Environmental Conservation: The Bhutanese Way

Nestled amidst the folds of the Himalayan range is Bhutan, a small Buddhist kingdom. The country is situated on the southern slopes of the Eastern Himalayas, bordering the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China in the north and the Indian states of Sikkim in the west, Assam in the south and Arunanchal Pradesh in the east.

Bhutan displays a rich hertiage and vibrant culture. The people are of Mongoloid origin, with distinct and unique traditional and cultural customs. The clothes, religion, culture, traditions, festivals and its pristine environment mingle to provide a unique cultural setting in the Himalayas and the last bastion of the Mahayana form of Buddhist civilisation.

Development came to Bhutan in the early 1960s, when the kingdom opened its doors to the world for the first time in its history. Until then Bhutan was a country shrouded in mystery, untainted by any foreign influence. Today much of the country's culture traditions and environment are still thriving. Bhutan has been sustained by its vision of being a self-reliant country where its rich legacy of culture and traditions are intact and people live in harmony with nature and the environment. Above all, the people are happy and contented.

Bhutan can be divided into three climatic zones: sub-tropical, midmontane and alpine. The subtropical zone stretches to altitudes of about 1,800 metres above sea level. This zone receives heavy rainfall and has dense broad-leafed forests. The mid-montane moderate rainfall and has dense conifer forests. The alpine zone extends beyond 4,000 metres and has mainly tundra vegetation. This region is mostly covered in snow clad peaks and has a very low population density with only nomadic groups residing there.

In 1988 Bhutan was identified by Norman Myers as one of the ten biodiversity hot spots in the world. It has also been identified as the centre of 221 global endemic bird areas. Bhutan's ecosystem harbours some of the most exotic, endemic species of the eastern Himalayas. It has an estimated 770 species of birds, and over 50 species of rhododendron. The mountains brim with other exotic species like the blue poppy and different medicinal herbs. Animals like takins, snow leopards, golden langurs, tigers and elephants roam its forests.

Bhutan signed the Convention on Biological Diversity and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. These conventions were ratified in 1995 at the 73rd session of the National Assembly. The Royal Government of Bhutan has also made a national commitment to uphold its obligations to future generations by charting a path of development called the Middle Path. This is development which upholds both environmental and cultural preservation as an integral part of the development process. Development will not be material development alone but will incorporate cultural and spiritual enhancement.

1. Commitment to preservation of Biodiversity

2. Institutions Involved Directly in Environment Conservation

The National Environment Commission (NEC)

This is a high level policy making body that oversees all cross-sectoral activities related to the environment in the country. It has a high level committee including the Minister of Planning as the Chairman, the Minister of Home Affairs, the Minister of Trade and Industry, the Deputy Minister of the National Environment Commission, the Secretary of Agriculture, and the Joint Secretary of Forests as members.

Nature Conservation Section in the Forest Services Division

This organisation is responsible for conservation activities all over the country. It has drawn up management plans for forests and is also in the process of formulating a Biodiversity Action Plan.

Sustainable Development Secretariat

This is a section within the Ministry of Planning. It was formed after Bhutan entered the Sustainable Development partnership based on reciprocity and equity with the Netherlands, Benin and Costa Rica. Under this treaty signed in March 1994, the government of the Netherlands provides US$3 million per annum for projects in culture, biodiversity, renewable natural resources and energy.

Sustainable Lifestyles

With a relatively small population of 600,000, people in Bhutan enjoy a sustainable lifestyle which they inherited from their fore-fathers. Buddhism, prevalent in the country since the 7th century, respects all forms of life and considers them sacred. The natural elements of the earth: wind, water, rocks, trees, lakes and mountains are seen as the abode of gods and goddesses and spirits and demons. They inhabit these areas and are believed to punish, with death and disease, those who disturb and pollute their domain.

For centuries, Bhutanese have treasured the natural environment and have looked upon it as the source of all life. This traditional reverence for nature has delivered Bhutan into the 20th century with an environment still richly intact. Bhutan wishes to continue living in harmony with nature and to pass on this rich heritage to its future generations.

In recent years, however, increasing population, change in consumer patterns and rapid urbanization have begun to put great pressure on the environment. This could potentially be a great threat to conservation and sustainable development. For example, the unabated population growth, if unchecked, would negate all development efforts and seriously impair the country's potential for achieving its goal of sustainable development and improving the quality of life of all Bhutanese people.

Fortunately for Bhutan, maintaining a balanced natural eco-system remains the central theme of its development process. Bhutan's development policies disregard sacrificing its natural resource base for short term economic gains and are consistent with the central tenets of sustainable development, environmental conservation and cultural values. Bhutan believes that a healthy environment is essential for material and spiritual happiness. In the words of His Majesty the King of Bhutan: `Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.'

Preserving All Forms of Life

In the Buddhist perspective, culture, tradition, religion and beliefs and the environment are dynamic phenomena that are interwoven tightly in the web of all life. The inter-relatedness of all living things is revealed in the strongly embedded Buddhist philosophy, values, and local belief that have contributed to a healthy and intact environment.

While world leaders today, both temporal and spiritual, struggle to address problems related to the breakdown of this inter-relation of life such as severe deforestation, mass degradation, pollution and poverty, Bhutan is making sincere efforts to check the emergence of these problems. Representing one of the best and last chances for the conservation of biological diversity in the eastern Himalayas, Bhutan is committed to protecting and preserving this last area of rich biodiversity for all generations to come.

Culture and tradition in Bhutan play very important roles in preserving the status of the pristine environment. Bhutan's unique cultural and traditional values, highly valued in themselves by all the population, are also essential embodiments of the nation's identity. For a small country located between the two most populated countries of the world and with no military might or economic strength, the preservation and promotion of its distinct cultural identity is seen as an important means for its survival as an independent and sovereign kingdom. It was this identity that has protected and sustained Bhutan and also provided the foundation for its major policies.

While seeking to develop the kingdom in order to improve the living standard of the people, his Majesty the King has made determined efforts to promote its rich spiritual and cultural heritage so that values and customs which have given strength and resilience to Bhutan through the ages are not eroded in the process of modernization. As Buddhist philosophers say, "Culture lies not in objects or monuments but in the mind and compassion towards all sentient beings."

(From Bhutan - The Path Towards Sustainable Development, The Royal Government of Bhutan, National Environment Commission, Post Box 466, Thimphu, Bhutan).

For further information contact National Environment Commission, Post Box 466, Thimphu - Bhutan. Telephone (975 2) 23384, 24323 Fax: (975 2) 23385. For feedbacks on the web page e-mail to Tshewang C. Dorji, Royal Bhutanese Embassy, New Delhi