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How Bhutan aims to become the greenest nation on the planet: four reasons why Bhutan’s ecosystems and dazzling biodiversity remain intact—and one damn reason that threatens this integrity…

Radical times—climate-changing times—require radical solutions. In his book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, biologist Edward Wilson sets forth his radical plan: ‘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, wildlife sanctuaries—and biological corridors connecting them. 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 very low population in Bhutan—officially totaling 768,577 people in 2016.

In neighboring Chinese-controlled Tibet, nomads have been kicked out of so-called ‘national parks,’ but 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—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—with heavy penalties applied for hunting or for felling trees. Killing a takin, the national animal, could result in five to ten years in jail, plus a hefty fine.

A park ranger.

Arriving in Bhutan—flying into Paro—the first thing that strikes the eye is the majestic alpine forest. Traveling on the main east-west highway, I rarely lost sight of the 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 forest, 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 meters. 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 meters. From a low of 97 meters at the Drangme River to a high of 7,565 metres—the summit of Gangkar Punsum, the highest unclimbed peak in the world.

Gangkar Punsum: the world’s highest unclimbed peak.

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 untrammeled by the boots of mountaineers.

Education in Bhutan promotes great respect for the environment. Indeed, glowing pride in the environment is the basis for trekking and nature tourism—Bhutan’s greatest tourist draws. Spiritual beliefs that sustain environmental protection are heavily imbued in Bhutanese culture—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 with 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—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 import of chemical fertilizers is forbidden in Bhutan.

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, 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 anemia in India and Bangladesh. The resulting GM rice was found to pale in comparison with scores of traditional seeds which 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 color. 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 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.

Swiss-style cheeses made in Bumthang, plus Tibetan-style cheese on a string.

Lots of locally produced alcoholic drinks, including Takin Wine and Red Panda Beer.

Water-blessed

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—not dependent on transboundary rivers from Tibet (as India is). Bhutan is water-blessed, not water-stressed.

Doing things the traditional way: threshing rice on blocks of stone.

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, flash-flooding 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 cliff-hanger.

Bhutan is water-blessed, with fast-flowing rivers cascading off immense Himalayan peaks.

‘Green Dams’

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. The 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.

Druk Green Power Corporation displays sign for up-and-coming megadam.

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. That is precisely what is happening in the Punakha-Wangdi Valley, where two destructive dams are under way: 1200-MW Punasangchu I and 1020-MW Punasangchu II. Both megadams are on track for completion in 2018. Construction is well under way: a road-trip into this valley reveals the vast scale of digging diversion tunnels, with loads of muck dumped on the river banks, 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 Bhutanese rarely fish, the megadams will block fish migration—which affects those downstream in India, in the states of Assam and West Bengal.

Site-work at Punasangchu-I megadam in the Punakha-Wangdi Valley.

Ironically, hydropower output goes down 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 is 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. Which is a huge spanner in the works if Bhutan wants to keep its ecosystems intact.

Skyline at Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary.

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 that 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.

This article first appeared online at theEcologist.org.

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