Ecologist Special Report - Bhutan's stumbling block to becoming the greenest nation on the planet
1st March, 2017
Bhutan is well on its way to becoming the greenest nation on the planet. In his Special Report for the Ecologist, photojournalist MICHAEL BUCKLEY explores the reasons why the country's ecosystems and dazzling biodiversity remain intact - and highlights the one thing that threatens this admirable integrity...
Bhutan has become the first fully organic nation in the world. In fact, there is no multinational presence in the food line at all in Bhutan-no McDonalds, no Starbucks, no KFC
Radical times - climate-changing times - require radical solutions. In his book, Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life, biologist Edward Wilson set forth his radical plan and argued: "The only solution to the "Sixth Extinction" is to increase the area of inviolable natural reserves to half the surface of the Earth or greater."
Wilson's solution sounds like an impossible order, but the nation of Bhutan has already achieved that goal. Bhutan claims to have just over 50 percent of its land area assigned as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries - all connected by biological corridors. And Bhutan keeps adding protected areas, with several new wetland reserves declared recently at Phobjikha and Khotokha. This vast green coverage is possible due to a combination of factors: minimal exploitation of natural resources, Royal Family patronage of parks, and a very small population in Bhutan-officially totalling 768,577 people in 2016.
Unlike the neighbouring Chinese-controlled Tibet, where nomads have been kicked out of so-called ‘national parks,' the sanctuaries in Bhutan keep ethnic groups in place. To the Far East, the Brokpa, (semi-nomadic people of Tibetan descent) live inside Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary. In Jigme Dorji National Park to the Northwest of Bhutan, Layap yak-herders live in their traditional villages.
Across the border in the North, the Tibet Autonomous Region claims to have a third of its land area devoted to national parks and sanctuaries, but these appear to be on paper only and designed to pave the way for Chinese dam-building and mining exploitation. By contrast, Bhutan's national parks and sanctuaries are monitored, patrolled and policed by rangers and there are heavy penalties imposed for hunting or for felling trees. Killing a Takin, the national animal of Bhutan, for example, could result in five to 10 years in jail, plus a hefty fine.
Arriving in Bhutan (flying into Paro) the first thing that strikes the eye is the majestic alpine forest. Travelling on main east-west highway, I rarely lost sight of forest. We're not talking small forest cover here, we're talking about massive forest cover. The scenery reminds me a lot of alpine forest in Canada - fir, spruce, and pine (without the pine beetles). Over 70 percent of Bhutan is cloaked in forest, tropical, temperate and alpine, depending on the altitude. A minimum 60 percent forest cover is enshrined in Bhutan's constitution.
Bhutan is a remarkable repository for fauna and flora of the Himalayas. The national flower, the rare blue poppy, grows at over 4,000 metres. The 5,000 known species of plants include 47 rhododendrons and 600 orchids. Over 675 species of birds inhabit Bhutan. This rich biodiversity is possible due to extreme altitude range, encompassing 7,500 metres. From a low of 97 metres at the Drangme River to a high of 7,565 metres - the summit of Gangkar Punsum, the highest unclimbed peak in the world.
Spiritual Beliefs that enhance Protection
The reason Gangkar Punsum remains unclimbed is that Bhutan has banned climbing of all of its peaks above 6,000 metres, a number of which are regarded as sacred summits and believed to host guardian deities. Having witnessed the circus that prevails at the summit of Everest in nearby Nepal, along with huge amounts of trash involved, Bhutan decided that its sacred peaks are better left untrammelled by the boots of mountaineers.
Education in Bhutan promotes enormous respect for the environment. Indeed, glowing pride in the environment is the basis for trekking and nature tourism - the country's greatest tourist draws. Spiritual beliefs that sustain environmental protection are heavily imbued in Bhutanese culture, which is a mix of traditional Bon animist belief and Tibetan Buddhism. Bon adherents, being animist, believe that guardian spirits reside in the mountains, the trees, the rivers and lakes. And that these spirits should not be disturbed by either pollution or misconduct. Offerings must be made to these spirits and deities to ensure the success of crops.
Fully Organic Nation
Due to terrain that runs great extremes of elevation, there's no place for farming or herding on an industrial scale. This is a nation of small farmers, determined to keep the likes of Monsanto, Syngenta, and GM crops out. Bhutan has become the first fully organic nation in the world. In fact, there is no multinational presence in the food line at all in Bhutan - no McDonalds, no Starbucks, no KFC.
In the quest for food security in a changing climate, a 300-page UN report titled Wake Up Before it is Too Late (published in 2013) identifies small-scale farming using an organic system as being the sustainable way forward and not monoculture-based crops and corporate-controlled GMOs that are reliant on toxic pesticides. By this reckoning, Bhutan is a true leader for Asia. The country has also banned the import of chemical fertilisers.
Genetically-modified crops are making in-roads into Asia. Monsanto has returned to Vietnam (previously engaged in spraying the deadly defoliant Agent Orange), and is involved in the cultivation of GM corn as animal feed, operating under the name Dekalb Vietnam. In 2012, the International Rice Research Institute and Monsanto spent US$2 billion to develop a GM rice that is iron-fortified to deal with the problem of anaemia in India and Bangladesh. The resulting GM rice was found to pale in comparison with scores of traditional seeds, which naturally have a good amount of iron in them.
In Bangladesh, a GM crop known as Golden Rice is under trial. Funded by the Gates Foundation, Golden Rice has been developed by Swiss agribusiness giant Syngenta, which has a controversial track record. Golden Rice claims to contain Vitamin A - said to cure that vitamin deficiency. Golden Rice is named after its bright saffron colour. But the Bhutanese are sticking to their staple of red rice. Those savvy about seeds and crops will tell you that local Bhutanese varieties are both hardy and resilient to climate-change factors and have good nutritional value. The owner of River Lodge in Bumthang told me he grows a special variety of potato that is not affected by potato blight. He cultivates his own strawberries, plums and apples, and makes his own jams and apple cider. Bumthang has a small factory that makes Swiss-style cheeses with milk from local cows. Nearby is a micro-brewery that makes Red Panda Beer.
Rice is ridiculously water-intensive: indeed, the most water-intensive crop on the planet. So here lies a great problem: how to get enough water to irrigate that rice. Fortunately for Bhutan, its rivers rise on its own side of the Himalayas and so farmers are not dependent on trans-boundary rivers from Tibet (as India is). Bhutan is water-blessed, not water-stressed.
Climate change has brought unwelcome water problems to Bhutan. The threat of GLOFs (Glacial Lake Outburst Floods) looms large in the northern Himalayan parts of Bhutan. In the monsoon season, flashflooding causes landslides and erosion. I saw more than my fair share of landslide activity travelling on Bhutan's main east-west road, which is undergoing widening from one lane to two lanes. Driving along this route in a 4WD vehicle, dodging landslide-prone zones (undergoing blasting by road-crews) was a real cliffhanger.
There are some glaring obstacles in the path of Bhutan's clean and green vision for keeping its ecosystems intact - mainly, megadam building on Bhutan's powerful pristine rivers. These new dams are being built by Indian engineers: about 75 percent of the hydropower is slated for export to power-hungry India. Hydropower has become Bhutan's number one export.
Bhutan's government describes these as ‘green dams.' In fact, a major Bhutanese hydropower player is Druk Green Power Corporation. Putting a positive spin on things, Bhutan claims that its up-and-coming megadams are harmless river-of-the-river dams (no vast reservoirs). But when you build a pair of 1-GW-capacity dams on the same river, you cannot expect the riverine ecosystem to operate the same way ever again. This is precisely what is happening in the Punakha-Wangdi Valley, where two destructive dams are underway: 1200-MW Punasangchu I and 1020-MW Punasangchu II. Both megadams are on track for completion in 2018. Construction is advancing and a roadtrip into this valley reveals the vast scale of digging diversion tunnels, with loads of muck dumped onto the riverbanks, along with great piles of gravel and sand. Run-of-the-river dams let water through but block silt - and that means crops further downstream will not get the valuable nutrients they need. Although the Bhutanese rarely fish, the megadams will also block fish migration, which in turn, will affect communities downstream in India, in the states of Assam and West Bengal.
Ironically, hydropower output drops in the winter months, and Bhutan does not have an electrical network that is reliable enough to carry its citizens through the winter. In the freezing cold of the remote northern mountainous region, locals depend on the bucari, a wood-fired stove. The wood is culled from stands of trees set aside as ‘community forests.' Although Bhutan's population is very low, the nation has one of the highest per-capita rates of fuel-wood consumption in the world. These wood-burning stoves are adding CO2 to the atmosphere. More to the point, they are sending up black soot particles that will rain down on Bhutan's Himalayan glaciers, hastening glacial meltdown. But at least Bhutan has decided not to engage in large-scale logging to sell on to India as a source of income.
At the December 2015 climate-change conference in Paris, Bhutan pledged to be carbon-neutral. However, part of Bhutan's calculation on carbon-neutral is that it is exporting renewable energy, which can only be a reference to megadams on the rivers of Bhutan. That makes this a dubious claim. Bhutan plans to exponentially increase its export of hydropower to India by the construction of more megadam projects, targeting 10 GW of power output by 2020. And it is this which is a huge spanner in the works if Bhutan wants to keep its ecosystems intact.
Overlooking the last few paragraphs, you have to give Bhutan full credit for prioritizing ecology over economy. The Government is making a determined effort to steer away from unchecked exploitation of its natural resources. And you can only admire Bhutan for setting aside half of its land area for environmental preservation, fulfilling the vision of Edward Wilson. This is the only nation on the planet that can claim to have done so and this alone sets a shining example for other nations to follow. The survival of the planet depends on the visionary incentives that are being implemented in Bhutan.
Michael Buckley is a photojournalist and the author of Meltdown in Tibet (Macmillan, NY, 2015) and a companion digital photobook Tibet, Disrupted (Apple iBooks, 2016). He is also author of Tibet: the Bradt Guide. He is a regular contributor to the Ecologist and has travelled widely in the Himalayan region, visiting Bhutan a number of times.
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