James and Thibaud Aronson report from the eastern Himalayas, where they journeyed in Bhutan, truly one of the Last Great Places on Earth.
The Kingdom of Bhutan, a small landlocked country the size of Switzerland, in the eastern Himalayas, is mostly known for its policy of Gross National Happiness. Its stated goal is to create the best possible living conditions for its 700,000 citizens through four pillars: good governance, equitable socio-economic development, preservation of cultural heritage, and conservation of the environment. To a cynical outsider, this could sound like just another PR gimmick. Having spent three weeks in Bhutan, we got to observe things firsthand.
The country, which lived in a nearly medieval feudal society until the late 1940s, is developing at a very fast pace – for good and possibly for bad. In thirty years, nearly the entire population, most of which lives in remote mountain villages, has received access to electricity. The country is also now crisscrossed by roads which are constantly being widened – for good and for bad. Many hydroelectric projects are in the works too, to generate income and foreign revenues from the country’s many rivers flowing through steep valleys. Exporting energy and promoting “low volume, low impact” tourism are thus the main economic drivers of this country that is opening up fast to the outside world. Mining is under development too, and that could prove to be a Pandora’s Box, environmentally, socially, and politically. However, 70% of the population still lives from subsistence farming and livestock under very tough conditions. A two-tiered economy is on the horizon.
Although most tourists come to experience the atmosphere of the last living Himalayan Buddhist kingdom, the country’s natural riches are unparalleled as well. Bhutan boasts an incredible 70% forest cover, most of it in pristine or near-pristine condition. Indeed, all over the country, from the alpine shrubberies at 4000 meters above sea level down to the subtropical forests at 150 masl, we got to observe a living ecology textbook on altitudinal zonation and see some astonishing plants, birds, and people along the way.
At the moment, an exemplary 51% of the territory is protected in parks and biological corridors, and new parks continue to be created, as the 2008 constitution states that no less than 60% of the total territory must be protected for “the environment”. Without a doubt, Bhutan holds the best preserved ecosystems in the entire Himalayan region. As a result, it offers some of the best habitat and long-term prospects for flagship species such as tigers, snow leopards, golden langurs, and many threatened birds, such as the satyr tragopan and the rufous-necked hornbill. Thinking long-term, this means that nature-based tourism has a great future, and that if a strong impetus for restoration were ever to develop in neighboring countries, Bhutan could serve as a reference for what the ecosystems in these countries once looked like.
However, there is work to be done within the country’s borders as well. Slash and burn agriculture is still commonly practiced, especially in the east, though the government is developing incentives for farmers to switch to more sedentary farming practices. Once abandoned, the degraded pastureland is rapidly recolonized by pines, chir pine (Pinus roxburghii) in the east and at lower altitudes, and blue pine (Pinus wallichiana) higher up. As elsewhere, these pioneer pines are more tolerant to harsh soil conditions than almost any other tree. Following perturbation, they quickly colonize degraded lands and form monospecific stands, which support very low biodiversity and present a significant fire hazard. They are considered valuable, however, as they produce timber. However, the broadleaved forests that they replace would have higher aesthetic, spiritual, touristic, and biodiversity values – long-term. Besides, they could still provide some timber while being at considerably lesser risk from fire and pests. It’s a trade-off though, and motivation for investment in long-term ecological restoration does not yet seem to be well developed.
More severe in their direct and indirect impacts at the landscape and regional scales are the hydro-electric projects already being developed, and those that are planned. As currently undertaken, these hydropower works lead to enormous disturbances in the affected river valleys. Because of the steep terrain, the dams don’t need to be enormous, it is true, but the impact of their construction, as well as the access roads – with the heavy equipment ill-suited to the terrain, and minimal apparent concern regarding the ecological impact on rivers and mountain slopes is enormous, in sharp contrast to the highly enlightened policy on how not to manage tourism and how it can be done. We were told that there is a clear understanding in government that watershed protection is important for maintaining their capacity to produce exportable quantities of hydropower. This apparently helps justify the remarkably high levels of set-aside areas in the mountains. It would be good, however, if the engineers charged with designing and building mountain roads and hydro-power project could proceed with a much lighter ecological footprint in mind; surely it is in the country’s long-term interest. It would also surely correspond more closely with the Buddhist philosophy that truly prevails in this unique country.
Happily, there are several state-run organizations equipped to carry out large-scale conservation planning and restoration. The forestry division already has been involved in planting native oak trees and other species in several localities, something which could be extended to the national scale and better integrated with development plans. Another institution, the Royal Botanical Garden, part of the National Biodiversity Centre in Thimphu, founded in 1999, could also participate via seedbanking, biological inventories, rescue missions for endangered species, etc. According to Ms. Sangay Dema, Principal Biodiversity Officer at the National Biodiversity Center of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, and Curator of the Botanical Garden, emphasis for now is on collecting and banking germplasm of traditional varieties of crops, ex-situ conservation of prioritized native flora, and seed banking, as well as banking of semen (in liquid nitrogen) of traditional breeds of domestic livestock. Biological inventories are underway and interest is growing for expanding existing work and developing ecological restoration programs, possibly in collaboration with BGCI’s ERA, of which Missouri Botanical Garden is a founding member, and SER. It is noteworthy that reforestation takes place almost exclusively with native species of trees, including the glorious Himalayan Cypress, national tree of Bhutan, and other conifers, willows, poplars, and oaks.
Both Sangay Dema, and Dr. Nawang Norbu, Director of the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment, told us that ecological restoration is on the radar screen for their institutes and the government as a whole. For starters, we’d suggest testing the direct seeding of acorns, as the native oaks and the complex communities of which they are part are at risk in several areas. One of the traditional practices here is to collect virtually all the leaf litter produced by oaks to mix it with animal manure and produce compost for field crops. While this makes fine compost, the ill effects on the oak stands and the prospects for natural regeneration are clear enough to see.
As ambassadors of the Missouri Botanical Garden, Botanical Gardens Conservation International’s new Ecological Restoration Alliance, and also the Society for Ecological Restoration, we extended a warm welcome to get involved in the international networks and growing number of commitments to large-scale restoration gathering momentum today. While it might be tempting to think that – almost alone among the world’s developing nations, Bhutan is doing very well indeed in the area of nature protection, and doesn’t need to worry about ecological restoration, we think that would be short-sighted.
Most important of all, what will the new generation of Bhutanese think about Nature Protection as one of the four pillars of Bhutanese society and the unique quest for Gross National Happiness? How will natural ecosystems survive in the face of the very rapid development that the country is experiencing?
In such rugged, mountainous terrain, much will survive, that is clear, and adapt as best it can to rapid climate change. But, which direction, and what environmental and economic policies, will the country follow going forward?