They wear their shalwars inside out and smear black kohl under their eyes for good luck.
These are the superstitious rituals associated with morel mushroom hunting in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. But no one seems to mind looking funny because of how much money they make.
One kilogram of morel mushrooms can fetch up to Rs30,000 per kg in the international market, making it the most expensive fungus in the world. And as luck would have it, Shangla has plenty of it.
At a 45-minute drive from Khwazakhel tehsil of Swat district is district Shangla. Its cold weather is perfect for mushrooms that need to grow with hardwood and coniferous trees in thick forests with rich soil. In fact, the conditions here are ideal for medicinal plants which grow in abundance. And because the district is one of the poorer ones, most of the people and their cattle depend on the herbs and shrubs that are full of vitamins and antioxidants.
As the first summer rains hit the peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains that surround the valley of Puran and Alpurai, the headquarters of Shangla, people set out to find the mushrooms that tend to grow from March to July. They call them Guchhi or Spina Guchhi. The tricky part is that the morel only grows in the wild.
There is an increased urgency in the hunting now, oddly enough because of militancy. And no one could have predicted that the military operation would actually change the way the locals thought about morel mushrooms.
One of those people is Pirzada from Bele Baba town. He and his family left when the military operation ‘Black Thunderstorm’ began in the summer of 2009. “We had only around 2kg of morel mushrooms and a few roosters for food when we reached Peshawar,” he said.
A few days later, one of Pirzada’s cousins, who was studying environmental sciences at the University of Peshawar, showed up with a friend. The family roasted some morel mushrooms for them but when his friend saw the meal he couldn’t believe his eyes. He told them the morels would fetch a fortune. “I didn’t believe him,” says Pirzada. “All our lives we’ve been eating these mushrooms cooked and raw as a staple food and no one said anything about selling them in Shangla.” The next day, he managed to sell the family’s remaining stock for Rs3,000 to a teacher at the Agriculture university of Peshawar.
The people who fled Shangla during the operation thus slowly began to realize when they were exposed to the outside world, that they were actually sitting on what is called the gold of the mountains. “Shangla is an impoverished district where we don’t find much to eat,” says Umerzab, who is a major dealer in morel mushrooms and other herbal plants in Bele Baba town. Earlier on, schoolchildren and women, while grazing cattle in the mountains would hunt for morel mushrooms as a part-time job as it was food. The district mostly depends on livestock, working in coal mines in the winter and eating shrubs from the mountains to survive.
But then Umerzeb found that as people returned to Shangla after the operation, business started booming. “Mushrooms of every kind are a blessing for us.” He buys to up to 70kg from local hunters a year. The black ones are more expensive than the yellow ones. A kilogramme sells for Rs17,000 in Shangla and for up to Rs30,000 in Islamabad.
Now nearly every person living in Baqi, a village of 130 houses, hunts for morels the entire summer. Two kilograms a month are enough to run a household for two months in this remote area. “Some people say they’re transported to Europe, some say to Japan and China for medicinal purposes,” Saleem Khan says.
The challenge for this cottage industry will be figuring out ways to tap into markets. Morels need to be dried out to increase their shelf life. First you remove the mud and then hang them out for 10 to 15 days indoors. They are mostly exported to France, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, China and the Middle East. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa exported about 70 tons in 2005. And to put this in perspective, the estimated total world production is about 150 tons. In local markets they sell for Rs20,000.
Shangla’s locals are now wondering why they didn’t know this earlier and many are keen to bypass middlemen to access international markets. Syed Shah says the conflict helped people realize the value of the medicinal plants. Of course, the peace in Shangla is key to the entire business. Earlier on, they couldn’t go to the mountains due to the check posts and militancy. “No one cared about mushrooms during the operations for around two years in the area,” says Saleem Khan, a dealer in Rahimabad of Alpurai tehsil. It was just not possible to go into the mountains because of the militants and the military.
“Even the militants were using them,” says Syed Shah. Security forces who were deployed in Shangla were also clued in. “We didn’t know why they needed them but we gave some to one of the captains who used to patrol the villages in Alpurai tehsil.”