Climate change is threatening Pakistan’s favourite fruit, the mango

Mangoes may be at the top of the food chain, but torrential rains, flooding and pests are causing problems for farmers.
Updated 06 Jul, 2023

You can slice it with the peel or without, cut and pull it apart into two cups or simply cut it into cubes. Just as long as you never skimp on sucking off the flesh from the seed, any way is a good way to enjoy a mango.

In Pakistan, mangoes are the saving grace of the harsh summer months. In May, June and July, as the days grow longer and hotter, we look forward to ice-cold mangoes stored in the fridge or in an icy water bowl in a freezer. Fathers haul boxes full of ripe and unripe mangoes home and mothers are put to the task of storing them strategically so that the ripe ones get eaten first while the unripe ones can rest a few more days in the box before being shifted into cold storage.

Unlike money, mangoes do grow on trees and I suppose that’s good enough for me. Mango trees are planted as six to 18-month seedlings or grafted shoots during the fall and spring seasons. As they grow, they require moderate winds and consistent moisture in the soil to grow in a steady and healthy manner. Mango trees grow to have short, stout trunks and thick, circular canopies of green leaves and within about five years, they bear thin and pale yellow flowers, clusters of them covering the trees until they overpower the deep green of the leaves. A single mango tree can bear fruit for more than 40 years. How lucky for us!

The great mango debate often falls between seed-grown (tukhmi) mangoes, which are known to be fleshier and sweeter, and graft-grown (qalmi) mangoes, which are more commercially available.

Mangoes are a very sensitive fruit that bruise easily. For this reason, they are picked off trees while they’re still considerably raw and then packed into wooden crates in which they ripen with time during the processes of shipping, selling and storing. Once they have ripened, they are best stored in cool temperatures to prevent further ripening and eventual spoilage.

Like most fruit, mangoes are a great (and yummy) high volume, low calorie sweet treat. Keeping variations in type and size in mind, one mango approximately provides 99 Kcal and is a great source of vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamin C, which aids immunity, iron absorption, and cell growth and repair. It is also linked to the health of organs such as the eyes and heart.

Sweet tastes, stronger opinions

Fortunately for us desis, Pakistan is the sixth largest mango producer and third largest mango exporter in the world. The moderately hot climates of Punjab and Sindh from May to August, coupled with their fertile soil and freshwater irrigation from the Indus, serves as the ideal condition for mango trees to bear fruit in glorious yellow bunches of sweetness.

Not only does Pakistan grow hordes of mangoes, the vast variety of the fruit available is stunning every summer. And since so much is made easily available, us Pakistanis have our preferences written in stone. This is not just applicable to the type of mangoes people like but also how they like them cut. The correct opinion, of course, is that chaunsa, cut in slices with the skin on, is the best of all 400 different types of mangoes grown locally, including the 30 different types available in the commercial market.

The South Asian vigour for mangoes is part of our ancestral legacy, bestowed upon us by our most intellectual minds. Since I was very young, my father would repeat the following historical conversation just about every summer. “Once a companion of the great Mughal court poet, Ghalib, offered a slice of mango to a donkey nearby for which the donkey expressed his abject aversion. The companion retorted, ‘Look, Ghalib sahib, even donkeys don’t like mangoes.’ Ghalib, who was known for his quick wit, swiftly rebutted, ‘Janab, ONLY donkeys don’t eat mangoes!’”

All summer, I’m known to initiate conversations with the topic of mangoes; it’s simply natural considering that I come from a family in which post-dinner dessert is a compulsory affair. All my life, I’ve heard my grandfather and father say that one could be full to the throat and still have two mangoes because the mango compartment is a capacity apart from the stomach. I have full faith in this biological theory. Speaking with extended family, friends and acquaintances, I’ve heard a range of love declarations for mangoes such as, “I’ve thought about mangoes all through work today” and “I think I’m having a mango deficiency!”

With that being said, here are some of the most celebrated varieties of mangoes grown and loved locally.

Langra — green but ripe

It’s hard to say why a mango would be named after the Urdu word for “lame” but langra is usually the first of its companions to make a grand entrance in the market. Grown in the rich region of South Punjab, langra hails from areas in and around Multan and Rahim Yar Khan and remains in the market all through May, June and July. What distinguishes it so easily among such a varied landscape of mangoes is that its fragile skin remains green even after it is ripe instead of turning the signature yellow mangoes are known for.

This mango is known for its strong smell, its dense and dull-yellow flesh and its unique taste, ranging from bitterly sour to fragrantly sweet making it best suited for pickling and canning.

Anwar Ratol — short king

Another jewel in the crown of Punjab, Anwar Ratol hits the market in two short bursts, one in May and then between July and August. I think of Ratol as nature’s candy because I’ve personally never had one that wasn’t unbearably sweet. In fact, since I don’t really have much of a sweet tooth, I find its sweetness too overbearing. But I know people who simply lose count of how many they’ve had at a time owing to its distinguished smell, taste and miniature size.

Chaunsa — the best one (obviously)

Chaunsa is named after a district in Bihar, India, my family’s pre-1947 home so I suppose it’s just fate, some kind of homecoming, that it’s my favourite mango. It has four varieties that appear in the order of summer chaunsa, white chaunsa, azeem chaunsa and black chaunsa between mid-June and August.

Only a true chaunsa connoisseur understands the nuance of the sweetness and fibre content of these four varieties of this delicious mango. It would not be a very outrageous claim that chaunsa is one of the most loved mangoes, not just in Pakistan but also around the world, owing to its exceptionally sweet and juice-running-down-the-arm quality. I’m telling you, it really doesn’t get better than this.

Sindhri — the heart of Sindh

Often growing to be larger than the average hand, the sindhri is the pride of Sindh with its origin in a town of the same name in the district Mirpurkhas. Apart from its larger than average size, sindhri is known for its distinct fragrance and its signature yellow colour covering sparsely fibrous flesh that can range from enjoyably tart to exquisitely sweet. You can enjoy it whole as a hearty, filling meal or you can turn it into a milkshake, ice-cream, custard or pudding all through May right up to August.

Dussehri — bringing out the small guns

During the first two weeks of July, round and small dussehri mangoes hit the market and replace just about every kind of dessert in Pakistan. These mangoes are primarily cultivated in Sindh’s Mirpurkhas and Hyderabad districts. They may be small, but dussehris pack the juiciest, pulpiest punch, delighting their consumers for an unfairly short amount of time.

Since Pakistan produces a whopping 1.8 million tonnes of mangoes annually, this if obviously not an exhaustive list. Other commercial and table varieties such as saroli, fajri, gulab khans, totapari, neelum, malda, alphonso etc are also grown in Sindh and Punjab and loved all across the country.

Hitting some roadblocks

 Photo: Ayaz Khan
Photo: Ayaz Khan

Mango production in Pakistan has now had its fair share of setbacks and I, for one, consider that a personal problem because a world without mangoes is dangerously dystopian to me.

Like every other life-sustaining force, climate change is disrupting mango growth patterns in Pakistan. Last year, unexpected heatwaves caused a water shortage in Punjab, setting back mango production and export targets by more than half. I spoke to Sanaullah, an experienced mango farmer in the Khanpur Katora village of district Rahim Yar Khan, about mango cultivation.

He explained to me that mangoes grow out of mango flowers called bhur. Once these flowers bloom, the tree requires moderate winds and soil that is neither too dry nor too wet but retains a constant level of moisture that keeps it clay-like. For this reason, the growth of mangoes becomes entirely dependent on the largely predictable forces of nature during the hot Punjab summers. However, since the green province has been receiving untimely storms and rainfall, the fast winds and excessive water have caused acres of bhur to wilt and fall from the trees, causing a sharp decline in mango production in Punjab.

I was curious about how the devastating floods of the past year affected mango production so I spoke to mango cultivator Mir Amanullah Talpur from Mirpurkhas about the issue. “Unlike Punjab, the groundwater is fresh in only very few areas of Sindh such as Umerkot, Mirpurkhas, Tando Allahyar, Matiari, Tando Adam, Sanghar and Nawabshah, making them conducive to mango cultivation. The issue is that the water table of Sindh has been raised because of the flooding,” he explained, “and when the water evaporated, it left behind a layer of salt on the ground, which mangoes are very sensitive to.”

In addition to this, he added that the recent cyclonic rains, which are known to be chloride-heavy, have negatively affected mango production in the region.

 A mango tree in flower
A mango tree in flower

Climate change and poor management are coupled with pest attacks that occur with excessive rain and moisture, eating way at unripe fruit. The issues only escalate due to the lack of governmental support for mango farmers. Talpur, said that in 30 years of working as a mango cultivator, no government has extended any substantial support to the trade.

There are still no proper channels of selling export-quality mangoes and farmers have to get by on meagre profits due to third-party involvement at auction places. Talpur woefully remarked, “There’s an annual mango show that happens in Mirpurkhas but, you know, it’s just an idiotic show. Sindhri is currently ranking as the third most popular mango around the world because, you know, it’s beautiful and Westerners eat with their eyes first and then with their mouths. But sadly, there is no substantial budget for agricultural research, growth or international input in the mango markets of Pakistan.”

Recently, the Trade Development Authority Pakistan (TDAP) initiated a pilot project for mango-bagging in the mango-cultivating districts of Sindh and Punjab to encourage mango exports, which is a major source of foreign exchange for Pakistan during the summer months.

I refuse to live in a world that is growing hotter by the day but bearing fewer mangoes every year. Mangoes encapsulate the delicate balance of our ecosystems, of the exquisite specificity of each leaf, each fruit that occurs in nature, and most importantly, of the urgent need to take care of the world that sustains us in such wonderfully sweet ways.