The prayer flag and the forest

When sentiment clashes with common sense, something’s got to give

Environment : Part III
September, 2009 – Bhutan’s verdant forests, whose coverage the Constitution mandates should not be less than 60 percent for all time to come, is under tremendous pressure from the soaring demand for prayer flags that dot the country’s hills and valleys.

Although no studies have been carried out on the impact on the forest by felling trees for flag posts, statistics with the department of forest show that thousands of trees are felled every year to meet this demand.Between June 2007 to 2008, Bhutan felled 60,178 trees, or about 165 trees every day, to meet the demand for poles, of which demand for flag posts is the highest. This excludes the 550 trees felled daily for other uses.

The forestry divisions grant permits for poles, which are used either for prayer or chadi flag poles, makeshift huts, cattle sheds and even in construction. “But the maximum is for prayer flag poles,” said an official of the department’s information unit.

“There’s an immense pressure on the forest,” said the forest department’s officiating director, Gopal Mahat. “It’s a drain on the resource, but we can’t stop granting permits, especially for an important rite because it involves sentiments,” he said, referring to prayer flags being dedicated to a deceased member of a family. “The demand is for straight, young trees, which have the potential of becoming crop trees.”

For most Bhutanese, mani or Guru prayer flags, dedicated to a deceased, are an indispensable part of after-death rituals. The ideal number is 108, but some believe that more flags bring more merit. To add to the pressure, freshly cut trees are always preferred. “If you reuse an old flag pole, you aren’t putting effort, which means the merit earned is compromised,” said a dratshang lopon, Gyem Tshering. “Ideally, you should hoist 108 flags, but if you can afford more, it’ll help the dead find the ‘white path.”

This puts Bhutan’s forest management in a predicament. A forest divisional officer last year said that, at the rate at which trees are felled, Bhutan’s forest would be gone in the next 20 years. Those in the field say that they are penetrating deeper and deeper into the forest to provide people with their entitlement as per the forestry rule. “Trees for flag posts are getting scarce. If we’ve to meet the demand, our forest would have to be cleared,” said a beat officer. “We’re being selective but for how long?”

Thimphu dzongkhag has four beat offices. The Semtokha office since January this year permitted 377 trees to be cut from their area. However, officials said trees were not cut randomly. “We ensure that catchment areas are protected, while thinning is strictly practised, which would actually help trees grow faster,” said a beat officer.

To ease the pressure, the Thimphu forest divisional office restricted the number of prayer flags post to 29 trees in urban Thimphu.

At the ministry, secretary Sherub Gyaltshen calls the pressure on forest “tremendous”. “The pressure on forest is from all sides – from flags post to hydropower, transmission lines and even illegal encroachment,” said the secretary. “We’re discussing this every day.”

Yet there is no clear solution in sight.

The secretary said that some alternatives like using bamboo and steel posts were encouraged, but people were not keen on the steel posts. However, the natural resources development corporation has started bamboo plantation to supplement the demand.

Sherub Gyaltshen said that the pressure is difficult to control, but said that, with effort, the 60 percent mandate would be achieved. The best solution they tried is making people participate in forest resource management. “Instead of government being restrictive, we’re encouraging people to participate. This is working,” he said. “The national forest policy also focuses on forest resource management and utilisation.”

The other alternative, Gopal Mahat suggested, was to discourage people from killing trees. “Buddhist teachings say killing a tree is a sin. Maybe, we’ll have to use this to counter the strong sentiments attached with mani prayer flags.”

By Ugyen Penjore
Source: Kuenselonline

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