A spiritualized, Buddhistic ecology is attractive to the Western mind that fetishizes Eastern religion. Bhutan in particular comes to mind in promoting this new ideology of “Gross National Happiness”, which unfortunately comes at the expense of ethnic minorities such as the Lhotshampa. However, it is not that this spiritual ecology isn’t a good idea- it is the character of this spiritual ecology that is the question. I will use my own fieldwork in Bhutan to argue for a political ecology approach. We must, in analyzing the policies of South Asian nations like Bhutan, go beyond state ideology and get to the actual policy prescriptions, community practices, and complex ecological and societal landscape that exists on the ground.
In this article, I will not be providing many references to scholarly articles, but I am basing my argument on my fieldwork and knowledge of the scholastic literature about Bhutan found in sources such as the Journal of Bhutan Studies and work by Bhutanese researchers at the Ugyen Wangchuk Institute of Conservation and Environment, the primary national research center for the environment, where I did my research in 2013.
The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan currently guarantees that its national forest cover remain at 75% to protect biodiversity and the natural heritage of the country. However, this progressive policy, while in contrast to Western nations that continually exploit their own remaining national parks and wild areas, is partially due to pure inertia- the landscape of Bhutan is notoriously mountainous, and some parts of Bhutan are very essentially inaccessible. The primary economic motivating factor in preserving biodiversity in Bhutan is to promote ecotourism and ensure the continued sustainability of industries such as logging and hydroelectric power. That being said, it is not as if the logging that does take place is 100% sustainable- actual figures are hard to come by, but during my time in Bhutan, I noticed that large swaths of forest had been granted by the government to logging companies to provide timber for construction in the growing capital city of Thimphu. This rapid urbanization is exacerbated by the rapid migration from rural areas by young people who want to escape a life of farming. In addition, the hydroelectric power which provides the main source of electricity for Bhutan is not without its ecological effects: by damming up entire rivers, hydroelectric plants affect the riverine by negatively impacting aquatic biodiversity levels and disrupting fish migration patterns. Some studies have been directly done by UWICE on the ecological effects of dams, but during 2013 the focus of research was on community forestry, and my team of students were sent to assess the impact of recently enacted community forestry policies on communities and the environment.
I was on the socioeconomic team of the assessment of community forestry in the Chumey geog or district. The results of our interviews and observations were multifaceted as to the results of these policies, but a broad picture emerged during my stay. Community forestry was an attempt by the government of Bhutan to decentralize power and return some power to the communities in terms of their own forests after the forests were nationalized in the 1970s. However the boundaries of the community forests around the agricultural villages were still small and did not represent the extent of forest available to the villagers prior to the 1970s. In addition, my inquiries about dying traditional agricultural practices with local villagers revealed that villagers felt the insistence by the government on demarcating land for forests and agricultural land contrasted with traditional practices of shifting agriculture or sokshing, which is now illegal under Bhutanese law. Finding a small amount of literature on sokshing or Bhutanese shifting agriculture, I tried to find more evidence of what research into traditional management practices could bring to the Bhutanese people.
I found that UWICE has already had a renewed interest in protecting sacred natural sites. Sacred natural sites, or SNS, are local landmarks such as springs or entire forests that, by virtue of local beliefs that such sacred sites should not be disturbed, act as a de facto biological cornerstone for the environment. These sites are areas of the forest that are not cut down by default, by the villagers own volition. Anthropological studies from other contexts reveal that such beliefs may act as a unconscious reinforcement mechanism to insure a stable and sustainable environment, for instance with Native American beliefs about not overfishing or using every part of an animal to eat. When I talked to Bhutanese people about these sites, they were very eager to talk to me about these old tales. While on a hiking trip, news that I was interested in such things carried ahead of me, and a villager in a remote location gestured to me the location of one of these sacred sites where a spirit was said to dwell. Despite the fact that many people I talked to didn’t speak English, they enjoyed telling me about their culture, their beliefs in spirits of the mountains and rivers, guardians such as Kibu Lungtsen, a guardian who was depicted on the wall of a monastery near the village I studied. His dwelling was considered to be on a nearby mountain.
In addition, I uncovered a connection between these beliefs and the folklore regarding the Buddhist saint Longchen Rabjampa, the 14th century Tibetan teacher who journeyed to Bhutan and founded many monasteries throughout the country. Longchenpa was said to have purified the surrounding area of evil spirits and located the source of water for the nearby village, a sacred spring which is still venerated to this day.
Sacred landscapes abound in Bhutan, and are associated with the distinct local beliefs, history, and traditions of each area. This is the true spiritual ecology of Bhutan, not the manufactured government ideology of Gross National Happiness. What I found in Bhutan was a distinctly local, spiritual kind of relationship to the environment, one bound up with ideas about ones ancestors, Buddhist teachings, and guardian spirits. I did not hear anyone but government officials talk about Gross National Happiness, especially among rural villagers.
Instead, the villagers conveyed to me their desire for progress. One man told me about how his life was much easier now that he had a gas powered plow. Another told me how the paved road brought in more trade. Some told me they missed some things about the old days, but just as many told me they liked their life how it is right now.
I can’t help but think that this kind of balance between the modern and tradition is beginning to break down in Bhutan. Already rapid urbanization is leaving rural villages mostly populated by elderly people who do not have enough help with manual labor. The government does not place high priority on agricultural education, and the social prestige of farmers is, well, absent. All the young people I talked to want to become government workers, doctors, and professionals- not farmers. I conveyed this to some older people, and they largely agreed with me that the old Bhutan is dying.
In conclusion, the rich natural wonders of Bhutan, its vast forests and rushing mountain rivers, may be threatened by forces outside the control of standard conservation. Through a political ecology lens, we can begin to see the effect of generational changes to the landscape, such as the emergence of cash crop farming, pressures on local geography, urbanization, and unsustainable logging, in addition to government policies out of step with the reality of living a rural life in the remote Himalayas. Governments that are concerned about sustainability and economic viability of rural peasant economies should not prioritize the environment over people. Attempts to ameliorate both situations at once, like promoting ecotourism ventures, in my view, do not work as a long term strategy, and strategies such as PES schemes only put the ecological fate of landscapes in the hands of the market.
Both ecoutourism and PES schemes were proposed in the case of the village we studied. In both cases, I was the dissenting voice to the government panel. I argued for the continued viability of some traditional management strategies. My argument fell on deaf ears of some government officials that I found were heavily prejudiced against “uneducated peasants”. Not everyone I talked to felt this way, but I was very discouraged by the response among the Bhutanese elite.
Meanwhile, the respect for the environment lives on in Bhutanese folk tradition. Above is a water driven prayer wheel, built above a stream, said to bring good fortune and blessing at every turning of the wheel. Spring water from prayer wheels such as these is said to be holy.
Meanwhile the government has developed a variety of environmental protection strategies, such as the one in the picture above. Behind me is a tree nursery, 0.16 hectares, an experimental venture in reforestation.
As you can see in this picture, even urbanizing locations such as this town in Bumthang are surrounded by essentially untouched mountains.
This is just a general overview of the political ecology of Bhutan, which is complex and would take years of proper study to elucidate, which I endeavor to do hopefully during my anthropological career in the future.
For now, tashi delek and stay tuned for future posts about Bhutan!