Extreme Environmentalism

A Himalayan Kingdom Wary of Tourism

January 3, 2001

THIMPHU, Bhutan -- Bhutan has only to look to Nepal -- another Himalayan country wedged between India and China -- to know what it doesn't want: endless streams of tourists trampling into its towns and forests and leaving trails of garbage on the mountains.

Instead of worshipping the tourist dollar or even the investor's dollar, Bhutan is taking what it calls the "middle path" towards development, winning a reputation with environmentalists and international donors as an ecological paradise. The conservation policies of this tiny Buddhist kingdom are among the toughest in the world.

Tourism is strictly limited, mountain-climbing is prohibited, export of raw timber has been banned and not a single tree can be felled without approval. All infrastructure and industry projects are subject to rigorous controls. The forest cover has actually increased since the late 1960s, from less than 60 percent of the country to 72 percent now.

Yet for all the praise it has garnered and pristine beauty it has preserved, some are beginning to ask if Bhutan's environmentalism is extracting too high a cost from the country's rural residents, many of whom are illiterate, live without electricity and operate on a subsistence level.

"Perhaps we're being too overzealous in our conservation efforts that we're not balancing it with the needs of our people, who are paying for the conservation," said Dr. Pema Gyamtsho, head of policy and planning for the Ministry of Agriculture.

The unintended result may be having "healthy forests on one side and starving farmers on the other side," he said.

An article last April in Kuensel, Bhutan's only newspaper, was the first to raise the question publicly.

"In Bhutan itself there are many, mostly from officialdom, who are beginning to wonder if environmental conservation in the country has been too much of a success," the paper said. "They have found reason to believe that, in the tussle between environmental and economic goals, Bhutan may have leaned unreasonably often towards the former."

The Kuensel article noted that, unlike many other Asian countries, where rural migrants go to the cities because their farmland has been swallowed up by development, in Bhutan, it's the forest that is taking over the fields.

The rolling expanse of green hills surrounding Thimphu, the capital, was actually cattle-grazing land just 30 years ago, said Gyamtsho.

Along with the forests have come the wildlife. Wild boars, barking deer and other animals are getting closer to human settlements and destroying more crops than ever before. But because of legal and cultural barriers to killing animals, farmers are forced to expend valuable manpower guarding the fields day and night, leaving fewer adults to care for babies and less time for children to attend school.

"Sometimes we have farmers saying, 'You care more for the forests and wild boars than the people,"' Gyamtsho said.

Environmental work is becoming more of a challenge as Bhutan makes the leap from feudalism to modern times. For centuries, ecological conservation and sharing of resources was a way of life.

"Now, with all the development, the community is breaking down," said Kunzang Dorji of the National Environment Commission. "People are more individualistic."

In the cities, people buy noxiously-polluting diesel cars because diesel fuel is cheaper. Many are reluctant to spend the money on an electric heater and continue to use traditional wood-burning stoves for cooking and heating -- thanks to an annual quota of firewood from the government. As a result, Bhutan has the highest per capita consumption of wood in the world.

In the last few years, urban air pollution has become noticeable for the first time in this pristine Himalayan outpost.

When Bhutan first embarked on its environmentalism, it was "pure protection; there was no room for discussion," said Kinzang Namgay, the country representative for the local office of the World Wildlife Fund.

WWF, one of the donors to the $22 million trust fund that finances much of Bhutan's conservation activities, now emphasizes integrated conservation and development.

"Sometimes it's been criticized, that we're overprotecting the environment," said Ugyen Tsering, Bhutan's foreign secretary, sounding not at all displeased. "It's given us a personality."

Tsering believes that it's possible to have both development and conservation. In fact, forest protection is vital to what Bhutan hopes will be its ticket to economic self-sufficiency: hydropower, already its main source of revenue.

It sells the electricity, generated by river power, to India. Foreign aid still accounts for half of its budget, however.

Although tourism is also a major source of revenue and has the potential to be much bigger, Bhutan refuses to build up the industry.

While Nepal is a backpackers' haven, receiving half a million visitors last year, just 7,200 came here. The number is kept down by the limited number of airplane seats into the country and a US$200 per day fee, which includes lodging and most other expenses.

The restrictions bring a whole different type of tourist to Bhutan.

"The average tourist is either a senior academic or a well-to-do businessperson in their late 50s, intellectually curious about culture, generally concerned about the world as a whole," said Tsering. "Once they come, they go with a little appreciation of the challenges we face. Many turn out to be long-term friends."

Amateurs in Nepal fork out tens of thousands of dollars so they can boast they scaled Mount Everest, but Bhutan's peaks are closed to all but the deities that are believed to live there.

Tsering's distaste for mountain-climbing is more philosophical than religious: "There's the attitude that everything has to be conquered. But there's no need to dominate the four mountains. They'll be there."

TOURISM TO BHUTAN: Tiny but Growing Fast

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Source: Tourism Authority of Bhutan; and published reports.

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