Only one-eighth the size of Montana, Bhutan is a folded landscape of narrow river valleys plunging from glacier belt to banana belt, connecting the low plains of India with the Tibetan Plateau. The biodiversity within this small country is immense, and despite the fact that Bhutan lies locked between the two most populous nations on earth, the Bhutanese have trod lightly, leaving the landscape almost pristine.
Until 1961, Bhutan was interconnected only by mule trails, bridges and ropeways; no roads, cars, electricity, postal or healthcare systems, and virtually no communication with the outside world. Bhutan’s rapid entry into the 21st century has been cautious, characterized by careful contemplation of the globalizing world’s myriad offerings. The mixing of old and new to be found in Bhutan is like nowhere else, full of creativity and surprise—from hydropowered prayer wheels to a PowerPoint presentation on “gross national happiness.”
On May 20, 2002, myself and 10 other members of a study team from the University of Montana began a 48-hour journey to the other side of the world: Missoula-Salt Lake City-Los Angeles-Seoul-Bangkok-Calcutta-Bhutan. As guests of the Bhutanese Ministry of Agriculture, our mission was to learn all we could about their unique national agriculture system, and how it fits into their national agenda of sustainable growth. The Bhutanese try to meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
Inherent in this policy is one of the most progressive ecological conservation agendas anywhere. We spent two weeks in the fields, forests, classrooms, catered meetings with dignitaries, research stations, monasteries, villages, and farmhouses of Bhutan, where we were privileged to a rare glimpse into a very special place. What follows is a sketch of what we learned.
PEAS and goodwill
The Missoula-Bhutan connection began in a field of vegetables at Fort Missoula, where UM PEAS (Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society) instructor Josh Slotnick was tending a new crop of organic farming students. During an impromptu lecture while thinning a row of beets, Slotnick told his students about Bhutan, a near-mythical place with agricultural practices on the leading edge of sustainability.
Slotnick’s information came from a Bhutanese friend from grad-school, Chime Wangdi, who went on to become director of horticulture in Bhutan. Encouraged by his students’ interest in this unique place, Slotnick wrote to Wangdi, asking if a visit was possible. She wrote back: “Yes.” Thus, a PEAS delegation was invited to travel to Bhutan as guests of the Ministry of Agriculture.
Ultimately, Slotnick couldn’t join us due to farming responsibilities at home, and his absence was sorely felt. But his enthusiasm and spirit traveled with us, while his name opened doors that few outsiders have entered.
One good thing about traveling across 12 time zones is you don’t need to reset your watch. Weary but stoked, we emerged from Paro Airport to meet our guides, Chiimi Dorji and Karma Penjore, who greeted us with smiles, silk scarves, and folders containing the details of our visit. The days turned into weeks of vistas, meals, personalities, and striking discoveries. What? Plastic bags are illegal in Bhutan? A typical Bhutanese child can speak four languages, including English, and munches hot chili peppers like M&Ms? Life expectancy in Bhutan has nearly doubled since 1961? What the... is that a...? Enormous penises are painted on the sides of houses, which are owned by women and passed on, along with the land, to the youngest daughter. Polygamy in this village, polyandry in that village... Time to stop for tea, again.
On and on, the surprises and royal treatment continued; what had we done to deserve this? Nothing, really. Except Slotnick’s old schoolmate was now the personal escort to the Queen of Bhutan. Our hosts made it clear that they hoped our trip was to be the first step in a long-term relationship between UM and the Ministry of Agriculture, and we quickly realized that we were not just students: we were agro-ecology ambassadors.
While the royal treatment was nice, Bhutanese concepts of royalty often challenged our political ideology and western notions of freedom. We are used to believing that democracy is good because it reflects the will of the majority, while monarchy is dangerous, because it reflects the will of a few. But our democracy is responsible for some of the worst ecological devastation on the planet, while Bhutan’s monarchy is producing some of the most enlightened environmental policy anywhere.
His Majesty the King, Jigme Singy Wangchuck, is lavishly praised in Bhutan—to a point where it’s tough to swallow. Similarly, the journalistic objectivity of Kuensel, Bhutan’s state-run newspaper, has been questioned by outside skeptics.
There are problems in southern Bhutan with ethnic Nepalese, who have migrated through Bhutan’s porous border over the years. Many of them have recently started or joined “pro-democracy” movements, and found themselves shipped back to Nepal. Allegations of human-rights abuse is a strange juxtaposition against the supposedly enlightened policy we were there to study.
Thus, we arrived in Bhutan braced for the paradoxical spectre of Buddhist fundamentalism; a paucity of reliable news, the possibility of taboo topics not be discussed, and fear of a Bhutanese “Big Brother.” What we found were numerous Internet stations where people could read the same news we could, and our difficult questions were answered with frank sincerity.
Karma told me about life as an agricultural extension agent in the south of the country, and the hostility and abuse he often faced from many Nepalese. While international human rights groups continue to criticize Bhutan, we met many Nepalese who seemed happily integrated into Bhutanese society—and therein, perhaps, lies a clue into the conflict.
Bhutan is trying very hard to preserve what it has. The Nepalese who embrace these goals are embraced, but there is little tolerance for those who openly disrespect the established society.
Bhutan has watched Tibet lose its autonomy to China, and the former Buddhist kingdoms of Ladakh and Sikkim have been swallowed by India. Squeezed between these superpowers, amidst widespread instability in the Himalayas—especially Kashmir and Nepal—the last remaining Himalayan Buddhist nation considers cultural identity and national unity as paramount to national security.
Learning from the ground up
Karma and Chhimi, our guides, teach at the Natural Resource Training Institute, a school for Bhutan’s agricultural extension-agents, who serve as intermediaries between farmers and government institutions. If a farmer has a problem that the extension agent can’t help solve, he or she brings it to the appropriate research station or policy room. Extension agents also provide technical and marketing advice, tools, and suggestions for new home and market crops.
Ever vigilant for creative solutions arrived at by the farmers themselves, extension agents are quick to notice good ideas and disseminate them around Bhutan. Team member Dr. Sarah Halvorson, professor of geography at UM, marveled, “In a development context, it is typical for the technical person to assume this ‘expert’ untouchable status. In Bhutan they are consciously trying to break that down, while at the same time legitimizing the experience and knowledge of the farmer. It’s an amazing mix of top-down and ground-up communication.”
Adding to the mix, global forces are now at work in Bhutan, enticing farmers—who comprise 85 percent of the population—with agro-chemicals, petroleum-powered tools, and the promise of distant markets. Without telling people what to do, the Ministry of Agriculture encourages organic agriculture for health, environmental, and economic reasons.
There is a spiritual dimension as well, rooted in Buddhist and pre-Buddhist beliefs that the mountains, rivers, streams, rocks and soils of Bhutan are the domain of spirits. Pollution and disturbance are believed to be the causes of death for these spirits, as well as other beings that also inhabit these places, such as insects, fish, trees, etc.
“It is one thing to pay lip service to these beliefs,” said Nate Chisolm, a UM forestry major, “and another to actually choose to not use pesticides because pesticides kill. It’s a whole new spin on organic agriculture.”
In Thimphu, the capitol, we met with Diki Pema, planning officer for the Ministry of Agriculture. Her soft voice belied her razor-sharp sensibilities and perfect English. “We are told that globalization is inevitable,” she explained. “If so, then we need to demystify globalization, and accept it in terms that are acceptable to us. We need to learn how to play the market and get savvy, as well as deal with the changes in attitude that globalization can encourage. Many farmers are leaving rural areas for the cities. When they come down, farmlands are left uncultivated, and this has implications upon food security. In response to this we ask, ‘What kind of facilities can we provide villages far from the road, to keep them content?’ We go to communities and ask them how they would like their communities to be in five, 10 years.”
Environmental studies major Alexa Hager gushed, “Free education, free health care... It’s amazing. As a nation, they are trying hard to do things right, always seeking balance.”
Bhutan’s quest for “The Great Balance” between conservation and development was explained to us by Tshewang Wangchuk, director of the Jigme Dorji National Park. “It’s based on the idea that Buddha tried many things, from excess to deprivation, before finally finding the ‘Middle Path.’”
Wangchuk went on to explain the government’s pursuit of “gross national happiness,” which is the Bhutanese answer to the widespread assumption that Gross National Product should be the yardstick by which the success or well-being of a nation is measured. By focusing on gross national happiness rather than Gross National Product, material wealth is disentangled from quality of life.
Evidently, protecting the land is an integral part of doing so: 26 percent of Bhutan is protected. This attention to ecological integrity is responsible for many grants from international foundations, money which the Bhutanese are using to help fund sustainable development. With so much of the Northern Rockies in a relatively pristine state, perhaps Bhutan has found a funding-angle we too could follow. “The most important thing” concluded Wangchuck, “is to generate as much positive energy as possible.”
An increasingly popular form of energy generation in Bhutan is hydropower—for both domestic use and export. While some projects in the northern Rockies have given hydropower a decidedly off-green tinge, the Bhutanese context is different. As of 2001, 98 percent of the electricity in Bhutan was generated by burning wood. This is worse ecologically than the small, run-of-the-river generators most common in Bhutan, which channel a portion of the river, run it through a turbine, and return it to the river.
The shift away from wood fuel is an integral part of the Bhutanese mandate to maintain 60 percent of its forest cover at all times—a tall order when 25 percent of the country is above treeline. Meanwhile, because of the shift away from wood fuel, rates of eye disease, lung cancer, and other respiratory illnesses have dropped.
Professor Halvorson, who specializes in water resource management in the Himalayas, noted, “Bhutan is a small country, stuck between India and China—two powerful nations that are enemies with each other. Bhutan is heavily dependent on foreign loans to support their rise from poverty. They don’t want to mine and cut away their resources, and they don’t want to get caught in the aid trap that has swamped so many developing nations.”
Bhutan is currently in the midst of several hydropower projects, all of which are expected to come on line by 2008. With revenues generated by the export of power to India, Bhutan expects to pay off its World Bank loans in seven years—practically unheard of in “developing” nations. “In a development context—or any context for that matter,” added Halvorson, “their environmental priorities are remarkable.”
One evening near the end of our trip, we sat around the table at The Blue Poppy restaurant in Thimphu, rearranging our faces with some of the hottest ama-datse yet. Ama-datse is the Bhutanese national dish: blistering hot chili peppers stewed in mustard oil and cheese (See “Flash in the Pan,” page 18). Between tears and runny noses and frantic gulps of Red Panda liquid fire-retardant we shared amazement at this land and people on the other side of the world.
The Bhutanese embraced us with open minds and hearts, inspired us with their sincerity, creativity, and warmth, and haunted us with piercing questions that beg many more of our own. Is it better to have a benevolent king or a hawkish president? How do you balance individual rights within a community? Is Shangri-La a place on the map, a place in your heart, or a myth? What is most important? How do we get there?
A Tibetan woman at the market gave me some clues when she taught me how to pray. “First” she said, “pray for all beings. Then pray for the sick, the blind, and all those who suffer. Then, pray for the ones you love. Finally, pray for yourself.”