According to traditional Bhutanese belief, there are spirits residing in and protecting the natural environment. This belief has also influenced the relationship of Bhutanese people to their land by promoting a reverent stewardship of natural resources.
Environmental conservation is one of the four pillars of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) philosophy and environmental stewardship is actively promoted and nurtured across the country. June 2nd -the coronation anniversary of the 4th King- is observed as a social forestry day when schools regularly lead their students to tree planting expeditions.
Our constitution, introduced in 2008, states, “It is the fundamental duty of every citizen to contribute to the protection of our natural environment and prevention of ecological degradation. The Government shall ensure that a minimum of 60% of Bhutan’s total land area is maintained under forests cover for all time to come.” Bhutan is blessed with a pristine environment and rich biodiversity, yet Bhutanese people are very aware of the country’s geophysical fragility and of the importance of our forest cover.
The idea of “community forests” came from the 4th King of Bhutan’s 1979 royal decree. This decree began the process of giving parcels of government-owned forest to interested communities for communal protection and management.
My village of 150 people was one of the first in central Bhutan to gain custodianship of a well-stocked blue pine forest covering 115 acres. Every year, all households invest about 10-12 working days to maintain and monitor the forests and protect them from fire. The expected financial benefits from timber sales are a strong motivation. These days there is a tangible sense of excitement surrounding the piles of sawn timber in the village compound. This will be our first sale after 9 years nurturing our forest!
However, I am baffled by the fact that we import wood from other countries. Strangely, for a country so richly endowed with forests, furniture from China has become a “must have” item in urban homes! Some suggest that this is because of an unprecedented construction boom, while others say that we must review our policies and practices.
Here, considerable amounts of good quality wood are used as firewood. I have been deeply saddened to learn that we are losing our ancient Bhutanese rhododendron forests, which take hundreds of years to grow under the harsh conditions at the 4000m treeline. The rhododendron forests are also stressed by the need of firewood by seasonal collectors, who come in search of the rare and “as dear as gold” medicinal caterpillar fungus, Cordyceps sinensis. I love rhododendrons and I cannot imagine a day when their brilliant blossoms will cease to brighten up entire mountainsides.
But deforestation is only one of many threats to environmental degradation. The most pressing issue is definitely our poor waste management. Because of Bhutan’s accelerated economic growth and burgeoning consumerism, plastics bags have been singled out as the obvious offender.
How quickly our lives have been invaded by plastics! As late as the 1970s, we treasured every plastic bag we could get. We used them like our traditional cloth bags to store and carry food and other articles. Plastic bags were so precious and rare that village folks would carefully repair them by patching them with rags.
But on June 2nd, 1999, the government banned plastics. Despite the fines, the ban on plastics was largely ineffective. Eleven years later, plastics constitute more than 13% of the waste generated in Thimphu!
Our constitutional and civic duty to protect the environment is a formidable challenge. We will have to learn to live with less, always conscious of the fragility and the finiteness of our interdependent world.