-intensive industry.

Muga farmers lay out eggs of the Antheraea Assamensis moth on the leaves of two trees - the Som and Soalu - to hatch into caterpillars about 2 millimetres long.

The caterpillars eat voraciously, growing to about 30mm after about five weeks and changing their skin four times. After the final skin change, farmers provide the silkworms with straw frames in which to make a cocoon. This takes another eight days.

Farmers then boil the cocoon in water and reel the silk in on a reeling machine.

In recent years, farmers say cocoon production has almost halved.

"We used to be able to produce over 30,000 cocoons a year, fetching almost 4 kg of silk, but over the last two years, production has declined and we've produced less than 18,000 cocoons per year," said Krishna Pegu, 52, a Muga farmer from Dhupdhora village in Assam.

Pegu said his income had dropped from 12,000 rupees a year ($265) several years ago - enough to live modestly - to less than 7,000 rupees a year.

RIPPLE EFFECT

The decline in cocoon and silk production is having a ripple effect across a state where some 2.3 million people are linked to the Muga trade, including almost 1.3 million hand loom weavers, as well as farmers, labourers and sales people, according to the All Assam Handloom Cooperative Association.

"The decline in silk production is putting the jobs of these people at risk," said Dihingiya.

The village of Sualkuchi in Assam is famous for silk weaving, but many local families who have depended on the trade for generations no longer have enough raw material to weave with and are losing their jobs.

"We have been a weaver family for generations, but I and my brother had to give up weaving as our income and profits have drastically declined in the past few years," said Bikiron Kalita, 41, from Sualkuchi.

Kalita said he used to earn between 8,000 and 10,000 rupees per month up until four years ago. In recent years, his earnings dropped to 4,000 to 5,000 rupees per month, or even less.

"Over the past year, conditions have got worse and I had to spend several months without work and without an income," Kalita said.

As the effects of climate change continue to curb the activities of the Muga silkworm, residents of Assam's silk village fear for the future of a centuries-old industry.

Amarjyoti Borah is a freelance writer based in northeast India.