Earth Mat­ters: Bhutan: Where en­vi­ron­ment is key to ‘Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness’

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - By Betsy Her­bert, Earth Mat­ters

As our flight as­cended above the thick blan­ket of smog over Kolkata on the west coast of In­dia, I was ex­cited to be head­ing north to the re­mote coun­try of Bhutan, known for its an­cient monas­ter­ies, multi-col­ored prayer flags and spec­tac­u­lar scenery.

In just 45 min­utes, we would be mak­ing one of the world’s most thrilling de­scents into Bhutan’s in­ter­na­tional air­port, nes­tled in the Paro Val­ley be­tween soar­ing Hi­malayan peaks.

For years I had wanted to visit Bhutan be­cause its gov­ern­ment of­fi­cially mea­sures na­tional progress by the “Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness” of its peo­ple. This term was coined in 1971 by the king of Bhutan, but the con­cept has in­creas­ingly drawn global at­ten­tion.

Un­like other in­di­ca­tors of na­tional progress, Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness is a sci­en­tif­i­cally con­structed in­dex that as­cribes equal im­por­tance to noneco­nomic as­pects of peo­ple’s well-be­ing, such as ed­u­ca­tion, health, en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion and cul­tural preser­va­tion. The con­cept is rooted in Bhutan’s his­tory. Ac­cord­ing to the le­gal code of Bhutan, dated 1729, “If the Gov­ern­ment can­not cre­ate hap­pi­ness for its peo­ple, there is no pur­pose for the Gov­ern­ment to ex­ist.”

The King­dom of Bhutan is a pri­mar­ily Bud­dhist coun­try whose pop­u­la­tion is around 770,000 (about 1/6th the size of the city of Kolkata). Tiny Bhutan is sur­rounded on three sides by In­dia (pop­u­la­tion ap­proach­ing 1.3 bil­lion), while China (pop­u­la­tion 1.4 bil­lion) bor­ders it to the north.

Af­ter we made a flaw­less land­ing at the Paro air­port we ap­proached the main ter­mi­nal, which at first it looked like a tem­ple with its curved tiled roof, col­or­ful hand-painted tim­ber-framed win­dows and white­washed walls.

As our small tour group made its way through im­mi­gra­tion, we met our Bhutanese tour guide named Chen, who would — with grace and hu­mor — treat us to some un­for­get­table ex­pe­ri­ences in Bhutan for the next week.

Bhutan, now a con­sti­tu­tional monar­chy, opened its doors to tourism only 40 years ago, and it still re­quires ev­ery tourist to be part of a cer­ti­fied tour group. Chen said the gov­ern­ment of Bhutan wants to avoid the en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion that Nepal has suf­fered over the past 50 years due to tourism.

Bhutan’s Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness in­dex gives the nat­u­ral world a cen­tral place in the mak­ing of pub­lic pol­icy, and en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion is a core guid­ing prin­ci­ple in Bhutan’s con­sti­tu­tion. As a re­sult, Bhutan has pledged to re­main car­bon neu­tral. In 2015, Bhutan is a car­bon sink, mean­ing it stores more car­bon than it emits. This is partly be­cause the coun­try has pledged to keep at least 60 per­cent of its land forested. Cur­rently, more than 70 per­cent is forested. Bhutan has banned ex­port log­ging, so that most of its big trees re­main stand­ing in the forests, where they se­quester car­bon from the at­mos­phere.

Still, Bhutan faces en­vi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges. Hy­dropower and tourism are Bhutan’s largest in­dus­tries. The abun­dant wa­ter sup­ply from gla­cial fed rivers from the steep slopes of the Hi­malayas cre­ate huge hy­dropower po­ten­tial.

Ac­cord­ing to one source, (­ter­na­tion­al­ some 24,000 megawatts of hy­dropower could be fea­si­bly re­al­ized in Bhutan, though only about 1,360 MW have been de­vel­oped to date. Most of th­ese hy­dropower projects have been fi­nanced by In­dia, which takes de­liv­ery of most of the elec­tric­ity pro­duced.

Its un­clear how much Bhutan can de­velop its hy­dropower po­ten­tial with­out caus­ing sig­nif­i­cant harm to its river ecosys­tems. No doubt this is­sue could present a se­ri­ous chal­lenge to Bhutan’s com­mit­ment to en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion. Dur­ing my visit, I pho­tographed one large sign in a lo­cal vil­lage that ex­pressed con­cern about the demise of the rare white-bel­lied heron as a re­sult of hy­dropower de­vel­op­ment.

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